(In 2014, I think, I did this MOOC on coursera, called “Fiction of Relationship” by Prof. Arnold Weinstein. The following is the paper I’d written for the final submission in the 12 week course. I can’t emphasize enough on what a great impact this course has been. I did a shorter piece in Telugu recently on “Manto – Symbols – Religion: How Religion becomes superficial in his partition fiction.” I wish to do more.)
Literature gives the privileged record or custodian of one’s inner states , one’s metamorphoses, inevitably hidden from the outside world. The reader of the novel can voyage through these inner worlds and witness the minutest of transformations happening within. Despite these intimate tours, at the end of the exercise, any active reader is still left with challenges to understand the worlds inhabited, the people who cohabitated the protagonist. This paper tries to explore how the narrative techniques employed in three works, namely Manon Lescaut, Bartleby and Disgrace, limit the readers’ understanding by confining them only to certain territories.
Abbe Prevost uses frame technique – story within a story – in his novel Manon Lescaut. Because of the chosen narrative structure, the relationship between the voices of the narrator and De Grieux seems to be a lot closer, than with Manon Lescaut. The narrator tries his best to distance himself from the story being told, turns to a mere transcriber, in the very first chapter of the work, as follows:
“I should here inform the reader that I wrote down the story almost immediately after hearing it; and he may, therefore, be assured of the correctness and fidelity of the narrative. I use the word fidelity with reference to the substance of reflections and sentiments, which the young man conveyed in the most graceful language. Here, then, is his story, which in its progress I shall not encumber with a single observation that was not his own.” (Prévost Ch 1)
Manon-De Grieux’s story is an erotic novel of transgressive desires fulfilled and punished. Manon’s beauty has smitten the narrator and the narratee, both of them, turn the story into a kind of moral apologue articulating family obedience and sexual restraint. Because of the two masculine narrators, it is the voice of Manon Lescaut that gets suppressed. Though it is the story of this woman, the object of passion for De Grieux, the male impersonations and interpretations of Manon reduces her to nothing more than a symbol. She’s loved, she’s desired, she’s bought, she’s sold by men. But she remains an enigma to them, and therefore to the readers. De Grieux describes Manon, as follows, which showcases her as materialistic.
“Manon was a creature of most extraordinary disposition. Never had mortal a greater contempt for money, and yet she was haunted by perpetual dread of wanting it. Her only desire was for pleasure and amusement. She would never have wished to possess a soul, if pleasure could be procured without money. She never even cared what our purse contained, provided she could pass the day agreeably; so that, being neither fond of play nor at all dazzled by the desire of great wealth, nothing was more easy than to satisfy her, by daily finding out amusements suited to her moderate wishes. But it became by habit a thing so absolutely necessary for her to have her mind thus occupied, that, without it, it was impossible to exercise the smallest influence over her temper or inclinations.”
De Grieux also tells the reader that Manon said, “that in the situation to which we are now reduced, fidelity would be worse than madness?” The question raises ethical questions in the mind of the reader, making him wonder, why such a sexually active woman didn’t get pregnant in the course of the novel. Why did she die all of a sudden in the new world? What was it like with her health? The unreliability that De Grieux’s narration brings into the story, the already enigmatic Manon becomes even more elusive to the reader.
Coetzee’s Disgrace explores a unique father-daughter relationship. As the novel employs the third person limited narration, the reader is limited to Lurie’s point of view. While discussing the rape with Bev Shaw, he wonders about his daughter, “Are she and he on the same side?” (Coetzee Ch 18) Lurie takes pain to understand about women and Lucy in particular. “Menstruation, childbirth, violation and its aftermath: blood-matters; a woman’s burden, women’s preserve…. Perhaps he is wrong to think of Lucy as homosexual. Perhaps she simply prefers female company. Or perhaps that is all that lesbians are: women who have no need of men.” “Raping a lesbian worse than raping a virgin: more of a blow.” (Coetzee Ch 12 ) But his daughter dismisses him off, saying that he can’t understand what she has gone through. If this is a wall between the father and the daughter, because of the narrative technique, the reader is definitely put on the father’s side. The narrative doesn’t allow the reader any access to the inner thoughts of Lucy, leaving the reader with more questions than answers. Why was she living with Helen? Did she consider herself to be a lesbian? Why was she reluctant to move away from that area? Why she had to accept to be Petrus’s wife or whore? She becomes an unsolvable puzzle! As far as Lucy is concerned, the reader, like Lurie, has the same challenge: “he does understand; he can, if he concentrates, if he loses himself, be there, be the men, inhabit them, fill them with the ghost of himself. The question is, does he have it in him to be the woman?” (Coetzee Ch 18)
Melville’s Bartleby takes this to the far end of the spectrum. Here, the reader is given a story of a person, from a person who has no understanding of him. Unlike Coetzee’s case, where the narrator could have gone into details but didn’t go to, what Melville does is to employ a narrator who is as clueless about the protagonist, as much as his readers will be. Not even basic conversation happens between those two, as quoted below.
“‘Will you tell me, Bartleby, where you were born? ‘
‘I would prefer not to.’
‘Would you tell me anything about yourself?’
‘I would prefer not to.
‘But, what reasonable objection can you have to speak to me?’
‘I feel friendly towards you.’
He did not look at me while I spoke, but kept his glance fixed upon my bust of Cicero which is I then sat was directly behind me six inches above my head.
‘What is your answer Bartleby?’ said I.”
And the answer is,” ‘At present, I prefer to give no answer,’ he said.” (Melville)
Bartleby tests its readers the most. It is a fascinating literary experiment in which the narrator himself is clueless about the person whose story he is telling. The narrator creates something (a story) out of nothing (with zero understanding of his protagonist.) Now, the reader takes it to even further level, to create (or imagine) a person called Bartleby, looking for clues about why Bartleby behaves the way he does. Why does he say “‘I like to be stationary,” or “I am not particular”? Bartleby continues to haunt his readers, long after reading the story.
To conclude, the reader experiences the same challenges in understanding some of the characters in the literature, as he struggles to know or understand or empathize with the real people around him. Narrative techniques employed play a crucial role in defining the zones restricted for reader’s access. For all we know, the writers themselves may not know these characters. But that’s the point: literature while it helps us to make the voyages – to let the text enter us and let us enter the text, it also erects those textual walls which the reader can only break using tallies or guesswork. This is the puzzle of “fiction of relationship” or the relationship with fiction.