Psycho-narration describes how writers make use of omniscient narrators to reflect their characters’ consciousness. Sometimes, authors use an unseen narrator, but use the language of the character they describe.
In other words, psycho narration is an ‘outside’ commentary of a character’s consciousness, but in the character’s own ‘words’. Because there’s no actual talking going on, some people say in the character’s own ‘mental language’. (This is an interesting concept in itself, because apparently some people think in words and others think in pictures, though it’s not as binary as that.)
Though subtle, in psycho narration there is no attempt to hide the narrator. We’re still dealing with an ‘overt’ narrator.
Imagine a narrator showing us a character in action by describing what they do and what they say. They then step back and talk to the audience about that character behind the character’s back.
Sometimes psycho narration goes from being ‘overt’ (not hidden) to ‘intrusive’ (in the way). Done well, psycho narration is subtle. Unless on the lookout for narrative techniques, the reader shouldn’t notice the difference between the character’s interior monologue and the narrator’s commentary.
A Brief History Of Psycho Narration
The term was invented by Dorrit Cohn in her book Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton UP, 1978). Cohn was a scholar of German and Comparative Literature.
This mode of narration dominated fiction well into the 19th century but has been surpassed by close third person, and first person in young adult literature.
In classic children’s literature, the psycho narration has tended to be overtly didactic. The unseen narrator impresses the ‘correct reading’ upon the audience. This is no longer accepted in contemporary fiction for children, unless it is a parody of the overt, didactic voice e.g. A Series of Unfortunate Events.
Examples of Classic Literature With Psycho Narration
Death In Venice
What Maisie Knew
Dissonant and Consonant Narration
From a technical point of view there are two essential things to solve or create when writing a novel. The first is the invention of the narrator. I think the narrator is the most important character in a novel. In some cases this importance is obvious because the narrator is also a central figure, a central character in the novel. In other cases, the narrator is not a character, not a visible figure, but an invisible person whose creation is even more complicated and difficult than the creation of one of the characters.
Mario Vargas Llosa
These are also Dorrit Cohn’s terms. She divides psycho narration into two main types.
DISSONANT: The narrator remains distanced from the consciousness they narrate. Dissonant narrators have a distinct personality. They make their opinions known.
Jane Austen’s narrators draw the narratee in, then we laugh at the characters together. These are known by writers as ‘intrusive narrators’, though that suggests it has not been well done.
Some contemporary authors have used dissonant narrators masterfully, e.g. Daniel Handler in his Unfortunate Eventsseries. These books tend to feel like parodies of an older type of literature, even though those older works (I.e. Pride and Prejudice) weren’t taking their narrators seriously, either.
When narration is at its most dissonant you may notice the following features:
The use of ‘distancing appellations’ like ‘poor Catherine’ or ‘our heroes’
Use of an abstract analytical vocabulary to describe an inner world, which feels removed from the psychic experience itself (you can’t experience a strong emotion and be articulate about it at the same time)
Speculative and explanatory commentary (maybe this will happen… this happened because…)
Yielding to figurative thoughts and feelings even as they are being reported to the reader
CONSONANT: The narrator remains close to the consciousness they narrate. Also known as figural (figurative) narration. The narrator is effaced (basically invisible). The reader can’t easily tell the difference between the narrator’s voice and the consciousness of the character being described. We learn nothing about the consonant narrator’s position/opinions because they’re barely visible. We get no impression of them as a separate character.
Consonant narrators concentrate on showing rather than telling, like the cinema verite documentary makers who avoid showing their own faces on screen, or making use of voiceover. “I’ve shown you what’s happening — now make up your own mind.” Of course, a consonant narrator is nonetheless guiding everyone’s opinion by choosing which scenes to show and which to leave out. So a consonant narrator cannot be described as impartial.
(Other commentators use ‘overt’ and ‘covert’ to describe the same scale.)
When Might You Choose To Write With Psycho Narration?
YOU HAVE A LARGE CAST OF CHARACTERS
Maybe you have a large cast of characters because you’re writing a story about a community rather than the trials and tribulations of a single main character. Psycho narration allows the narrator to deal with a multitude of characters and situations. For this reason, psycho narration is commonly seen in social novels (aka problem novels), in which a social problem is made manifest through its effect on individuals. In these stories, the inner life of individual characters expresses general truths about human nature.
In short, psycho narration allows for ‘head-hopping’, except it’s not really head-hopping if the narrator is distant from the characters, because the narrator is never truly inside the characters’ heads.
In the old days you’d have chosen to write with a plain old omniscient point of view, and you still might. Except the modern reader is unused to reading true omniscient narration, so your work will have an old-fashioned feel. This may not be what you’re going for.
YOUR MAIN CHARACTER IS NOT A REFLECTIVE SORT
Some fictional characters simply aren’t that reflective, as people. We’re never going to learn much of value from these types, who blunder and bluster and continue on their way haphazardly. They don’t understand themselves, let alone the people around them. As main characters they can be very interesting, but as narrators? Not so much. They’ll be unreliable in a non-useful kind of way.
In this case it’s useful to have a narrator commenting ‘backstage’, or gossiping to us, the reader, behind their back, giving us the true low down.
you don’t want to poke fun at your characters
To use ten dollar words, Cohn calls this advantage ‘verbal independence from self-articulation’. Consonant psycho narration is especially useful when writing from a child’s point of view, because children have a limited view of the world, and limited ability to understand their own emotions, let alone the vocabulary to describe them. If you use consonant psycho narration, you avoid double address.
(The problem with double address is that it seems the author is condescending to their more naive subject.)
The narrator in consonant psychonarration remains effaced and readily fuses with the consciousness they narrate. Consonance does not seem to leave the narrator a voice or contribution of his/her own. The character’s thoughts and reflections are rendered without any trace of criticism or rejection. The narrator’s consciousness almost seems to coincide with the characters, making it impossible for the reader to separate the two clearly.
This means that there’s little privilege on the narrator’s part. The narrator doesn’t know much that the child protagonist doesn’t either. In children’s literature, one author well-known for doing this well is Katherine Paterson, who wrote The Bridge To Terabithia.
Mark Haddon also does consonant psychonarration very well by making use of an autistic narrator. In The Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, the reader gets an insight into what it’s like to feel autistic, because readers are not given any clues about about the outside world, and therefore cannot use neurotypical advantages to interpret the wider situation.
The narration of Forrest Gump works similarly, but because it’s a film the reader does get visual cues about how to interpret the ‘veridical’ situation of the story.
YOU DO WANT TO POKE FUN AT YOUR CHARACTERS
In this case, an external narrator describes the character’s mental state. The narrator is prominent and focuses intently on an individual psyche, remaining emphatically distanced from the consciousness he/she is narrating. In this case, the narration moves back from a character’s perspective to allow for a sharper degree of commentary and analysis. From this position of distance, the narrator also functions as the vocaliser in relation to a character who appears only as a focalised.
Pride and Prejudice: “If Elizabeth, when Mr Darcy gave her the letter, did not expect it to contain a renewal of his offers, she had formed no expectation at all of its contents.”
Basically, this is the narrator winking at the reader. Double address has its political pitfalls — see this post on satire.
YOUR PLOT JUMPS AROUND IN TIME
Psycho narrators have almost unlimited temporal flexibility. The psycho narrator can jump around in time.
Header painting: Haynes King – Jealousy and Flirtation 1874
In statu nascendi is a Latin phrase and means “in a state of being born”.
When a story begins in medias res (in the middle of things) and the character is given no backstory, we may say the character is presented to us in statu nascendi.
Modernist writers started this trend. You’ll see it in Katherine Mansfield’s short stories. A character’s backstory is kept right off the page. To the reader, it seems as if they have just been born.
Even more significantly, it seems this way to the narrator, as well. All our impressions of this character come from these particular events in the limited time scale of this particular story, with no flash backs, no flash forwards, and with no commentary about how they got here, or how everything turned out 20 years later.
In statu nascendi characterisation is the preferred mode for the contemporary short story reader, who expects brevity and conciseness. This zero-backstory mode of characterisation is best explained if we look at what stories typically came before.
A good example is the fairy tale “Rapunzel”, as the Grimm brothers wrote it. Before the story gets to the story of Rapunzel herself, the reader is given numerous paragraphs of back story. Before we can understand Rapunzel as a character, storytellers of the 1700s and 1800s believed narratees would need to know all about the girl’s parents and how they met.
There’s a not-so-hidden ideology in stories that begin with a character’s ancestry: The importance of bloodline. Modern storytellers don’t necessarily believe a character’s bloodline says anything useful about them. A modern view: people are products of our environment. Paint the environment and you’ve painted a person.
There are other advantages to this form of characterisation.
ADVANTAGES TO WRITING WITHOUT BACKSTORY
A mood of spontaneity
If a character has little backstory, they become more universal. The character could be almost anyone, including you, the reader.
Backstory always slows down narrative drive. Leaving it out avoids that pitfall, opening an aperture for more imagery and symbolism.
Parallax describes a type of movement. The position or direction of an object seems to differ when viewed from different positions.
Parallax is an optical illusion. Extend one arm and hold up your thumb. Close first one eye, then the other. The thumb appears to have changed positions, but hasn’t. Your perspective is simply different depending on which eye you’re using.
In astronomy, the angular amount of parallax changes depending on what point in the earth’s orbit you’re seeing it from. Early 1800s astronomers worked out that they could measure distance to stars outside the solar system by viewing the same star from different positions.
PARALLAX ON SCREEN
Many games make use of parallax to create a more ‘alive’ setting. A good example can be found at this website. The plants in the foreground are created on a separate layer from the main background.
PARALLAX IN PHILOSOPHY
Actually, philosophers use the phrase ‘response dependence‘ to describe how individuals’ ideas differ depending on our perspective and input.
PARALLAX IN LITERATURE
But scholars of literature oftne use the word parallax. Like viewing a star from various places on Earth, a writer can also let readers see a situation from different positions, or perspectives. It’s called parallactic narration, or narrational parallax and refers to the device or rendering of a story from more than one point of view in variable parallactic focalisation. One writer who made much use of parallax is Katherine Mansfield, who largely used it to create irony.
Readers also achieve a parallactic experience when reading fractured fairytales, such as a retelling of Cinderella but this time from the viewpoint of the prince, or the ugly step-sister. I recently experienced a parallactic shift of Pride and Prejudice after reading two modern retellings, one called The Other Bennett Sister (about Mary), the other about Charlotte Lucas.
WHY MAKE USE OF PARALLAX IN STORYTELLING?
When a scene is narrated from contrasting perspectives this will reveal not only a greater complexity of reality for the reader, but reveal contrasting views, values and thoughts of the perceiver as well. Certain themes are especially well suited to parallactic narration:
stories about the isolation of individual human beings
the lack of consequence in the universal flux of life
our diminutive significance as seen from a superior vantage point
stories about solipsism: people’s defiant private inflation of the significance of their own lives and the events that surround themselves, compared to everything else
HOW TO CREATE A PARALLACTIC EFFECT IN A STORY
The writer describes the same temporal event from multiple viewpoints. These will be characters who exist within the world of the story, also known as homodiegetic.
How does an author create a parallax effect in words? In a nutshell, the author creates texts which overlap and intersect. Parallax is about the apparent displacement of an object. This apparent displacement can be created by shifting the reader’s ‘line of sight’, or by using techniques of reorientation. To create a parallax effect:
Foreground your subject
Offer various views of it
Show the reader that all perspectives are partial and reversible
And how to do that, specifically?
