The Valley of the Shadow of Text
The introduction of the novel – or long form narrative prose in general – granted the writer a unique, widened canvas on which to blend rhetoric and art. Here, the writer is invited to both persuade and entertain, sometimes veiling one with the other. On this canvas, a writer has the ability to create an image of a world with a depth and breadth so like that of our own the two may appear indistinguishable. After establishing this image of verisimilitude, the writer – aided by a multitude of masks in the form of characters, voices, and various narration perspectives – is free to repaint the world according to their own vision, illustrating it as it truly is, should, or regrettably may come to be. That is not to say, however, that a writer’s re-imagined portrait of the world contains the entirety of their message. On a canvas as broad as that granted narrative prose, it is not uncommon for a writer to make extensive use of negative space. That is, what an author says may be defined implicitly by what is not said.
Two elements commonly manipulated in order to achieve this balance – or lack thereof – between positive and negative space are the perspective and identity of the narrator, as well as the chronology of the narrative. Although the very definition of the narrative structure essentially mandates the presence of these two elements in at least their most basic forms, the way in which a writer chooses to manipulate them can have as much significance to the work as the plot of the story itself. Two narrative works, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home actively rely on their chosen methods of employing these elements in order to create a distinction between positive and negative space throughout the story line. Although technically of different genres – one a traditional novel, one a graphic memoir – both The Remains of the Day and Fun Home make use of a first person narrator as well as retrospective chronology. In both works, these elements establish an uncertain foundation dominated by negative space, which the writers use to both structurally illustrate and thematically explore ideas of repression and lack of identity.
If the third person omniscient narrator wears the godly, all-knowing halo their title implies, then the first person narrator, by contrast, must then bear the flaws of man. Essentially, while the presence of a first person narrator is by no means a suggestion of evil, it does imply that the narrator carries some sort of dubious quality or other failure of note. Often, this “failure” is nothing more significant than the typical flaws intrinsic to the state of being human – that is, an inability to completely understand the circumstances surrounding a given event, or merely the natural propensity for human error. However, the presence of a first person narrator can also signal the possibility of a more significantly marred raconteur: the unreliable narrator.
In The Remains of the Day, Ishiguro employs an unreliable narrator in the form of Stevens, the central character of the novel. While any first person narrator is incapable of being completely reliable due to the general restrictions of human nature, their occasional inability to fully relate the truth is often only noted when it serves to mobilize some specific aspect of the plot. Stevens’s unreliability, however, implicitly drives the entirety of the novel’s plot. His inability to relate the truth – however unconscious – separates the novel from a peculiarly dull story of a devoted English butler, leaving instead a comment on the dangers of repression and the struggle to find identity.
Ishiguro does not waste time in identifying Stevens as an unreliable narrator. In fact, the opening sentence of the novel marks the narrator’s first wavering attempt at a declaration, with Stevens making the heavily diluted statement, “It seems increasingly likely that I really will undertake the expedition that has been preoccupying my imagination now for some days” (Ishiguro, 3). Here, Stevens’s apparent need to temper a seemingly inconsequential statement with dubious adverbs strongly cautions that he is unreliable, not only in a general sense, but particularly in expressing his own feelings and opinions.
Albeit rarely, Stevens does occasionally call his own record of events into question, in keeping with his characteristic obsession with detail. In one instance, after relating a past conversation between himself and Miss Kenton, Stevens begins to correct himself, saying, “Now that I think further about it, I am not sure Miss Kenton spoke quite so boldly that day… In fact, now that I come to think of it, I have a feeling it may have been Lord Darlington himself who made this particular remark” (Ishiguro, 60). Stevens’s obsession with detail – both as a narrator and a butler – in contrast with his obvious reluctance to express any kind of clear emotion or opinion highlight the depth of his repression. Ultimately, as a narrator, Stevens is considerably more valuable for what he does not say than for what he does. Ishiguro conveys far more in the gaps between Stevens’s unnecessary qualifying adverbs than Stevens himself ever does in his longwinded discussions on the merits of “Giffen’s, undoubtedly the finest silver polish available” (Ishiguro, 133).
