Nautilus

Why Doesn’t Ancient Fiction Talk About Feelings?

Reading medieval literature, it’s hard not to be impressed with how much the characters get done—as when we read about King Harold doing battle in one of the Sagas of the Icelanders, written in about 1230. The first sentence bristles with purposeful action: “King Harold proclaimed a general levy, and gathered a fleet, summoning his forces far and wide through the land.” By the end of the third paragraph, the king has launched his fleet against a rebel army, fought numerous battles involving “much slaughter in either host,” bound up the wounds of his men, dispensed rewards to the loyal, and “was supreme over all Norway.” What the saga doesn’t tell us is how Harold felt about any of this, whether his drive to conquer was fueled by a tyrannical father’s barely concealed contempt, or whether his legacy ultimately surpassed or fell short of his deepest hopes.

Jump ahead about 770 years in time, to the fiction of David Foster Wallace. In his short story “Forever Overhead,” the 13-year-old protagonist takes 12 pages to walk across the deck of a public swimming pool, wait in line at the high diving board, climb the ladder, and prepare to jump. But over these 12 pages, we are taken into the burgeoning, buzzing mind of a boy just erupting into puberty—our attention is riveted to his newly focused attention on female bodies in swimsuits, we register his awareness that others are watching him as he hesitates on the diving board, we follow his undulating thoughts about whether it’s best to do something scary without thinking about it or whether it’s foolishly dangerous not to think about it.

These examples illustrate Western literature’s gradual progression from narratives that relate actions and events to stories that portray minds in all their meandering, many-layered, self-contradictory complexities. I’d often wondered, when reading older texts: Weren’t people back then interested in what characters thought and felt?

ACTION FIGURE: In ancient literature, emotions were predictable reactions to external actions or events. Here King Harold’s death is depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry. The embroidery states, “Harold the King was killed.”Wikipedia

Perhaps people living in medieval

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from Nautilus

Nautilus5 min read
The Dr. Strange of the American Revolution
I ascribe the Success of our Revolution to a Galaxy,” Benjamin Rush wrote to John Adams, in 1812. He wasn’t invoking the astrological. It was commonplace then to associate a bright assembly of people with the starry band in the night sky that Chaucer
Nautilus12 min read
Why We’re Patriotic: Whether it’s our country or our football team, we need to belong.
It started with one man quietly sipping a Tom Collins in the lounge car of the Cleveland-bound train. “God bless America,” he sang, “land that I love …” It didn’t take long. Others joined in. “Stand beside her … and guide her ...” Soon the entire tra
Nautilus10 min readSelf-Improvement
Playing Video Games Makes Us Fully Human: No other media meets our emotional and social needs like electronic games.
I have an agonizing decision to make. Should I save a governing body that has never done a thing for me? It doesn’t even contain a single person from my race. The aliens of the galactic Council decided long ago that my people should not be trusted, t