Narrative is Good for You

That’s the thesis of classicist, philosopher, and legal scholar Martha Nussbaum (b. 1947) in her essay, “The Narrative Imagination” (1997).

How is it good for you?

On Nussbaum’s account, it expands and trains your noticing, theorizing, and moral capacities.

Here’s a simple example: the nursery rhyme “Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are.” In the rhyme, Nussbaum observes that there is “a sense of mystery that mingles curiosity with awe.” Wonder does not stop with the star’s outward beauty—its power to dazzle the eyes—but runs beneath the star’s surface, to its inner life and how it must be in some ways similar and in other ways different from the child’s own. A child surmises that “a mere shape in the heavens has an inner world” and she thus attributes “life, emotion, and thought” to a form “whose insides are hidden.”

Put differently, even the youngest child is an interpreter. When hearing or telling stories, she is theorizing about the inner “goings-on” of people, animals, and things. Never mind that the child’s early theorizing is largely fallacious in its anthropomorphism (attributing human characteristics to nonhuman animals and objects). The point is that the process of theorizing and interpreting starts young and becomes more complex and nuanced as the child matures.

But what about adults? Do adult stories function in the same manner, reinforcing habits of noticing, theorizing, and moral sympathy? Nussbaum argues that they do, pointing to a play of Sophocles’s from 2400 years ago titled Philoctetes (named after an archer in the Trojan War). In the play, Philoctetes has an accident on his way to the Trojan War: his foot is bitten by a snake, which becomes ulcerous, and his “cries of pain” become disruptive of “the army’s religious festivals.” The commanders, annoyed, “abandoned him on the deserted island of Lemnos.” The soldiers, however, sympathize with him (lines 169-176):

For my part, I have compassion for him. Think how

with no human company or care, . . .

he wastes away with that savage disease,

with no way of meeting his daily needs.

Nussbaum comments: “Unlike their leader, the men of the chorus vividly and sympathetically imagine the life of a man whom they have never seen, picturing his loneliness, his pain, his struggle for survival.”

The irony is that, a decade later, the commanders discover that they need Philoctetes’ skills in archery—“his magic bow”—and seek to retrieve him back into their service. But they continue to treat Philoctetes as a mere tool for their use even as his fellow soldiers perceive his inner life, a life they imagine through narrative.

By Nussbaum’s account, narrative can be easy or difficult, requiring little or a great deal from readers or hearers. Sometimes, for example, we readily and easily identify with the inward lives of others and at other times we enter their world only by an act of sustained and imaginative sympathy (as a man might imagine what it’s like for a woman to give birth). In the case of the first audience to have experienced Sophocles’s play, some may have been veterans of war and could readily identify with Philoctetes as soldier, but they may not have been able to so readily identify (as yet) with being abandoned to illness by family, comrades, or nation. They could, however, imagine what the inner state of that experience must be like. And Nussbaum emphasizes that this movement of imagination beneath the appearance of things develops, not just our intellectual (analytic and synthetic) capacities, but our “moral capacities.”

Nussbaum offers Ralph Ellison’s novel, Invisible Man (1952), as a contemporary example of what it means to delve beneath the outward appearance of things. In the novel, the black hero “describes himself as ‘invisible,’” perceived as a tool for white use (as Philoctetes was also invisible to his commanders and perceived as a tool for their use). It’s not that the whites around Ellison’s hero have no sympathetic imagination or storytelling capacities. They actually do. They tell themselves plenty of stories. It’s just that their imaginations do not extend to him—to his inner reality.

Nussbaum quotes the hero as saying that the whites in his community are “lost in a dream world,” and “You go along for years knowing something is wrong, then suddenly you discover that you’re as transparent as air.” Thus concerning reality, even the racist is theorizing, “lost in a dream world,” but this is the type of theorizing and dreaming that renders certain others invisible, and so raises a caution: theorizing, in addition to being imaginative, can also distort reality and direct one toward cruel and immoral responses. The torturer also imagines inward responses.

