Narrative Used as Evidence: A few Additional Comments
Narrative writing relates a series of events. These events may be real or fictional. Some narratives also presents a mixture of real events and people interlaced with fictional events and characters.
In addition to fictional writing such as short stories, novels, and plays, different kinds of nonfiction writing also involve narrative; these include narrative essays, biography, autobiography, history, and process analysis. Any of these forms of narrative may serve as evidence in an appropriate context.
We most often think of a narrative as being a fictional creation, or a story. In fiction, the sequence of events is structured by the writer and is called a plot. When used as evidence, a story should have a point. An author may sometimes state the point explicitly at the beginning, sometimes at an appropriate point within the story, or sometimes at the end as a moral.
However, works of fiction most often stand alone without any explicit statement of meaning, leaving the reader to infer the main idea. Then too, many stories are made up simply for entertainment, and the interest is centered on vivid characters and dramatic action with no thought given to meaning. But even when this is the case, a reader with a creative imagination, or a strongly biased world view, can impose an interpretation to suit his predilections.
Narrative essays also tell a story, but in this case, the story is based on the actual experiences of the author. Although the essay has a narrative structure, the final interest is not in the story itself but rather in the point that the story illustrates. For the author to make his point clear, the essay often includes a large proportion of comment and reflection on the events and their significance. In a narrative essay, the main idea is more often explicitly stated than is the case with fiction. However, authors of essays may also leave the main idea implicit allowing the reader to infer a meaning.
In addition to fictional writing and narrative essays, autobiography, biography, and history also involve narrative. Autobiography is the story of a person's life written by that person, and like the narrative essay often includes not only a chronology of events but extensive reflection on the events. It may also include justifications for actions, criticisms of other people, comments on contemporary social and political events and the like. A biography is the story of a person's life written by another. It too has a narrative structure and may include interpretive remarks and criticisms as well as background on social or cultural settings.
The assertions made by authors of biographies and autobiographies can be checked against sources such as public records, letters, diaries, newspaper accounts, and the comments of contemporaries to determine the accuracy of the facts and to evaluate the opinions of the writers.
History tells the story of the past and interprets the events. The narrative is usually subordinated to the analysis, and so the story may unfold very slowly. The validity of a history as evidence depends on the scope and depth of the author's research as well as the author's objectivity. Most historians provide notes and a bibliography to establish their credibility, but a reader must still be sensitive to the nature and degree of bias that may have influenced the interpretation of the facts.
Another form of narrative is process analysis. It belongs to a category of writing called exposition which also includes comparison and contrast, division and classification, cause and effect, and definition among others. The various forms of exposition have the primary purpose of giving information.
Where process analysis is concerned, the writing may tell how to perform an action, produce a product, or follow a procedure to realize a goal like getting a loan, buying a house, or obtaining a divorce. Process writing is also used in scientific discourse to explain natural phenomena such as the life cycles of animals or plants or the formation of geologic features.
Narrative is valuable as evidence because it shows rather than tells what happened. Abstractions and generalizations are made concrete and specific. People and events are made real through descriptions of their appearance and actions. Such visual definition conveys emotional force.
Examples of Narrative Appropriate for Evidence
Example from Fiction
From: Uncle Tom's Cabin;
Text editor's note: At this point in the novel, Eliza has discovered the plan to sell Harry to Dan Haley and has determined to run away with her child. She has alerted Tom to his impending sale; he decides to remain and allow himself to be sold to protect the other slave families on the plantation, since others would be sold in his stead if he escaped.
or Life among the Lowly
From Chapter VII -- "The Mother's Struggle"
It is impossible to conceive of a human creature more wholly desolate and forlorn than Eliza, when she turned her footsteps from Uncle Tom's cabin.
Her husband's suffering and dangers, and the danger of her child, all blended in her mind, with a confused and stunning sense of the risk she was running, in leaving the only home she had ever known, and cutting loose from the protection of a friend whom she loved and revered. Then there was the parting from every familiar object, -- the place where she had grown up, the trees under which she had played, the groves where she had walked many an evening in happier days, by the side of her young husband, -- everything, as it lay in the clear, frosty starlight, seemed to speak reproachfully to her, and ask her whither could she go from a home like that?
But stronger than all was maternal love, wrought into a paroxysm of frenzy by the near approach of a fearful danger. Her boy was old enough to have walked by her side, and, in an indifferent case, she would only have led him by the hand; but now the bare thought of putting him out of her arms made her shudder, and she strained him to her bosom with a convulsive grasp, as she went rapidly forward.
