Tag Archives: Creative Writing

The Role of the Cross-Dressing Male in Literature For Children.

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The role of the cross-dressing male in literature for children serves to either reinforce societal gender norms or criticise them.  In order for the genre of cross-dressing to exist, however, the implied reader must already live in a society where dress plays a significant part in gender recognition and is generally practised as a social norm. Transsexual activist Nancy Nangeroni quoted that ‘It is not gender which causes problems; rather it is the imposition of gender on an individual by another.’[1]  Due to the socialisation of gender in Western societies, the cross-dressing male in literature for children is treated as the ‘other’. By discussing David Walliams’s novel The Boy in the Dress in comparison to Terence Blacker’s Boy2Girl, Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I will identify the key issues surrounding the cross-dressing male in literature for children such as masculine reinforcement, sexuality, humour, and gender performance.

Written in 2008, Walliams offers an original critique of the male child cross-dresser in his novel The Boy in the Dress by addressing the way that clothing can create ‘otherness’. The opening statement of the novel is ambiguous, ‘Dennis was different.’[2] This statement not only poses the question of what or who is Dennis different from but also puts Dennis into the category of ‘other’. The narrator proceeds by telling the reader that ‘When [Dennis] looked in the mirror he saw an ordinary twelve-year-old boy,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.11). This implies that Dennis is not ‘different’ because of his appearance but rather because ‘he felt different- his thoughts were full of colour and poetry, though his life could be very boring’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.11). In this quotation, the italicised ‘felt’ in addition to his thoughts of colour and poetry not only demonstrate Dennis’s aesthetic view of the world but also an unconventional representation of the traditional masculine expression. Social theorist Victor J. Seidler suggests that ‘expressing emotions allows men to connect to an aspect of their subjectivity that traditional forms of masculinity have denied them.’ [3] Walliams is demonstrating that Dennis is aware that he deviates from the stereotypical Westernised idea of masculinity and therefore, feels different.  

Masculinity in The Boy in the Dress, suppresses the protagonist’s subjective self. Walliams demonstrates this by exploring masculine reinforcement within the child’s family. When Dennis’s mother leaves home, his father makes a rule of ‘No crying. And worst of all- no hugging, (The Boy in the Dress, p.16). For Dennis, his father’s lack of emotion is a result of depression, (The boy in the Dress, p15). Fischer suggests that

men hardly disclose their personal feelings, and tend to conceal the expression of emotions like fear, sadness, shame, and guilt. This can be understood as a strategy to boost conventional masculinity.[4]

By repressing his feelings, Dennis’s father reinforces his masculinity to the detriment of his sons. The repercussions of his behaviour are installed in Dennis’s brother who tells that protagonist that, ‘Only girls cry,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.17). Walliams demonstrates the effects that masculine reinforcement has on Dennis’s freedom of choice. When the protagonist is encouraged to try on Lisa’s dress, ‘he imagines for a moment what he would look like wearing it, but then told himself to stop being silly, (The Boy in the Dress, p.83). Identifying his discomfort, Lisa reassures him by saying she ‘love[s] putting on pretty dresses. I bet some boys would like it too. It’s no big deal,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.83). This contemporary reaction to cross-dressing is a result of the ‘differences [that] have been found in the perceptions of men and women towards transgender behaviours and people. In general, women are more tolerant.’ [5]  Dennis however, is torn between what he desires and how he has been taught to behave, ‘Dennis’s heart was beating really fast- he wanted to say “yes” but he couldn’t,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.83-84). Walliams criticises the Western construction of masculinity by showing Dennis’s oppression due to the masculine reinforcement he receives at home.

Unlike Walliams’s criticism of masculinity, Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, published in 1908 promotes masculinity in order to reinforce Western gender norms. The character of Toad is represented as a carefree independent and wealthy animal with a disregard for societal rules. Following his imprisonment for joyriding, Toad’s female prison guard suggests that he dresses as a washerwoman to escape, explaining that ‘You’re very alike in many respects – particularly about the figure,’ [6] The character’s genderless shape allows him the ability to disguise himself. Dress for Toad is one of the ways that he can outwardly expose his masculinity in addition to gender performance and reputation.   It is for this reason that he is delighted when the original washerwoman suggests she should be tied and up and gagged before he escapes as she wants to keep her employment, ‘It would enable him to leave the prison in some style, and his reputation for being a desperate and dangerous fellow untarnished, (The Wind in the Willows, p.80).  The word desperate in conjunction with dangerous reasserts Toads masculinity as he is proving not only that his cross-dressing is a necessary deviance but one that enhances his power. Moreover, whilst the cross-dressing incident is presented as humorous, ‘Toad’s behaviour simply reinforces the normative gender binary rather than engaging with the subversive function of the carnivalesque.’[7]  For Toad, cross-dressing is a way for him to misbehave and divert attention from his true masculine self and as a result, gender binary is reinforced.

Gender performance is a key trope in male cross-dressing literature and highlights preconceived assumptions of gender roles. In Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, published in the United Kingdom in 1884, the protagonist is encouraged to wear women’s clothing in order to obtain information. Huckleberry’s friend Jim suggests that Huckleberry ‘put on some of them old things and dress up like a girl?’[8] In this instance, the act of cross-dressing is a fun experience and supplemented by an illustration by E. W. Kemble. This shows Jim kneeling down behind Huckleberry and laughing, whilst Huckleberry looks over his shoulder grinning and posing in a feminine manner. Flannigan suggests that

male cross-dressing is used for comedic purposes. The male cross-dresser, adored in feminine apparel worn in such an inexpert manner that his true sex remains no secret is a well-established comedic strategy,’ (Flannigan, p.135).

