Storytelling in the Time of Covid-19

By Katharine Bubel & Laura Van Dyke

A few weeks ago, we asked two of our English Department alumni how studying literature helps them process the kind of collective grief and uncertainty COVID-19 has brought to all our lives this year. As often is the case with literary minds, they presented a paradox.  One found that literature helped her know what to expect. Just before she had completed her degree in the fall, she had taken a course on European Literature in translation and written a paper on Albert Camus’s haunting novel The Plague (1947), a work set in the midst of an epidemic that profoundly explores different responses to suffering, from denial to self-sacrifice. Early in the spring at her new job, just as she and her colleagues were enjoying a growing camaraderie, word came from management that they would need to work remotely from home. As they were departing from one another with hopeful expressions of “see you soon,” she suspected otherwise, and began to prepare herself for the long haul. The other alumna says she found that literature has helped her in a seemingly opposite way. It has cultivated in her a sense of calm about not knowing, in the state of what the Romantic poet John Keats famously called negative capability: “being in uncertainties, mysteries, [and] doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” After listening to one another, both respondents brought their insights together. Literature has helped them to expect—and accept—the unexpected.

We’re reminded—and comforted—to think that such events and accompanying emotions have long precedents. We are not alone in any of our anxieties and fears. Widespread viruses and plagues have been around since humans started to live in closer dependency with and proximity to their neighbours and domesticated animals. For just as long, there have been storytellers to help make some sense of them. Story after story, whether in the form of myth or modern novel, tell us that disease (taken figuratively and literally) is the ordinary state of affairs for human life: we have always existed against the backdrop of sickness and death. At the close of The Plague, Camus’s narrator remarks, “Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world, yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plagues as wars in history, yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.”

Perhaps the most famous work to emerge out of the experience of plague is the fourteenth-century Italian writer Giovani Boccaccio’s The Decameron, where storytelling functions as a way to distract the various characters from the monotony of quarantine as they wait out the Black Death. It’s not surprising that Boccaccio would envision narratives being formed in the thick of adversity; surely our recent Netflix viewing histories show that we relate to this need to seek out stories that not only divert, comfort, thrill, amuse, and entertain us, but help us to understand.

Many readers are familiar with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but few have read her later novel The Last Man, a work that imagines a future dystopic world set in the late twenty-first century. A mysterious pandemic has wiped out the world’s population, leaving only the protagonist Lionel and his dog alive; the novel ends in the year 2100, with a chilling reminder of our human vulnerability in the face of the many viruses living with us in the more-than-human community.

The great Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye has suggested that all stories can be divided into one of two categories: stories that describe the world we want, and stories that describe the world we don’t want. Pandemic narratives and dystopic fiction fit into this second category—they disclose to us a world we adamantly don’t want to live within but can’t escape. The challenge for us today is the same as it has always been, to look at the world as it is and work creatively to help shape it into a world we want. Stories are one of the most powerful means we have to discern and actively participate in our realities. Philosopher-novelist Iris Murdoch would agree, for she once observed that humans are the strange creatures that make pictures of their selves, and then come to resemble the pictures. At the same time, she wrote elsewhere, “Great art teaches a sense of reality, [and] so does ordinary living and loving.” Perhaps that’s the best thing stories do for us: give us a place apart to reflect, then send us back to the ordinary, if disease-ridden, world with renewed capacity to see it all and say it is good to be here, living and loving.

Katharine Bubel, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor of English

Laura Van Dyke, Ph.D.

Part-Time Professor of English