It’s important that none of these narrators is omniscient — none of them will have seen or understood the entire ‘story’. If they had, we’d just believe that character, right? Modern literature has very few examples of truly omniscient viewpoints anyhow. The limited third person voice reigns surpreme, alongside first person narrative.
You might make use of ‘narrative qualification’. Katherine Mansfield does this when using phrases such as ‘it seems’. Characters in Mansfield stories often continue believing things in the face of direct experience. Writers are often advised when starting out to cut out these ‘superfluous’ ‘hedge phrases’ but like all advice dished out to writers, as a blanket rule it doesn’t work.
Another technique utilised by Katherine Mansfield: The narrator presents erroneous interpretations without narrative judgement. This creates narrative irony, because the audience will realise the judgement in the text is wrong. Perhaps it only gradually dawns on the reader — by means of reveal — that what is presented is not in fact what’s going on. Irony is generated by the reader’s progressive awareness that the views in the text are subjective and unreliable.
THE TWO MAIN TYPES OF NARRATIVE PARALLAX
the juxtaposition of two or more restricted perspectives, and the contrasting of a restricted perspective with that of an extradiegetic or omnipresent narrator.
Parallactic narration is especially handy when writing an Impressionist story because parallactic narration is one way of achieving the movement’s main aims: Indirectness, lack of objectivity, and an ideology that there’s no such thing as ‘truth’. Truth always depends on who you ask, or whose shoes you walk in. The relativistic philosophy of Impressionism: Reality is a function of perspective.
The ‘no such thing as truth’ idea is best conveyed by limiting characters’ knowledge of events in a story. Multiple viewpoints, with the distortion that comes by way of parallax, is perfect for achieving such limitation. Sometimes the multiple viewpoints of the characters contrast with the viewpoint of some unseen narrator, creating an uncomfortable juxtaposition for the reader. Who to believe? In these stories, the audience is required to contribute to the experience.
Duplicating temporal events goes hand-in-hand with parallactic narration. Not all parallactic narratives double back in time but many do.
In the duplicative time technique, a story reaches backward to cover previous scenes over again. The plot shape of these stories might be described as ‘repeating’ or ‘vortex’. The classic film example is Rashomon, known for its duplicative time. The bandit, the samurai, the wife, the woodcutter and so on each provide subjective, alternative, self-serving, and contradictory versions of the same incident.
The duplicative time device allows experience to be seen from another vantage point. The reader gets two or more perceptions of the same temporal event.
WHY MAKE USE OF THE DUPLICATIVE TIME TECHNIQUE?
It’s especially useful in stories with a mystery at the heart, in which a detective is trying to get to the ‘truth’. (When writing about Impressionism, I guess ‘truth’ always has to appear in inverted commas.)
The duplicative time technique is also useful if a story includes, say, a child character and a parental figure. The writer might first describe what’s going on using the child as focaliser. Then the reader gets the story with the adult as focaliser. Since adults have more knowledge about the world, gaps can be puttied in, resulting in plot reveals. Or, the writer can subvert this expectation of childhood naïveté and create a story in which the child knows what’s going on but the adult characters don’t.
EXAMPLE OF DUPLICATIVE TIME ON TV
The Affair is a TV series which uses duplicative time to wonderful effect. The viewer is told a story about a man (Noah) who falls in love with a waitress on a family holiday to his in-laws’ house. The viewer doesn’t realise at first, but we are seeing events not through the objective lens of the camera, but filtered through Noah’s eyes. According to this view, the waitress is a seductive femme fatale. She wants him bad, so the guy thinks.
But then the viewer gets another perspective of the same temporal events, this time through the perspective of the young waitress. This time, according to her, the man is predatory. She’s not the least bit flirtatious — he is targeting her in a stalker-y kind of way. By the way, In her book Meander, Spiral Explode, Jane Alison observed that vortex plot shapes tend to feature obsessive characters.
The narrative choice is masterful because as well as questioning the nature of truth, it also conveys the idea that villains never see themselves as the villain.
An on-screen version of duplicative time can make use of many cool tools. The outtake music of the final episode of The Affair has two versions of the same song (The Whole of the Moon)
Film makers can also change the lighting.
[The Affair’s] central conceit, showing events from overlapping and often contradictory perspectives, forced not only the writers but also the actors to present multiple takes on each of those issues. The hero of one segment could be the heel just a few minutes of screen time later.NYT review
None of the characters are lying to themselves, so they’re thereby not lying to you in the audience. There’s no subterfuge from the internal perspective.
Joshua Jackson, who plays Cole Lockhart on The Affair
EXAMPLES OF PARALLACTIC NARRATION FROM LITERATURE
“Prelude” by Katherine Mansfield is a short story divided into sections, each section with a different focaliser. Each of these focalising characters has a different experience of the world showing that there is no single true experience.
“How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped” — Mansfield uses parallax by restricting the reader’s knowledge through the prism of a young child character, Pearl. This perspective contrasts with the wider perspective of the narrator, which broadens over the course of the story. This narrator isn’t detached but capable of viewing the scene from a greater distance.
“Miss Brill” is a similar example from the same author — The character of Miss Brill is a ‘Sunday Wanderer’ archetype whose preoccupied view of the world contrasts seamlessly (and subtly) with that of the detached narrator.
The best example from Katherine Mansfield is thought to be “The Little Governess“.
“The Blood of the Conquistadors” is another standout short story example of parallactic narration. Events are seen from the vantage point of eight different characters.
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner, a Southern Gothic novel from 1930. Faulkner presents 15 different points of view, each chapter narrated by one character, including Addie, who expresses her thoughts after she has already died.
Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich — Erdrich’s first novel, published 1984. Thought to be influenced by As I Lay Dying. It was subsequently revised and expanded. Each chapter is told from the point of view of a different character, using first-person and third-person limited narration. The story is non-linear. A non-linear story is standard in this technique. Throw away a sequential timeline — it won’t be much good to you.
Parallactic narratives are at odds with likeable because no one in the story stands out as the ‘main’ one, and everyone is shown to be unreliable. We prefer reliable people as friends.
Parallax is often used to show the reader that we are all ultimately alone. We are alone in our perspectives, which means no one is completely on your side.
This 80s song includes some pretty Impressionist lyrics: No one in your life is with you constantly. No one is completely on your side. … still the gap between us is too wide. It’s interesting how often these messages are accompanied by dual storytellers, in this case singers, looking in opposite directions.
The other big, related message in an Impressionistic story making use of parallax is that we are inconsequential. Compared to some greater perspective, our own perspective is insignificant.
The idea that humans have evolved to see the truth of a situation may not be quite right. Listen to a newer, alternative theory: That humans have evolved to see an ‘interface’ of the truth rather than the real truth. We are wholly bound by our senses, and none of us sees any objective reality — nor can we even imagine what that might be. Even more terrifying, perception of reality goes extinct.
Fitness means the ability to reconstruct a useful reality, or part of reality. More importantly, brains and neurons, according to this theory, are a species specific set of symbols, a hack. Reality is nothing like a brain or neurons, so that reality, whatever it is, is the real source of cause and effect in the world — not brains, not neurons.
The header painting is a Landscape with Clerks Studying Astronomy and Geometry from the early 15th century but no one knows who painted it. This was before astronomers discovered the usefulness of parallax.
“Trespasses” is a short story by Canadian author Alice Munro, included in the collection Runaway, published 2006.
This piece might challenge everything you’ve learned about how to structure a story. All the parts are there, but not as you’d expect. If Alice Munro had anonymously joined one of my writing critique groups over the years, she may well have been offered the following notes:
This is superbly written and achieves astounding psychological insight, but who is your main character here?
Perhaps you’ve started in the wrong place with two sections of throat clearing? The real story is that of Lauren, so why not maintain focalisation of Lauren throughout the entire piece?
What’s the point of the restaurant scene? We never see the old married couple again. All the more reason to nix the first few sections?
I find it hard to believe a ten-year-old is allowed that much freedom.
Okay, honestly, if someone in one of my writing groups had uploaded “Trespasses”, they may have even received those notes from me. And this is why it’s so hard to offer critique on literary short stories — the form is deliberately experimental. Is anything ever wrong? Well, yes, of course. Except these ‘wrong’ things are so very specific to any single story we can’t fall back on guidelines. This is why some writers have learned to hate guidelines (or ‘rules’) altogether. (I’m not in that camp.)
That’s because in “Trespasses”, as in all of Munro’s work, there is an explainable reason for all narrative choices. It’s just, putting these reasons into words is so hard. If we can articulate what Munro’s doing here, we can bring more nuance to the ‘writing guidelines’ we have learned.
Why would any writer want to do that? Let’s investigate.
THE OLD AND NEW MEANINGS OF TRESPASS
Despite attending a Presbyterian church, I was required to memorise the version of the Lord’s Prayer with ‘trespasses’ rather than ‘debts’.
And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us…
I didn’t understand the archaic meaning of ‘trespass’. I’d only ever seen the word on signs. I grew up in semi-rural New Zealand — these signs were always affixed to farm gates and I knew I hadn’t been walking around on farms, so as far as I was concerned, I was sweet. I also couldn’t fathom what was so very wrong about setting foot on private property — surely there were worse sins? Maybe someone’s just taking a quiet short cut…
I now have a handle on the wider meaning of ‘trespass’, but the word is so closely linked to Christianity that as I delve into Munro’s short story the words of the Lord’s prayer are forefront in my mind. Signage aside, I rarely hear the word ‘trespass’ in everyday English.
“Trespasses” by Alice Munro will likely be a story about ‘sin’. (What story isn’t, though?) This is also a story about ‘overstepping boundaries’, making it more in line with the modern definition of ‘trespassing’ we see on signage.
The story “Trespasses” encouraged me to consider the following:
How might one kind of trespass (within a family) make a person vulnerable to a trespass from an outsider?
What is the difference between loving someone and trespassing upon them? Might love commonly co-exist with trespassing?
Can the truth be more damaging than fiction? What if the fiction is later found out? Is the damage then simply postponed?
Can too much information make a child vulnerable? Surely too little information is also bad. Where’s that line?
Eileen and Harry and their daughter Lauren [EVENTUAL MAIN CHARACTER] have recently moved to a small town where Harry has bought the town’s newspaper. While unpacking, Lauren asks about the contents of a box that seems particularly light [MYSTERY], and her father gives her the first version of some past events. [STORY WITHIN A STORY] Eleven years before, he and Eileen had a baby, soon after which Eileen learned that she was pregnant. After a fight, Eileen drove off with the infant and had an accident in which the baby was killed. The box contains the baby’s ashes. This is just the beginning of Munro’s story, however. [MANY SHORT STORY WRITERS WOULD END THE STORY HERE, AT LAUREN’S DISCOVERY.] Another woman, Delphine [MINOTAUR OPPONENT], who believes she is the biological mother of the first (presumably illegally adopted) baby, has tracked them down [ OPPONENT’S PLAN]; she also assumes that the living girl Lauren (both babies were named Lauren) is her daughter and pursues a relationship with the girl. As Lauren gradually begins to suspect, based on Delphine’s hints and indirect revelations, that she might be adopted, Harry and Eileen learn of the friendship that has emerged between the two. The result [BIG STRUGGLE] is the late-night attempt to provide the canonical narrative of the past events and the hasty, long-delayed ceremony to scatter the ashes of the baby who died a decade before.