Flannigan’s suggestion demonstrates the reaction that the cross-dressing male has on its audience but fails to address the problematic response. In order for the act of cross-dressing to be deemed as comedic, the implied reader must already assume that the male character is acting incorrectly according to his perceived gender role. Walliams identifies this problem in The Boy in the Dress, by raising the issue of female inequality and the difficulty of femininity. Lisa suggests to Dennis that it’s ‘Not easy being a girl is it?’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.124). Furthermore, cross-dressing Dennis discovers the difficulty of being a girl:

Remember to cross your legs when you are wearing a dress, and most importantly, Don’t catch the boys’ eyes as you may be more attractive than you thought! (The Boy in the Dress, p.138).

In the above quotation, Walliams explores some of the rules of femininity. Not only is he discussing the female etiquette of ‘cross[ing] your legs’ but also the ways in which girls are sexualised by boys. The exclamation at the close of the quote illustrates male dominance, as it is the female who must divert her eyes from the male. Moreover, when Dennis’s father asks his son if he enjoys wearing a dress, Dennis replies, ‘Well, yes, Dad. It’s just…fun,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.167). The pause before ‘fun’ suggests that the protagonist is searching for the correct word that will console his father. Walliams is, however, criticising the way in which cross-dressing in literature for children is perceived as humorous. For Dennis, cross-dressing allows him the happiness that he normally suppresses whilst in his conventional male role, ‘He felt so happy he wanted to dance,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.100). This then raises the question ‘why are girls allowed to wear dresses and boys aren’t? It doesn’t make sense,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.175).  Dennis can see how illogical the typical Westernised view of cross-dressing is.

Sexual orientation is often explored in literature for children when a cross-dressing male is a main character.  In Terence Blacker’s Boy2Girl, written in 2004, Sam Lopez, is persuaded to cross-dress as part of an initiation into the Shed gang. The gang decide that Sam should go to his new school wearing girl’s clothes for five days. The novel is written with first person multiple narrators with the exclusion of the protagonist. This immediately demonstrates Sam’s lack of individuality. His first reaction demonstrates a common reaction to male cross-dressing, “You want me to be some kind of fruit?”[9]  Fruit or fruitcake is a common slang word that refers to a homosexual. [10] This association derives from the Victorian fin de siècle when ‘widespread contemporary fear[s] that perversion and deviation [from gender norms were] agents of degeneration.’[11]

This notion is also identified by Walliams in The Boy in the Dress when Dennis is caught by his Head Teacher wearing the orange sequined dress in school. The Head Master expels the boy and tells him ‘I am not having a degenerate like you in my school’, (The Boy in the Dress, p.163). Cross-dressing is often thought of as sexually motivated.  ‘Male cross-dressing is perceived as inherently sexual in nature (either in a fetishistic sense or in a homosexual context),’ (Flannigan, p.49). Sam’s reaction to cross-dressing in Boy2Girl demonstrates that the remnants of Victorian fear still remain. Similarly, in The Boy in the Dress, Dennis’s brother suggests that boys who read girls magazines are ‘Woofters!’(The Boy in the Dress, p.56), which is another popular term to describe the homosexual man. Whilst cross-dressing is identified as deviant behaviour in Walliams’s novel, Harrison suggests that cross-dressing can be referred to as:

“Gender Deviance” [which] simply refers to an individual who falls outside of our ordinary everyday understanding of male/masculine and female/feminine.’[12]

This critique raises the question of how the male child cross-dresser can be legitimately deemed as deviant when he is still in the early learning stages of his life and may not be fully aware of the Western gender ideology.

Walliams addresses gender ideology in childhood as problematic. In The Boy in the Dress, Dennis becomes bored due to his confinement within a socially constructed gender role. The word boring is mentioned eleven times throughout the novel and cross-dressing allows him to ‘feel like he [doesn’t] have to be boring Dennis living his boring life anymore’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.107).  This quotation illustrates the stifling effect that conformity has over the protagonist. Cross-dressing gives him a feeling of liberty. Walliams demonstrates this freedom through a change in narrative voice, from the third person to first, ‘I can be whoever I want to be,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.107).  The ‘I’, allows the character independent thought, whilst the repetition of ‘be’ gives him freedom of choice and finally ‘whoever’ is gender neutral.  The action of cross-dressing gives Dennis insight into life without gender conformity and he tells ‘Lisa I want to thank you for opening my eyes’, (The Boy in the Dress, p.207). Walliams is teaching the reader that gender should not be defined by what one wears.

The idea of gender neutrality is found in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the author demonstrates Huckleberry’s non-conformity due to his preference of wearing no clothes and his inability to accept and conform to civilisation:

We was always naked, day and night,[…] the new clothes Buck’s folks made for me was too good to be comfortable, and besides I didn’t go much on clothes, nohow, (Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Para.3 of Chapter 19).

In the above quotation, Twain demonstrates Huckleberry’s relaxed nature and how he is comfortable in himself without the stifling effects of clothing. In addition, the author points out that adults are a child’s source of clothing, therefore limiting their independence. Huckleberry’s nakedness makes him gender neutral as opposed to conforming to socially constructed masculinity.

