What is parallax in literature?

Parallax describes a type of movement. The position or direction of an object seems to differ when viewed from different positions.

OPTICAL ILLUSION

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. 

STELLAR PARALLAX

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:

  1. stories about the isolation of individual human beings
  2. the lack of consequence in the universal flux of life
  3. our diminutive significance as seen from a superior vantage point
  4. 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:

  1. Foreground your subject
  2. Offer various views of it
  3. Show the reader that all perspectives are partial and reversible

And how to do that, specifically?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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

  1. the juxtaposition of two or more restricted perspectives, and the contrasting of a restricted perspective with that of an extradiegetic or omnipresent narrator.
  2. first-person perspectives recorded at different times, as for example, in Katherine Mansfield’s “Poison”.

PARALLAX AND IMPRESSIONISM

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.

DUPLICATIVE TIME

Duplicating temporal events goes hand-in-hand with parallactic narration. Not all parallactic narratives double back in time but many do.

The design of the poster suggests a parallactic effect by literally slicing the man’s head down the middle.

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.

Alison as Noah sees her (left) and Alison as she sees herself (right)
Notice even Noah’s clothing is slightly different in different recollections the same temporal events — we don’t remember details exactly. This is an accurate portrayal of how memory works.
[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.

One thing to note about characters in a parallactic narrative — audiences don’t tend to find them likeable. Not all audiences expect likeable, but some do. The Affair is a good story well done, but has been criticised for its lack of likeable characters.

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.

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