Harry — Eileen’s husband and Lauren’s father. Used to work at a news magazine but quit his job after burning out. Has come to this new town having bought the local paper. He remembers this town from his childhood. For Harry, this is a home-away-home children’s story, underscoring his boyish nature. (Though he is revealed to be far more dangerous than any little boy.) “A broad-faced, boyish-looking man with a tanned skin and shining light-brown hair. His glow of well-being and general appreciation spread around the table…’
Eileen — Harry’s wife and Lauren’s mother. Much thinner than the local women in this small country town, marking her out as a sophisticate from the city. (Munro tends to describe characters’ BMI as something meaningful.) Eileen makes coffee each morning, takes it back to bed and drinks it slowly. Eileen works in her husband’s newspaper office (so she can never really get away from him). She wears ‘casually provocative outfits’. She is beautiful. ‘Her manner in the newspaper office was crisp and her expression remote, but this was broken by strategic, vivid smiles’. Eileen is a capable woman who prefers to do things like sanding and wallpapering on her own, without help from family. She is an isolated, self-contained person. Emotional isolation is perhaps a protective thing.
Delphine — We meet Delphine early in the story but are encouraged to mostly forget about her. At first I thought she might be the family dog, or some smaller animal sitting in a cage on the front seat. The story opens with someone (or something) called Delphine sitting in the front of the car with Harry. It takes a while before Alice Munro lets us know who Delphine is. This is part of Munro’s deliberate disorientation. Eventually we learn Delphine is the name of the woman who works in the restaurant. Interestingly, the name ‘Delphine’ and ‘the woman who works in the restaurant’ are only subsequently connected. Not many writers would hold off connecting the woman and the name. Munro also uses this trick in “Save The Reaper“, in which it takes the reader a while to realise two women are mother and daughter. This is so the reader can experience these two women as friends, which is the kind of relationship the mother in that story wants; in contrast, the daughter wants a mother who behaves like a mother. Using this trick, Munro lets the reader know how it feels to have a mother who behaves as a friend by tricking us into thinking the two women are simply friends.
When we do properly meet Delphine in “Trespasses”, Munro introduces her to us via Lauren’s eyes:
She had long fine hair that might be whitish blond or might be really white, because she was not young. She must often have to shake that hair back out of her face, as she did now. Her eyes, behind dark-rimmed glasses, were hooded by purple lids. Her face was broad, like her body, pale and smooth. But there was nothing indolent about her. Her eyes, now lifted, were a light flat blue, and she looked from one girl to another as if no contemptible behaviour of theirs would surprise her.
It’s a dump. Delphine said things like that. She spoke vehemently — she did not discuss but stated, and her judgments were severe and capricious. She spoke about herself — her tastes, her physical workings — as about a monumental mystery, something unique and final.
She had an allergy to beets. [UNEXPECTED DETAIL IN FICTION] If even a drop of beet juice made its way down her throat, her tissues would swell up and she would have to go to the hospital, she would need an emergency operation so that she could breathe.
She believed a woman should keep her hands nice, no matter what kind of work she had to do. She liked to wear inky-blue or plum fingernail polish. And she liked to wear earrings, big and clattery ones, even at her work. She had no use for the little button kind.
She was not afraid of snakes, but she had a weird feeling about cats. She thought that a cat must have come and lain on top of her when she was a baby, being attracted to the smell of milk.
Why does Alice Munro choose these details to describe Delphine? First, they are being filtered via a ten-year-old, and kids pick up on oddities. What have cats and snakes got to do with anything? We might also go the symbolic route — Delphine is the ‘snake in the grass’, sneaking up on this family, meaning to set up an unwanted relationship. But more importantly, I feel, Delphine is established as a woman whose mind goes to strange places. It is a fantasy that she doesn’t like cats because of an incident she couldn’t possibly remember, and almost certainly didn’t happen. This is the moment I don’t quite trust Delphine. This must also be the moment Lauren doesn’t trust her, either.
Lauren — Lauren is ten years old, her exact age calculated only after her father explains the past. Until that point I thought Lauren was a few years older than that. She is given a lot more freedom than typical contemporary ten-year-olds (though this story is at least 15 years old). Lauren’s love of sugary foods marks her out as a child, though. Lauren makes her own breakfast, usually cereal with maple syrup instead of milk. Lauren is lonely at school. This much is explained by the narrator. It’s a complex situation, so the narrator steps in to describe the nuance:
Her isolation at school was based on knowledge and experience, which, as she half knew, could look like innocence and priggishness. The things that were wicked mysteries to others were not so to her and she did not know how to pretend about them. And that was what separated her, just as much as knowing her to pronounce L’Anse aux meadows and having read The Lord of the Rings. She had drunk half a bottle of beer when she was five and puffed on a joint when she was six, though she had not liked either one. She sometimes had a little wine at dinner, and she liked that all right. She knew about oral sex and all methods of birth control an what homosexuals did. She had regularly seen Harry and Eileen naked, also a party of their friends naked around a campfire in the woods. On that same holiday she had sneaked out with other children to watch fathers slipping by sly agreement into the tents of mothers who were not their wives. One of the boys had suggested sex to her and she had agreed, but he could not make any progress and they became cross with each other and later she hated the sight of him.
Lauren is thereby established as dangerously ‘precocious’ (not a word I like), and at this point I expect the worst for her. Fortunately, Lauren is still young enough to blurt everything out to her mother when things feel really bad, and I figure this is why Munro made Lauren ten and not, say, thirteen. (In stories, perhaps as in real life, a thirteen year old’s trouble is more likely to be discovered by a caring adult rather than the child breaking down and telling all.)
The Dead Lauren — The deceased baby forms the ‘ghost‘ (a.k.a. psychic wound) of Harry and Eileen and of Lauren, too. This baby was killed in a car accident due to not being strapped in properly. Eileen was pregnant with a new baby at the time (Lauren the Second).
How would it feel to find out your parents had a baby before they had you, and this baby was called the same name? I might start imagining a completely other life for myself — one in which the other Lauren had lived and I had died. Munro’s plot is an interesting, slightly complicated set up but I’ve seen similar in real life — parents have years of difficulty in conceiving a baby, go through the lengthy faff of the adoption process, adopt a baby, then immediately find themselves pregnant. Something about being around a baby seems to influence fertility rates, at least anecdotally:
One theory floating around is that women who are around babies somehow experience improved fertility. […]
“There is zero evidence of this, other than anecdotes,” Dr. Paula Amato, Oregon Health & Science University School of Medicine associate professor of obstetrics and gynaecology, told Healthline.
The framing story, in which a family disposes of ashes, begins a few weeks before Christmas, which in Canada is winter. Something is coming to an end.
‘The sky was clear and the snow had slid off the trees but had not melted underneath them or on the rocks that jutted out beside the road.’
‘black lacy cedars’ (putting me in mind of a Tim Burton movie)
‘There was a slight crackle to the snow, though the ground underneath was soft and mucky’ (suggesting an snail under the leaf setting). This sort of sentence can be described as ‘multivalent’, meaning it can be interpreted as both literal and metaphorical. Multivalent = having many applications, interpretations, meanings, or values. There is plenty of multivalent detail throughout Munro’s fiction.
Harry’s family used to have a summer place on one of the lakes around here. There is a hotel on the main street. This hotel no longer has a liquor licence.
A Victorian mansion, now a nursing home (Gothic overtones)
He pointed out things in the dining room that were just the same — the high ceiling, the slowly rotating fan, even a murky oil painting showing a hunting dog with a rusty-feathered bird in its mouth.
The hotel serves canned green beans even though it is fresh bean season. This is another example of a unexpected detail — perhaps it is noticed for its irony. Where else in this story is irony at work?
The unwelcoming Mr Palagian and his hotel are inextricably linked — juxtaposed against each other by the unwelcoming owner versus his sign which reads ‘WELCOME’. More irony.
There is also an ironic gap between the narrator’s delightful chatter and the grim story of the dead Lauren underneath. What makes the narrator seem delightful and chatty? That’d be the ‘incidental nature’ of the discourse, cue those strange details — like your best friend chatting to you over coffee, each new recollection prompting a related, delightful and interesting one.
I’m reminded of the following meme, which is not at all how a writer plots. Instead, Munro’s narrator achieves the illusion of a ‘chatty’ storyteller, because that’s what ‘chatty’ means, right? Someone who is never short of the next thing to say, because one thing segues effortlessly into another thing:
The word ‘liminal‘ seems apt here. The ‘vacationland wilderness’ is, functionally, a heterotopia:
They had rented a house at the edge of town. Just beyond their backyard began a vacationland wilderness of rocky knobs and granite slopes, cedar bogs, small lakes, and a transitional forest of poplars, soft maples, tamarack, and spruce. Harry loved it. He said they might wake up one morning and look out at a moose in the backyard. Lauren came home after school when the sun was already getting low in the sky and the middling warmth of the autumn day was turning out to be a fraud [SHE KNOWS IT’S A SNAIL UNDER THE LEAF SETTING]. The house was chilly and smelled of last night’s dinner, of stale coffee grounds and the garbage, which it was her job to take out.
Harry’s view of the forest is utopian, but as any reader knows, a story featuring a house situated on the edge of the woods is imperilled. At best, the forest is the family’s dark subconscious. They’re about to go there — right into the deepest, darkest Jungian parts of it. When it comes to houses, the basement is the psychological equivalent of the forest. Notice how Eileen wants to send Harry down to the basement of their rented house, along with all his possessions, including their box of ashes.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “TRESPASSES”
The thirty-seven-page story is told in seventeen sections that vary in length from under a page to about six pages. It starts with a section covering the first part of the final scene [FRAMING TECHNIQUE], the four characters finding a site on a riverbank to scatter the ashes, and ends with the rest of the scene, the scattering of ashes and the beginning of the ride back into town. On one level, then, the present event of dispersing the ashes functions conventionally as a narrative frame. However, Munro develops this overt structural circularity on more subtle chronological and psychological levels, since the town is a place of childhood vacations for Harry, and since each adult character, through unacknowledged feelings of guilt, responsibility, and desire deviates from but ultimately returns to his or her version of the past events. The story thus enacts a debased version of the myth of eternal return, wherein the structural return to the oozy riverbank reflects the return of each of the adult characters to his or her muddy version of the baby’s adoption and death.
What is ‘the myth of eternal return’? Children’s stories in particular tend to contain the soothing message that no matter what happens out in the world, you can always return home to safety. Harry himself has returned to a childhood utopian setting of his — he genuinely believes this ideology.
I put it to you that this is why Alice Munro has chosen a ten-year-old as main character — books for Lauren’s age group are all about the safe return home, or finding a new and safer home.
But reality differs from children’s books. For so many people — children included, Lauren as one example — home is not safe at all. Unlike the storybooks tell her, Lauren’s home is not homely.
As well as structurally, Munro’s chosen style of narration underscores the theme, of ‘what is really true’?
One theme of “Trespasses,” as of much of Munro’s longer fiction, is the difficulty of establishing authoritative narrative accounts.
Alice Munro has chosen a roving camera for this story, which opens with an unseen narrator. Who is this person? It feels like Alice Munro herself, but that’d be a mistake. (Narrators are not authors.)
Munro orchestrates this process of deception at the level of narrative technique, employing an ostensibly reliable narrator who, beguiling readers with her intelligence and charm, surveys the narrative world and delivers a comic, apparently loosely connected, and superficial account of events. In this manner, Munro compels readers to stand quite outside the narrative world for the first five pages, in alliance with the narrator and without any hint that there will be an orienting perspective among the characters.
