I’ve been away for far too long, I know. The semester is winding down, and I’m busy organizing my writing portfolio for submission in addition to the essay I need to submit for my Literature course. Both are humming along though I remain quite worried…. :/
In the aforementioned Lit course, we’ve been encouraged to compose little Reading Journals for each of the novels we’ve tackled this semester. The purpose of these journals is to train ourselves to read like writers versus just reading for the hell of it. It’s been an interesting learning process, forcing us to look at the text and narrative differently, to pick it apart – not from a literary point of view but from a technical one.
It’s odd to go over a Nabokov or Wharton with such an eye. Unlike the critic who assesses the novel in terms of themes, motifs, plot etc, we have to analyze it in terms of narrative choices the novelist made. How would alteration of the narrative voice (from First to Third for e.g.) have altered the story? What choice is the novelist making in terms authorial control? What are they trying to say through the voice they choose to give their narrator/s? It’s a disconcerting thing. I mean, even as a writer, I always approached books as a pure reader, accepting the choices the author has made without question or thought. There’s a certain blind trust involved here that we’ve been fighting against this semester.
I don’t know if you have or haven’t enjoyed these postings, but I leave you with the last one I have for the semester. It concerns that controversial, seductive, and haunting creation that is LOLITA….
I was more or less familiar with the narrative device used in LOLITA, that of the First Person confessional/testimonial, from my readings of Poe. In many of Poe’s short stories, the protagonist is recounting the crime that led him to his present state (awaiting execution or languishing in a cell), such as in The Tell-tale Heart or The Black Cat. So I was familiar with the use of First Person narration for such purposes, and I was prepared for the heightened emotion it would invariably bring.
Nabokov must be aware of this, since he gives us the enigma that is Humbert Humbert, a person who vacillates between self-loathing and proud boasting, who is at once charismatic and achingly pathetic. Without this delicate balance to his character, in addition to the irony and cheeky humor he exhibits, the reader would likely have put the book down in frustration.
In LOLITA, the narrator, poor Humbert, is writing a memoir/confession/testimony in which he describes/justifies/validates his relationship with the child Lolita. He uses First Person to achieve this, though he does slip into a quasi-Third Person narration at times when he is adopting the voice of someone observing him (sections 5, 13, 29, etc, far too numerous to mention.) It feels like another way in which Humbert reassures the reader.
The narrator goes to great pains throughout the text to reassure his readers that, despite his perversions, he is not a monster, that he genuinely cared for Lolita and had no interest in doing her serious harm (again, the instances are too numerous to itemize). But sometimes he slips into Third when he is about to reveal something particularly distressing, such as when he attempts to molest a drugged Lolita in the motel room. It’s as though he is aware that First Person is far too intimate and produces far too much immediacy in the reader, and he wishes to spare us that.
A First Person narration forces us to, as Iser says, ‘suspend the ideas and attitudes that shape our own personality before we can experience the unfamiliar world of the literary text.’ Iser continues, ‘It is only by leaving behind the familiar world of his own experience that the reader can truly participate in the adventure the literary text offers him.’ This is what First Person narration does. It forces the reader into the psyche of the protagonist, induces us to think his thoughts and view matters from his perspective. This is particularly jarring when the protagonist is someone we would be inclined to immediately detest, such as a murderer or pedophile. At the same time, it is an effective way of humanizing such characters, making them more than the one-dimension we might otherwise ascribe to them. If LOLITA were told in Third Person only, we would not find ourselves sympathizing with Humbert, nor would we have that powerful reaction when we realize we are falling onto the side of a pedophile – someone we’re meant to be firmly against, no matter the circumstances.
Everyone has an opinion on Lolita What’s yours?