Cross-dressing in literature for children is often used to either reinforce societal gender norms or criticise them. Walliams, however, demonstrates that cross-dressing simply means a person who does not conform to Western dress codes. Dennis identifies this in his Sikh friend because he is ‘the only one who [wears] a patka,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.63). Dennis asks, ‘Do you feel different Darvesh?’(The boy in the Dress, p.63). The emphasis on the italicised ‘you’ alters the tone of the question suggesting that Dennis is aware of segregation due social conformity of dress. Darvesh’s reply allows Walliams to highlight how otherness is socially constructed; ‘When mum took me to India at Christmas to visit Grandma I didn’t at all. All the Sikh boys are wearing them,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.63). Walliams is demonstrating how alienating clothing can be for children, not only in gender but also within a cultural context.

Walliams, at the end of The Boy in the Dress, addresses exclusion or ‘othering’ due to societal control over children’s dress. In order to include Dennis in the football match after his exclusion from school, the full football team dress in women’s clothing. Suddenly ‘There was a huge cheer from the crowd’, (The Boy in the Dress, p.192). Walliams normalises the act of cross-dressing to demonstrate that exclusion due to gender or cultural dress is unnecessary. The final message in the novel serves to convince the reader that clothes are irrelevant to gender;  Dennis notices a red jacket coming towards him ‘And then the red jacket turned into a man,’(The Boy in the Dress, p.196).This defies the contemporary Western ideology of gender binary through dress.

I found that many of the authors wanted to demonstrate the effects of socially constructed gender. In The Boy in the Dress, this meant that the protagonist felt alienated through his family’s masculine reinforcement. Both Walliams’s novel and Blacker’s Boy2Girl, highlight the discrimination towards the cross-dressing male, which illustrates an out of date notion of homosexuality being linked to dress. Twain aimed to deconstruct the gender binary by presenting a character that was not affected by gendered clothing, whilst Grahame used the act of cross-dressing to reinforce gender binaries. Humour was a trope in all of the novels which was a result of inadequate gender performance, however, this highlighted that gender is socially constructed and therefore, unnatural. Not only did Walliams attempt to deconstruct the notion of the gender binary and demonstrate how emotions are similarly gendered, he also encouraged his reader to believe that clothing is irrelevant to gender. The originality of Walliam’s novel arises from his exploration of feelings surrounding gender and gendered dress and how these restrict individual freedom and result in segregation.

 

Bibliography

Adams James Eli and Millar Andrew H, Sexualities in Victorian Britain (U.S.A: Indiana University Press, 1996)

Blacker, Terence, Boy2Girl (Oxford: Macmillan Children’s Books, 2004)

Bolich, G.G, PhD. Today’s Transgender Realities: Crossdressing in Context (North Carolina: Psyche’s Press, 2007)

Fischer, Agneta, Gender and Emotion: Social Psychological Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000)

Flanagan, Victoria, Into the Closet: Cross Dressing and the Gendered Body in Children’s Literature and Film (Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2011)

Grahame, Kenneth, The Wind in the Willows (London: HarperCollins Publisher, 1908)

Harrison, Kelby, Sexual Deceit: The Ethics of Passing (Plymouth: Lexington Books, 2013)

Nangeroni, Nancy, in Into the Closet: Cross Dressing and the Gendered Body in Children’s Literature and Film, ed. by Victoria Flanagan (Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2011)

Sedler, Victor J. in The New Politics of Masculinity: Men Power and Resistance ed. Fidelma Ashe (Oxon: Routledge, 2007)

Steen, Edwin B. and Price, James. H, Human Sex and Sexuality (London: Constable and Company, 1988)

Twain, Mark, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (New York: Charles L. Webster and Company)

Walliams, David, The Boy in the Dress (London: Harper Collins, 2008)

[1] Nancy Nangeroni, in Into the Closet: Cross Dressing and the Gendered Body in Children’s Literature and Film , ed. by Victoria Flanagan (Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2011), p.258.
[2] Davis Walliams, The Boy in the Dress (London: Harper Collins, 2008), p.11.
[3] Victor J. Sedler in The New Politics of Masculinity: Men Power and Resistance ed. Fidelma Ashe (Oxon: Routledge, 2007), p.111.
[4] Agneta Fischer, Gender and Emotion: Social Psychological Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p.173.
[5] G.G. Bolich, Ph.D. Today’s Transgender Realities: Crossdressing in Context (North Carolina: Psyche’s Press, 2007), p.271.
[6] Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows (London: HarperCollins Publisher, 1908), p.79-80.
[7] Victoria Flanagan, Into the Closet: Cross Dressing and the Gendered Body in Children’s Literature and Film (Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2011), p.143.
[8] Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (New York: Charles L. Webster and Company), para. 9 of Chapter 10.
[9] Terence Blacker Boy2Girl (Oxford: Macmillan Children’s Books, 2004), p.44.
[10] Edwin B. Steen and James H.Price, Human Sex and Sexuality (London: Costable and Company, 1988), p.297.
[11] James Eli Adams and Andrew H. Millar, Sexualities in Victorian Britain (U.S.A: Indiana University Press, 1996), p.97.
[12] Kelby Harrison, Sexual Deceit: The Ethics of Passing (Plymouth: Lexington Books, 2013), p.9.

 

 

Social Media Down Time

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I have been toying with the idea of a social media down day ever since a tutor at university spoke of his own positive experience. Sunday past seemed like the perfect day to give it a go, not only because I already associate Sunday as a kind of  down day, but also because I have  just completed my first week studying  mindfulness. I began the online mindfulness course because I often struggle with anxiety. Anxiety, for those who have experienced it, can be debilitating; exhausting on the mind and the body. For myself, I experience social anxiety, dread and an inability to rest;  my thoughts go into overdrive and I feel them crashing together. My usual “go to” is social media where I can loose myself amongst everyone else’s lives – in other words I detach myself from myself. I knew something had to change; there had to be another way of dealing with my anxiety. Then right on time, along came an e-mail telling me about a  free course with Future Learn –  Mindfulness.  