As the novel continues, Stevens’s unnecessarily formal speech patterns and circuitous syntax remain unfaltering, and his reluctance to own his opinions and ideas becomes increasingly obvious as he recalls what should be progressively more intense memories. Stevens is perhaps most notably devoid of emotion when relating the death of his father. Although throughout the incident Stevens behaves in a characteristically cold and distant manner, his true susceptibility to emotion – and the depth of his desire to repress it – is betrayed by the eventual revelation of his crying at one point in the evening. The mere fact of Stevens’s crying however, is less significant than the manner in which Ishiguro conveys this information. At no point does Stevens himself explicitly relate this state of affairs. Rather, this revelation only comes to light through dialogue in which a guest at Darlington Hall remarks to Stevens, “You look as though you’re crying” (Ishiguro, 105). Even after this remark, however, Stevens as a narrator never confirms nor denies the claim, merely choosing to ignore it entirely. Here, once again, Ishiguro uses his unreliable narrator as a pawn, crafting the novel’s true narrative in the space left by what Stevens does not say.
As the novel continues, so does the correlation between the intensity of Stevens’s emotions and his attempts to distance himself from them. In one notable passage in which Stevens looks with regret on his actions, or lack thereof, in regards to Miss Kenton, he even goes as far as to substitute the appropriate first person pronouns expected of the narration style for the ambiguous, third-person pronoun “one,” saying:
“Naturally when one looks back to such instances today, they may indeed take the appearance of being crucial, precious moments in one’s life; but of course, at the time, this was not the impression one had. Rather, it was as though one had available a never-ending number of days, months, years in which to sort out the vagaries of one’s relationship with Miss Kenton…” (Ishiguro, 179).
Here, this shift in pronoun use is not only unorthodox, but also somewhat incongruous, and Stevens’s attempt at ambiguity is unconvincing and perhaps even logically inconsistent. There is no question as to the identity of the subject whose “relationship with Miss Kenton” Stevens is discussing, leaving his lapse into third person ambiguities merely another rhetorical maneuver to distance himself from his feelings. Here, Stevens is so reluctant to accept his own feelings and establish himself as an individual that he essentially resorts to momentarily abandoning his post as first-person narrator. In this way, Stevens’s unreliability not only signals his deeply ingrained tendency toward repression, but also its consequences. Here, Ishiguro illustrates Stevens’s repression leading him to essentially forsake his identity as the narrator, suggesting larger overall consequences of repression on identity.
Ultimately, as a narrator, Stevens is a kind of parody of himself, essentially serving the opposite function of a conventional narrator. While traditionally a narrator functions as a kind of tool or messenger through which an author projects their own ideas or opinions, Ishiguro deliberately talks around Stevens, rather than through him. As the reader gradually learns to see through Stevens’s watery claims and incomplete versions of events, Ishiguro’s own voice echoes within the negative space surrounding Stevens’s narrow scope of the world.
In composing a memoir, Alison Bechdel had significantly less opportunity for variation in selecting a messenger through which to convey her narrative. While Ishiguro was at liberty to manipulate his narration technique, ultimately creating a sharp contrast between himself and his narrator, the narrator of a personal memoir must almost necessarily be the author themselves. In this way, the narration styles of these two works – while both first person – initially seem quite different, with Ishiguro talking around his narrator, and Bechdel having no choice but to speak directly through hers.
However, while Bechdel cannot match Stevens’s all-encompassing unreliability, she is by no means unaware of her own lack of omniscience. In Fun Home, Bechdel explores a more casual kind of unreliability in the human incapacity to fully understand the circumstances surrounding a given event. Where Ishiguro builds his narrative in the negative space created by Stevens’s unreliability, Bechdel crafts hers within that created by the inevitable lapses in human knowledge.
