Comparing the Presentation of the Inner Lives of their Protagonists
A weaver employs fragments from life, silk, raw yarns, wool, straw, perhaps even a few twigs, stones, or feathers, and transforms them into a tapestry of colour, shape, and form. An author’s work is similar, for she selects individuals, locations, images, and ideas, rearranging them to create a believable picture’. These elements are arranged around the main protagonist and so it is through the protagonist the reader interacts with the story, sees the world the author created, through the eyes of the character. This makes the characterisation and craft of the character essential, the ability to connect with an audience and get them to become engrossed and empathetic to the story and their respective protagonists. The closeness of the audience to a book is all dependant on how it is presented.
Therefore, with the books The Color Purple (1982) and The Perks of Being a Wallflower (1999), the narrative style plays a key role in describing, detailing and developing their respective main protagonists. Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower is told from the first-person perspective of Charlie, a heterosexual teenager who writes letters to an anonymous recipient. The importance of an empathetic main protagonist is what makes some novels harder to read for a general audience. The two texts studied here have emotion and empathy as the core emotions, both felt for and by the two lead characters. Therefore because of the emotional nature of the story and the narrative techniques, the reader must put themselves in the minds of the characters to fully grasp the story as a whole. They communicate honestly and provocatively as if they were writing a diary or even if the audience could hear their thoughts. The content never changes but the intimate nature of the writing brings the reader closer to the plot. This tool is at the core of the analysis of the two texts, and how they use varying techniques to present their characters, their viewpoints and the plot that revolves around them. A theory that is applicable here is that of Internalisation. In psychoanalytic theory, it is seen as an element of the superego, defined in Freud’s theory of psychic apparatus.
It is also referred to as the integration of attitudes, values, standards and the opinions of others into one’s own identity or sense of self. This is a trait displayed through both main characters, how their actions aren’t reflective of their inner monologues. This insecurity is gently woven into the writing and characterisation of not only the protagonists but also the characters and events around them. The will of the protagonists to have control over their lives is nearly non-existent, and so they become a passive audience in their own story. What makes them the defined protagonist is that even though they have no will to change the outside world, it still revolves around them because of the Epistolary form. Through this, both protagonists can, ‘use letter writing to reflect on (their) own and other’s’ lives, as well as to recognize and come to terms with (their) past and its implications for (their) future. ‘. This means that the inner lives of other characters can only be interpreted by the primary characters. Therefore there will be some bias in how the characters are presented, for example, if there is a relationship between them, the good aspects of them will be pushed forward while the bad will not be discussed in great detail at all. The main narration technique in both texts is the epistolary form. Each ‘chapter’ is a letter, addressed to the reader but under the name ‘Friend’ in The Perks of Being a Wallflower and ‘God’, ‘Nettie’ or ‘Celie’ in The Color Purple. The way that each novel presents their addressee can help the audience understand the way the world appears to the characters.
Charlie in The Perks of Being a Wallflower addresses the reader as a random person he had met, but one he hoped would listen. The first lines are ‘I am writing to you because she said you’d listen and understand and didn’t try to sleep with that person at that party even though you could have. ’ Introducing the reader as someone who knows Charlie vaguely already hints at a closeness to the character. The wider interpretation could read that anyone could know a ‘Charlie’, as he later mentions how he changed his name to something generic, keeping the anonymity and yet making the characterisation intimate and friendly. The innocence in the simplicity of the language shows the faith he holds and the trust he holds in whoever he addressed this letter to. The intimate language in regards to the line that the reader ‘. . . didn’t try to sleep with that person at that party even though you could have. ’ shows a boy who sees the simplicity in actions, and links decency and kindness. Author Peter Hollindale was quoted as saying ‘The fact remains that over the years since 1970 a highly intelligent and demanding literature has emerged which speaks with particular directness to the young adult mind—the mind which is freshly mature and intellectually confident, mentally supple and relatively free of an ideological harness. ’ This already reveals a lot about the character, in the first line alone.