Mindfulness (and remember I am still learning) is learning how to be present in our experiences, an, in our lives.  Even on my non anxious days I am constantly distracted by social media, not because it is a riveting alternative to real life, but because it is a filler. For me, Facebook more so than any other social media platform,  fills the time between breakfast and walking the dogs or when the dinner is cooking, or basically whenever I have a spare moment. E-mail is another source of distraction, as a writer, I find myself falling into the trap of checking my e-mail whenever I have a spare minute; I send between five and fifteen pieces of writing to magazines and competitions every quarter so am always waiting on reply. So, when I sat down and really thought about it, it seemed that I had forgotten how to just sit and do nothing. Thus, the idea to go ahead with the social media down day was decided.

Sunday 11th February

It is amazing how your hand automatically reaches for your phone in the morning. I decided to turn my internet off so that I wouldn’t receive any notifications tempting me to pick it up. Once that was done, I put my phone on my writing bureau (it usually sits on the arm of the sofa) and got on with my day. I found myself enjoying really quite mundane things such as putting the clean washing away – not only did I tidy my wardrobe; I re-arranged it. Then I decided on a few items that were ready for the charity shop. It was nice to take time to look at my clothes properly, to see the nice items that I have purchased over the winter (mostly from charity shops or from sales), and appreciate what I have..

Lunchtime was interesting; I found myself looking at my lunch rather that looking at my phone while eating lunch – it is amazing how much better food tastes when you look at it and pay attention to what you are eating.

By mid afternoon I had forgotten about my phone and about E-mails and Facebook and all of the other internet distractions that usually filled my time and I sat and looked out the window. We have recently moved into a new house and the living-room window faces onto a private garden with lots of trees and sky and birds. The sun was shining and the sky was clear and blue and I just sat,  and looked.  It reminded me of my teenage self, eighteen years old, no internet,  and looking out the bedroom window of our family home. There was fields and hills, trees – and a castle nestled behind some Scots pine’s. I was taken to a place where I felt like my old self again, (although I am sure if you asked my eighteen year old self how I felt, I would have declared my utter boredom) but at forty-five, letting myself be still, just looking and experiencing how that felt, I’ve never felt less bored in my life.

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My phone vibrated mid afternoon and I got my other half to take a look. Somehow, without any internet, a notification had got through. I ignored it although I am still baffled by how that could happened.

All in all, my day trotted along at a much slower pace. I had the odd moment when I wondered about what was happening in the land of Facebook or if some magazine had sent me an e-mail, but apart from the weird sensation of not picking my phone up every twenty minutes, it was a pleasant experience. Now I know that it isn’t for everyone, and I am certainly not trying to encourage anyone to follow my example, but for me – someone who grew up in the days before internet – it was like opening my eyes after a long daydream. I do enjoy social media and I would be lost today without the wonder of internet, but I will continue to have my Sunday down days, where I can see the week through wider eyes.

 

Soft Impression

I wrote this poem using a magnetic poetry set that I picked up from a charity (thrift) shop. I found the process of scattering random words across my writing bureau, and then carefully selecting the words that sparked my imagination both fun and challenging. Magnetic poetry  is a great way to think about words, to explore theme and to construct something meaningful out of word chaos. You could also do this by collecting interesting words from newspapers and magazines, or writing inspiring words on scraps of paper that you hear someone use on a bus, or in the supermarket line. Pop your words into a jar, adding sticky words such as and, it, or, as etc. and have fun.

 

Growing Form

I wrote this poem during my MLitt year at the University of Stirling. The plan was to select one of the many sculptures in and around the campus and write a creative piece based on that sculpture. This was aimed at children between the ages of 9-12.

Growing Form is an acrostic poem; a visually pleasing as well as challenging form for younger students. I also increased the word count on each line of the poem to incorporate the theme.

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Growing Form

Gargantuan,
Rising up
Out of Shangri-la.
Waking the whispering world,
In melancholy maddening moans that
Night cannot conceal; his silhouette unravels.
Gathering height, he reaches, cutting sky with

Fork like antlers until the stars collide – like
Orion. He awakens the hunter. Down the cosmic fire
Rains upon the earth, blazing scorn and fury, and the
Mighty beast bellows. He gathers up the river and runs.

 

 

 

 

Shackled

I published this poem in Untitled 8 in November 2017.

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Shackled

I am separated. Segregated-
An inch away from vertical blinds
And the switch to turn of the Sky.
To shake away the World Wide Web
Of fabricated lies.

I am separated. Segregated –

A mile from the world outside,
Hidden behind grey vertical blinds.
Dry from the rain,
Fighting the pain of oppression.

I am separated. And bleeding from the outside in.

I am separated. Segregated –

Peeking through artificial lines,
Looking for the ordinary kind,
The crowds of mankind,
Unveiled and unmasked, separate and free

Instead of shackled to the reign
Of her majesty – To the so-called face, of a modern race
Of dumbed down, media choked,
Free folk. I am chained.

I am separated. Segregated –

Pained by a society –
Rich in lies and Tory piety, flying toward
Mars in dream boats –
In hopes of a better land.

 

 

Evoking Sympathy Through Narrative Point of View & The Unreliable Narrator.

