Dueling Narrators: Exploring Narrative Distance in Tracks
For a novel rife with references often complicated for non-native readers to understand, the narrative discord created within Tracks between Pauline and Nanapush only complicates the reading further. The variations in distance between the narrators and the characters, the narrators and the reader, and the narrators themselves work to create a dynamic that encourages the reader to favor one narrator’s account over the other. Both narrators exemplify narrative distance or closeness in terms of intellect, emotion, and temporality in relation to the other characters, and this in turn impacts the reader’s relationship to each narrator. When such narrative distance is analyzed, Nanapush can be favored as the most reliable and likeable narrator, despite his trickster nature and his discord with Pauline.
The existence of Pauline as a dual narrator-character evokes an emotional and intellectual distance between herself and the other characters. Her self-imposed martyrdom for the Catholic Church allows Pauline to extend herself past the troubles found in her Ojibwa community and escape from its emotional consequences. Although it provides a fascinating psychological break for the reader from the government imposed strife rupturing the lives of the other characters, Pauline becomes intellectually and emotionally distanced from the others. She even acknowledges her distance from the Matchimanto community: “I had told Superior this would be my one last visit…They would not miss me. I was pledged to a task, and when it was accomplished I would have no further use, or quarter, for this lost tribe of Israel” (Erdrich 196). Here, she explicitly acknowledges the extent to which she has severed her relationships with the others by making it clear that this is her last visit and that she knows she will not be missed. She has continuously taken her Christian identity to the extreme, and by doing so, she makes it very clear that the other characters are unable to understand or devote themselves to God as she has been called to do. It is because of this that they will not grieve each other’s absence. She is so willing to separate herself from her previous Ojibwa identity that it makes her frustration with the other characters for not being as devout all the more apparent. Her intellectual distance, therefore, exists because of religious dissonance, and her emotional distance exists because she is able to distinguish herself with a separate Christian, and seemingly white, identity. When combined, she becomes so distanced from the reality of the other characters that her account of their lives becomes all the more tinged with unreliability.
Pauline’s shifting back and forth between her journey at the convent and time spent on her native homeland creates a temporal fractures in her account. When this is combined with unclear moments of retrospection, like chapter four’s “In the years to come, I learned Her in each detail” (92), and the range of years that each chapter supposedly covers, it becomes even more difficult to accept her account as an accurate reflection of the plight of the other characters. For the reader, it evokes confusion as it is difficult to grasp a clear timeline as to when she is receiving what information and, in turn, when she chooses to reveal it to the reader. In her chapters, the reader still inherently relies on Pauline’s account of what is happening to the larger community, and when she chooses to distance herself by joining the convent, the reader loses the sense of temporality that Nanapush better provides. It is because of this that Nanapush becomes more temporally close to the reader as Pauline evokes more distance. Her escape to the convent confuses the linear progression of fact, and this is immediately evident when she begins to narrate chapter eight. The immediate transition from Nanapush’s account of Nector supposedly taking the money to pay the tax at the end of chapter seven is directly juxtaposed with Pauline’s very personal and self-centered focus on detailing her self-proclaimed martyrdom as chapter eight commences. This positioning of narrative transition indicates a clear divide between the differences in the distances of both narratives, and it leads to the reader’s inclination to favor Nanapush as the most reliable narrator.
When compared to Pauline, Nanapush seems to be the more relatable narrator, and at surface value, it seems to be because of his wit and good intentions. By taking a closer look at his character, however, it seems that his likability stems from his intellectual, emotional, and temporal closeness to the other characters. Unlike Pauline, he is more prone to staying in touch with the other characters, and he is also more inclined to relay information pertaining to the government problem (intellectual closeness) and its consequences in a timely manner, as he is more likely to be remain in close proximity to the others (temporal closeness). He worries about the conditions in which his people are forced into, and it is his genuine desire to help those that he loves that indicates the extent of his emotional and intellectual closeness to the other characters. The following quote indicates the depth of his emotional closeness to Lulu and Fleur: “I am a man, but for years I had known how it was to lose a child of my blood. Now I also knew the uncertainties of facing the world without land to call home. I recognized the signs in Fleur” (187). He goes out of his way to consult Moses Pillager for help in soothing Fleur and has also helped to gather funds to “save the Pillager allotments and us all” (187). Nanapush’s active expressions of his care for the others mediates the divide that Pauline creates to split herself as a distinct entity. Therefore, it is because of Nanapush alone that the reader can become the most empathetic with and relate to the other characters’ sufferings.
Overall, Nanapush seems to be the most trustworthy and likable narrator because he is able to express an exponentially larger amount of closeness between himself and the other characters and, consequentially, himself and the reader. His assertions that Pauline cannot be trusted only fuel the reader’s motivation to believe him more. The following statement by Nanapush further suggests that Pauline’s separation by religion is a selfish, self-serving act and that she is not to be trusted: “…for the still look in Pauline’s eyes made me wonder, so like a scavenger, a bird that lands only for its purpose” (189). His purpose is greater than Pauline’s in that he is more focused on the well-being of the collective than he is about his personal religious journey. Despite Pauline’s assertions of Nanapush as an “arranger of secrets” skilled at creating “manufactured humiliations” (196), Nanapush succeeds at convincing the reader that his interconnectedness with the greater Ojibwa community allows him to relay the most appropriate, realistic, and factual narrative.
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For a novel rife with references often complicated for non-native readers to understand, the narrative discord created within Tracks between Pauline and Nanapush only complicates the reading further. The variations […]