Sunday 22 June 2008

The Narrator, the Character, the Reader

With reading comes the possibility of a meeting of minds with the author, although of course in fiction we don't really meet the author but the author's representative, the narrator.

In The great code (1983) Northrop Frye writes about stages through which literature has passed. The first of these is typified by The Iliad which originally was not read but heard as it was intoned by oral storytellers. In such narratives, says Frye, language is poetic, based on myth (mythos means story or narrative) in which, as he puts it, there is "the feeling that subject and object are linked by a common power or energy" (p. 24). The words are like those of an enchantment. The way I imagine it is that in such narratives listeners would become one with the storyteller, with the story, and with its protagonists. We still experience something of this effect when we listen to a gifted raconteur, or at the theatre we see an actor who has presence, or at the movies we watch an engaging drama, or in a novel we identify strongly with a character.

With the coming of print, and of prose fiction, new possibilities emerged beyond the mythical, not least the possibility of some separation between narrator, character and reader, as Percy Lubbock pointed out in his discussion of Gustave Flaubert in his 1926 book The craft of fiction: in Madame Bovary, we come to see the world as Emma Bovary sees it, but also to regard her from the outside, as the narrator sees her. The result is something we seldom achieve with ourselves. It's like being given two eyes that enable stereoscopic vision and the perception of three dimensions. And, with this separation comes another, of the reader from narrator and character, in which the reader is enabled to form his or her own thoughts in the context of the story, a rather different effect than that of myth.

For the writer, narratives with a first-person point of view seem inviting because they encourage the reader to identify with the narrator-character. But does this mean that in third-person narratives, including those with an explicit narrator, readers will be more distant, less involved? Or can one enable intimacy with the reader and at the same time offer a stereoscopic view?

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