The way the protagonists address a certain person is also revealing of the type of people they are. In The Color Purple, Celie addresses God and her sister. Two forces she deems higher than herself, more capable and therefore more authoritative. God because of her deep religious roots, and her sister because she isn’t as mentally handicapped as Celie is and therefore could look after her older sister if the need arose, despite Celie’s attempts as a younger child to shield Nettie from the harsh reality of the life of a black woman at the time. As she gets older, she realises that Nettie’s intelligence puts her in a better position than herself, and so encourages her to go on and do better things than become a housewife like herself. Now compared with Charlie in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, he is writing to a largely anonymous source. This technique is so the reader can already feel a deeper connection as it’s possible he is talking to them. But he specialises it specifically “because she said you listen and understand and didn’t try to sleep with that person at that party even though you could have. ” This gives the reader (and thus the addressee) a moral authority that feeds their ego as they read the book. Their relationship with those in authority is not just expressed in the use of epistolary form but also in their relationships with other characters.
Charlie looks to his group of friends for help in trying to ‘participate’ and so will almost obediently copy everything that they do in order to fit in more. Later in the book, Patrick starts a one-sided relationship with him, where he leads Charlie into potentially dangerous situations, riddled with drugs, drink and strangers. This environment is dangerous for someone as naive as Charlie who trusts others because they seem to have a better grasp on everything (when in fact they do not) and putting himself in danger. There is, in fact, one incident earlier on where he was taken in by the police after staying out in the snow all night. But the way his friends treat him cannot be mistaken for being his caretaker, they treat him like an adult. However, in some situations, with his childlike naivety and following of any form of authority, he must be handled differently. But as the reader, we have to infer the events as the biggest things are glossed over and the smallest things are made to seem bigger.
Moving on to The Color Purple, Celie is conditioned from her devotion to God to respect others the same way. She never knew anyone apart from Nettie that gave her similar respect in her formative years. This, therefore, skews her perception of men and believes them all to be able to treat her horrifically and she is meant to be okay with it. This vulnerability is exploited by Mr. _______ in the way he has her do almost everything in the house and never thanks her once. It is a harrowing reminder of the times of slavery that are still fresh in the minds of the black community in the book. This hypocrisy and exploitation go mainly over her head because she simply doesn’t know any better. This links to her understanding of the world, especially with her low IQ. This is not the only disadvantage of only one perspective of narrative. The characters themselves have an already distorted view of the world, Charlie and his mental illness, and Celie and her lack of education. This removes them from how the world is commonly viewed and alters it further than what the general audience is accustomed to. Their inner lives affect the audience’s perception of the inner lives of other characters in the story. Through Celie, Nettie is seen as a very intelligent and fragile person.
Because of Celie’s low IQ, Nettie seems more intelligent than she may be, and because of her protective nature, Nettie is seen as more vulnerable. In The Perks of Being a Wallflower, an opposite effect is seen through Charlie. He lacks the understanding of others so much, the audience lacks an in-depth understanding too. They learn trivial things, such as how Charlie describes Patrick ‘[Patrick] seemed like the kind of guy you could just walk up to at a football game even though you were three years younger and not popular. ’ Charlie takes certain character traits and mixes them together in a scenario to try and make sense of it. Celie however simply says that Nettie is ‘smart’ and ‘pretty’ because that is all she can understand. One goes in depth to understand emotions, and one can only skirt on the top of them. Both, however, cannot comprehend fully the emotions and lives of others, and must simply go by their interpretation, or the outside appearance of another.
