Emiliano discusses why we, as humans, tell stories and what can be gained from doing so.

I remember the first time I read The Lord of the Rings, I was around nine or ten, and I thought it was actual history; an ancient tale of the Dark Ages no one had memory of, so the author, J. R. Tolkien, had devoted his time to collecting all these stories about forgotten people. I remember going to my mother and asking why things like that didn’t happen anymore; I can still recall the tiny sitting room, the purple sofa she sat on, and the French Poodle that sat by her feet. Even though she told me it was all fiction, I never stopped thinking there was some truth to it. Otherwise, why would somebody write it? Ever since that moment, I have wondered what the purpose of storytelling is; why do we, as a species, recur so often to tell stories from our individual experiences, and how do they resonate with the collective? From ancient Egypt, and the ever-so misunderstood bronze age, to folklore tales and modern fiction, humanity has always had a story to tell.

A few years later, I discovered that Tolkien, being a scholar from a Catholic background who dedicated much of his time to translating and interpreting Arthurian legends, sprinkled religious meaning all over his work, which of course sprung out of those same legends he studied. At that time, one of the purposes of storytelling came to me: stories are how we make sense of our world, whichever one we live in. The tales we tell often revolve around the same topics because they are universal themes. No matter how many times they are explored we can always learn something new from them.

Margaret Atwood has said in multiple interviews that we tell stories because we can, because being human means that we can learn from stories, “the ability to tell a story is right in the centre of what it means to be human. If I can tell you that right over there is where a crocodile ate Uncle George you do not have to test that in your own life by going over there and getting eaten by the crocodile.” We tell stories to learn and explore from our shared experiences. In other words, we tell stories as a way to evolve.

In his essay “Credo,” Neil Gaiman puts the necessity to tell stories as a simple idea that becomes part of us, and slowly turns into something so contagious, that there is no other option but to write about it. Thus becoming part of us until the idea is explored. There’s always a way for stories to find their way out into the world, which he later reinforces in his essay “Make Good Art.”  In this, Gaiman discusses the creation of art and stories as generating something precious out of something awful, like “putting messages in bottles, on a desert island, and hoping someone will find them.” In this sense, Gaiman takes the concept of creating stories out of a necessity to learn and takes it a bit further. He explores how storytelling is meant to be an act of expression through characters and themes.

I would like to build on these two perspectives on storytelling by taking a closer look at The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. For anyone who hasn’t read it, this short story revolves around a woman in bed who is unable to leave her bedroom in a big old summer house. She has been diagnosed with hysteric behaviours by her husband, a recognised doctor. Without anyone to keep her company she resorts to writing about her daily experiences and we, the readers, see her slow descent into either madness or sanity, depending on how you wish to read the tale. The story is sufficiently unclear about whether the main character is a trustworthy narrator or not, but it is intriguing enough that it leaves a lot of questions unanswered. These questions encourage us to reflect on mental illness, gender roles and most relevant to this article, how storytelling creates a world of its own, fictional or not, that compels us to reflect on our personal experiences.

So far I have only talked about the power of storytelling as a reflection of our outer world, but this is not the only case. In The Yellow Wallpaper, we glimpse at the emotional torture a woman suffers shortly after having given birth. The child, who is barely mentioned in the story, might have died before the novella started, however, the main character might also be suffering from postpartum depression. As well as this, stories let us know about human nature. They are an act of empathy because they ask us to place ourselves in another person’s life and question what we would do if we were in their place.

Stories can accompany us and create different perspectives and patterns of thinking. They can teach us valuable lessons, yes, but equally, they can be there just for us. They may guide us through dark times, and provide certainty that something better is yet to come. Storytelling has multiple purposes, but they all require us to believe whatever we are reading is true, or at least that there is something truthful and meaningful to the story and the characters we have before our eyes.