I have noticed an odd trend in some historical fiction books that I have picked up over the past few years. Authors have decided to break the fourth wall and have their narrator speak directly—and consciously—to the reader. While elements of this trend can be found in earlier pieces of literature, I find the way it is used by modern writers (for the most part) to be annoying. A narrator can be trustworthy or not, but his main purpose is to lead the reader along the path the writer wants, to set the tone and pace of the story, and to bring about the conclusion at the appropriate time. The controlling narrator comes off as overbearing and even snooty, and perhaps that’s due to the time period that the texts I have been disappointed in take place. It’s very possible that it could be the way that the writer has chosen to interpret the voice of the Victorian period. Regardless, it is a trend that I am certainly not a fan of and will not be utilizing in my own writing.
Shakespeare is perhaps the most noted writer to break the fourth wall. His use of soliloquy is often framed in this fashion in literary discussions. My favorite soliloquy comes from Richard III and reveals how morally decrepit the speaker is and it’s simply delicious.
Now is the winter of our discontent/ Made glorious summer by this sun of York;/ And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house/ In the deep bosom of the ocean buried…./And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,/ To entertain these fair well-spoken days,/ I am determined to prove a villain/ And hate the idle pleasures of these days./ Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,/ By drunken prophecies, libels and dreams,/ To set my brother Clarence and the king/ In deadly hate the one against the other” (Richard III Act 1 Scene 1)
Obviously Richard couldn’t say these things to another person because they would have tried to stop him from going through with the plots (unless he had a villainous partner in whom he could confide). Therefore, Shakespeare was left with quite a conundrum: how to best reveal Richard’s angst so the audience was not left in the dark. He couldn’t reveal inner thoughts on a page like you can with a novel or short story. The soliloquy, a speech addressed to the audience so they could be “in the know”, solved the problem and served as a verbal but inner monologue.
While the soliloquy serves a paramount purpose in the theater, it has been suggested to me that the soliloquy does not in fact break the fourth wall. I had an interesting conversation with a friend last night who proposed that the soliloquy does not break the fourth wall because the character is not aware of the audience (though the actor is). He also mentioned musicals. Do the characters burst into song simply because they felt the need, or are they aware of the fact that there is an audience watching them? I had no answer because, of course, there is no way to really know the answer to these questions. But the fact that my friend chose to challenge the conventions I have come to accept due to the attestations of numerous past Shakespeare teachers and professors left me astounded. He had opened my mind to new possibilities with narration.
So how does this all relate to the overbearing narrator? The overbearing narrator is aware that he/she has an audience, just as my initial understanding of the soliloquy suggests. You get examples of this in various pieces of literature. While the text itself tells the reader what to think, you have the narrator physically telling the reader what to think in addition to the way the text leads us along. One would expect the narrator who speaks directly to the reader to have a very strong presence in the story. But I find that the element becomes distracting and a little annoying if it is not handled correctly.
Perhaps what I don’t like about this narration style (in the examples I have experienced) is the way that the narrator directs the reader’s eyes. I know that the narrator does this anyway by showing us what he or she chooses. But in these cases, the narrator specifically tells you that your eye goes to a certain site. It feels like telling versus showing, which is not really a sign of good writing. Or it just could be, I am just turned off by the use of the second person.
While I really dislike the idea of referencing specific works for the purpose of a negatively minded critique, I felt it was important to give examples. The books that I am choosing as examples have great stories to tell and the writing is well executed, I just wasn’t a big fan of some of the tactics that the writers chose to employ to tell it.
The first book I read that utilized this literary mechanism was The Crimson Petal and the White, a novel written by Michel Faber and published in 2002. The story takes place in the Victorian era. The writer tells pieces of the story in second person. It’s an interesting device because the reader is literally walking down the streets observing the people and the narrator functions like a tour guide. But the tone feels condescending. The narrator chooses to show us the grittiness of Victorian London, which is great because writers usually tone that stuff back. But the narrator and the writer seem highly aware of the fact that they are doing this and thus view themselves as superior. Not only does the narrator tell the reader what he or she is thinking, he sometimes seems to reprimand them for that thought. “And yet you did not choose me blindly. Certain expectations were aroused. Let’s not be coy: you were hoping I would satisfy all the desires you’re too shy to name, or at least show you a good time,” (The Crimson Petal and the White). Personally, I don’t like being told what I think, especially if I’m going to be criticized in the next line for thinking it.
The second book I encountered that wrote from this perspective was The Map of Time by Felix J. Palma published in 2005. This story also takes place in the Victorian era and brings in many famous writers as characters. The complexity of this story required an omniscient narrator to keep all the pieces in order, and typically I like omniscient narration. This narrator directly addresses the reader on a number of occasions and tells you when you are moving on to a new character or to remind you that he knows what he is doing when it comes to telling the story. “Assuming you stay until the end, some of you, no doubt, will think I chose the wrong thread with which to begin spinning my yarn,” (The Map of Time). For this story, I didn’t really think that this device was necessary. Nor did it add anything of merit to the story. Really, I think he was trying to adopt a device used in some Victorian tales to help the reader feel like he/she is further entrenched in the time period.
There are occasional examples of modern texts that I have read that employs this tactic well. One of my favorite books is The Book Thief by Markus Zusak published in 2006. The narrator in this story is actually a named character. He is death. Outright, I love the idea of such an entity relating a story because it’s unique. “Of course, an introduction. A beginning. Where are my manners? I could introduce myself properly, but that’s not really necessary. You will know me well enough and soon enough depending on a diverse range of variables,” (The Book Thief). This narrator is not overbearing and does not tell the reader what to think. He makes observations, but does not make assumptions. He’s just a very well executed character.
The concept of the narrator who directly addresses the reader and comments on their thoughts may be frustrating for me as a reader, but it is rather intriguing from a critical theory perspective. There are those who debate about where the influence of the writer ends: is it when he or she finishes writing? Or does he/she continue to influence the reader after the writing is finished? Basically, does the writer leave a piece of him/herself in the story that continues to influence the reader after the piece has been put out into the world? When posed with this question in the past, I would waffle between yes and no. But with this style of narration, it would seem that the influence is infinite and continuous.
Because of the issue concerning the influence of the writer on the reader and the intriguing layers that the narrator talking at the reader suggests, I find that I must ask about the motivations of the above writers for employing this narrative tactic. Are they using this style to give their story a more Victorian feel. Or, are they trying to extend their influence on the reader? And of course, that opens a whole new can of worms (please forgive the cliché) as discussed above.
While the narrator who directly addresses the reader may be a trend that is just being played with, eventually, it may evolve and find a place in the literary tradition. I do applaud the writers for striking out and trying something different. It certainly helps to rile things up when you have a new perspective. This one just didn’t really work for me.
4 thoughts on “Narrative Perspective: The Overbearing Narrator”
I love this post! It’s funny: the first time I bought Crimson Petal and the White, that device annoyed me so much that I threw the book away. But then, years later, I gave the book another go and wound up enjoying it! I agree that the over-familiar narrator wasn’t the best decision.
I enjoyed the book when I read it, too! The writer does lots of interesting things. Thanks for reading!
The pervasive or overbearing narrator goes way back. Henry James is noted for this style and at times it drove me bats while reading. It almost comes across as voyeuristic (are you following these people or what–how do you know what they’re doing?) It goes beyond omnipotent and is a bit uncomfortable from a modern standard.
Voyeurism is a great way to describe this! I never read a lot of Henry James, but it is a trope I encountered frequently in texts like Middlemarch, The Moonstone and others.
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