The Book of Daniel: An analysis – Mac Nguyen
4 Apr 2021

“Linda Hutcheon argues that postmodernist writing is typified by what she calls ‘historiographic metafiction’, an intermixture of metafiction (which draws attention to the fictionality and constructedness of a text) and historiography (or history-writing). To what ends, and with what effects, does Doctorow employ this seemingly contradictory intermixture in The Book of Daniel?”

E. L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel is an exercise in the questioning of truth. By reappropriating the real-life story of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg who became the first American civilians to be executed for espionage, Doctorow does not offer a definitive answer on their guilt or innocence, nor does he offer any type of assessment on the necessity or justification of such a punishment. Instead, he illustrates, using techniques afforded by Hutcheon’s ‘historiographic metafiction’, that within such a regime, history and truth are subject to systematic obscurity. In other words, Doctorow is not ever interested in using The Book of Daniel as an attempt to substantiate historical inaccuracies; rather, he intentionally manipulates the historical subject matter in order to highlight the vulnerabilities of history and truth.

Linda Hutcheon coined the term ‘historiographic metafiction’ as a means to reconcile the previously polarised notions of historiography and metafiction, as demonstrated in a work such as The Book of Daniel. Hutcheon (1988: 106) contends that the “postmodern novel… is part of the postmodernist stand to confront the paradoxes of fictive/historical representation, the particular/the general, and the present/the past”. I will focus specifically on the confrontation of the alleged paradox between history and fiction, arguing that instead they are similar constructs with similar purposes, and therefore are not a contradictory intermixture but rather, from a postmodernist viewpoint, a synergistic one. Hutcheon (1988: 88) has stated that history and fiction “constitute systems of signification by which we make sense of the past”. The key thesis is that historiography and fictionality are both subject to the same dispositions and ideologies of the institutions that employ them, thus yielding similarly conditioned literary output.

However, even though historiography and fiction can be reconciled, the concept of historiographic metafiction is still left problematised by the fact that historiography itself is a problematic concept. Connor (1997: 132) argues that since “we can only ever know history through various forms of representation or narrative”, then “all history is a kind of literature”. Because the documentation of history is susceptible to manipulation and distortion like any other literature, including fiction, it ultimately leaves history no more absolute or reliable. The resolution of this problem does not lie in validating historiography, but redefining its purpose within the context of historiographic metafiction. As Hutcheon (1988: 88) states,

the meaning and shape are not in the events, but in the systems which make those past “events” into present historical “facts”. This is not a “dishonest refuge from truth” but an acknowledgement of the meaning-making function of human constructs.

By underscoring the function that humans have in assigning meaning to these constructions of history, it brings up subsequent implications for truth. This is where works such as Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel realise objectives that transcend those of history or fiction. Hutcheon (1988: 108) highlights the flexibility of fiction compared to history, saying that “there has also been another, long tradition, dating… from Aristotle, that makes fiction not only separate from, but also superior to, history, which is a mode of writing limited to the representations of the contingent, and the particular”. Doctorow exploits the various literary tactics of postmodernist literature to serve a specific agenda, different to that of the historical or documentary novel. In The Book of Daniel, the device of metafiction provides a greater licence to explore various avenues of expression and endows Doctorow with a special authorial power that allows him to push his agenda on the notion of truth.

Arguably the most prominent demonstration of Doctorow’s address to historiographic metafiction lies in the development of title character, Daniel Isaacson. Drawing on Lukács’ definition of the protagonist in historical novels, described as “a type, a synthesis of the general and particular, of ‘all the humanly and socially essential determinants’”, Hutcheon cites Daniel as an example of someone who is “anything but [a] proper type” (Hutcheon, 1988: 112). Daniel proves to be a particularly troubled individual in certain characteristics: He is torn between the ideologies of his late parents, who represented the progressive intellectualism of the Old Left, and that of Artie Sternlicht, who represents the image-obsessed spectacle of the New Left. He engages in the sadomasochistic abuse and torture of his wife (in bed [7] and in the car [74]). And, most importantly, he carries an unhealthy obsession with finding the elusive truth behind his parents’ execution as he rewrites their family history. Prunier (2002: 110) says that “unlike his parents, Daniel has many great flaws that manifest themselves in the conflicts he has with every other character and every institution”, while Hutcheon (1988: 112-113) describes Daniel as “overtly specific, individual, culturally and familially conditioned in his response to history, both public and private”. By endowing Daniel, a conflicted, ill-fitting, unremarkable protagonist, with the main narrative voice, Doctorow immediately compromises the credibility of the narrative—which is perhaps one of his points.