The frosty ground creaked beneath her feet, and she trembled at the sound; every quaking leaf and fluttering shadow sent the blood backward to her heart, and quickened her footsteps. She wondered within herself at the strength that seemed to be come upon her; for she felt the weight of her boy as if it had been a feather, and every flutter of fear seemed to increase the supernatural power that bore her on, while from her pale lips burst forth, in frequent ejaculations, the prayer to a Friend above --"Lord, help! Lord, save me!" (774)
Comment on Stowe
In this passage, Stowe conveys the emotional anguish that the sale of slaves created in families torn apart and the desperate measures to which it propelled them. On the one hand, Eliza is reluctant to leave the familiar setting in which she grew up and the people she has known, but on the other hand, she is willing to take any risk to prevent the sale of her child which would result in permanent separation.
Stowe's novel gave powerful evidence against slavery during the national debate that raged before the Civil War. The novel presents a vivid picture of the evils of slavery by detailing the lives of Eliza and Uncle Tom. It is representative of what is called didactic art because the primary purpose of the novel is to instruct and by so doing to effect "a meaning or a result outside itself" (Harmon 151). In other words, its purpose is not just to entertain the reader, or even to inform him of the evils of slavery, but to arouse him to active opposition. Today the novel would be called a work of propaganda because it advocates an ideological position and is intended to affect public policy.
Example from a Narrative Essay
"Shooting an Elephant" by George Orwell
This essay may be found online at this web address.
Comment on Orwell
This narrative essay is based on Orwell's experience while working for the British government in Burma. His narrative has a point which he explicitly states in paragraph seven and reiterates in the last paragraph. As a policeman who has first hand knowledge of the relations between the Burmese natives and the officials of the British government, Orwell is able to testify to the inevitable hostility that results from colonial domination and the effects it has on the moral character of the government officials.
A second Example of a Narrative Essay
"Salvation" by Langston Hughes
This essay may be found at this web address.
Comment on Hughes
This short narrative essay relates a childhood experience that permanently affects the author. Its brevity and illustrative nature places it in the realm of the anecdote. The concrete description of the revival service and the people is sufficient justification for the telling, but the story conveys a point as well. This, however, is left for the reader to infer. A personal narrative like this could be powerful evidence in a number of contexts ranging from child psychology to religious instruction.
Example from a Biography
Adolf Hitler by John Toland
In mid-February  Hindenburg announced he would stand again for President. This forced Hitler to make his own decision. It was apparent that the NSDAP [National Socialist German Workers Party] had to run a presidential candidate and no one but Hitler had a realistic chance. Even so he hesitated. "I know that I shall come to power, all others will fail," he once told [Hans] Frank. "I see myself as Chancellor and I will be Chancellor. I do not see myself as President and I know I will never be President." His reluctance was genuine and he wavered for almost two weeks before Goebbels finally persuaded him to run. Then he acted with dispatch to make himself eligible. He hastily became a citizen of Germany through the machinations of the Nazi Minister of Interior in Braunschweig, who made him a councilor of that state. The following day, February 27, Hitler formally announced his candidacy for elections to take place in fifteen days.
From: Chapter 10
The economic depression and political rancor had already turned Germany into a quasi battlefield. "Berlin was in a state of civil war," wrote Christopher Isherwood. "Hate exploded suddenly without warning, out of nowhere; at street corners, in restaurants, cinemas, dance halls, swimming-baths; at midnight, after breakfast, in the middle of the afternoon. Knives were whipped out, blows were dealt with spiked rings, beermugs, chairlegs or leaded clubs; bullets slashed the advertisements on the poster-columns, rebounded from the iron roofs of latrines." (355).
Comment on Toland
A biography of Adolf Hitler might also be considered a history of Germany and World War II since the life of the man had such a profound influence on the events of the time. But this is only one example of how the different literary genres tend to meld into overlapping areas of topic, developmental approach, and purpose. Taken as a biography, one can see how Toland focuses on the motivations and actions of the man. In this excerpt, Hitler is presented as ambitious and calculating.
However, Toland also takes into account the historical facts against which Hitler operated. The second paragraph quotes from Christopher Isherwood, an English novelist who lived in Germany during the 1930's and "brilliantly described the social corruption and disintegration in his Berlin Stories" (Benet 505). The details of this paragraph convey the social conditions in concrete and specific terms. Toland provides copious notes and an extensive bibliography, making this book a good source of evidence on topics related to Hitler and the Second World War.
