The Effect of Narrative Style in “The Man Who Thought Himself a Woman”

Narration style plays a significant role in the way an audience receives and interprets a story. An intrusive narrator can manipulate a reader’s understanding of a specific character or event based on the narrator’s personal biases and imposed judgement. The narrator of “The Man Who Thought Himself a Woman” is opinionated and critical of the story’s characters. The story has a different effect due to the intrusive narrator’s biases. Japhet, the tale’s main character, is denied any sympathy from the narrator and is painted as an oddity through the narrator’s choice of language. The audience lacks a deeper understanding of Japhet’s internal struggle due to the narrator’s superficial characterization of Japhet, which is harmful to the effect of the story. The insensitivity and implicit bias of the narrator of “The Man Who Thought Himself a Woman” reinforces societal gender norms and provides negative representation of individuals that redefine their gender identity by painting Japhet as a spectacle.

The narrator portrays Japhet as an odd character and an outcast from the very beginning. This representation of them predisposes the reader to be judgmental of the character and perceive Japhet’s gender expression as strange. The first sentence of the tale reads: “Japhet Colbones was a very odd individual” (Looby 94). This is the first characterization of Japhet and the reader’s first impression of the character. It is clear the way the narrator wants the audience to perceive Japhet; They leave no room for the reader to construct their own interpretation of Japhet’s behavior. The narrator accounts the ways in which Japhet’s male ancestors were perceived as odd, including his great-grandfather’s reclusive and neglectful nature and his father’s excessive love of literature and antiques (Looby 94-95). Japhet is immediately put in a box with these other “odd” male family members, which invalidates their gender expression from the beginning and writes off their experience as simply another “freak.” The language used by the narrator to categorize the family is reductive and implies judgement. In the first few pages of the tale, the narrator’s intrusive style prematurely affects the way the reader perceives Japhet’s upcoming struggle.

Japhet is judged by his peers and the narrator for their interest in female-dominated skills. From a 21st century reader’s perspective, the narrator noticeably reinforces normative gender roles and depicts masculinity and femininity as opposing forces rather than a spectrum. The word “odd” is used repeatedly to describe Japhet’s interests and lifestyle. In reference to Japhet’s knitting and sewing skills, the narrator proclaims: “His family grew accustomed to his odd ways” (Looby 97). The language used implies that Japhet’s interests are something to be questioned and that they are out of the ordinary. Yet, young women are expected to adopt these skills and learn other domestic duties. This double standard is perpetuated by the narrator’s judgement. There is a clear expectation on the part of the narrator of what men and women “should” pursue as interests. Japhet is not the only character that is judged based on their non-normative relationship with gender roles. The narrator makes a point to mention that the sisters, Drusy and Fanny, are unmarried (Looby 101). A 19th century woman was expected to marry and fulfill a domestic lifestyle, which is perpetuated by the narrator. Although this is a small moment, it is impactful in the context of thinking about “The Man Who Thought Himself a Woman” as a commentary on gender expectations.

The climax of the story, in which Japhet is discovered cross-dressing by their sister, is treated with little sensitivity and reinforces this tale as one that intends to make a spectacle of Japhet. This scene may have been an opportunity to provide positive representation for individuals that defy imposed gender norms; Yet, the narrator’s bias comes through in the language of the scene and Japhet’s cross-dressing is painted as scandalous. When the sister discovers Japhet, the narrator explains: “Drusy stood on tip-toe, taking in the whole scene and its ludicrousness at a glance” (Looby 104). The way this moment is narrated is problematic. The narrator depicts Drusy as a veuyer, looking in on Japhet’s private and intimate moments. The word “ludicrousness” implies that Japhet’s cross-dressing is not only atypical, but invalid and worthy of embarrassment. As the narrator describes Japhet’s behavior, they state that Japhet “began to walk back and forth with as much air and gait of a woman as he could assume.” The narrator also refers to Japhet as an “imaginary woman” (Looby 105). The narrator continues to invalidate Japhet’s gender expression here. They implicitly state that although Japhet may mimic the behavior of a woman and dress in the appearance of a woman, they cannot truly be a woman. Not only does this passage impose judgement, it can be perceived as offensive by 21st century readers. The narrator holds the idea that gender is not self-expressive, but rather biological. These implicit biases affect the way the reader understands the story and prevents them from understanding Japhet’s internal struggle.

The scene of Japhet’s death dehumanizes them and dishonors their gender identity. The scene is harshly written and reinforces the idea that Japhet is a strange spectacle, rather than a human being with a valid gender identity. In reference to Drusy’s discovery of Japhet’s corpse, the narrator proclaims: “It was a most fearfully grotesque object” (Looby 107). While the site of a corpse may certainly be grotesque, the reference to Japhet as “it” or an “object” is dehumanizing. The narrator’s bias is very explicit in this final scene. Japhet is treated as sub-human and the presentation of them as a spectacle intensifies. The reader is told that crowds came to view Japhet’s corpse and “the wonder grew” as the crowd noticed Japhet’s intricate and meticulous expression of their gender identity (Looby 108). The narrator’s word choice paints Japhet as “other” and something to be fascinated or confused by. The idea that a crowd of people are complicit in the judgement of Japhet in their death is unsettling and unfair to the character. Virtually the only internal emotion the reader gets from Japhet is from their suicide note on the final page of the tale. This is the only moment in the tale where Japhet is humanized. Yet, the ending is shockingly curt and little is said that implies sympathy for Japhet on the part of the narrator. The reader sees that their wife Tiddy is grieving, yet we are left with the lasting image that Japhet’s death was something to be celebrated. There is a mention of a “great bonfire” that will take place when Japhet’s father is laid to rest, as the women of the Colbones family will be freed from the oddities of the men (Looby 108). The ending is morbid and somber; Yet, it is not because the narrator conveys sympathy or commiseration for the situation. The ending is emotionally powerful for a 21st century reader because Japhet is dehumanized and Japhet’s death is portrayed as wondrous rather than mournful.

The narrator’s style prevents the reader from connecting with Japhet and understanding their experience with gender identity. Much of the tale is told from the family’s perspective rather than Japhet’s. Therefore, Japhet’s character is subject to judgement from the family and the narrator. If the story were told from Japhet’s perspective, in which the reader would have access to Japhet’s internal struggle, their character may have been humanized and properly represented. As a 21st century reader, one recognizes that this piece may have been progressive during the time that it was written. However, from a 21st century perspective, the effect of the tale is judgmental and poorly representative of non-normative gender expressions.