At first “Trespasses” looks like it’s going to be about the character of Mr Palagian, told by a storyteller narrator, much like The Great Gatsby. But this is not about Mr Palagian at all.
Why does Munro do this?? Alice, are you messing with us?
In “Trespasses,” Munro’s circuitous delineation of the ambiguity surrounding events and the evasions that sustain those ambiguities are a product of her delayed introduction of the main character (and thus the orienting consciousness), a delay that confounds the reader’s ability to prioritise and evaluate incidents and information, and so to determine narrative relevance. Typically, readers approach literature under the assumption that the author will provide a speaker, a narrator, or a character to serve as a central point of reference, focusing emotional-cognitive effort in the literary environment and, in consequence, motivating and guiding reasoning processes in the direction of constructing and sustaining narrative order. This is, in some respects, a matter of convention… the reader’s commitment to character functions is the imaginative equivalent of a real-world self, and its absence can deprive the reader of a vantage point for seeing, cognising, and acting. Thus, when Munro intentionally withholds her main character’s identity for the first six pages of “Trespasses,” she deprives her readers of the point of orientation (the character function) that will prompt for and facilitate narrative construction. Munro’s goal in thus disabling event- and fact-based narrativity is to fully reveal the psychologically disabling conditions of that main character’s life and the ethically troubling domain of her upbringing.
‘Who Was It If It Wasn’t Me?’: The Problem of Orientation in Alice Munro’s ‘Trespasses’: A Cognitive Ecological Analysis
Here’s what I get out of that: Munro is making the reader disoriented about who the important people are because that’s how Lauren feels, too, not about a story, but about her actual life.
Munro’s delayed revelation of the story’s main character in combination with conventional features of narrative presents readers with a territory devoid of its true and necessary focalizing perspective, that of the ten-year-old Lauren. Meanwhile, Munro effectively provides the narrator as an alternative (though ultimately false) other “self” with whom readers identify. Thus standing on the perimeter of the setting rather than entering actively into it, readers are deprived of crucial information by orientational disadvantage and immobility.
Back to Mr Palagian for a minute. Here’s the description of Mr Palagian, as filtered to the reader via Harry. I mean, Harry is a writer, so he’s a natural fit as the character chosen to (indirectly) narrate someone else’s life:
Someone like Mr Palagian—or even that fat tough-talking waitress, he said—could be harboring a contemporary tragedy or adventure which would make a best seller.
The thing about life, Harry had told Lauren, was to live in the world with interest. To keep your eyes open and see the possibilities—see the humanity—in everybody you met. To be aware. If he had anything at all to teach her it was that. Be aware.
But this description of Mr Palagian is not even about Mr Palagian. ‘What Sally says about Susie says more about Sally.’ This description is about Harry. We learn that Harry’s shortcoming is as follows:
Harry is so interested in people as possible fictional inspiration that he’s not going to see what’s going on in the real world, with his very own daughter. His shortcoming is misplaced focus due to literary pretensions. He likes to tell Lauren things as her father and mentor. It is ironic that as he instructs Lauren to ‘be aware’, he fails to achieve genuine awareness himself. Something in this story is going to surprise him. Of that we can be sure. Later it bears out:
Harry was not as angry as Eileen [about Delphine].
“She seemed a perfectly okay person anytime I talked to her,” he said. “She never said anything like this to me.”
Eileen is equally preoccupied with superficial appearances. We see this in her observation of the family in the hotel dining room — she wonders how they could get so fat. She has no comment about the misogynistic joke that comes out of the old man. What’s the point of the anniversary celebration? At first it seems disconnected from the rest. First, it has allowed us to know more about Eileen and Harry and their superficial, middle-class shock (at the green beans and the fatness). Second, it introduces the theme of violence within marriage. Eileen and Harry cannot hear the old man’s joke as a joke; we learn later that violence between husband and wife is far too close to home.
I don’t find Harry an empathetic character. I find him quietly dangerous. Harry describes Eileen as ‘hysterical’, and talks to their daughter about her dead older sister without Eileen’s knowledge and consent. A father tells his daughter something in confidence, encouraging secrets within the family. Emotional incest. Some people feel the phrase ’emotional’ incest devalues the word ‘incest’ but whatever we call it, this relationship within a family a real and icky phenomenon:
Emotional incest is not sexual. Instead, this type of unhealthy emotional interaction blurs the boundaries between adult and child in a way that is psychologically inappropriate. When a parent looks to their child for emotional support or treats them more like a partner than a child, it is considered emotional or “covert” incest. The outcome of this family structure often produces similar results — on a lesser scale — as sexual incest.
Ironically, Harry and Eileen have brought Lauren up thinking that if she is exposed to all the worldly knowledge, the knowledge itself will protect her. Unfortunately, it’s this knowledge, and the experience of living with hipster, free-loving parents, which marks her out as more mature (faux-mature?) than her peers, and serves to isolate her from them.
“Trespasses” is one of several Munro stories in which the central character is an adolescent girl whose parents and their associates live by a lingering set of counter-cultural attitudes, which include a mild anti-establishment posture and a belief that children should be treated as adults. While the parents are deluded in their sense of superior honesty and freedom from conventional mores (they seem as repressive, viciously passive aggressive, and jealous as any of the usual human lot), these attitudes help them evade the moral and ethical consequences of their actions.
‘Who Was It If It Wasn’t Me?’: The Problem of Orientation in Alice Munro’s ‘Trespasses’: A Cognitive Ecological Analysis
And isolation is itself supremely dangerous. In her early teenage years Lauren is the lonely new girl in town, seeking friendship outside the home as well as emotional distance from her own parents. As the story opens, Lauren is presented as dangerously vulnerable to the advances of a sexual predator.
Harry is clearly after a new start in a new town, where he can rebuild his social capital by being important at the newspaper and perhaps find time on the side to write a novel, using local personalities as inspirational fodder. Harry is recovering from some mental health issues himself, having faced ‘burn out’ at his previous job. (We don’t know exactly what this means — ‘burn out’ is a conversational term and could be major or code for something else.)
Lauren is finding her place in the world as a young teenager and craves genuine connection with equals. This is more of a psychological need which leads directly to her Desire. (Shortcoming and Desire are very much interconnected.)
Here’s why Alice Munro’s stories are famous for being psychologically complex. Sentences like the following:
It wasn’t possible to tell the whole truth because she couldn’t get it straight herself. She couldn’t explain what she had wanted, right up to the point of not wanting it at all.
Alice Munro sets up a family in opposition to each other. It’s more about what she doesn’t show than what she does: We don’t see Lauren and Eileen interacting much at all until Lauren’s confession that she’s been seeing Delphine. It’s as if Lauren Number Two is a ghost to Eileen. Eileen is mostly emotional unavailable. Perhaps she has withdrawn from her daughter, opening up the gap for the father to come in and overfill it. However, this changes towards the end.
The other opposition comes from outside the family. Who is standing in the way of Lauren finding genuine friendship? The woman who isolates Lauren from her peers, pretends to be her friend, then reveals herself to be a kind of predator.
Alice Munro at first led me to think Delphine might be a sexual predator. She seems to keep that as a reveal at about midpoint. This is what I’m thinking as Lauren learns it, up in Delphine’s attic bedroom. Perhaps this is why Munro’s narration first lets us into Harry’s head; along with Harry, we become wary of Mr Palagian instead — that old magician’s trick of misplaced focus. Or, ‘disorientation’.
There are story-external factors encouraging the reader along this line of thought — namely, the real world statistics on gender and sexual predators. A sex offender is simply more likely to be gendered male. When we think ‘sex offender’ we think of a man: a man like Mr Palagian, perhaps — uncannily foreign (intersecting with xenophobia), gruff, lacking in social graces.
Unfortunately, the most dangerous predators have very good social skills. Poor social skills make one an equally poor predator.
Delphine knows exactly how to win Lauren over. But again, I have been fooled. Delphine is not a sexual predator but with completely different intentions — she wants a connection with the girl she believes to be her adopted daughter.
Delphine’s plan, at first appears as following: to coax an attractive, vulnerable underage girl to her bedroom where she will see what she can get away with.
But my focus was (deliberately?) misplaced. Delphine is not a pedophile. She is a troubled woman and grieving mother. Her plan is to move to Harry and Eileen’s town and strike up a connection with her daughter.
Without a plan of her own, Lauren goes along with Delphine’s pla.. Lauren is only ten, so she is reactive rather than proactive. Except in fantasy and in children’s literature, ten-year-olds don’t tend to rescue themselves from adult opposition.
People respond in unexpected ways to trauma. Lauren is scared by Delphine, a trauma which follows her all the way home. Once home, she decides to eat — not because she is hungry but because she is trying to expunge something horrible. The symbolism of the whiteness outside feels like a type of cleansing:
The felling in her stomach was of both a swelling and a hollow. It seemed as if she might get rid of that just by eating the right sort of food, so when she got into the house she went straight to the kitchen cupboard and poured herself a bowl of the familiar breakfast cereal. There was no maple syrup left, but she found some corn syrup. She stood in the cold kitchen, eating without even having taken her boots and her outdoor clothing off, and looking out at the freshly whitened backyard. Snow made things visible, even with the kitchen light on. She saw herself refelcted against the background of snowy yard and dark rocks capped with white, and evergreen branches drooping already under their white load.
This paragraph reminds me of the ancient tradition of ‘sin eating’ in which the sins of the recently dead were transferred to a village person who, for a fee, consumed food & drink handed to them over the coffin. This sin-eater would be shunned by their village, much like lepers were. Mourners would pay the designated sin-eater to rid their departed loved ones from all their sins. The sin-eater would then perform a ritual. This would allow the dead person to enter Heaven without sin-free. I wonder if the sin-eaters really did believe they would be forever damned in hell after they themselves died. Apart from societal shunning, it doesn’t sound like a bad gig in a starvation economy — sin-eaters received both food and payment.
One well-known account of sin-eating goes like this:
The corpse being taken out of the house, and laid on a bier, a loaf of bread was given to the sin-eater over the corpse, also a maga-bowl of maple, full of beer. These consumed, a fee of sixpence was given for…taking upon himself the sins of the deceased.
(Does anyone know what a maga-bowl is? If so, I’m interested.)
I wonder if Alice Munro encountered this account. I’m aware that in Canada maple syrup is a pantry staple, in which case Lauren’s penchant for maple syrup could be symbolically unloaded, but might the maple syrup be doing double (‘multivalent’) duty — an intertextual reference to the ‘maga-bowl of maple’ described above?
In any case, Lauren’s attempt at sin-eating don’t work. She throws the food back up.
Sure enough, The Lord’s Prayer has been the thematic backbone of this short story. I have this confirmed when Eileen says “Our Father which art in Heaven—”
Eileen seems to have had a Anagnorisis about her family — she knows that she can’t create a homely environment for Lauren so she’ll be better off at boarding school. Harry never realises that. He will continue in his delusion that he has found the perfect home in this little town where he owns the newspaper and they live in an idyllic little house on the edge of a vacationland wilderness.
But still, um, is this story really finished? For real?
Munro not only strains readers’ desire for narrative closure by providing information that seems incidental (apparently useless) at the outset but forestalls readers’ ability to begin sorting information and thus shaping the narrative by refusing to establish an orienting perspective within the setting. In rendering problematical the truth that readers are cognitively predisposed to pursue—initially, a factual account of past events and their connection to the present—Munro redirects attention to the self-justifications of her characters and the implications of their stories for the submerged main character, Lauren, and her potentially focalizing perspective. The story of her life, in fact, is one of a faltering, or long-deferred, orientation—in other words, of an unrealized because unrecognized self.
