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Narrative Theory

Teacher Education Quarterly

The Rise of the Life Narrative

When we go on about the big things, the political situation, global warming, world poverty, it all looks really terrible, with nothing getting better, nothing to look forward to. But when I think small, closer in—you know a girl I’ve just met, or this song we’re going to do with Chas, or snowboarding next month, then it looks great. So this is going to be my motto—think small.

—Ian McEwan, Saturday, Penguin, London, 2005, (pp. 34-35)

There is a kind of popular consensus at the moment that we live in “an age of narrative”—the truth is rather more complex, for although it is true that narratives and stories are part of the common currency of the day, the scale of those narratives, their scope and aspiration, has dramatically changed. In fact we are entering a period for particular kinds of narratives: life narratives and small-scale narratives.

In past periods there have been “grand narratives” of human intention and progress. Hywell Williams in his recent chronological history of the world argues that the link between human history and progress in grand narrative grew exponentially in the mid nineteenth century. He says the progress narratives that emerged at this time were often “brash and naïve.”

It was certainly founded on the fact of material advance—the sudden and greater ease of travel, improvements in sanitation and the reduction in disease, which so impressed contemporaries in the advanced West. These victories also seemed to signify a real moral progress.

Nobody supposed that humanity was getting better at producing saints and geniuses but there was a new confidence in the possibility of a well-ordered society. The intellectual advances that were once the preserve of an educated elite had spread further. (Williams, 2005, p. 18)

Commenting on the public life associated with these changes he says: “Once, the sceptical courtiers of the eighteenth century had sneered at superstition in gossipy little groups—a century later greater masses of people debated great issues of religion and science, political reform and freedom of trade in public meetings” (Ibid).

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  • Date of publication: 08/08/2012
  • Publisher: Teacher Education Quarterly
  • Subject:
    Narrative Theory
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