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When attempting to evoke a sympathetic reader response in narrative fiction or creative non-fiction, it would be foolish for an author to assume that the reader will feel sympathy through theme, setting, or plot alone. Novels sought purely on theme may simply evoke an empathetic response, especially if the reader has an association with the theme. In this instance, evoking sympathy rather than empathy is more challenging. Moreover, if a reader does not relate to the subject or plot, evoking a sympathetic response relies on positioning the reader within the story in order for them to react. Segal suggests that ‘When reading fictional text, most readers feel that they are in the middle of a story…The reader often takes a cognitive stance within the world of the narrative and interprets the text from that perspective.’[1]  This highlights the importance of deciding where the reader is placed in relation to the narrator in order to evoke a sympathetic response. Emotional response however, is a purely subjective experience. It is unlikely that all readers will have the same emotional reaction to a narrative, no matter how skilful the author.  Yet, tailoring the way that the narrative is told, and choosing which character narrates, can enhance the probability of a sympathetic reader response. Narrative sympathy therefore, is possible, but it is not always guaranteed. This then raises the question, how do authors attempt to evoke a sympathetic reader response in fiction and creative non-fiction? In this paper I will examine the various ways that David Vann in Legend of a Suicide, 2008, and A.L. Kennedy in Serious Sweet, 2016, use narrative point of view in an attempt to evoke a sympathetic reader response. In addition, the essay will analyse the role of the unreliable narrator as a tool, which enables these authors to alter the reader’s perception. As a result, I will argue that narrative sympathy can be evoked in a reader through both first-person and third-person point of view.

Narrative sympathy is difficult to define. This is because of its closeness to empathy. Sklar argues that ‘empathy operates at what I call a “chameleon emotion,” in the sense that, when we experience it, we take on the emotional experience of another as our own.’[2] This would suggest then that for an empathetic reader response, they must ‘experience’ what the character is experiencing, thus seeing through the eyes of the first person narrator. Furthermore, he suggests that

Our immersion in that experience, […] may impede […] our capacity to form judgements about that character, since we may, […] become too close to view the characters reality objectively. (Sklar, p.48).

Sympathy on the other hand ‘involves a greater distance between the individual who feels and the person, towards whom it is directed,’ (Sklar, p.26). Sklar’s argument sets clear boundaries between how empathy and sympathy are evoked through narrative point of view.  Therefore, novels in which the author attempts to evoke sympathy,

anticipate response on the part of the reader, either authorial, or actual. […] sympathy by nature is a responsive emotion, and therefore texts that elicit it provide structures that enable readers to intuit and interpret the appropriateness of sympathy at particular moments within the progression of a narrative. (Sklar, p.53).

If Sklar’s theory were correct, then it would appear that sympathy could only be evoked when the author uses a third person narrator, meaning that the reader has enough distance to make a judgement.  Kellog and Scholes suggest that ‘In any examples of narrative art there are […] three points of view – those of the character, the narrator and the audience.’[3] In order for these three points of view to unite to evoke a sympathetic response, do they need to be independent of one another? Sklar’s theory would suggest so, yet David Vann illustrates that this theory is flawed in his novel Legend of a Suicide.  

In the American version of Legend of a Suicide, the book cover reveals that the contents are ‘stories’. For the reader, this determines the way that the novel is read, and therefore, their reaction to the work. Moreover, in the acknowledgements at the rear of the book, in both American and English versions of the novel, Vann states that his stories are fictional, ‘L

 

but based on a lot that’s true.’[4] With all of these factors in mind, it is clear that this novel can be read in a variety of ways.  In ‘Ichthyology’ for example, the first person narrator tells the story of his father’s suicide:

He took his .44 Magnum handgun from the cabin and walked back to stand alone on the bright silver stern under a heavy, gray-white sky and the cries of gulls, his boots slathered with the dark blood of freshly caught salmon. He may have paused for a moment to reflect, but I doubt it. […]. He spattered himself amid the entrails of salmon, his remains picked at by gulls for several hours. (, p.10).

Notice the lack of emotion in the above quotation from the first person character. The memory itself is written with intricate detail, yet whilst the subject is shocking, the only clue that the reader is given to Roy’s feelings is when he says that he doubts his father paused to reflect. Thus, we have a close first person narrative with regards to action, and a very distant first person narrative with regards to emotion. In the American version of the novel, this chapter would be read as a short story; therefore, the reader might assume that the narrator is hiding his emotions, thus unreliable. As a result, the response is likely to be one of shock rather than sympathy or empathy as the reader is only glimpsing over the character’s life, thus not invested in the novel as a complete entity.  Alternatively, if the reader is aware that the story is based on real life events, and with the narration being in past tense, this then creates a distance between the author, reader, and character – this allows the reader enough room to form a judgement. Hildick, suggests that narratives written in first-person-past-tense demonstrate, ‘the effect of an incident on a certain kind of personality.’[5] By concealing the character’s emotions, Vann is revealing that the memory is too painful to express, thus sympathy may be evoked in the reader. There are flickers of emotion in this chapter though. Vann indirectly demonstrates Roy’s feelings by projecting them onto something less significant, such as the fly and the fish: ‘so little movement that it seemed not to have happened at all, and yet there was the fly, mired in the water, sending off his million tiny ripples of panic.’ (LOAS, p.10). This technique reveals Roy’s feelings whilst creating a distance between himself and the reader, thus heightening sympathy for him. While these examples demonstrate how sympathy may be evoked through the first person narrator, it is not guaranteed, feelings of empathy may be more prevalent in readers who have experienced the death of a loved one. Thus, the reader response is unpredictable.