For Bechdel, this idea of negative space or “reading between the lines” can be taken somewhat more literally, as – in producing a graphic memoir – she actually fills the space between her words with illustrations. In Fun Home, Bechdel primarily analyzes the lapses in her understanding concerning not only the circumstances of her father’s death, but also those of his life. One of the ways in which she seeks to fill these lapses is through her illustrations. Throughout the memoir, Bechdel includes a number of images depicting the death of her father – an event which she did not actually witness. In creating these illustrations, Bechdel is free to recreate and in some ways possess an important aspect of her life of which she has incomplete knowledge. Furthermore, although in words the threat of becoming unreliable forces Bechdel to temper her statements about the event, using qualifiers like “Maybe he didn’t notice the truck was coming” (Bechdel, 28), in her illustrations, Bechdel is free to recreate the event with no restrictions or other indications of uncertainty. In this way, illustrations allow Bechdel the opportunity to fill the lapses of knowledge that pervade her own narrative.
In other instances, however, Bechdel’s illustrations serve a different function. Often, Bechdel uses these images to subtly suggest ideas to a reader before explicitly conveying them in words. Before Bechdel actually comments on her father’s sexuality, for example, she includes an illustration in which she depicts him in church casting a questionable sideways glance at a procession of altar boys. Although Bechdel does accompany the image with the enclosed caption, separated from the rest of the page’s text, “But would an ideal husband and father have sex with teenage boys?” (Bechdel, 17), the illustration itself attempts to convey the idea with a kind of real life subtlety. Essentially, as a narrator, Bechdel attempts to accurately recreate the repression that dominated much of her family life, using illustrations to suggest ideas that, likewise, could only have been suggested to her at the time.
As first person narrators, both Bechdel and Stephens inevitably suffer imperfections that would not plague an omniscient narrator. Meanwhile, a sense of repression also dominates the lives of both narrators. In The Remains of the Day, Stevens’s repressive tendencies create a kind of negative space in which Ishiguro reflects the hidden truth in the voids left by the narrator’s repression. Bechdel, meanwhile, takes a different approach. Aware of the vacancies left in her life largely due to a familial tendency toward repression, Bechdel attempts to fill them, endeavoring to reclaim pieces of her life by re-rendering them in multiple art forms. In both cases, the authors manipulate the negative space left by the imperfections of their narrators in order to create a multi-dimensional narrative.
Along with similarities in narration style, The Remains of the Day and Fun Home also share parallels in the retrospective structure of their chronology. While Fun Home is told entirely in sporadic, nonlinear flashbacks, Ishiguro employs a somewhat more linear structure, featuring a running retrospective chronology interspersed throughout the present day timeline of the frame narrative. Both authors use these chronological structures not only to illustrate their narrators’ fixation on the past, but also the ways in which they use the past in an attempt to reconstruct their identities.
The frame narrative of The Remains of the Day follows Stevens on a six-day road trip to Cornwall in 1956. Although in this, as in all things, Stevens is “happy to have distractions kept to a minimum,” (Ishiguro, 52), he frequently lapses into reminiscences on his life at Darlington Hall in the 1920s and 30s. Stevens expresses annoyance at his own tendency to reminisce, at one point breaking off the narrative with the self-directed rebuke, “But I see I am becoming preoccupied with these memories and this is perhaps a little foolish” (Ishiguro, 67). However, as Stevens’s constant reminiscing continues largely unchecked, it becomes clear that Ishiguro plans to house the majority of the novel’s significance in this bulk of the narrative that Stevens does not strictly intend to relate.
Stevens’s flashbacks often end with a kind of brief summary or reflection, suggesting an attempt to reconstruct a favorable identity based on these recollections. In concluding the episode relating the death of his father, Stevens remarks, “For all its sad associations, whenever I recall that evening today, I find I do so with a large sense of triumph” (Ishiguro, 110). Similarly, after relating two separate instances in which he lied about his past association with Lord Darlington, Stevens concludes the incident with the somewhat incongruous assertion that, “In looking back over my career thus far, my chief satisfaction derives from what I achieved during those years, and I am today nothing but proud and grateful to have been given such a privilege” (Ishiguro, 126). Not only do these assertions about his past signal that Stevens feels a need to establish his identity, but his reputation as an unreliable narrator also suggests that he is failing to accurately do so.
