Counterfactual Narrative

This is another interesting aspect of story-telling that I have been thinking about lately, in addition to previous thoughts (see my post “Narratology and The Shire” below for more information about that).

The nature of counterfactuals in narrative and storytelling is very interesting, and needs more exploration. This shows up in narrative history, in authors such as Thucydides or Herodotus, though it is common in every branch of literature.

A story is not always a mere series of events. Sometimes in order for a story to have the greatest narrative/rhetorical effect, an author or narrator might invoke counterfactuals. Whether they do so deliberately is another question entirely.

Events in real life tend to be a placebo effect; all things occur because of some preceding event. If the preceding event were different, it is likely that the subsequent event will be different as well. It is often pretty easy to imagine how a string of events could have turned out differently.

The audience of a movie tends to invent counterfactuals internally. One of the things an audience member of a film may do is engage in a counterfactual narrative of their own in which things go somehow differently than they do in the actual film. This signifies engagement with the story, and further reinforces the effect of the true events of the story.

Counterfactuals may be suggested throughout a story, whether a book, film, or an oral recounting of some event. That may be expressed in conditional statements, “if such-and-such had happened, then something else would have happened.” It may also be expressed in “optative” statements, “If only so-and-so hadn’t done this or that.”

A counterfactual narrative does not necessarily need to be explicit. Sometimes the presence of a conditional sentence is all that is required to set up a counterfactual, or perhaps something like an impossible command or a statement like, “I wish this had happened instead….”

A counterfactual narrative does not usually appear to an unengaged reader. An engaged reader, like the engaged watcher of a film, will be internally creating different scenarios as they read the real series of events. For instance, in reading history, a narrator might speculate as to what might have happened had the true events been different. That is fairly common, and fairly obvious. Sometimes, authors will go down rabbit trails of counterfactual speculation, which can either be thought-provoking, or just irritating.

I won’t deal with its effect in history. That is too obvious. Instead, there are a few examples of counterfactual narrative in fiction that are much more interesting and perhaps more illustrative.

One interesting example is found in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, when Hamlet tells Ophelia, “Get thee to a nunnery!”

David Tennant Hamlet-Yorick

David Tennant as Hamlet.

How could that possibly be counterfactual? Overtly, it isn’t. However, the effect it has is that it causes the engaged reader to pause and think, “Hmm, I wonder what would happen if Ophelia actually does that.”

It does a couple of things: firstly, it creates a scenario in the mind of the reader. Whether that scenario happens or not, it is still an option. Secondly, it increases pathos. As we probably all know, Ophelia dies a terrible death that almost certainly could have been avoided had she heeded Hamlet’s command. Knowing that the nunnery was an option increases a reader’s sympathy for the character.

At the very moment when Hamlet introduced that scenario, we might have found it a bit repugnant. We want Ophelia to prevail; shutting herself in a nunnery seems like a terrible option. However, after her tragic ending, our feelings about the nunnery scenario will change quite drastically. We might say, “Well, Hamlet was sensible about that much at least.”

We might also ask ourselves, “If Ophelia had gotten herself to a nunnery, would the story have been much different?”

That is one example of a counterfactual narrative. It is not explicit, nor does it need to be. It is anything that sets up alternative scenarios in the mind of the audience or a reader.

I found another good example in Homer’s Iliad in Book 3. The notorious Helen of Troy meets King Priam on the wall of the city, and speaks with him.

(To Priam) “Always to me, beloved father, you are feared and respected; and I wish bitter death had been what I wanted, when I came hither following your son, forsaking my chamber, my kinsmen… It did not happen that way: and now I am worn with weeping.” (Il. 3. 172-6)

The question then becomes, “What if…?” The reader’s mind goes down a rabbit trail imagining that the Trojan War never happened. Perhaps that sounds like a happy alternative, but you are brought jarringly back to “reality” when you enter back into Homer’s world. The war is still happening. The pathos of the war is even more incredible. The actual events that Homer records are the more striking and seem more real.

Helen herself plays with a counterfactual narrative, in wishing that she had asked for death instead of running away with Paris. She bitterly weeps over what might have been, and what is instead.

Again, it creates an alternative scenario, and it heightens pathos. It has a very keen effect when properly used.

This trick appears all over literature, but can be easily missed if you aren’t reading carefully enough, or even looking for it. Yet, the impact it has on a reader is immense. Skillful use of counterfactual narrative is just another layer of complexity on a text, and should not go unrecognized.

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