A History of the World in 10½ Chapters  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

A History of the World in 10½ Chapters is a novel by Julian Barnes published in 1989. It is a collection of short stories in different styles; however, at some points they echo each other and have subtle connection points. Most are fictional but some are historical.


One of the many recurrent motifs in the book is the portrayal of ships. This alludes to Noah's Ark — the subject of the first chapter — which plays a dominant role in the Abrahamic religions as an example of God's judgment. The woodworm who narrates the first Chapter questions the wisdom of appointing Noah as God's representative. The woodworm is left out of the ark, just like the other "impure" or "insignificant" species; but a colony of woodworm enter the ark as stowaways and survive the Great Deluge. The woodworm becomes one of the many connecting figures, appearing in almost every chapter and implying processes of decay, especially of knowledge and historical understanding.


"The Visitors" describes the hijacking of a cruise liner, similar to the 1985 incident of the Achille Lauro.

"The Wars of Religion" reports an animal trial against the woodworms in a church, as they have caused the building to become unstable. Barnes has adapted parts of E. P. Evans's The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals (1906), as he states in the final page of the book.

"The Survivor" is set in a world in which the Chernobyl disaster was "the first big accident". Journalists report that the world is on the brink of nuclear war. The protagonist escapes by boat to avoid a nuclear holocaust.

The chapter "Shipwreck" is an analysis of Géricault's painting, The Raft of the Medusa. The first half narrates the historical events of the shipwreck and the survival of the crew members. This part was probably based on Narrative of a Voyage to Senegal in 1816 . The second half of the chapter analyses the painting itself. It describes Géricault's "softening" the impact of reality in order to preserve the aestheticism of the work, or to make the story of what happened more palatable.

The chapter "The Mountain" describes the journey of a religious woman to a monastery where she wants to intercede for her dead father.

The "Three Simple Stories" portray a survivor from the RMS Titanic, the Biblical story of Jonah and the whale, and the Jewish refugees on board the MS St. Louis in 1939, who were prevented from landing in the United States and other countries.

"Upsteam!" consists of letters from an actor who travels to a remote jungle for a film project, described as similar to The Mission (1986). His colleague is drowned in an accident with a raft.

Entitled "Parenthesis," the half chapter is inserted between chapters 8 and 9. It is different in style to the other chapters, which are short stories; here a narrator addresses his readers and offers a philosophical discussion on love. The narrator is called "Julian Barnes", but, as he states, the reader cannot be sure that the narrator's opinions are those of the author. A parallel is drawn with El Greco's painting Burial of the Count of Orgaz, in which the artist confronts the viewer. The piece includes a discussion of lines from Philip Larkin's poem An Arundel Tomb ("What will survive of us is love") and from W. H. Auden's September 1, 1939 ("We must love one another or die").

The chapter "Project Ararat" tells the story of a fictional astronaut Spike Tiggler, based on the astronaut James Irwin.

The final chapter "The Dream" portrays New Heaven.

List of chapters

  1. The Stowaway
  2. The Visitors
  3. The Wars of Religion
  4. The Survivor
  5. Shipwreck
  6. The Mountain
  7. Three Simple Stories
  8. Upstream!
  • Parenthesis (unnumbered "half chapter")

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "A History of the World in 10½ Chapters" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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