Reading the U.K version of Legend of a Suicide as a self-contained fictional novel, and without prior knowledge that the work is part autobiographical, can evoke sympathy in a more dramatic way. In chapter two, the author continues the technique of juxtaposing facts with emotion as the narrative steps back in time. This allows the reader to observe the other characters in the novel and also, and more importantly, it brings Roy’s father Jim back to life. Vann does this through retrospect but also free indirect discourse from Jim:

Rhoda in the walnut orchard that afternoon piecing together her thousand-piece puzzle […], never looked back to where my father sat utterly lost on the porch steps. He didn’t understand her. He had no idea how to comfort her. (LOAS, p.19).

The final line in this quotation could be read from either Roy’s first person thoughts, or through Jim’s third person point of view. It is clear here that Vann is juxtaposing the father and son to allow the reader to make a judgement.  Roy’s interpretation of the scene for example, is to assume that his father is ‘lost’, suggesting that he is not there, or cannot be found. Then the third-person interruption from Jim, suggests that his father is very much alive. This desperation to bring his father back to life may evoke sympathy for Roy but it also sets up Jim’s narrative voice for chapter five.

The first-person-past-tense perspective in Legend of a Suicide, allows the character of Roy to speculate why his father killed himself, Hildick argues that 

the method’s ‘distancing possibilities’: that is, the way it can be used to give the impression that the dust has cleared, that the action took place some time ago – possibly many years – [shows] that the narrator has had ample opportunity to see everything in perspective, (Hildick, pp35-36).

The first–person perspective allows the narrator and the reader valuable insight into Jim’s personal relationships, but through Roy’s point of view.  In chapter one, for example, the reader experiences Roy’s parent’s marital break down closely, through Roy. Whilst Roy’s mother Ruth is kept at a distance in this chapter, allowing the suicide to be the prominent feature, the following chapter focuses closer on her character after the break up. On his return from visiting his father and stepmother Rhoda, Ruth question’s the boy about his father’s new wife, “Is she pretty?” My mother’s voice quietened on this.’ (LOAS, p.17).  The quiet voice suggests an emotional fragility, as well as Ruth’s own reflection on herself.  “No, she’s deformed,” I said, and my mother laughed again.’ (LOAS, p.17). Roy is clearly protecting his mother’s feelings in this scene. Yet in order to evoke the reader’s sympathy for Ruth, Vann has to juxtapose her character with Rhoda:

My new stepmother, Rhoda, untied the ring for my father with thin white fingers. I looked up again at that blank eye, drawn to it[…] I realized too late that she was watching me […]  She laughed out loud, right there in the middle of service in front of everyone, at the same moment that she was slipping my father’s ring onto his finger. Her laughter startled all of us, but especially my father […]. His mouth opened slightly as he looked up, and for the first time in my life, I saw him frightened. (LOAS, p.11).

The description of Rhoda in the above quotation seems almost sinister. Moreover, this is described from Roy’s viewpoint, thus steering the reader towards negative feelings for Rhoda. This is further heightened by Roy’s observation of his frightened father. This juxtaposition of characters allows Vann to not only creates a sympathetic response for Ruth, but it is also allows Roy to divert blame from his mother. It is clear then that Vann is deviating from the traditional form of first person narration where ‘we are inside the characters head, so our experiencing of his sensations […] feel natural and plausible. […] It feels as if it’s happening to the reader.’[6] If Vann had chosen to use this type of narration, where the reader got full access to Roy’s emotions, the reader would feel only empathy for Roy. Furthermore, there would be no freedom for judgement, the novel would lack sympathy, and the response would be different to what Vann is hoping to achieve.

In her novel Serious Sweet, A.L. Kennedy uses third-person-limited narration interspersed with the first-person point of view presented as italicised monologue. Kennedy uses this technique to demonstrate the internal conflict of her main characters John and Meg. An example of this occurs when Meg visits the hospital for an internal examination:

Meg bent to remove her shoes, blood distantly roaring in her ears at the unexpected upset. Her body had decided to be nervy and easily unbalanced. This wasn’t her fault. […] there was this sensation of childishness in her fingers which, because she was in an adult situation, made her stomach tick and become wary. [7]

In the above quotation, the third-person-limited narrator begins by using the character’s name ‘Meg’ to create a distance. Furthermore, rather than describing her sensations, such as ‘her body felt’, the narrator separates Meg by saying ‘her body decided’. This separation between Meg and her body allows the reader to respond to the uncomfortable feelings of the character. The character of ‘Meg’, however, intervenes with free indirect discourse by saying, ‘This wasn’t her fault,’ thus indicating that something bad has happened to her. The gap between actions told at a distance and the immediacy of the characters thoughts evokes a sympathetic reader response. In, Consciousness and the Novel, Lodge describes this as ‘the realism of assessment that belongs to third-person narration [and] the realism of presentation that comes from the first-person narration,’[8] by combining the two, Kennedy creates a juxtaposition between seeing and feeling thus provoking a judgement. Furthermore, Meg’s ‘sensation of childishness’, in the above quotation, juxtaposed with her ‘adult situation’ creates a feeling of sympathy due to her adult vulnerability. Moreover, as Meg’s examination draws closer, the distance between Meg and her own bodily self becomes more distant:

And when this is suggested, you loosen the sheet until it’s opened and simply resting across your outspread lap as a rug might if you were reading at some fireside in some cosy evening on some other day.

       It’s good to imagine that. (Serious Sweet, p.75).

