The Double Action of Stories

What makes a story a story rather than just a sequence of sentences is that all stories engage in a double action. Every sentence in a story, even a description of the weather that provides the atmosphere surrounding its action, does two things: it tells the reader of something that hadn’t happened before and at the same time provides information to the reader about how to understand what is to later unfold or has previously occurred. You learn of Macbeth’s forebodings of a promising future, which is an event in the play, and you are forewarned about how to greet further developments. The reader or viewer’s mind is provoked to cast ahead because each event is a revelation as well as something that just happened. That is why stories are so magical. They violate the strictures of time by allowing those who hear it to cast back and forth in the story as if the audience were a god.

The literary form known as story is therefore very different from those other literary forms, such as a report or an essay, such as this one, which is all telling you what it has to say, no forebodings, except when it goes out of its way to warn you of what comes next. So report writers famously tell you what they will say before they say it and then summarize what they have said because it is only by being overt that they can do that job. Stories don’t have to. A report is nothing but the information it announces while essays can even be regarded as story-like in that the arrangement of the materials, how the essay builds to its conclusion, is part of the artfulness of the essayist working as storyteller. Stories are always involved in the art of how they are constructed while the point of reports is to tell you what you need to know as clearly as possible, no credit for artfulness unless that is a derogatory judgment offered on a report that buries its key findings in a middle page.

Let me state my proposition more fully. Reading a story is an activity in which the reader can take an earlier remark or event as an indicator, prefigure, symbol, archetype, or some other literary device whereby a subsequent event is explained or in some sense “caused”. (Apologies to Roland Wulbert, who thinks that it is true that any sentence in any form of discourse has to be connected to the subsequent sentence by some presumption or lacunae that is provided by the reader so that the two sentences are coherent.) Consider, as a case in point, “The Book of Ruth”, where early on it is established with great drama that Ruth will follow the mother of her now dead husband to the mother’s home country, contrary as that may be to the customs of her times or ours. That is to be read as most significant, that something important will hinge on that decision, which is to be taken as made because of affection and loyalty rather than because of any expected outcome. What happens when the two women arrive at Naomi’s own country, is that Naomi shows Ruth how to court and win a rich man for a respectable wedding, not something that should be expected to occur between someone rich and someone so poor that she has to beg for permission to pick up the left over husks his own employees had left behind after they had reaped the fields. And yet she does so, this an unexpected outcome of a decision made earlier for other reasons, though, in retrospect, maybe Ruth had thrown in with Naomi because Naomi would somehow find a way to repay her for her loyalty. Who knows? The reader, however, does know, as a reader will, that the second event was somehow entailed or foretold by the first, without knowing how the first would yield the second or even what the second event would be.

Here is a complex but short story that generations of classicists have no doubt worked at unravelling but for which the double action theory of story may still provide some illumination. Odysseus and his ship make landfall at the island which is the home of Aeolus, a god wed to his sister. She has given birth to seven daughters and seven sons who have been married off to one another, all of them leading comfortable, soft lives. The smell of roasted meat is in the air and they all sleep on soft beds that even have bottoms tied with bind. Their parents are keepers of the wind and as a sign of generosity Odysseus is given a sail filled with wind that will take him in the right direction and, in fact, brings him within sight of Ithaca when the crew grows jealous of what they now believe are the riches Odysseus is bringing with him, and Odysseus is himself overcome with sleep because of the long hours he has put in trying to bring the ship home. The sailors release the winds which sets up a squall that drives the ship off course and back to the island from which it came, where Odysseus explains his plight to the previously favorable god who now say that Odysseus must be getting what he deserves and so he will no longer do him any favors.

How to make sense of this story? Who had done wrong? Surely not Odysseus, who had tried to live up to his endeavor to get home, even if he had been a bit imprudent in pressing so hard. Surely not the comfortable even if incestuous family, which had at first been very generous to Odysseus. After all, the people Odysseus encounters on the next island at which he arrives are far more monstrous and kill most of Odysseus's men. Go back to the beginning of the story, the family living in so pleasant a state that it is a sort of Garden of Eden, before incest would be considered wrong. Those people in their comfortable beds are as vivid and as plausible picture of the prelapsarian state as there is, including John Milton’s vision of Eve serving fruit to her guest, the Angel Michael. Or maybe the proper reference is to the home where Goldilocks visits with the three bears. What is the reader to make of that situation?

Being a reader of stories, the reader will look to the double action in reverse. What happens later on in the story to account for the suspense and uncertainty that is set up by having this family live so immorally, if that is to be taken to be the case, that something in the subsequent story will clarify or illuminate? As an analyst rather than just as a student of the events, something later on will clarify what has gone before. The thing that does the clarifying, however ambiguously, is the refusal of the father to give Odysseus a second chance, to replenish his winds. That refusal can be read in numerous ways. Maybe these people weren’t all that nice to begin with, given their incestuous nature, and so they are mercurial, tied more to their own pleasures of the moment than to a moral standard. Another explanation is that they are sticklers for a conservative view of fate as meaning things are either out of sorts for you or not, and that they go in whatever direction the winds or their acceptance of custom will take them. Or maybe it was just that Odysseus and his men picked up bad vibrations just because they visited that island that the reader may now judge to have been accursed. For a reader, the answer to the mystery at the end is the nature of how you read the beginning, as if you had to find something that tied the two together and reading allows you to supply anything you want and try to buttress that with whatever evidence you can find-- and that is, after all, what all of us do in life when we try to understand what has happened to us and all we have is the fact that some events preceded others.

People tell stories when they talk about reality and that is what happens in what we call history. Lincoln is explained as a result of what earlier events in his life foreshadow about later ones. So Lincoln can be characterized by the ambition he had to take part in great events, something that he mentioned in an early letter, and so he came to preside over such great events and it can be said that he made them so momentous to fulfill his youthful longing to be significant. Or Lincoln can be understood as the Whig politician who wanted to see to it that the Whig Party in its reincarnation as the Republican Party had a place in the Post-Civil War South. Or Lincoln can be seen as a person who grew into being a Biblical like Patriarch, adopting Biblical cadencess, because he had been thrust into that role. Historians regard these three readings as theories of what happened in history but they are not theories because they cannot be proven and are not subject to experimentation. History doesn't repeat itself. Rather, they are readings where the first part of a story looms large in foretelling what follows in the story and so isn’t just the announcement of a preceding event. You can tell stories about history but that is not history.

Reality is not a story although many stories can be made up about reality. The Bible tells stories, but whether the stories are true or not is to meet a separate criteria, that truth established by faith or evidence or reason. It is easy to tell that the stories in the Bible are stories because they are in accord with the characteristics of stories: they follow Aristotle’s old definition of having beginnings, middles and ends; they have the double action described here; they evoke emotions and thoughts, such as suspense and idealism, that are commonly invoked by stories. Reality, to the contrary, is simply the chronicles of what happened and history is what happened to have happened, no matter how much people try to read in causation or some other transfer of meaning from one event to a later one. The only way to get to causation is to indulge in social science, which is to treat events not as causing other events but as simply an example of a general principle, the general principle supported by evidence, logic, or generalized wisdom. Social science doesn’t tell stories even if stories are the wisdom most of us rely on to understand our lives.