Stevens’s fixation on the past gradually illustrates the fact that he has linked his identity inextricably to Lord Darlington and a life of subservience, essentially amounting to no true identity at all. Following Miss Kenton’s reminder that “There’s no turning back the clock now” (Ishiguro, 239), Stevens is forced to acknowledge his own lack of individual identity, lamenting, “‘I can’t even say I made my own mistakes. Really – one has to ask oneself – what dignity is there in that?’” (Ishiguro, 243).
Throughout the similarly retrospective chronology in Fun Home, Bechdel takes a more active approach in piecing together the shards of her past into a unified identity. While Ishiguro highlights the negative space created by Stevens’s lack of identity and reluctant obsession with the past, Bechdel again takes to substituting other art forms to fill the lapses in her identity. This time, Bechdel’s substitutions take the form of intertextuality, with the author illustrating parallels between events in her own life and various works of literature.
Perhaps the most comprehensive literary allusion Bechdel employs throughout Fun Home is one to the story of Icarus and Daedalus, which she relates to her relationship with her father. In the opening pages of the memoir, Bechdel, illustrated as a child, foreshadows her father’s impending demise in relation to the Greek myth, saying, “In our particular reenactment of this mythic relationship, it was not me but my father who was to plummet from the sky” (Bechdel, 4). As Bechdel continues through the carefully interwoven flashbacks and foreshadowing, she unifies the fractured chronology in which she presents her troubled life with constant literary allusions.
Later, Bechdel devotes a portion of the memoir to a comparison between her father’s life and the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald, claiming that “the parallels are unavoidable” (Bechdel, 63). In reflecting on her father’s fascination with Fitzgerald, Bechdel takes the intertextuality another step further, suggesting that “what was so alluring to my father about Fitzgerald’s stories was their inextricability from Fitzgerald’s life” (Bechdel, 65). In a sort of multi-step illustration of life imitating art, Bechdel seeks to draw parallels between the life and works of Fitzgerald and the life of her father, using both as crucial devices in her own work of art. After noticing her father and Fitzgerald died at the same age, Bechdel even goes as far as to suggest that her father “had timed his death with this in mind, as some sort of deranged tribute” (Bechdel, 86). Here, Bechdel makes very obvious use of intertextuality in an attempt to explain the circumstances surrounding her father’s death – a mystery that comprises one of the greatest lapses in her own life and identity.
As the memoir continues, the chronology remains decidedly nonlinear, with the scattered, sporadic timeline mirroring the turbulent nature of Bechdel’s life. Throughout the narrative, literary allusions in general remain a constant, with comparisons ranging from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest to the philosophical works of Albert Camus. However, amidst this proliferation of references, Bechdel both begins and ends her narrative with the Icarus allusion, concluding her memoir with the final comparison, “He did hurtle into the sea, of course. But in the tricky reverse narration that impels our entwined stories, he was there to catch me when I leapt” (Bechdel, 232). As Bechdel searches through the complex, erratic chronology of her narrative, this one running literary parallel remains a constant through which she can explain the otherwise inexplicable aspects of her life, gradually piecing together her identity.
In both works, the retrospective chronology obviously signals the narrators’ obsession with the past. Perhaps more significantly, this fixation on the past in turn suggests a dissatisfaction with the present. Both Ishiguro and Bechdel employ retrospective chronologies, once again crafting their narratives around negative space as they illustrate their narrators sifting through the past in an attempt to fill the voids left in their present day lives.
Long form narrative prose has the potential to mirror our own world so effectively that the two are at times almost indistinguishable. However, in composing a narrative, a writer has the additional opportunity to illustrate the unseen parts of the world as well. No narrative merely recreates an exact copy of the world as it is. Rather, narrative balances the known and the unknown, filling the canvas with equally important positive and negative space to create a multi-dimensional art form in which text is only as meaningful as the shadow it casts. Although given the space to recreate the world in great detail, the full sphere of a narrative ultimately depends on a writer’s ability to manipulate emptiness.
Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home. New York: Mariner, 2006. Print.
Ishiguro, Kazuo. The Remains of the Day. New York: Vintage, 1988. Print.
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