On stories

From the archives . . .

When we tell stories, or read or watch or listen to stories, we are (in part) searching for our own story: the story that will explain to us who we are, where we are going, and why; the story that will make sense of the world we live in, and our place in that world. To put it another way, through stories we both rehearse for the performances ahead (courtship, marriage, career, middle-age, death) and review our past performances, to see whether, with hindsight and the storyteller’s angle of vision, we might understand them better.

Our choice of stories, and the nature of the stories which really move us, can be understood as having something to do with the problems and questions that concern us personally. Fears of all sorts; doubts of our own ability, courage, or moral strength; questions about romance, marriage, parenthood–such elements arise in many different kinds of stories, from fairy tales and nursery rhymes to the most sophisticated novels and plays.

Northrop Frye, the great Canadian literary critic and teacher, once remarked that all stories may derive ultimately from one archetypal story about the loss of identity, and the search to rediscover it. According to other critics, death is the central issue of story-telling: we rehearse our own death endlessly, by reading about the deaths of others. How and when will we die? Will we behave admirably, or shamefully, when death is upon us? And, of course, what is death? According to this view, our compulsion to understand death, prepare for it, or escape from it, fuels our obsession with story-telling.

These generalizations about the nature of story-telling are no substitute for reading a particular text closely, and analyzing it in detail, but they may help you find a “way into” a story: look again at the issues I’ve raised, and see whether any of them are present in the story you’re reading now. These reflections about stories may also help you appreciate better the value of the detailed studies that you are forced to undertake in school: if your own story, your own identity, your own death are really at stake, then perhaps it is worthwhile, after all, to look very closely, and think hard about what you find.

—June 9, 1998