She was so sick of these burrs that she wanted to beat her hands and yell out loud, but she knew that the only thing she could do was just sit and wait.
Surely the burrs, too, are multivalent. We have burrs in our yard and the dog collects them. Here’s the thing about burrs: If you don’t get rid of them they bury their way right into your skin and cause a lot of pain. They can even get infected. Symbolically, a burr could stand for anything that works like that. Perhaps in this story the burrs symbolise the little bits of information Lauren gathers as she grows up.
Ultimately, since a ten-year-old doesn’t have much agency, what else can Lauren do but sit and wait out her childhood, until she can be free of these parents?
We don’t see this happen on the page, but we extrapolate that Lauren will be sent away to a boarding school. I imagine a Sally Draper future for Lauren, followed by a clean break from her ageing parents.
An author cannot control audience responses to published work. One annoying aspect of audience reception: the assumption that your character is you.
I recall a bookclub discussion which dwelt for a short while upon whether Anne Bronte meant for Gilbert Markham in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall to be a sympathetic character or not. Markham is a violent man by today’s standards, and it’s doubtful that Helen had a good second marriage.
We ended up discussing the life of the author as we tried to work out what the book meant. But is there a danger in doing so? In a world where author’s lives are increasingly public (due to media and social media), is there a danger that fans will look too closely at an author’s life and neglect to look at the words of the novel itself?
Here are a few excerpts from reader reviews of Freedom, written by Jonathan Franzen. I’m no Franzen apologist, but this is an interesting take on someone who created the dreaded ‘unlikeable characters’:
I thought there were two possibilities: 1) That Jonathan Franzen is a complete douche bag himself and that he actually thought he was creating sympathetic characters. 2) That Franzen has an even lower opinion of people than I do and uses his skill to convey an utter contempt for mankind by creating these pathetic excuses for human beings.
Franzen really hates people and, by natural extension, the reader.
i am sure an argument can be made for his low level semi-misogyny [because i think calling him a misogynist is a bit simplistic] makes him quite skilled at writing 1st person accounts of self-loathing neurotic chicks.
Is this something authors worry about, especially when writing a particularly nasty/racist/sexist character — and most especially when creating such a character who suffers no punishment within the world of the story? What a nasty character, we might think. It must take a nasty author to create such a thing. Whereas in fact, the author may think and act the exact opposite, putting it on the table for us to consider. If you’ve seen some of our greatest living crime writers in interview, you may be struck by how benign they are. Some of them are the sweetest little old ladies. We’re told that when crime writers get together they have a jolly time. If they harboured any nastiness in the first place, it’s all been purged in their fiction.
Are there tricks authors use to make it quietly clear that it’s the characters talking, not the authors themselves? Are some voices/points of view more likely to get the ‘presumptuous mimetic’ treatment?
The mimetic way of looking at literary character: Imagining the character is a real person, based on the view that literature is a direct reflection of reality. A mimetic character is presupposed to “mean” or “represent” something. For example, you can give a literary character a Marxist, feminist etc. significance, presupposing that a character is typical for her class/gender.
The semiotic way of looking at literary character: Presupposing that characters, like any other textual element, is made of words alone.
THE SPECULATIVE BIOGRAPHICAL APPROACH
When speculating about the psychoanalysis of Hans Christian Andersen and his well-known tale The Ugly Duckling, Maria Nikolajeva offers the following caution:
This is an example of speculative biographical approach. It would perhaps be unwise to apply it as a consistent critical method, but it does illustrate the possibility of using literary works to illuminate the author’s life. However, this approach has little to do with the study of literature. If the focus of psychoanalysis is on the author, then the literary text is used merely as any narrative the patient may tell to the analyst.
from Aesthetic Approaches To Children’s Literature by Maria Nikolajeva
MIMESIS AND SEMIOSIS
Nikolajeva highlights a related problem, this time in a different book:
The danger of the mimetic approach to characters is that we can easily ascribe to them features that the author had no intention of providing, merely because “girls always like to gossip”, “boys are naughty,” “schoolteachers are insensitive,” and so on. We can further ascribe to them backgrounds not found in the text, merely on the basis of our experience. … It is equally dangerous, and in my opinion illegitimate, to ascribe to literary characters traits extrapolated from real people, which is easily done when novels contain at least some autobiographical elements. For instance, although there are obvious similarities between Jo March and the author of Little Women, I would not be prepared to search for motivations behind Jo’s behaviour in Louisa M. Alcott’s biography.
Maria Nikolajeva, Rhetoric of Character In Children’s Literature
For a New Zealand example, I submit that Janet Frame was the author most heavily subjected to pressure from the press to reveal where her fictional and real worlds overlapped and diverged. I suspect this is a gender problem, though by no means exclusive to women:
We live in an age where perhaps the capacity for imagination in the reader is less than it was. I can think of no other explanation why so many readers seem to be interested in memoirs, which are of no interest to me, and don’t seem to have imaginative capacity for fiction that is, well, more imaginative than most of the memoirs I read, try to read, or don’t read. What’s interesting is this: I can’t think of a specific date, but there came a time — not before the 90s in my experience — when you as a novelist began to hear, almost as a first question, “Is the father in this story your father? Is the sister in the story yoursister? Is this character you? Did that happen to you?” When not just the first question but the first assumption from an interviewer was that surely the most interesting or the most credible parts of this novel have to be autobiographical.
I also suspect this went some way in explaining Frame’s aversion to interviews. She gave only a few in her lifetime. Perhaps she wrote her autobiography partly to answer the questions, hoping this would relieve her of the requirement to talk incessantly about her life.
JANET FRAME ON ‘GENUINE FICTION’
This is from one of those rare radio interviews, transcribed and published in Landfall 178 (Volume forty-five, June 1991) between Janet Frame and Elizabeth Alley.
Elizabeth Alley: In the autobiography you seem more willing than in the fiction to open some of the doors about yourself and your life – to correct some of the myths that surround you.
Janet Frame: I wanted to write my story, and you’re right of course, it is possible to correct some things which have been taken as fact and are not fact. My fiction is genuinely fiction. And I do invent things. Even in The Lagoon which has many childhood stories, the children are invented and the episodes are invented but they are mixed up so much with part of my early childhood. But they’re not quite, they’re not the true, stories. To the Is-Land was the first time I’d written the true story. For instance, Faces in the Water was autobiographical in the sense that everything happened, but the central character was invented. But with the autobiography it was the desire really to make myself a first person. For many years I was a third person – as children are. ‘They’, ‘she’… and as probably the oppressed minority has become, ‘they’. I mean children are forever ‘they’ until they grow up.
EA: For a long time you really were quite reluctant to discuss anything that had to do with the genesis or meaning of your work.
JF: Well I write, you see. I don’t tell about my life. I just write and that is my telling, but in order to set down a few facts and tell my story, this is my say.
From Salinger To Polanski: How can anyone see the work of J.D. Salinger, Woody Allen and Roman Polanski the same way once you know of their predilection for young girls?
The invention of cameras was a boon for storytellers. Writers and film directors have this new narrative tool — in the shape of a camera — which allows them to play around with perspective, to use as a metaphor and as a way to explore death. (No kidding. Read on!)
THE CAMERA FIEND TROPE
Some characters use a camera. These characters love their camera. They’ll have the device with them everywhere they go and they’ll use it well, usually sticking it in the most unwelcome of places – they’ll take the most inane pictures they can, record everything they see or all of the above (maybe even at the risk of life or limb). Something embarrassing happens? They’ll snap a shot. Important plot event? They caught it on tape. You can always expect this character to wear their camera on their sleeve for any important or non-important moment that may arise, probably becoming uncomfortable without the object at near. It’s possible that they derive some kind of strange pleasure from watching people, though its best not to get into that.
Why have photography hobbyists become such a popular trope, especially in young adult novels?
Photography affords YA novelists an opportunity to explore the relationship between agency, death and discourse. […] Novels that employ photography create many opportunities for characters to explore metaphorically the relationship between subject and object, betwween acting and being acted upon.
Seelinger Trites works with the theory that death and narrative structure are linked.
[Many YA] novels employ photographing protagonists as metaphors for the relationship between power and agency. The metaphor of the camera bestowing upon the photographer a sense of empowerment based on the communicative abilities of photographs occurs often in literature. Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe
As examples, Seelinger Trites analyses the following:
A Summer to Die by Lois Lowry (1977)
Witch Baby by Francesca Lia Block (1991)
Spite Fences by Trudy Krisher (1994)
Now that cameras are ubiquitous, it’s no surprise photography has become increasingly common in stories for YA. More modern examples (created after Seelinger Trites wrote Disturbing The Universe):
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl — the viewpoint character makes experimental short movies — Lowry’s A Summer To Die sounds like it might have been the mother of Jesse Andrews’ novel. Both are about teenagers standing nearby as another teenager dies.
The Secret History Of Us by Jess Kirby — the viewpoint character has lost her memory in an accident. Photographic evidence helps her to work out the mystery of what happened to her and provokes the return of certain memories.
The Girl With Glass Feet by Ali Shaw — a love story about a shy photographer and a girl who is slowly turning into glass.
Hold Still by Nina LaCour — photography is a means of expression for Caitlin, functioning kind of like a diary
Flash Burnout by L.K. Madigan — When Blake snaps a picture of a street person for his photography homework, he never dreamed that the woman in the photo was his friend Marissa’s long-lost meth addicted mom. The flash is especially metaphorical: “You got too close to the subject. So the flash overexposed her.”
Seelinger Trites explains that photography has a specific function in YA, and the pattern is repeated. The camera is a ‘metaphorical representation for achieving agency’. When you’re on the snapping side of the camera you are no longer the object. You’re in control. You’re the one doing the observing, the judging. In a photography narrative, the main character becomes more and more aware of their own agency. That’s the character change.
Pictures are important not so much in and of themselves but for what they teach the adolescent, especially as they become repeated artifacts that allow the character to witness the same scene during several different points in her or his development.
Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe
[The] need to recognize one’s own agency is a central pattern of adoleescent literature; we achieve adulthood more comfortably if we recognize that we have some control over the various subject positions we occupy than if we feel entirely like objects, pawns, in other people’s movements. But conversely, maturity also depends on our ability to maintain, when necessary, an object position, for we are all objects of the cultural forces that constantly shape us. Again, the relationship between subjecta nd object is a fluid one, but gaining an increased understanding of one’s power as an acting subject is inevitable during maturation.Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe
SUSAN SONTAG ON CAMERAS
In 1977, Susan Sontag produced a collection of essays On Photography. It’s pretty famous. Points especially relevant to YA:
In their ubiquity and passivity, photographs can become a source of aggression.
Cameras can create a sense of vicariousness that may also sanction the photographer’s nonintervention in painful issues.
For characters who take pictures instead of becoming involved, photography can become a source of complicity, a way to approve tacitly that which they may not otherwise be able to change.
Cameras serve to both empower and disempower adolescents’ agency.
CAMERAS IN MIDDLE GRADE FICTION
Until recently, regular kids didn’t have access to cameras. Now every adult carries a camera in their pocket and we give our older models to our kids. Kids take photos now. Perhaps this is part of the reason photography as a metaphor has come down into MG.