A Second Example from a Biography
From E. B. White By Scott Elledge
A biographer could cite many events in White's life that found their way into Charlotte's Web, but none would add so much to its significance as an event that occurred in 1949, just about the time he began to write the book. In August of that year, in a letter to his friend John McNulty, White reported that the only writing he had done that summer was an introduction to a new edition of the late Don Marquis's masterpiece archy and mehitabel. He had, he said, "lost the knack of earning money by putting one word after another." The introduction would "just about put a new sole" on his sneakers. 4 It is hard to believe he was seriously worried about income. He had his small salary from The New Yorker for doing newsbreaks; he had income from investments; he had royalties from Stuart Little; and "Here Is New York," for which Holiday had paid him three thousand dollars, was such a success that Harper had decided to republish it as a little book in time for the Christmas trade. (By the end of the year, twenty-eight thousand copies had been printed, and the Book-of-the-Month Club had selected it as part of a dual selection for January.) Moreover, White could scarcely have felt financially pressed at the same time he and Katharine were planning to go to Europe on the Queen Elizabeth and he was planning to have a sloop built in a Danish boatyard. In any case, the five hundred dollars he was paid for his introduction to archy and mehitabel would have been inconsequential in comparison with the value of certain ideas he may have been reminded of as he read and wrote about Marquis's book -- ideas that are important to the story and to the meaning of Charlotte's Web. (291)
Comment on Elledge
This paragraph provides more commentary than it does narrative.
The biographer has done his homework as evidenced by his command of factual details concerning White's financial circumstances. The superscipt 4 directs the reader to the notes for this chapter at the end of the book. Note four specifies that the quotations come from page 312 of White's Letters. There are thirty-one such notes for this chapter.
Elledge's point in the paragraph is that a job of little financial consequence paid big dividends in terms of the ideas it stimulated just as White was beginning the writing of his famous children's book. The space that Elledge gives to making this point is not out of proportion to his treatment of the entire subject of Charlotte's Web since he devotes an whole chapter of sixteen pages to it. Such a throughly researched and detailed recitation of White's life provides a credible source on E. B. White as well as peripheral subjects discussed in the book.
Example from an Autobiography
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself From: Chapter VI
My new mistress proved to be all she appeared when I first met her at the door, -- a woman of the kindest heat and finest feelings. she had never had a slave under her control previously to myself, and prior to her marriage she had been dependent upon her own industry for a living. She was by trade a weaver; and by constant application to her business, she had been in a good degree preserved from the blighting and dehumanizing effects of slavery. I was utterly astonished at her goodness. I scarcely knew how to behave towards her. She was entirely unlike any other white woman I had ever seen. I could not approach her as I was accustomed to approach other white ladies. My early instruction was all out of place. The crouching servility, usually so acceptable a quality in a slave, did not answer when manifested toward her. Her favor was not gained by it; she seemed to be disturbed by it. she did not deem it impudent or unmannerly for a slave to look her in th4 face. The meanest slave was put fully at ease in her presence, and none left without feeling better for having seen her. Her face was made of heavenly smiles, and her voice of tranquil music.
But, alas! this kind heart had but a short time to remain such. The fatal poison of irresponsible power was already in her hands, and soon commenced its infernal work. That cheerful eye, under the influence of slavery, soon became red with rage; that voice, made all of sweet accord, changed to one of harsh and horrid discord; and that angelic face gave place to that of a demon.
Comment on Douglas
Born a slave, Douglas is a credible witness to the demoralizing effects of slavery on both the slave and the slave owner. This is the point he addresses in the excerpt from his autobiography. One might imagine Douglas addressing a civil court in argument over abolition and appealing to white slave owners to understand the pernicious consequences slavery has on character and personality.
Example from History
From: The Very Brief Relation of the Devastation of the Indies
The tyranny exercised by the Spaniards against the Indians in the work of pearl fishing is one of the most cruel that can be imagined. There is no life as infernal and desperate in this century that can be compared with it, although the mining of gold is a dangerous and burdensome way of life. The pearl fishers dive into the sea at a depth of five fathoms, and do this from sunrise to sunset, and remain for many minutes without breathing, tearing the oysters out of their rocky beds where the pearls are formed. They come to the surface with a netted bag of these oysters where a Spanish torturer is waiting in a canoe or skiff, and if the pearl diver shows signs of wanting to rest, he is showered with blows, his hair is pulled, and he is thrown back into the water, obliged to continue the hard work of tearing out the oysters and bringing them again to the surface.
by Bartolome De Las Casas
The food given the pearl divers is codfish, not very nourishing, and the bread made of maize, the bread of the Indies. At night the pearl divers are chained so they cannot escape.
Often a pearl diver does not return to the surface, for these waters are infested with man eating sharks of two kinds, both vicious marine animals that can kill, eat, and swallow a whole man.
