Humans are inveterate storytellers. We make incessant and insistent narrative sense of the world around us and of our place in it—so much so that some scholars have suggested “homo narrans” as a more appropriate identifying description for our species than “homo sapiens”.1 Indeed, a long-standing tradition holds that our very self-identities have an essentially narrative shape: that who each of us is is determined by the stories of our lives, and that in some sense we create our selves by crafting those stories. In this essay, I focus on an especially compelling case of narrative self-construction: Wordsworth’s Prelude. I argue that we do need rich, substantive selves of the sort delivered by narratives like The Prelude, both in order to evaluate our past actions and to guide future ones. However, the very feature which makes Wordsworth’s poem so rhetorically powerful as an autobiography—his invocation of a robust teleological structure, which is imposed on him from infancy by Nature—also prevents us from embracing it as a model for our own self-understanding, because it conflicts sharply with modern views about ontology. Contemporary advocates of a narrative conception of the self, such as Jerome Bruner, Alasdair MacIntyre and Marya Schectman, drop The Prelude’s objectionable ontological assumptions. But rather than placing the narrative conception of self on a firm metaphysical foundation, this actually intensifies the threat of fictionalism: the risk that the selves we fashion through stories are mere self-deluding illusions. I conclude by gesturing toward the characters within stories as an alternative literary model which avoids many of these problems.
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