This is where, not just the imaginative intelligence, but the critical and moral intelligences, must come into play and raise a debate: what is imaginative storytelling and literature for? Can one read, for example, a Charles Dickens novel like David Copperfield for aesthetic pleasure alone, with politics and morality tidily set to one side?

Nussbaum thinks not: “It is impossible to care about characters and their well-being in the way the text invites, without having some very definite political and moral interests awakened in oneself . . .” Nussbaum’s opinion, however, has not always been shared:

There was a brief moment in the recent history of literary criticism when it did seem possible and desirable to hold such concerns in abeyance. This was the moment of the flourishing of the so-called New Criticism, which held (to simplify) that when one reads a poem one should bring nothing external to that reading—no historical context, no questions of one’s own about life and how to live it.

As a movement, the New Criticism—fortunately in Nussbaum’s view—did not survive the critiques of it by literary critics like F. R. Leavis and Lionel Trilling. And contemporary critics, though committed to close textual reading (an emphasis of the New Criticism), are not particularly interested in treating the imagination as if it takes place in a vacuum. They also want to know what intellectual and moral impulses are activated in readers by imaginative texts. And so, contra the New Criticism, Nussbaum writes that, “We are now trying to build an academy that will overcome defects of vision and receptivity that marred the humanities departments of earlier eras, an academy in which no group will be invisible in Ellison’s sense.”

Does this, as a practical matter, make for a radical agenda, an introduction of democratic and civil rights expanding politics into classroom discussions of aesthetic matters like literature? Nussbaum’s answer is yes:

The current agenda is radical in the way that Stoic world citizenship was radical in a Rome built on hierarchy and rank, in the way that the Christian idea of love of one’s neighbor was and is radical, in a world anxious to deny our common membership in the kingdom of ends or the kingdom of heaven.

Nussbaum’s view, in other words, is that invisibility can be resisted by activating one’s imaginative, critical, and moral intelligences through engagement with literature and literary criticism, and such engagement is necessarily political.


  • Nussbaum, Martha. Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education (Harvard 1997). Nussbaum’s “The Narrative Imagination” is chapter 3 in this book.
  • Nussbaum, Martha. Philosophical Interventions: Reviews 1986-2011 (Oxford 2012).

Here’s a bit of Martha Nussbaum, thinking:

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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4 Responses to Narrative is Good for You

  1. Staffan says:

    The narrative is the fundamental data structure of the human brain. It is made up by a system of images or ideas that Jung called archetypes. The moral component in this structure is obvious – there is always a hero and a villain. But human rights, democracy and inclusiveness don’t fit this structure. It’s not inclusive; it’s full of ingroups and outgroups. It’s not equal; it always comes with a hierarchy. To me, this suggests that these values are not in accordance with human nature. That’s why storytelling is of so poor quality these days. And why JK Rowling had such success with her books while at the same time being frustrated that they are labeled conservative. A bitter price of success for a liberal who just let her imagination loose.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Human rights, democracy, and inclusiveness arrived on the scene pretty early in human civilization. Human beings have salivated to them for a long time in one form or another for millenia, so I’m not sure how your “unnaturalist” critique of them holds up.

      Furthermore, they are deeply embedded with moral implication–Nietzsche, for example, laid all three of them at the doorstep of “slave morality.” Any time a writer gnaws on the subject of justice or revenge–such as, say, in ancient plays like the Oresteia trilogy–there is an element of civil rights–of fairness, regard, and concern for others–at issue.

      And whole religions are based in equality of value accorded to each human being (as with Christianity).

      So naturally narrative can expand or contract one’s imaginative circle of concern. The story of Jesus is an example.

      As to Rowling, part of the appeal is respect for classical narrative development and writing (as opposed to narrative experimentation and self-referential grammar and style boundary pushing ala postmodernism).


  2. Staffan says:

    And a merry Christmas!

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