Besides the construction of a troubled personality, Doctorow self-consciously exacerbates the credibility issue through metaficional literary technique. Firstly, Doctorow employs a variety of narration styles that rapidly shift throughout the course of the novel. Parks (1991: 457) describes The Book of Daniel as a “pastiche of genres”. Some of the more discordant stylistic voices include letter to the editor (“My dear Mr. Editor, you who hear the troubles of many…” [79]) and documentary (True History of the Cold War: A Raga [283]), both of which try to distance and impersonalise Daniel’s narrator voice. Doctorow also aids in undermining Daniel’s narration by switching back and forth between first- and third-person. According to Reed (1992: 290), this

shift of case and tense is not permanent; the third-person objective mode returns often, but Daniel’s first-person appearance displaces it and undercuts its (his?) authority, especially as we come to realize that this particular narrator is hardly likely to give us an objective account of the events in which we find he is deeply enmeshed. And yet that, in a way, becomes the burden of the novel—to show Daniel to be a most unreliable narrator in order to then reinscribe him as a truth teller.

Specifically, first-person is usually associated with subjective accounts while the omniscient third-person is more often objective. To have Daniel switch back and forth deeply undermines the credibility of both, and particularly detracts from Doctorow’s attempt at objectivity in his ‘truth-telling’ third-person voice. But again, this is likely intentional.

There is also the quintessential self-reflexive aspect, where on multiple occasions Daniel acknowledges his textual existence by referring directly to the reader. One example occurs when he leaves a droll “Note to the Reader” [67], and another towards the end when he referring to his parents’ execution (“I suppose you think I can’t do the electrocution. I know there is a you. There has always been a you. YOU: I will show you that I can do the electrocution” [359]). Another particularly disturbing example, which also highlights Doctorow’s abrupt stylistic shifting, occurs when Daniel sadistically tortures his wife in the car with the cigarette lighter (“Do you believe it? Shall I continue?… Who are you anyway? Who told you you could read this? Is nothing sacred?” [74]). Doctorow suddenly disrupts this particular torture by interjecting a cinematic description of another torture, allegedly from a surrealist silent film by Buñuel and Dali.

Apart from the aesthetic appeal, these patent examples of self-reflexive, metafictional style employed by Doctorow highlight a purpose: to undermine the novel’s authority as a means to renegotiate the relationship between history and fiction. Patricia Waugh (1984: 2) describes metafiction as “fictional writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artifact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality”. In The Book of Daniel, the reality in question is the history behind the Rosenbergs, the true story on which this fictional narrative has formed its basis. However, Doctorow has stated numerous times that he “was not so much interested in the Rosenbergs as in the idea of the Rosenbergs” (Trenner, 1983: 46). Since historiography is no longer an ideal practice, due to the issues surrounding the biased construction of meaning, actual history is rendered impractical and ultimately ineffectual. Jameson (quoted in Hutcheon, 1988: 112) has stated that “as old-fashioned narrative or ‘realistic’ historiography becomes problematic; the historian should reformulate her vocation—not longer to produce some vivid representation of history ‘as it really happened,’ but rather to produce a concept of history”. Doctorow’s approach to The Book of Daniel, therefore, can be seen as following Jameson’s proposed solution; by conceptualising history—transforming it into an ‘idea’ (the ‘idea’ of the Rosenbergs)— history’s impracticality is offered a new mobility, in the form of an ability to question itself.

Doctorow employs the structure of historiographic metafiction as a means to achieve a very specific purpose, which is to question the nature of truth, both in literature and by extension, in history. Doctorow uses the very narrative in The Book of Daniel as a platform to question the truth in literature, from the unreliable narration of the ill-fitting protagonist Daniel, to his interjection of ironic historical passages such as True History of the Cold War: A Raga [283] (Reed (1992: 300) notes the irony and redundancy in a phrase like ‘true history’, reinforcing the problematisation of truth in historiography). In doing this, Doctorow, while telling a story, simultaneously provides the reader with an experiential means to question the truth of the historical subject matter, notably the execution of the Rosenbergs and the era of McCarthyism.

Prunier suspects that Doctorow is in fact pushing his own leftist political agenda, stating that “the views of Doctorow stand out most strong when the third-person narrative asserts itself, the choice of plot events promote his leftist views… Doctorow gives emphasis to leftist notions pertaining to capitalism, literature, culture, and history” (Prunier, 2002: 109-110). Prunier further argues that Doctorow depicts “the Isaacsons, a pair of radical communists, exist[ing] in a state of almost moral perfection. They are characterized as intelligent, hard-working, loving, nonjudgmental, peaceful people” (Prunier, 2002: 110). In other words, one of the effects of constructing such a narrative that so aggressively resists bearing a clear-cut notion of truth is that it is susceptible to ulterior political motives. However, it could also be interpreted that Doctorow’s sympathetic portrayal of the Isaacsons is another way for him to convey a question of their guilt (or innocence)—a mere extension of the motif on truth.