Notice how the third person narrator changes the ‘she’ to ‘you’.  Whilst it may seem that Kennedy is asking the reader to feel what Meg is feeling in order to evoke empathy, the ‘you’ in this instance is Meg.  The character is creating distance, as if she is looking down on herself and her situation.  In using the ‘you’, Kennedy provokes the reader to make a judgement based on how they might feel or react in a similar situation. The third-person distance, however, remains between reader and character, thus the reader is not feeling with Meg, yet is forced to feel for her. The italicised line at the end of the quotation is a direct intrusion into Meg’s thoughts; therefore, Kennedy is able to redirect the ‘you’ to the ‘I’ allowing the reader to direct their sympathy towards Meg. Whilst structurally Serious Sweet and Legend of a Suicide differ, the realism of assessment and realism of presentation is very much prominent in both novels.

Vann provides subtle clues throughout each chapter of his novel that something bigger is going to happen. At the close of chapter three, Roy realises he is unable is unable to bring his father back, and instead, his mother’s ex-partner John is ‘practically delivered to [his] doorstep,’ (LOAS, p. 34). This is the point in the novel where the point of view changes to third-person-limited and the reader questions the reliability of the narrator. Booth argues that ‘If he is discovered to be untrustworthy, then the total effect of the work he relays to us is transformed.’[9] Vann deliberately shows the reader that Roy is unreliable, not only through the change in point of view, but also through obvious changes in the plot. On page thirty-nine for instance, Roy speaks of a sister who is never mentioned before this point, thus indicating that what they are about to read is merely Roy’s fantasy. Furthermore, the change in point of view allows the reader to compare what they have learned about Roy at the beginning of the novel, with what they are about to read. By this stage, the reader has formed a relationship with the character of Roy from his first person point of view, and therefore, has gained his trust. Any alteration to his original narrative can therefore, be viewed sympathetically. Booth suggests that

By the simplest expedient of creating a character who experiences the rhetoric in his own person, it has been made less objectionable. Every adjective and detail intended to set our mood is part of the growing mood and experience of the central character; the rhetoric now seems functional.’ (Booth, p.202).

Vann is following this exact structure, which evokes sympathy for the reader by creating distance from the original narrative, thus allowing the reader to compare. On Sukkwan Island for example, ‘A place like Ketchikan, where Roy had lived until age five, but wilder, and fearsome now that he was unaccustomed.’ (LOAS, p.37), notice how Vann is juxtaposing Roy’s place of upbringing, as seen in the beginning of the novel, with this unfamiliar place, which causes a reaction in Roy. Yet what Vann is really doing is telling the reader that Roy’s journey into this fantasy is frightening for him. Throughout the chapter, the reader is immersed in this huge outdoor space, cold and unfamiliar with a heightened sense of monotony. Roy’s imaginary relationship with his father becomes one of perseverance rather than warmth, so when his father says,

I don’t know how I got this way. I just feel so bad. I feel okay during the day, but it hits at night. And then I don’t know what to do […] I’m really trying. I just don’t know if I can hold on. (LOAS, p.71)

the reader wonders just whose account this really is. Bearing in mind this is a fantasy chapter, the above quotation is in fact the voice of Roy, told through the voice of his father. Vann is indirectly demonstrating Roy’s desperation in this scene, and therefore, creating distance in order to evoke sympathy in the reader. As the chapter draws to a close, the reader begins to see that the real Roy has begun to figure out that his fantasy world has brought him no closer to his father:

Watching the dark shadow moving before him, it seemed as if this were what he has felt for a long time, that his father was something insubstantial before him and that if he were to look away for an instant or forget or not follow fast enough and will him to be there, he might vanish, as if it were only Roy’s will that kept him there. (LOAS, p.116).

The reader can easily see that Jim in fading away in the above quotation, yet by presenting the narrative through Roy’s point of view, and with a lack of emotion, the reader has ample room to judge. This technique allows the reader to feel sympathy for the character, so when ‘Roy became more and more afraid, and tired, with a sense that he could not continue on, and he began to feel sorry for himself.’ (LOAS, p.116), Vann is telling the reader that Roy’s fantasy narrative is too upsetting for him. Therefore, when on page 128, Roy puts a gun to his head and shoots himself; the reader sees this is a shocking act of desperation. This evokes not only sympathy for Roy, but also for Jim because the reader will have a deeper understanding, through Roy, of his father’s emotional state at the point he actually took his own life.

Kennedy uses the unreliable narrator in a more immediate form. Take for example the character of John Sigurdsson, rushing to his office in Westminster, ‘He was very breathless, which was not a good sign,’ (Serious Sweet, p.86). The beginning of this quotation is a distant third-person narrator; yet following the comma, the third-person-limited narrator brings the reader closer to how John feels. This is followed by his immediate thoughts, ‘But all is well. More than. Everything is fine,’ and then later, ‘And he wasn’t too hot. Not flustered. He did have these small red prickles of something on his skin – despair, unease, panic.’ (Serious Sweet, p.86).  This type of alternation between distance, closeness, and immediacy, demonstrates how the juxtaposition between points of view can reveal to the reader that the character is trying to conceal his emotions. Thus, the italicised first person monologue is unreliable or untrustworthy. Kennedy uses the unreliable narrator to build tension in her narrative. John’s unreliability is a key tool in the plot as the reader discovers he is disclosing government information to the press. Without this, and without the third-person narrator, the reader would only see through John’s eyes, thus his actions might be seen us unprofessional. Furthermore, it would not reveal the difficulty that these actions cause his character, thus would not evoke sympathy. Therefore, when the plot unravels as it does the reader’s sympathy is heightened.
In Legend of a Suicide, the plot begins to unravel with a surprising shift in chapter five, when the third-person-limited point of view changes from Roy to Jim. Whilst Vann continues to ensure that the reader knows that these chapters are a fantasy; ‘[Jim] pushed himself back further away from Roy but this was phony, another act, […] And though it couldn’t be his son there, it kept being his son there.’ (LOAS, p.130), the last line in this quotation hints to the reader that Roy is still very much narrating. This is achieved through the use of free indirect discourse. The narrative is shown though the eyes of Jim yet Roy’s voice consistently intrudes:

