The Obsessive Narrator
I’ve been posting the last couple of weeks about the reflective first-person narrator who looks back upon experience from a greater and wiser perspective. Today, I’d like to talk about the first-person narrator who isn’t very wise or perceptive through most of the story. These sorts of narrators find themselves so deeply immersed in the events of the dramatic present they have little time for reflection or meaning-making until the pressures of the present demand it of them. It’s as if these narrators have blinders on. For the most part, they can only see what’s immediately present.
Perhaps the most famous example of this sort of narrator would be James Joyce’s story, “Araby,” the story of a young boy who’s quite smitten with a friend’s older sister, so smitten that, when he finds out she can’t go to the bazaar of the title, he tells her that if he goes, he’ll buy something for her. “What innumerable follies laid waste to my waking and sleeping thoughts after that evening,” the narrator tells us. “I wished to annihilate the tedious intervening days. I chafed against the work of school. At night in my bedroom and by day in the classroom her image came between me and the page I strove to read.” As with the reflective narrator, here we have a narrator telling a story of something that happened in his past. Joyce makes that clear with the opening sentence: “North Richmond Street, being blind, was a quiet street except at the hour when the Christian Brothers’ School set the boys free.” Whenever a first-person narrator speaks in the past tense, we can only assume the act of the telling is taking place at some degree of remove from the story being told. That fact alone, though, doesn’t merit the status of a reflective narrator.
For the most part, as Joyce’s story opens, the narrator focuses on the details of setting and character that were known to him at the time: “the short days of winter dusk,” the shadow of the friend’s sister on her doorstep, the coin (a florin) the narrator’s uncle gives him to spend at the bazaar. There’s little or no attempt to interrogate the past, to speculate on meaning, as is the case with the reflective narrator. This choice of narrative approach serves the intention of the story. Joyce’s narrator is caught up in the whirl of first, obsessive infatuation. To utilize a reflective narrator would be to take the character out of that whirl and to lessen its effect. Joyce’s narrative strategy which gives the narrator tunnel vision is appropriate for the intended effect. Even at those moments when the narrator clearly speaks from a wiser position, as in the passage I quote above about his impatience with “the tedious intervening days” before the bazaar, the narrator doesn’t interrogate or speculate on the whys of his obsession. He is simply obsessed, and when one is obsessed there is, of course, little room for contemplation.
Joyce creates the world of the adolescent boy, immerses us in it, and sweeps us along to the night of the bazaar and his uncle’s late arrival home which makes our narrator arrive at the bazaar just as it’s shutting down. Joyce keeps the narrator firmly under rein within the sequence of events until the very end when a young lady at one of the stalls asks if he wishes to buy something. It’s clear to the narrator, though, that she really doesn’t want to sell him something. She wants to pack up and go home: “The tone of her voice was not encouraging; she seemed to have spoken to me out of a sense of duty.” The young girl pricks the balloon of adolescent infatuation that that the narrator has been living in, and, once she does, the narrator’s obsession begins to fade, and he’s able to be just a tad bit reflective as he notices the tone of the young girl’s voice: “I looked humbly at the great jars that stood like eastern guards at either side of the dark entrance to the stall and murmured: “No, thank you.” The stage is set, then, for the final move of the story, the one that forces the narrator to look closely at himself and his obsession, a passion for which the world at large has little use as evidenced by the young girl’s perfunctory question of whether the narrator wanted to buy something and then the gradual shutting off of the lights in the great hall. Rising up in this story is the truth that our obsessions are rarely acknowledged or validated by the world around us. The last sentence of the story, spoken from a wiser narrator, makes clear what the pressures of the plot have forced him to see: “Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.” This is what we might call, the come-to-Jesus moment, the one that requires the narrator to leave his obsession—“I allowed the two pennies to fall against the sixpence in my pocket.”—and to face the undeniable truth about it and about his own vanity. Charles Baxter says in his essay, “Against Epiphanies,” prefers to think of these moments as “unveilings.” “We watch,” Baxter says, “as a hidden presence, some secret logic, rises to visibility and serves as the climactic revelation. . . .The world of appearances falls away, and essences show themselves.”
So the narrator with blinders on comes to a place where the circumstances of the plot demand his attention. The tunnel vision prior to the unveiling is necessary for the effect of the story, which is one of a narrator coming to know. The knowing comes with a swiftness the blinders narrator can’t see. This approach requires a focused attention on the details and the elements of the dramatic present—in the case of “Araby,” the obsession with the friend’s sister, the delay in getting to the bazaar, and the disappointment that follows. To write this type of first-person story, writers must practice a good deal of restraint, as they let the plots of stories and the choices of people exert their pressures on the characters. Finally, in these kinds of stories, the writers must imbue their narrators with their own astute observations of human nature. To be obsessed is to close off the world and to operate from the demands of the ego.
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