Though this novel wasn’t originally written for children, the camera plays a starring role in Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk, in which the town vagabond is entrusted with a camera which has been won — along with a lifetime’s supply of film — by the main character’s family. When I read this story I assumed the camera had been included for the sake of the plot, even though the setting is based on the author’s own grandparents’ farm, but as it turns out they really did win a lifetime’s supply of photos after the war, when film and development was very expensive. In Wolf Hollow Toby is a what TV Tropes refers to as a ‘camera fiend’.
The reason I assumed the camera was a plot device is because it’s a very good one. When a story is written using anything other than an omniscient viewpoint, a camera can offer insights and evidence concerning happenings outside the realm of the characters’ knowledge. In this MG novel, the camera isn’t really used as part of the main character’s change to someone with agency, but as part of the mystery plot. Mystery writers must come up with various ways their young characters can solve mysteries — talking to adults, keeping watch from the shadows and finding evidence such photos are common tricks.
CAMERA AS TRUTH-TELLER
It is generally assumed in story that the camera does not lie. While this has been true until recently, that’s changing. We’re yet to see many stories come through — at least for younger children — which make use of the fact that photos can be easily doctored by anyone with appropriate software. I predict ‘fake news’ as a huge theme in YA fiction in the coming years.
CAMERA AS SOURCE OF AGGRESSION
There are definitely camera as gun elements to Wolk’s Wolf Hollow, in which Toby is hunted as wolf while he in turn is only as dangerous as a camera, shooting nothing more than photos.
In Surfacing, Margaret Atwood also uses the camera as a stand-in for a gun. It’s handy that in English the word ‘shoot’ is used for both taking a photo and using a gun. Cameras are a recurring motif throughout Atwood’s work.
Note that when we say ‘camera as gun’ we are talking about the invasive nature of cameras. When you have a camera pushed into your face without your consent, and when the photos of you are seen by others without your consent, this is invasive.
It is a superstition of many Real Life religions and cultures that cameras and photography are harmful, with many believing that being photographed may steal their soul and taking great pains to avoid it (This is ostensibly the Soul Jar variant of the Phantom Zone Picture).
Absent from classic fairy tales: Cameras. Tales as collected by Grimm are not about self-reflection. Characters don’t grow. They exist as archetypes. Fairy tales are told by an unseen omniscient narrator, avoiding the more modern narrative tricks.
But there is a fairytale camera equivalent, I believe, and that is the mirror. When Snow White’s mother asks the mirror to educate her on the fairest in the land, she knows and we know that it is telling her the truth. (Mirrors aren’t known for their diplomacy, and nor are cameras.)
In Northern Lights (The Golden Compass), Philip Pullman creates a fantasy world with a palimpsest of our real world — Oxford, Whitehall, Lapland, Berlin. Accordingly, he includes fantasy elements which are connected to real world technologies. Early in the story we see the Scholars — with Lyra hidden in the wardrobe — showing what Pullman calls ‘photograms‘ from an expedition to the North. These photograms are in black and white, in keeping with the olde worlde feel of Oxford and the patriarchal set up depicted. Some of the photos from the expedition have been developed using the normal emulsion, but some of them have been developed using ‘special emulsion’. This reveals a different landscape altogether — the Scholars and Lyra can now see a hidden city, existing in a world separate but connected from our own.
A photogram is not something entirely made up by Pullman. It is a picture produced with photographic materials, such as light-sensitive paper, but without a camera. How do you take a photo without a camera, you might ask? By placing objects directly onto the surface of a light-sensitive material such as photographic paper and then exposing it to light.
Later the word ‘photogram’ was used to refer to the earliest photographs. The word has now fallen out of use.
In fantasy, a variety of tools can be used for the purpose of seeing into a parallel, magical world. In The Spiderwick Chronicles, Holly Webb invents a ‘seeing stone’ which allows the main characters to see hobgoblins in the garden.
CAMERAS IN THE HORROR GENRE
The trope in which cameras reveal what the eye cannot see is used heavily in the horror genre. The camera which can see paranormal activity is a type of magical camera, reminiscent of the fairy tale magic mirror.
For instance, in the film Insidious, a medium and her crew come to a haunted house, and by putting different ‘magical’ filters on the camera they are able to see scary, ghostly creatures hovering behind the boy, getting closer and closer until finally they are right inside him, inhabiting his body.
In one shot we see a picture of the sympathetic father but through the lens of the camera we learn he has been possessed by this hideous creature:
Insidious is not a particularly original horror film but it does what it does very well, making an excellent job of evoking a nightmare. Once the father is in the other world — the world we’ve been shown glimpses of via the camera in the familiar world — there is no longer any need for the camera as such, but that doesn’t mean cameras are not of influence. As he wanders around the scary mansion he finds gothic and grotesque creatures who stand (almost perfectly) still, as if their photograph has been taken and now that’s all that’s left of them.
Here he examines a woman who stands completely still in the middle of ironing in a 1950s version of his living room, except when she blinks and scares the living daylights of both him and the audience.
CAMERA AS BOOKEND NARRATIVE
Though The Blair Witch Project is also a horror, it uses the camera differently. This film tells the story of characters who have been killed. We know at the beginning of the story that they are dead, which adds suspense and intrigue from the start. This lets us sit through the slightly unpleasant and somewhat boring experience of watching unedited footage as three film students pack for a hike in the woods, asking each other about film and equipment etc. The ‘unfound (and unedited) footage’ story provides the narrative reason why anyone knows what happened.
Every narratologist has their own set of terminology. It gets a bit overwhelming. Pick and choose the terms that are useful; discard the rest. Here’s one way of looking at narration in stories. Focalisation comes courtesy of French narrative theorist, Gérard Genette.
When thinking about focalisation, we consider the following:
Who speaks (narrative voice)
Who sees (focalisation)
Who is seen
Writers tend to think in terms of point of view, as in, “Do I write this story in first person or third person?”
That’s a big question and does the job, mostly. Orson Scott Card’s book on point of view is excellent (though the author himself is a renowned homophobe). Paula B’s podcast on point of view is also excellent. Listen to that and you’ll know pretty much all you have to know in order to write a story.
That said, no matter how much you school up on ‘point of view’, the concept of ‘point of view’ will never distinguish between:
And ‘focalisation’ can be important.
TYPES OF FOCALISERS
Focalisation refers to who is doing the seeing. Who sees the story (in order to report back on it)?
External focalisers exist outside the story.
They are also known as ‘narrator focalisers’ or, to writers, simply as ‘narrators’, because the focus of perception seems to be that of someone narrating the story.
Perception of the story comes to the audience via a character in a story.
In narratology these are known as ‘character focalisers’.
You may have heard different terminology to describe these aspects — extradiegetic vs intradiegetic, anyone? Diegesis (vs. mimesis) has been discussed since Aristotle’s time.
Anyway, back to focalising. Let’s focus.
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A FOCALISER AND A NARRATOR?
A narrator is the character telling the story.
The focaliser is the character who ‘sees’ the story taking place.
A focaliser is not necessarily a narrator. Contemporary adult fiction is often written in ‘close third person’. That third person is not a narrator, but they are the focaliser. The narrator in a close third person story isn’t necessarily even noticed by the reader. They are most often invisible, or conflated with ‘the author’.
But does it work the other way around? Is a narrator always a focaliser? Nope. The narrator can choose to tell a story through a certain character’s point of view, effectively functioning in the same way as an author does.
Narration tends to be more fixed. Even in a book with multiple narrators, authors will usually telegraph when they’re switching narrators, e.g. by alternating chapters. But when it comes to ‘focalisation’, focalising can shift almost imperceptibly over the course of a single paragraph, moving like a camera on a dolly, first offering a wide shot, zooming closer for the long shot, in closer for a head shot. We see a character looking at a cake, then the camera zooms in on the cake. At that point, if we’re ‘seeing’ the cake from a particular character’s point of view, then they are the focalising character.
The Great Gatsby is often used as an example in discussions of narration. Written in first person point of view from the perspective of Nick Carraway, the story is told through his voice but his extreme focus on Gatsby means that Gatsby is the focaliser. (We might also say that Gatsby is the ‘main character‘, but that’s a little different again.) Not all the chapters in The Great Gatsby use Gatsby as the focaliser. Gatsby is the focaliser when Nick Carraway goes into his backstory.
THE HEAD HOPPING CHESTNUT OF WRITING GROUPS
One thing I’ve noticed about writing groups is the tendency to search for head-hopping, and some search for violations of point-of-view as voraciously as they hunt down spelling errors and inconsistent syntax.
There’s nothing wrong with this kind of critique – fussy ones, I mean. Genuine cases of head-hopping need to be fixed in a later draft. But I think the criticism of ‘head-hopping’ is regularly misapplied.
Consider the following passage, from Revolutionary Road (Richard Yates). April and Frank Wheeler have just decided to go to France. This is a description of the new household. We start in Frank Wheeler’s head:
…sometimes late at night when his throat had gone sore and his eyes hot from talking, when he hunched his shoulders and set his jaw and pulled his necktie loose and let it hang like a rope,  he could glare at the window and see the brave beginnings of a personage.
 It was a strange time for the children, too.  What exactly did going to France in the fall mean? And why did their mother keep insisting it was going to be fun, as if daring them to doubt it? For that matter, why was she so funny about a lot of things.  In the afternoons she would hug them and ask them questions in a rush of ebullience that suggested Christmas Eve, and then a minute later she’d be saying “Yes darling, but don’t talk quite so much, okay? Give Mommy a break.”
 Nor did their father’s homecoming do much to help: He might throw them high in the air and give them airplane rides around the house until they were dizzy, but only after having failed to see them altogether during the disturbingly long time it took him to greet their mother at the kitchen door. And the talking at dinner: It was hopeless for either child to try and get a word in edgewise.  Michael found he could jiggle in his chair, repeat baby words over and over in a shrill idiot’s monotone or stuff his mouth with mashed potato and hang his jaws open, all without any adult reproof; Jennifer would sit very straight at the table and refuse to look at him, feigning great interest in whatever her parents were saying, though afterwards, waiting for bedtime, she would sometimes go off quietly by herself and suck her thumb.
 Yates’ novel is about Frank — the narration is told through Frank Wheeler’s eyes. In other words, Frank is the focaliser. But if you’ve seen the movie you’ll know that Sam Mendes decided to give quite a bit more air-time to the character of April. If we imagine the novel, too, as a series of camera shots, Richard Yates sometimes moves his ‘camera’ outside Frank’s head, higher in the ceiling, looking down upon a scene to capture it in a new light. At  we are definitely in Frank’s head.
 marks the shift from close third-person to true omniscient narration. Yates is about to explore this familial experience as it was for the children. But are we actually inside their heads? No, I don’t think so. To move inside their heads, telling the story from the children’s point of view would be a true case of head-hopping. Instead, Yates simply pans out, to a scene which includes the children as well as Frank.
 This question is very definitely inside the children’s heads. Or is it? Is this what Frank imagines his children to be thinking? Is this what the young Frank would have thought himself, if he were in his own children’s shoes?
 Here we touch upon a small injustice: Even though April involves her children in her own excitement, she doesn’t want to hear them get excited. I’m sure the children would have felt this injustice — children always do — but would they have been able to articulate it? This observation — picked because of its irony — is either the observation of Frank, looking on from afar, or of an omniscient narrator.
 Again, even though Frank is here referred to as ‘their father’, this observation could well come from Frank himself, in the kind of hindsight that follows much reflection. Are we to take as a given that novels written in the past tense are the product of much reflection and insight, whether that be from the character or some unnamed narrator? It think this is the main benefit of writing in past-tense (as opposed to present tense), or rather, that is one limit of writing in present-tense; that the narrator does not have the benefit of hindsight, so opportunities for philosophical musing are lost.
