The Unattainability of Truth

May 7, 2019 by Essay Writer

Truth is a universal theme that has been the fascination of people since the dawn of time. It is the underlying, almost primal reason that urges mankind to progress; a noble quest for knowledge, and an uneasiness that the essence of truth will always linger at our fingertips, nudged just beyond our grasp. Postmodern novelists, Ian McEwan and Tim O’Brien communicate a fascination for truth-seeking in their respective novels, Atonement and In the Lake of the Woods. This is displayed throughout both books, exploring perspective, the role of the subconscious and use of deceit, in order to engage readers in consideration of the importance of truth; not only in fiction, but in daily life.

In both novels, the author highlights the unreliability of subjective truths through the use of different character perspectives. In Atonement, the omniscient narrator shifts to present one perspective against another, at times offering several character’s viewpoints of the same event. An example where this is illustrated is in Robbie and Cecilia’s dramatic scene at the fountain, where McEwan juxtaposes a stifled, “writhing”[1] account of events between the two with Briony’s imagined “proposal of marriage”[2] as she watches the same scene, interpreting it initially to be the “stuff of daily romance”[3]. McEwan then emphasizes the fallibility of recall “in three separate and overlapping memories”[4]. Similarly in In the Lake of the Woods, the use of “evidence”[5] and imagination or “hypothesis”[6] provides vastly different perspectives for the reader. All characters have their own theory as to the disappearance of Kathy, each with their own preconceptions and factors that make their account biased and unreliable. For example, Tony Carbo “love[s]”[7] John’s wife, and so may be predisposed against him; Vincent Pearson insists that the John “did something ugly”[8] time after time, yet Arthur Lux claims that Pearson is a “theory man”[9] and that he himself “deals in facts”[10]. Yet, Lux also mentions that he voted for John for his “spit and vinegar”[11], creating another layer of intrigue. The differences in perspective presented around a single event serve to highlight the folly of relying on one’s own truth.

Another element that is present in both novels is the relationship between the subconscious mind and truth. The motif of Cecilia’s “blossoming need for a cigarette”[12] in Atonement is used to represent her desire for Robbie who is “lighting it for her”[13]. This is further expanded upon in the novel, where the narrator explains that Cecilia feels her father has “precise ideas about where and when a woman should be seen smoking”[14] and that “being at odds with her father[…]made her uncomfortable”[15] as she smokes on her descent down the stairs. Just as Cecilia’s father never manifests himself physically in the house and still has his presence felt, external societal expectations make Cecilia’s love for Robbie appear improper, and hence this truth becomes suppressed, only manifesting itself in her subconscious until her “blind[ness]”[16] is lifted. O’Brien uses suppression and the subconscious in a similar way to reveal truth. John Wade, the protagonist of the novel, is known to be “secretive”[17] and “the type to stew”[18], with an ability to “keep his mouth shut”[19]. He loves “tricks”[20] and has the ability to fool, not only others, but likely “himself”[21] too. John keeps his dark past “locked inside”[22] away from everyone including his wife, but his subconscious eventually brings it to light. The truth of how John’s past influences his “mental health”[23] develops in his subconscious as his mind descends further into chaos and “absurd[ity]”[24], repeating “Kill Jesus”[25], “yell[ing] things in his sleep”[26] and “boil[ing]”[27] plants as though he “couldn’t stop”[28]. In both novels, uncontrollable yearnings and actions that arise from the subconscious are used to reveal buried truths.

A final trait that is shared between the two novels is the use of actual events and settings to lull the reader into assuming truth. Atonement and In the Lake of the Woods are both metafictional works; the authors aiming to make the plot as believable as possible in the construct of the novel. The house in Part One of Atonement is described as “nothing more than an artificial island in an artificial lake”[29], being built in an older style despite being a newer house. In this way, the house serves as an analogy to the storyline, built in a way that disguises its actual construct, symbolizing deceit. Only at the end of Atonement does McEwan bring this symbol to relevancy, as the reader realizes that what was thought to be an account of “everything[…] relevant”[30] to the events that occurred in “truth”[31], was in fact deception. In contrast to this, O’Brien begins In the Lake of the Woods with a short paragraph, telling the reader that the novel and its characters are “creations of the author’s imagination”[32] and that the novel “must be read as a work of fiction”[33]. However, the report-like structure of the book with chapters serving as “hypothes[es]”[34] and “evidence”[35], used traditionally in scientific presentations, is a guise to deceive the reader’s subconscious into assuming logicality and reliability. In both novels, the event central is described in gritty and historically accurate detail: World War II for Atonement, and the My Lai Massacre for In the Lake of the Woods, providing relevancy and believability to both. Deceit is used by McEwan and O’Brien in their respective novels in order to make the reader question the role and importance of truth in a novel.

Both Atonement and In the Lake of the Woods are concerned with the role of truth: how it intertwines with and is virtually inseparable from fiction. Throughout both novels, the authors employ use of multiple perspectives of a single event to investigate the subjectivity that can be present in one’s own truth; the role of the subconscious mind in revealing truths, as well as deceit to further manifest the importance of such a thing. By doing this, both McEwan and O’Brien challenge the reader to consider where fact ends and fiction begins, or whether “the truth had become as ghostly as invention”[36]. Ultimately, these two novels lead the reader to consider that “truth” may be confined to the unique experience and knowledge of the individual, and hence in essence, be unattainable. [1] Ian McEwan, Atonement (London: Random House, 2001), 29. [2] Ibid, 38. [3] Ibid. [4] Ibid, 41. [5] Tim O’Brien, In the Lake of the Woods (New York: Penguin Books, 1994), 8. [6] Ibid, 303. [7] Ibid, 206. [8] Ibid, 30. [9] Ibid. [10] Ibid. [11] Ibid, 181. [12] McEwan, Atonement, 18. [13] Ibid, 26. [14] Ibid, 46. [15] Ibid, 47. [16] McEwan, Atonement, 111. [17] O’Brien, In the Lake of the Woods, 197. [18] Ibid, 103. [19] Ibid, 194. [20] Ibid, 46. [21] Ibid, 199. [22] Ibid. [23] Ibid, 133. [24] Ibid, 134. [25] Ibid, 191. [26] Ibid, 148. [27] Ibid, 133. [28] Ibid. [29] McEwan, Atonement, 163. [30] Ibid, 345. [31] Ibid, 346. [32] O’Brien, In the Lake of the Woods, 0. [33] Ibid. [34] Ibid, 53. [35] Ibid, 25. [36] McEwan, Atonement, 41.

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