Plotting Revolution, Part I: History’s Plots

By Nathan Perl-Rosenthal

As historians of the age of revolution, each of us tells a bit of a single master tale, about the story of modern politics’ emergence.  Each of us narrates, in our own way, the death of an Old Regime and the New Regime rising to replace it.

During this time of political crisis, how we choose to tell the revolutionary story matters more than ever.  In this post and two that follow, I argue for self-consciousness about our narrative role and make a plea to my fellow scholars for a conscientious use of that power.  Decisions about how to plot the story of the revolutionary era are irreducibly political: the narrative choices we each make can help shape the way scholars and the public think about not only the genesis of modern politics but also the possibilities for political action in the present day.[1]

In the narrowest descriptive sense, plot denotes merely the main events of a literary work, presented as an interrelated sequence.[2] But as one distinguished literary theorist put it, plot is much more: it is “the very organizing line, the thread of design” of a story.  It is, if you will, the logic of the narrative.[3] Plot in this sense is a feature of all historical writing.  Even when it is written in a non-narrative mode, history tells an emplotted story of change over time.[4] This is doubly true for historians of the age of revolution, with our attention fixed on a period of radical transformation.

Narrative theorists since Aristotle have argued that the vast diversity of narrative plots can be sorted into a relatively small number of plot families or types.  Each of these families brings together plots with key features in common.  They have given their names to familiar narrative genres: comedy, tragedy, romance, epic, etc.

Each type of plot charts an emotional arc that helps it teach a particular lesson to its audience.  Tragedy, Aristotle argued, is intended to inspire “fear and pity.”  These feelings, by leading the audience to an emotional “catharsis,” were supposed to help them become better citizens. By contrast, comedy, as Northrop Frye argued, is intended to create feelings of contentment while offering a critique of existing society.[5] The plot of a romance depicts the happy triumph of an idealized world over forces of darkness and disorder.  In its classic form, such as in the Arthurian tales, romances affirmed the legitimacy of the established order.

Historians impart plot to their writings as surely as the authors of fiction do.  But there is at least this difference between the fabulist and the historian: unlike the artist, who imposes a plot structure on a fictional scenario or a universal figure, the historian emplots real people in the past.  This imposes a powerful ethical obligation to be sure that our plots do not do violence to the people of the past, that they neither erase nor betray them.

Historians of the age of revolution shoulder a further burden—an obligation to the present—in choosing plots.  The field’s central claim is that it tells the story of how society and politics came to be what they are today.  How we emplot the age of revolution thus leads to claims not just about people in the past but about the character of modern politics and how we should understand the rise of the nation and the state.

The next post (coming out Wednesday, Jan 11) will examine, through a few examples, how scholars choose a plot and the significance of those plots in shaping the works’ emotional arcs and the lessons they teach about revolutionary politics.

(For the second post, click here.) (Part three is here.)

Nathan Perl-Rosenthal is Assistant Professor of History and Spatial Sciences at the University of Southern California.  His first book was Citizen Sailors: Becoming American in the Age of Revolution.  He is currently working on a cultural history of the age of revolution, circa 1760 to 1820s.

Title imageGillaume Guillon Lethière, La patrie en danger, 1799.


[1] See Sarah Knott’s essay on “Narrating the Age of Revolution” in the January 2016, issue of the William and Mary Quarterly.  In focusing on narrative, I am revisiting some of the ground that Hayden White covered in his classic 1973 study, Metahistory.  One further inspiration for these posts is Keith Baker and Dan Edelstein’s recent book, Scripting Revolution: A Historical Approach to the Comparative Study of Revolution (Stanford, 2015).

[2] One can specify that a plot is constituted by causal relationships among these events, for which see E.M. Forster, “Story and Plot,” in Narrative Dynamics: Essays on Time, Plot, Closure, and Frames, ed. Brian Richardson (Columbus: Ohio University Press, 2002), 71.

[3] Peter Brooks, Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative (New York: Knopf, 1984).

[4] On the emplotted nature of most modern historical writings, see most recently Maya Jasanoff, “The Great Trap for All Americans,” New York Review of Books, 13 October 2016, 39.

[5] Aristotle, Poetics, part IX and Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1957), 162-163.

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