If Roy were still alive, and Jim could take him somewhere now, he would take him sailing around the world. That was something Roy had actually wanted to do. He had said so himself. And it was something Jim could have arranged just as easily as homesteading. He had the money for a boat, he knew how to sail, he had the time. But for that to have been possible, he would have had to listen to Roy. He would have had to notice him while he was still alive. (LOAS, p.152).

With exception of the first line, the remainder of the above quotation is the voice of Roy. This can be identified in the tone. The first line is Jim fantasising, it seems light-hearted, dream-like, yet the remainder has an angry tone and is intensified by the use of ‘actually’ and the repetition of ‘had’. These lines correspond to Roy’s version of his life in chapter one, thus confirming that this is in fact Roy speaking. Vann’s use of free indirect discourse here is to allow Roy to express his anger, because if he had expressed these feelings in the previous chapter in third-person-limited, the reader would have been too close to Roy’s thoughts to feel sympathy. It is important to remember that chapter four and five are fantasy stories, and although Jim is the primary character in chapter five, it is Roy’s fantasy. Thus, the narrator that we hear in both chapters is Roy. The juxtaposition between Roy and his father allows Vann to evoke reader sympathy for Roy by indirectly revealing Roy in his purest form; therefore, the free indirect discourse is essential in maintaining a distance in order to allow the reader to judge. On discussing Jane Austin’s Emma, Booth suggests that

The solution to the problem of maintaining sympathy despite almost crippling faults was primarily to use the heroine herself as a kind of narrator, through third person, reporting on her own experience,’ (Booth, p.245).

It is clear that Vann is using this same technique, and by diverting Roy’s thought and faults onto his father, he is creating sympathy for Roy at a distance. It is through the examples such as the one above that Vann proves that sympathy can be evoked in the reader when they are close to Roy’s thoughts. Yet for the overall effect to be plausible, the unreliable narrator is an important, if not necessary, device.

In chapter five and six of the novel, the point of view returns to first-person, thus confirming that the chapters written in third person were fantasy. There is however, a final twist in Vann’s novel. In the final chapter, Roy is referred to as the boy: ‘I like to think that the boy is helpful,’ (LOAS, p.221). For the reader, this change identifies that the narrator is in fact Vann himself. This creates a distance between the author and his own childhood self, thus creating a sympathetic response. Furthermore, the reader can at this stage, feel a greater amount of sympathy for Vann due to the entire structure of the novel. The reader will be aware that Vann has brought his father back to life over and over again.

In this paper I have demonstrated the various ways in which narrative point of view can be used to evoke a sympathetic response in readers by looking at David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide and A.L. Kennedy’s Serious Sweet. Whilst traditionally first-person point of view was believed to be more likely to evoke empathy, the essay has demonstrated that by using emotional distance, in conjunction with close observation, the author can create a sympathetic response; this is due to the reader having the accessibility to make an emotional judgement. Furthermore, the essay has looked at how the unreliable narrator can be an effective tool in concealing emotions, setting up the plot and diverting readers from the truth in order to create character sympathy. Overall, however, I demonstrated  that in order for sympathy to be evoked, there must be a juxtaposition, whether it is between first and third person viewpoint, between characters, or between what is revealed, and what is not. This juxtaposition is essential in order to evoke sympathy in the reader.

Bibliography

Booth, Wayne C., The Rhetoric of Fiction (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1961)

David Lodge, Consciousness and the Novel (London: Random House, 2012)

Hildick Wallace, Thirteen Types of Narrative (London: McMillan and Co Ltd, 1968)

Kennedy, A.L., Serious Sweet (London: Jonathan Cape, 2016)

Kress, Nancy,  Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint (Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books, 2005)

Scholes, Robert and Kellog, Robert, The Nature of Narrative (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966)

Segal, Erwin M. in, The Art of Sympathy in Fiction: Forms of Ethical and Emotional Persuasion ed. Howard Sklar (Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2013)

Sklar, Howard, The Art of Sympathy in Fiction: Forms of Ethical and Emotional Persuasion (Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2013)

Vann, David, Legend of a Suicide (London: Penguin Books, 2008)

 

Letting The Outside In

I published this poem with Anti-Heroin Chic on 25th May 2017.

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I’m Letting the Outside In.

The double glazing is stained with winter splatter.
Porridge is cooling in a retro bowl and my bare feet –
Baking from the heat of a sun kissed puppy
Who is baking on a vertically striped carpet.

There is a reek of yesterday’s shenanigans at the burn
Wafting from tartan collars
and the air feels.

Music ripples through my rib cage

There’s washing hanging, half-arsed, on radiators
While a new load spins in the machine.
The sagging rope in the back garden
Is empty. Waiting for the weight of winter warmers

Honestly soaked,
to be nipped with plastic tipped pegs and a satisfying sigh.
I’m letting the outside in.

Three squirrels scurry along the naked trees across the way.
And me
I’m resisting the need to weed the garden
I’m letting the outside in.

The above photograph is my oldest dog Mille, she is a 6 year old chocolate lab.