This seminar sets out to explore the narrative possibilities of historical fiction. It focuses on four novel(ella)s that develop diverse narrative strategies in their attempt to imagine the past: Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter (1850); Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five (1968); Toni Morrison, A Mercy (2008); and Michael Chabon, The Yiddish Policemen's Union (2007). Each of these texts provides a different perspective on its historical plot: Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter opens with a narrative frame set in the mid-1800s, while the main action takes place in between 1642 and 1649; Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five is narrated in 1968 but tells a story that jumps between various moments in the protagonist's life up to his death in 1976 (!), focusing on his experiences in World War II as well as his abduction by extraterrestrials; Morrison's A Mercy is an attempt to re/construct its characters' understandings of themselves and the colonial world they inhabit in the 1690s; Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union is set in an alternative version of the present which carries the consequences of an alternative history of the 1940s (in which the European Jews fled the Nazi terror not to Palestine, but to Alaska).
A careful reading of these texts will help us understand their interpretations of the past; the conflicts between nations, genders, races, ethnicities and cultures that they depict; and the connection that these conflicts establish between the past and the present. A main focus of the seminar will be on the analysis of narrative form: on the construction of the relationship between the author's and the historical characters' eras; on the relationship between narrative time and narrated time within the text; and the relationship between history and fiction. If history is accessed through narrative, how do these narratives reflect their own status between history and fiction?
I recommend a familiarization with (at least some of) the four texts prior to the beginning of classes. Additional material will be made available in a reader.