As Daniel searches for the truth behind the guilt or innocence of his parents, the reader almost analogously searches for the truth in Daniel’s (or Doctorow’s) narration. Reed (1992: 291-292) argues that “the truth about the Isaacson/Rosenberg case becomes a kind of absent center around which the storytelling revolves until it becomes clear that as readers we have become complicit in the plot to mislead us as to the importance of that question”. As the novel progresses, there is no certainty except that the truth, both as a general concept and in regards to this question surrounding the Isaacsons, becomes more elusive and less tangible. This culminates towards the end when Daniel, desperately seeking a frail and elderly Selig Mindish at Disneyland in the hope that he can achieve some sort of closure on the execution of his parents, is instead given a kiss on the forehead [356]. And though he uncovers no truth, Daniel “feels himself set free” (Reed, 1992: 301). This unresolved meeting between Daniel and Mindish could be seen as a metaphor for the ultimate futility of the search for truth, which in a sense becomes its resolution.

Hutcheon (1988: 123) states that “unlike the documentary novel as defined by Barbara Foley, what I have been calling postmodern fiction does not ‘aspire to tell the truth’ as much as to question whose truth gets told”. The Book of Daniel draws on the fact that truth itself is immaterial when it operates within a system that, by design, cannot be trusted. The existence of multiple truths is already a fallacy, and so any system or regime which enacts a preferential or selective treatment of the truth is fundamentally flawed. Doctorow therefore draws attention away from the fallacious notion of truth and refocuses it on the problem of the system, specifically the US government. The major issue stemming from this is the scare-mongering of McCarthyism, undoubtedly an issue addressed by Doctorow in The Book of Daniel. Estrin (1983: 196) calls the novel “a description of the hysteria of McCarthyism as it surfaced during the trials of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg” and an illustrator of “the devastating effect of the mentality of the period on subsequent decades”, while Tokarczyk (1987: 4) states that “throughout [The Book of Daniel], there are many illusions to the post-war hysteria America was actually going through in the early 1950s…[and] after World War II, Americans remained concerned about loyalty and increasingly intolerant of nonconformity”.

Though he is never explicit in his assertions (consistent with his complete detachment from seeking to tell the truth), Doctorow flirts with ideas of government conspiracy concerning McCarthyist antagonism, through Daniel (“The final existential condition is citizenship. Every man is the enemy of his own country. EVERY MAN IS THE ENEMY OF HIS OWN COUNTRY… All citizens are soldiers. All Governments stand ready to commit their citizens to death in the interest of their government” [90]) and through others (“Shit, between the FBI and CP your folks never had a chance” [258]). But while these references to McCarthyism and conspiracy inform the reader of the condition, The Book of Daniel,as historiographic metafiction, is far more compelling in its very simulation of that condition; the confusion, paranoia, distrust and search for truth amongst the citizens is very much the phenomenon that can be experientially extrapolated by the reader. Realising that truth isn’t, and cannot ever be, a viable goal of the narrative, the effects of a lack of truth is therefore made Doctorow’s priority. Reed (1992: 289) says, after all, that Doctorow’s text “ultimately asks not what is ‘truth’, the ‘real history’ of the Rosenbergs, but rather what can imaginative contemplation of the various discursive constructions of such a case tell us about politics and culture in post-World War II America”. In E. L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel, we witness then not just the harnessing of a problematised practice in historiography or the exploitation of the self-reflexive literary functionality in metafiction, but rather a careful combination of the two that allows the work to go beyond a simple exercise in aesthetics and become a strategic political exercise in the questioning of truth.


Connor, S. (1997) ‘Ontology and Metafiction’ in Postmodern culture: an introduction to theories of the contemporary, Cambridge: Blackwell, pp. 129-134

Estrin, B. (1983) “Surviving McCarthyism: E. L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel” in R. Trenner (ed) E. L. Doctorow: Essays and Conversations, Princeton: Ontario Review Press

Doctorow, E. L. (1971) The Book of Daniel, London: Penguin Classics

Hutcheon, L. (1980) Narcissistic Narrative: The Metafictional Paradox, Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press

Hutcheon, L. (1988) The Poetics of Postmodernism. New York: Routledge

Hutcheon, L. (1989) The Politics of Postmodernism. New York: Routledge

Parks, J.G. (1991) ‘The Politics of Polyphony: The Fiction of E.L. Doctorow’ Twentieth Century Literature, 37(4):454

Prunier, C. (2002) “Doctorow’s The Book of DanielExplicator, 60(2): 109-111

Reed, T. V. (1992) “Genealogy/Narrative/Power: Questions of Postmodernity in Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel.” American Literary History, 4(2): 289-304

Trenner, R. (ed) (1983) E. L. Doctorow: Essays and Conversations, Princeton: Ontario Review Press

Tokarczyk, M. (1987) “From the Lions’ Den: Surivivors in E. L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel” Critique – Studies in Contemporary Fiction, 29(1): 3-15

Waugh, P. (1984) Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-conscious Fiction, London: Methuen