 Now we are ostensibly inside Michael’s head, but this is really the observation of Frank himself (in hindsight) or of the omniscient narrator.
Yates’ scene may, upon critical inspection, seem to break the Rules of Point Of View, but no one could argue he didn’t know exactly what he was doing. The reader glides smoothly from one character to another. This adds variety to the narrative method and insight into the Wheeler’s family life. Switching from close third-person to omniscient narration is not easy to get right, but if writers timidly avoid it, these advantages are lost.
When a writer ‘pans out’ in order to convey a wider scene, this is not a case of head-hopping. Changing focalisation is a widely used technique.
Deviation into the heads of minor characters is not always head-hopping. The writer may be making deliberate use of temporary omniscient narration. Perhaps we are still inside the narrator’s head, witnessing a scene in its entirely with the benefit of hindsight, even though it doesn’t seem like this at line-level (as in the dip into Michael’s head, above).
The rules of head-hopping are actually more pliable than many writing guides suggest. We should be wary of pouncing upon head-hopping in other writers’ drafts – as well as when editing our own – because there is really only one question to ask: Does it work?
Bear in mind that modern readers seem to have a much lower tolerance for switches in focalisation. Take this article for instance, in which Peter Selgin says the deadliest first page sin is when the point of view is slippery. So if we’re going to play with focalisation and would like to get published traditionally, it’s probably best we don’t do it on the very first page. I do wonder what has led to this shift, and I think it might be TV and film. Audiences are so used to ‘seeing’ stories through a camera that it affects the way we read novels. We all have these little movies playing in our heads now. This is just a theory and I have no idea if it’s true, because I don’t know how readers ‘saw’ novels 100 years ago.
When discussing ‘diegetic levels’ of a story, imagine a ground floor. Level zero. All events and characters featured on this level are part of the story. Level zero is the normal, basic narrative level in a text. A story may not have any other levels, but it will at least have a ground floor. This happened, that happened, the end.
As for the other levels, think of ‘meta’ as above and ‘hypo’ as below the ground floor (level zero).
It can get even more complicated than that — in which case a story will be called ‘experimental’. Technically you can get a meta-metadiegetic narrator, or a hypo-hypodiegetic narrator etc.
Pertains to a secondary narrative embedded within the primary narrative. The secondary narrative can be a story told by a character within the main story or it can take the form of a dream, nightmare, hallucination, imaginary or other fantasy element. This kind of narration is typical of idyllic fiction. e.g. Winnie The Pooh. In the Pooh stories, there is a metafictive father telling these stories to a metafictive son over and over again. This wraps the level zero story set in The Hundred Acre Wood. (In general ‘metafiction’ is fiction which draws attention to the fact that it’s fiction.)
A contemporary example: George and Harold are the metadiegetic narrators (and illustrators) of the Dogman adventures by Dav Pilkey.
[LEVEL ONE STORY] “Grannie, grannie, come tell us the story o’ the wee bunnock.” “Hout, bairns, ye’ve heard it a hunner times afore. I needna tell it owre again.” “Ah, but, grannie, it’s sic a fine ane. Ye maun tell’t. Just ance.” “Weel, weel, bairns, if ye’ll a’ promise to be guid, I’ll tell ye’t again. But I’ll tell you a bonny tale about a guid aitmeal bunnock.[LEVEL ZERO STORY] There lived an auld man and an auld wife at the side o’ a burn…
Many of the Grimm fairytales don’t open with a metadiegetic storyteller, but they do close with one, sometimes obliquely. That’s because these tales come from an oral tradition, and the ‘oralness’ of the storyteller hasn’t been one hundred percent omitted in the earliest writing down:
Now my cat’s run home, for my tale is done.
But I don’t know how the two little demons were able to free themselves.
And whoever doesn’t believe me must give me a gold coin.
This is Story Within A Story narration, also known as Embedded Narrative or Show Within a Show at TV Tropes. Any character who produces a further narrative within a narrative is a hypodiegetic narrator.
Think of it as the inverse of metadiegetic. In both metadiegetic and hypodiegetic narration feature an extradiegetic narrator who appears on a different level of the story.
Hypo narratives are sometimes used to create an effect of ‘mise en abyme‘, a favourite feature of postmodernist narratives. (Think of two mirrors facing each other in a dressing room.)
Examples of Hypodiegetic Narration
Anne Shirley is a hypodiegetic narrator when she tells Marilla about her visit to the concert.
“Come, Sam, tell us a story,” said I, as Harry and I crept to his knees, in the glow of the bright evening firelight; while Aunt Lois was busily rattling the tea-things, and grandmamma, at the other end of the fireplace, was quietly setting the heel of a blue-mixed yarn stocking. —The Ghost in the Mill, Harriet Beeecher Stowe, first sentence.
The Canterbury Tales and Arabian Nights — A tells a story about B who tells a story about C and so on. (It’s up to the person studying these texts to decide which level is level zero.)
The Book Of The Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison is a modern post-apocalyptic novel with a Canterbury Tales structure to it. A main character meets others on her journey and they either tell her their stories or she steals their diaries.
In The Thousand and One Nights, Scheherazade’s stories keep the Sultan from killing her. In the end he marries her because she’s such a good storyteller.
In a crime novel or courtroom drama, a surprise witness may have a tale that solves the case.
A child in a story asks an adult to tell them a story. The adult telling the story is the hypodiegetic narrator.
Mary Alice is the hypodiegetic narrator in Desperate Housewives, although when she is shown in the story (in flashbacks before she had died), she is a diegetic narrator.
In Fortunately, The Milk by Neil Gaiman, a father goes to the shop. When he comes home he tells the children a tall tale. The father is the hypodiegetic narrator.
In The Tale of Johnny Town-mouse, Beatrix Potter keeps the Battle scene off the page by having one mouse character tell another. (It would be heinous to show a cat killing a canary.)
A narrator who exists — in full or in part — on a different story level from the other characters is more commonly known as a storyteller. For more on how to write fiction making use of a storyteller narrator, see this post.
This post more than any other contains spoilers. Sometimes it’s a spoiler just to know that you’re dealing with an unreliable narrator.
Unreliable narration is a storytelling technique which requires some work on the part of the reader, trying to work out how much of the story is true and how much is subjective, or an outright lie.
The most fallible, most consistently clueless narrator you could hope to meet might be Ford Madox Ford in the novel The Good Soldier (1915).
How To Read Literature Like A Professor
Everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
THE UNRELIABLE CONTINUUM
Almost every story fits somewhere on the ‘unreliable continuum’. Let’s exclude omniscient narrators, who we should take at face value, but truly omniscient narration is rare.
I’ve always found the concept of the reliable versus the unreliable narrator peculiar, because I think all narrators are unreliable [laughs]. People tell you what they saw or what they think or what they felt, and they may be telling you the truth, but it might not at all be what someone else saw happen. Like, people always call Humbert Humbert an unreliable narrator. He’s very reliable. He’ll tell you exactly what he thought and felt in a lot of detail. And you also get a very clear sense of what Lolita is experiencing through him. But I don’t think of it as unreliable. I think more in terms, and this sounds really corny, I think more in terms of, Do I care what this narrator thinks and feels? Can he engage me? With students, the problem I see most often is that I don’t get a sense of what their narrators care about. What they want. What matters to them. That’s a bigger issue to me than whether or not they’re reliable in some way.
Far more common is close third person point of view. Harry Potter fans have had fun arguing about how much of his story is objectively true versus how much is subjectively conveyed owing to Harry’s own biases. For example, in The Philosopher’s Stone, Hermione is depicted as ‘annoying’ but as the series progresses, she is no longer so — presumably she has undergone a character arc. But who’s to say that Hermione was ever objectively an irritant? Could it be Harry’s sexist response towards a girly swot who knew more than he did which lead readers to conclude the same?
The following explains, in part, why true omniscient narration may have gone the way of the dodo. It is no longer culturally accepted that there is any such thing as objective truth:
W.G. Sebald once said to me, “I think that fiction writing which does not acknowledge the uncertainty of the narrator himself is a form of imposture which I find very, very difficult to take. Any form of authorial writing where the narrator sets himself up as stagehand and director and judge and executor in a text, I find somehow unacceptable. I cannot bear to read books of this kind.” Seabed continued: “If you refer to Jane Austen, you refer to a world where there were set standards of propriety which were accepted by everyone. Given that you have a world where the rules are clear and where one knows where trespassing begins, then I think it is legitimate, within that context, to be a narrator who knows what the rules are and who knows the answers to certain questions. But I think these certainties have been taken from us by the course of history, and that we do have to acknowledge our own sense of ignorance and of insufficiency in these matters and therefore to try and write accordingly.
For Sebald, and for many writers like him, standard third-person omniscient narration is a kind of antique cheat. But both sides of the division have been caricatured. […]
Even the apparently unreliable narrator is more often than not reliably unreliable. Think of Kazoo Ishiguro’s butler in The Remains of the Day, or of Bertie Wooster, or even of Humbert Humbert. We know that the narrator is being unreliable because the author is alerting us, through reliable manipulation, to that narrator’s vulnerability. A process of authorial flagging is going on; the novel teaches us how to read its narrator.
James Wood, How Fiction Works
WHY USE AN UNRELIABLE NARRATOR?
Unreliable narrators are useful for achieving an epiphany in the reader. Chekhov makes the most of this in his later works, in which the reader has an epiphany while the character goes on without one, unchanging.
The unreliable narrator breaks down into at least three different types:
1. The narrator that purposefully leads you astray
2. The narrator whose view of the world is so strident that by sheer force of will they are attempting to lead you astray
3. The narrator who does not attempt to lead you astray but does by dint of their youth and inexperience: Room, Catcher In The Rye
The Importance of the ‘Ghost’
When creating an unreliable narrator the narrator has to have
2. A reason for keeping this secret/ghost from us.
Somebody else will be trying to expose that secret. Why does this other character want the secret exposed? Without these things going on in your story, you probably don’t need to make use of an unreliable narrator.
The Grandmother Genre Of Modern Unreliable Narration
Look to gothic literature.
Our modern imperilled (or seemingly imperilled) female protagonists calls to mind the gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe and her heirs. From Emily St. Aubert, the heroine of Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, who is kept prisoner in an Italian castle, to the narrator of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaperwho is confined to a room with bad interior decorating, these women have to sort out the mysteries of their situations to find the truth. Jane Eyre has to find out who’s in the attic. The second Mrs. de Winter has to figure out what happened to her predecessor, Rebecca.
Trapped in a duplicitous world, is it any wonder that they retreat into their own versions of reality? Jane Eyre admits to opening “my inward ear to a tale that never ended—a tale my imagination created, and narrated continuously.” The narrator of The Yellow Wallpaper begins to see figures in the walls. The second Mrs. de Winter is so insecure (maybe because she doesn’t get a name!) she believes Mrs. Danvers’ version of the truth and misreads her husband’s feelings about his dead wife.
The gothic tradition started something which has continued to this day: A gender imbalance in unreliability. When women are constantly utilised as unreliable, women become intertwined with liars. There is a long history of disbelieving women.
For centuries the testimony of women has been held up to scrutiny and frequently dismissed on the grounds that our biology makes us prone to neurosis, hysteria, irrational subjectivity, and that our judgment can’t be trusted. It’s also a favourite cliche of fiction and drama: the heroine who is repeatedly told by men that she is imagining things, until she starts to question her own sanity. McGowan has repeatedly used the word “gaslighting” of her treatment by men in the industry, a term taken from the 1944 film Gaslight, in which a husband attempts to convince his wife she is going mad in order to cover up his own criminal activity.