In this harvesting of pearls let us again consider the Spaniards preserve the divine concepts of love for their fellow men, when they place the bodies of the Indians in such mortal danger, and their souls, too, for these pearl divers perish without the holy sacraments. And it is solely because of the Spaniards' greed for gold that they force the Indians to lead such a life, often a brief life, for it is impossible to continue long for long diving into the water and holding the breath for minutes at a time, repeating this for hour after hour, day after day; the continual cold penetrates them, constricts the chest, and they die spitting blood, or weakened by diarrhea.
The hair of these pearl divers, naturally black, is as if burnished by the saltpeter in the water, and hangs down their backs making them look like sea dogs or monsters of another species. And in this extraordinary labor, or, better put, in this infernal labor, the Lucayan Indians are finally consumed, as are captive Indians from other provinces. And all of them were publicly sold for one hundred and fifty castellanos, these Indians who had lived happily on their islands until the Spaniards came, although such a thing was against the law. But the unjust judges did nothing to stop it. For all the Indians of the islands are known to be great swimmers.
Comment on Bartolome De Las Casas
This is first hand literature of witness to the cruel treatment given the natives of the Caribbean islands by the Spanish explorers. Narratives such as these were written to expose the cruelty and injustice practiced by the Spaniards in their lust for wealth. Although they sometimes affected a change of policy in principle, the devastation of the native peoples continued. Because this description is so vivid, it effectively appeals to the emotions, and makes the reader condemn the brutality of the Spanish explorers.
A Second Example from History
From: The Guns of August
On August 3, the day Germany declared war, the generals assembled in a meeting summoned by Joffre, hoping at last to hear him explain the totality of Plan 17 and of the strategy they were to carry out. The hope was vain; Joffre waited in benign silence for remarks. At last Dubail spoke up, saying that the offensive laid out for his army required reinforcements which were not allowed for. Joffre replied with one of his cryptic phrases, "That may be your plan; it is not mine." As no one knew what this meant, Dubail, thinking he had misunderstood, repeated his remark. Joffre, "with his customary beatific smile," replied in the same words as before, "That may be your plan; it is not mine." The truth was that to Joffre what counted in the immense chaos of war was not the plan but the energy and verve with which it was carried out. Victory he believed would come not out of the best plan but out of the strongest will and firmest confidence, and these, he had no doubt, were his. (183)
by Barbara W. Tuchman
Comment on Tuchman
Tuchman's history of World War I is a well documented work. Notes at the end of the text tell us that the information on which the quoted paragraph is based comes from books and letters written by French generals. Characteristic of much history, the writer both narrates events and comments on them. She depicts a scene where General Joffre, Chief of the French General Staff, speaks in vague terms to his subordinates who are waiting for an explicit explanation of his strategy for waging the war. She interprets Joffre's words as a reflection of his attitude toward the conduct of war. This passage might be used as evidence in a paper arguing the incompetence of General Joffre or unpreparedness of the French high command at the onset of World War I.
Example from Process Analysis
"The Spider and the Wasp" by Peter Petrunkevitch
After paralyzing the tarantula, the wasp cleans herself by dragging her body along the ground and rubbing her feet, sucks the drop of blood oozing from the wound in the spider's abdomen, then grabs a leg of the flabby, helpless animal in her jaws and drags it down to the bottom of the grave. she stays there for many minutes, sometimes for several hours, and what she does all that time in the dark we do not know. Eventually she lays her egg and attaches it to the side of the spider's abdomen with a sticky secretion. Then she emerges, fills the grave with soil carried bit by bit in her jaws, and finally tramples the ground all around to hide any trace of the grave from prowlers. The she flies away, leaving her descendant safely started in life. (84)
Comment on Petrunkevitch
This is a single paragraph from an essay that narrates the entire process in which the digger wasp Pepsis locates and kills a tarantula in order to provide food for her young. This factual recounting of the events may serve as evidence in many contexts in which the life processes of these animals is the subject of discourse.
A second Example of Process Analysis
"Writing Drafts" by Richard Marius
Finally the moment comes when you sit down to begin your first draft. It is always a good idea at the start to list the points you want to cover. A list is not as elaborate as a formal outline. In writing your first list, don't bother to set items down in the order of importance. List your main points and trust your mind to organize them. You will probably make one list, study it, make another, study it, and perhaps make another. You can organize each list more completely than the last. This preliminary process may save you hours of starting and stopping. (102)
Comment on Marius
While Petrunkevitch is interested in explaining how something occurs in nature, Marius wants us to know how to do something -- how to successfully write a paper. So rather than describing how a process takes place, he tells us what to do to produce a product. His essay amounts to a short instruction manual. It might be used as evidence in a specific discussion of the writing process or in the broader context of educational theory and practice.