Personae and Tone in Fiction
I’m still thinking about this issue of persona and how it contributes to the life of our prose. Part of the pleasure of reading a memoir comes from the resonance of different layers (or personae, if you will) of the narrator vibrating against one another. Does the same hold true for fiction? If we look at a third-person narrative, will we find shifts in persona of the effaced narrator and modulations of tone used to good effect?
I start with Raymond Carver’s story, “A Small, Good Thing,” the story of the death of a little boy and what his grieving parents find in the presence of a baker whom they once considered a menace. Here’s a paragraph from the opening of the story when the mother, Ann Weiss, comes to the bakery to order a birthday cake for her son, Scotty:
She gave the baker her name, Ann Weiss, and her telephone number. The cake would be ready on Monday morning, just out of the oven, in plenty of time for the child’s party that afternoon. The baker was not jolly. There were no pleasantries between them, just the minimum exchange of words, the necessary information. He made her feel uncomfortable, and she didn’t like that. While he was bent over the counter with the pencil in his hand, she studied his coarse features and wondered if he’d ever done anything else with his life besides be a baker. She was a mother and thirty-three years old, and it seemed to her that everyone, especially someone the baker’s age — a man old enough to be her father — must have children who’d gone through this special time of cakes and birthday parties. There must be that between them, she thought. But he was abrupt with her — not rude, just abrupt. She gave up trying to make friends with him. She looked into the back of the bakery and could see a long, heavy wooden table with aluminum pie pans stacked at one end; and beside the table a metal container filled with empty racks. There was an enormous oven. A radio was playing country-western music.
The story establishes an initial persona as the voice of the effaced narrator blends with the consciousness of Mrs. Weiss. I’d describe the persona as being guarded, observant, restrained a little prickly. The prose reflects that with its simple, declarative sentences. Language and sentence structure and tone work together to express the state of mind of Mrs. Weiss as she deals with this baker two days before the accident that will cost her son his life.
Mrs.Weiss, of course, is about to live through a series of events that will require much more from the prose than this initial persona can provide. Consider, then, the final paragraph of the story. Scotty has died, Mrs. and Mr. Weiss have received a series of brusque, and seemingly menacing phone calls from the baker about picking up the birthday cake: “Your Scotty, I got him ready for you,” the man’s voice said. “Did you forget him?” Finally, Mr. and Mrs. Weiss figure out that the calls are coming from the baker, and they drive down there to confront him. After their burst of anger, the baker invites them to sit. He apologizes. He gives them his sympathy. He explains that he’s a baker, that he has no children of his own, that he knows loneliness. Then he offers them bread:
“Smell this,” the baker said, breaking open a dark loaf. “It’s a heavy bread, but rich.” They smelled it, then he had them taste it. It had the taste of molasses and coarse grains. They listened to him. They ate what they could. They swallowed the dark bread. It was like daylight under the fluorescent trays of light. They talked on into the early morning, the high, pale cast of light in the windows, and they did not think of leaving.
Notice the difference in sound between this passage and the one I quoted earlier. It seems to me that even though the sentences are perhaps even terser here, they make a very different sound, one I’d describe as quieter, reverential, humble, full of forgiveness. It is the surprising moment of grace found from an unexpected source upon which the story depends for its effect. The resonance comes from the shift in the persona that allows the sound of this passage to vibrate against the sounds of other personae at work in the story.
We often remember a moment in a piece of fiction in part because of the way the sound of the prose surprises us. In a first-person novel or short story, we, of course, have at our disposal the various aspects of the narrator’s personality to create these shifts in persona and sound. What I hope the Carver example illustrates is that even in a third-person narrative aspects of the main characters’ personalities merge with the sound of the effaced narrator’s voice—that disembodied story-telling voice—thereby deepening the experience of the novel or story.
Just as we need to be aware of our own multiple personae when writing memoir, we need to pay attention to our fictional characters and how they’re slightly different people in each moment of a narrative. In both memoir and fiction we sometimes have to consciously exaggerate a dimension of persona in order to fully express a shift in the narrative, one that will stay with the reader far beyond the reading.