It’s curious, then, that in our more enlightened times, when women are no longer routinely incarcerated as hysterics, that we should remain so obsessed with the idea of the female narrator who can’t be relied upon to know her own mind, or even what she saw from the window of her train or apartment. The obvious example is Paula Hawkins’s multimillion-selling The Girl on the Train, in which the narrator’s judgment was impaired by her drink problem. There’s SJ Watson’s bestseller Before I Go to Sleep, which also became a blockbuster film and features a female narrator convinced that something sinister is going on in her marriage, but who struggles to prove it because she suffers from memory loss.
The Wolf’s Story: What Really Happened to Little Red Riding Hood by Toby Forward, an example of a picture book in which the pictures tell a different story.
The True Story Of The Three Little Pigs byJon Scieszka and Lane Smith
Seriously, Cinderella Is SO Annoying!: The Story of Cinderella as Told by the Wicked Stepmother by Trisha Speed Shaken — from the perspective of the stepmother and stepsisters who accuse her of being an insipid little twit
My Cat, the Silliest Cat in the World by Giles Bachelet — the words tell a story about a cat but the pictures show that the ‘cat’ is actually an elephant.
Dear Mrs. LaRue: Letters From Obedience School by Mark Teague — has two stories — the black and white imaginings of a dog narrator which match his melodramatic letters home, compared to coloured illustrations depicting ‘the truth’. (There’s a whole series of them.)
Poor Puppy by Nick Bruel — “Poor, poor Puppy. Poor, poor, poor, poor, poor Puppy!” The book then becomes a counting/alphabet book to demonstrate that Puppy isn’t really poor—in fact he has many playthings at his disposal
Emma Kate by Patricia Polacco — That adorable Emma Kate has an imaginary friend. They walk to school together every morning and sit together in class. They sleep over at each other’s houses and do their homework side by side. They even have their tonsils out and eat gallons of pink ice cream together. The twist is that the stuffed elephant is imaginary but looks to be inspired by an item in the “real” friend’s possession.
Green Wilma by Tedd Arnold — Green Wilma is about a girl who wakes up green. Her mother is fussy because she doesn’t feel as thought a green child should go to school. When Wilma gets on the bus the ruckus begins. In art her classmates think its pretty cool to be green. And again more ruckus. She is hungry and finds that flies are what she desires the most. When she spots one on the teachers nose the chase is on. Again, more ruckus. The fly eventually leads her to Millers pond. She jumps in after it and comes face to face with a hungry fish. She immediately wakes up from her dream and relaizes that she is still a little girl and the entire dream was fantasy.
Olivia Saves The Circus by Ian Falconer — Olivia is a wonderfully unreliable narrator, and this one is a great example in which Olivia the pig tells a tall story. When all of the performers at the circus are out sick with ear infections, it’s up to Olivia to save the day! That’s no problem for Olivia, of course, because she knows how to do everything. From lion taming to trampoline jumping, unicycling to tight-rope walking, Olivia is the ultimate performer (according to Olivia). Olivia is supposed to be telling her classmates about her holidays and spins a tale which revolves around her single-handedly substituting all artists and clowns and animal tamers of a huge circus show, because the entire performing staff suffered from an ear inflammation and – certainly – because Olivia already knew how to do these things.
When I Went To The Library
Make Way For Ducklings by Robert McCloskey — “Some of the purest examples of irony are found in children’s literature, which often needs to allow a child— or the child’s proxy, an animal — to see the world through limited eyes, while alerting the older reader to this limitation. In Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings, Mr. and Mrs. Mallard are trying out the Boston Public Garden for their new home, when a swan boat (a boat made to look like a swan but actually powered by a pedal-pushing human pilot) passes them. Mr. Mallard has never seen anything like this before. McCloskey falls naturally into free indirect style: “Just as they were getting ready to start on their way, a strange enormous bird came by. It was pushing a boat full of people, and there was a man sitting on its back. ‘Good morning,’ quacked Mr. Mallard, being polite. The big bird was too proud to answer.” Instead of telling us that Mr. Mallard could make no sense of the swan boat, McCloskey places us in Mr. Mallard’s confusion; yet the confusion is obvious enough that a broad ironic gap opens between Mr. Mallard and the reader (or author). We are not confused in the same way as Mr. Mallard; but we are also being made to inhabit Mr. Mallard’s confusion.
Examples Of Unreliable Narration From MG Fiction
Probably because truthful children of this age are upheld as morally better people, unreliable narrators in middle grade stories are a bit harder to find. I’m sure it’s to do with the lack of pictures, too. The ironic distance between text and pictures creates unreliable in picture books, whereas the pictures in ‘illustrated books’ serve to help reading comprehension.
Diary Of A Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney — Greg is an unreliable narrator as well as not a great role model. This is attractive to kids. Greg is similar to Bart Simpson or Dennis the Menace in that young readers know exactly what Greg is meant to be. They’re not going to hold him up as a role model. (That said, my daughter has tried to get away with things because Greg does them!)
Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made by Stephen Pastis, in the Wimpy Kid tradition
Millicent Mee, Girl Genius — the Asian-American female version of Timmy Failure
Liar and Spy by Rebecca Stead
Fortunately, The Milk by Neil Gaiman — a father goes out for milk. When he arrives home he spins a tall story for his children about what happened while he was out.
Examples Of Unreliable Narration From Film
The Usual Suspects
American Psycho by Brett Easton Ellis — Patrick Bateman is a psychopath living the high life in 1980s Manhattan. He is also a murderer who tortures and rapes. But when Bateman tries to confess to these crimes, he is told he didn’t commit any. So is he a psychopath or does he have some sort of schizophrenic disorder?
Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk — later adapted for film. This is one of those stories that can definitely be ruined because the reversal is massive. We eventually realize that Durden isn’t our narrator’s new best friend — he’s his cooler, crazier alter-ego.
The Killer Inside Me directed by Michael Winterbottom was widely panned by critics for its almost unbearable violence against women. You see the main man violently abusing women, then the women would turn around and smile and seem to want it. For people who already have enough violence in their real life, this is indeed unwatchable. For those who can make it to the end of the film, it turns out to have an anti-violence message, because we learn that the violent killer has only been imagining in his own mind that the women are somehow enjoying his violence. This film is an interesting study into how much a writer can or can’t get away with when trying to write a story ‘against’ something, but for most of the story seems to be ‘for’ it.
Examples Of Unreliable Narration In Novels For YA And Older
The Turn Of The Screw by Henry James — The reader doesn’t know if this is a ghost story or not. The story is the self-reported manuscript of a governess who comes to take care of two orphans, Miles and Flora, at a country house in Essex. After she arrives at the estate, the governess encounters the ghosts of two former employees who have died. She’s the only person who can see the ghosts, but she’s convinced that they’re real. Is this a ghost story or a portrait of a woman’s mental breakdown? This trick whereby the reader isn’t sure if a character is a ghost or not was used by Robert Cormier many years later in In The Middle Of The Night.
Here Lies Daniel Tate— Daniel is a magnetic, talented, and desperate con artist who has stumbled into the scam of a lifetime. Assuming the identity of long missing boy, Daniel Tate, he is no longer at the mercy of the foster care system, and gains the security of a home and a family that loves him. But he soon discovers his new home is more sinister than it seemed on the surface…and the Daniel he has replaced might not be missing at all.
Lolita— Can make the reader feel empathy for a pedophile, which makes us examine how much of Humbert Humbert is inside us, and also makes us realise that even badly behaved people are not all bad. People who do bad things are not monsters — they walk among us.
Life of Pi by Yann Martel — Is Pi adrift on a lifeboat with those animals or is he stranded with other humans, with the animals being allegory?
The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin — the female narrator has PTSD after a car accident that killed all her friends.
Liar by Justine Larbalestier — it’s right there in the title.
The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger
Atonement by Ian McEwan — Briony Tallis is unreliable because she is only 13 years old and doesn’t understand how the world works.
Dangerous Girls by Abigail Haas
If You Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson
Dead To You by Lisa McMann
Perks Of Being A Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn — Amy and Nick Dunne is an example of not one but two unreliable narrators. The stand out example of modern unreliable narration.
The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins — the other standout adult psychological suspense novel of our time.
In A Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware
The Woman In Cabin 10, also by Ruth Ware
The Widow’s House by Clare Goodman — a couple moves into a deteriorating estate in the Hudson Valley, hoping to revitalize their marriage and careers. However, shortly after moving in, the wife, Clare, begins having visions of strangers walking their property and she starts to hear wailing. Could the house be haunted, or is it all in Clare’s mind?
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz — Oscar De León is an overweight, sci-fi loving Dominican kid growing up in Paterson, New Jersey. But the narrator is his best friend, Yunior de las Casas. Yunior acts as an omniscient narrator, populating the story with details that he couldn’t have known and admitting that he changed some names between “drafts.”
Notes On A Scandal by Zoe Heller — Barbara Covett is a lonely history teacher who jumps at the chance to be friends with Sheba, the new art teacher at her school. Barbara falls in love with Sheba but Sheba is heterosexual and not interested. Feeling rejected, this affects Barbara’s ability to remove herself from the situation and report reliably. Barbara paints Sheba as manipulative, but we eventually realise Barbara is her equal in that characteristic.
The Remains Of The Day by Kazuo Ishiguro — Stevens is the head butler of Darlington Hall. He is loyal, precise and hard-working but his blindness to the world is a brilliant example of dramatic irony. He can’t see the slow demise of the great house where he works. Nor can he acknowledge his feelings for a fellow servant.
The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters — The story would have been easier to tell from third person point of view, so why does Sarah Waters choose to write it from the point of view of the family doctor? I believe it’s because he’s the murderer, writing the story down to try and absolve himself.
Interior monologue is a stylised way of thinking out loud. (Technically: thinking ‘on the page’.)
Some people call it ‘internal’ monologue. This is the same thing.
Unlike stream-of-consciousness, an interior monologue can be integrated into a third-person narrative. The viewpoint character’s thoughts are woven into description, using the author’s own language.
This is the essential difference between interior monologue and straight narrative:
Straight Narrative = the narrator talking (You know ‘the narrator’ — that made-up character who sounds like the author — but please don’t mistake authors for narrators — not all authors are crazy axe-wielding, mentally unstable murderers, unlike many of their narrators.)
Interior Monologue = a character talking/thinking, using words specific to that character, making assumptions, mistaken judgements, conclusions RIGHT FOR THAT CHARACTER.
If interior monologue is done well, you won’t even notice it’s happening.
Stream of Consciousness Narrative Technique
Like interior monologue, stream-of-consciousness is another stylised way of thinking out loud.
It is the 19th and early 20th century version of what has become ‘free indirect style/speech’. (A style of third-person narration which uses some of the characteristics of third-person along with the essence of first-person direct speech.)
There’s a lot of interior monologue in stream-of-consciousness but the difference is, there’s no punctuation to mark it out as such.
The terms ‘stream-of-consciousness’ and ‘interior monologue’ are used interchangeably by some — but stream-of-consciousness refers more often to a first person narrative which mimics the jumble of thoughts, emotions and memories passing through a character’s mind. (That said, interior monologue is not necessarily written in first person.)
Stream-of-consciousness tends to be less ordered than interior monologue. That’s because consciousness has no beginning and no end — thoughts flit quite randomly from one thing to another.