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The Truth in Literature

Posted by Chris Pedersen
11 February 2016 - 7:03pm

In an interview with Shusha Guppy (2000) (writing for the Paris Review[1]), British author Julien Barnes was asked, “Sartre wrote an essay called ‘Qu’est-ce que la littérature?’ What is literature for you?”) Barnes response was: “The shortest is that it’s the best way of telling the truth; it’s a process of producing grand, beautiful, well-ordered lies that tell more truth than any assemblage of facts” (p. 1). When asked to elaborate on his definition of truth, and and the place of literature in the study of the past, Barnes (2000) stated:

I think a great book—leaving aside other qualities such as narrative power, characterization, style, and so on—is a book that describes the world in a way that has not been done before; and that is recognized by those who read it as telling new truths—about society or the way in which emotional lives are led, or both—such truths having not been previously available, certainly not from official records or government documents, or from journalism or television. For example, even people who condemned Madame Bovary, who thought that it ought to be banned, recognized the truth of the portrait of that sort of woman, in that sort of society, which they had never encountered before in literature. That is why the novel was so dangerous. I do think that there is this central, groundbreaking veracity in literature, which is part of its grandeur. Obviously it varies according to the society. In an oppressive society the truth-telling nature of literature is of a different order, and sometimes valued more highly than other elements in a work of art. (p. 1)

The idea that literature presents truth provides the point of departure for this article. I got the idea while in contemplation on a book—related to history or history education—to use for a blog post. I sifted through the piles on my desk, and those arranged on shelves and chose David Benioff’s City of Thieves (Benioff, 2008)—a fictional account of the siege of Leningrad. The story focuses on the relationship between boys who are tasked with carrying out a mission for an army colonel. They are tasked with procuring eggs for a cake—something seen as nearly impossible during a siege where food supplies are low. It a story of human relationships during hardship, survival, and the necessity for dialogue and partnership. The power of this novel is its portrayal of the human condition during times of great hardship. While the event is foreign, we can understand the human truths revealed in the book. This post was intended to focus on City of Thieves, but through the writing and revision process I changed my focus from a literature review to a discussion of the place for literature in history education.

Fictional literature, while not placed within the familiarly understood historical genre, holds an important place in understanding human nature—akin to historical study. The study of historical fiction provides students with an experience of historical effect. In other words, when students read a text from the past—fiction or non-fiction—they become effected by history. Veith (2015) explains that the transmission of history (whatever form it takes) bears a force, has an effect, is effective (p. 3). This is what Gadamer (1989) calls historical effect. He states that humans must understand the historicity of their lives. In his study of literature and history, Cottingham (2005) argues that “history requires the student not only to examine values and world-views different from his or her own, be they historical views or those of their contemporaries, but forces him or her to reflect upon and potentially shift his or her own world-view in the light of these encounters. These opportunities are expressly obvious where literary texts are used in lieu of historical non-fiction” (p. 48) Literature opens up ways of thinking and knowing the human world beyond what the facts and record of the past provide. It is important to note however, the literature cannot be read without considering the context of the events it portrays. Cottingham cites Benton when he argues that while “narrative literature can bridge the ‘psychological and interpretive chasm’(p. 53) between the present and the past by offering insights into time and place…students of literature must be taught the historical context (p. 48). This realizations lends itself to an interdisciplinary approach in history and English education. In reference to Charles Dickens, Cottingham states, “the student of literature needs to appreciate that Dickens represents a particular reaction to the utilitarian values of Victorian England, whilst the student of history may analyze Dickens to provide an insight into those attitudes” (p. 48)

City of Thieves reveals aspects of humanity that while different than our contemporary understanding of the world, nonetheless still has meaning. In reading this book, and then writing about it, I was provoked and longstanding prejudices shaken. While I have studied, in a limited capacity the role of literature in history, I was always slightly skeptical (perhaps my history degree was responsible for some of these prejudices). Through the projection and realization of these prejudices I expanded my understanding on what it means to understand humanity. If the study of past texts requires meaning making, then literature, as Mr. Barnes stated can reveal great truths about the human world.


Works Cited:

Benioff, David. 2008. City of Thieves: A Novel. New York, N.Y.: Viking, 2008.

Cottingham, Mark. “Developing spirituality through the use of literature in history education.” International Journal of Children's Spirituality 10, 1 (2005): 45-60.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method. 2nd, Rev ed. London: Continuum Publishing Group, 1989.

Guppy, Shusha. "Julian Barnes, The Art of Fiction No. 165." the Paris Review,

     Winter 2000. Accessed February 1, 2016.


Veith, Jerome. Gadamer and the Transmission of History. Bloomington: Indiana

     University Press, 2015.


  • English: “Leningradians taking water”. Leningradians taking water from a broken water-pipe.
    RIA Novosti archive, image #35, 6x8 film / 6?8 ???????
    1 January 1942
    author: Vsevolod Tarasevich