Narration in which the character is not mature either mentally or physically, Robert Small says that narration in certain texts can ‘employ a point of view which presents the adolescent’s interpretation of the events of the story’ which results in ‘incomplete ‘growth to awareness’ on the part of the central character. ’ This is especially true in the epilogue of the book, where the abuse he suffered is never directly hinted at, and could technically mean anything. It is only heavily implied from other people’s reactions, like tears and anger from his parents and siblings. For Celie, the subject of sex is similar to Charlie. She never wants to have sex with Mr. _______ and so Shug helps her realise that until she enjoys it, she is still a virgin. ‘He git up on you, heist your nightgown round your waist, plunge in. Most times I pretend I ain’t there. He never know the difference. Never ast me how I feel, nothing. Just do his business, get off, go to sleep. . . You never enjoy it at all? she ast, puzzle. Not even with your children daddy? Never, I say. Why Miss Celie, she say, you still a virgin. ’ This alludes more heavily to Celie’s childlike nature and thoughts as she doesn’t realise that her not liking sex with Mr. _______ means that she could say no. She is complicit because she doesn’t know any different. She been has violated her whole life, even before she understands what sex means, not saying that she is pregnant, but that she is “big”. It is Shug who finally awakens Celie sexually as a result of her homosexuality. Again, something she doesn’t understand “She say, I love you, Miss Celie. And then she haul off and kiss me on the mouth. Um, she say, like she surprise. I kiss her back, say, um, too. Us kiss and kiss till us can’t hardly kiss no more. Then us touch each other. ” After all, “It is Shug Avery who forces Albert to stop brutalizing Celie, and it is Shug with whom Celie first consummates a satisfying and reciprocally loving relationship. ”As for the voice of the novel, a paper written by Robert Paul Wolff directly confronts the lack of critical analysis of the epistolary form. In his eyes, it isn’t a dismissal of (what some argue is) a basic genre, but “I really do think there is only one possible answer.
The Color Purple i a novel by a Black woman in which themes of lesbianism and abusive treatment of Black women by Black men come up. It just never occurs to the critics, including such sophisticated writers as Henry Louis Gates, that Walker might actually be a thoughtful, self-aware, intelligent author whose authorial choices are made deliberately for some deliberate artistic purpose. ” The purpose he describes is one where Walker is using the intimacy to draw attention to the abuse suffered in ex-slave households. Men who were once abused horribly by white men during the times of slavery had developed anger at the unfairness. As slavery was phased out, this anger spawned the abuse and mistreatment of black women, perpetuating the systematic abuse, stemming from the human rights crisis of slavery. The impacts of which stretch into modern times, one of the ways is through this book and the story it tells. However, if the narrative had been different, the impact may not have been as profound. Its use of a childlike character makes the reader feel even more pity for Celie, and the decline in Sophia’s spirit shows how degrading and destroying it is for women at the time. Slavery may have ended a few decades or so before this novel is set to start, but it had temporarily morphed into a different form of slavery, most especially for women. When it comes to the barriers Charlie faces, they are in no way as extreme as the abuse suffered en masse by African American women in The Color Purple, but they are significant internal barriers that impact on his ability to function normally. His social cues are lacking as a result of his depersonalization and PTSD after his aunt’s abuse. This makes him unable to function normally once his support is taken away from him, most especially when his friends leave him, both for college and after the incident with Mary-Elizabeth. This is where he has two major breakdowns, and the epistolary form helps bring it into sharp focus, much like in TCP.
While many people dismiss mental illness as it is an infliction invisible to the eye, the intimate perspective helps people realise that even if you cannot see what is happening, doesn’t mean there isn’t anything wrong. It acts like the closed doors of Charlie and Celie’s abuse, helps people forget that there is, in fact, something happening behind it. Chbosky was praised in this work for its shameless showing of what life is like for a large portion of teens not only in America, and not only in the late 20th century. The use of epistolary form in both novels adds a realism that both stories need. Hearing of a characters trauma; and in the instance with Charlie and Celie, their blissful ignorance of it; is meant to be as impactful as possible. In the third person, the effect is somewhat subdued, and while the first person is an improvement, the secretive style of epistolary form helps the reader feel like they are close to the characters, as they are reading correspondence that is deemed secretive. This exclusivity helps the reader engage as they feel honoured to have them share such details with them. Even this gives the characters a characteristic of trust. The narrative of the inner lives of these two characters is brought together by emotive language, intimate stylings, but most importantly, impeccable writing.
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