Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Narrative Distance Comes Full Circle

I've been having thoughts about narrative distance. For those less familiar with it, narrative distance is the sense you get that you are either close to, or far away from, the narrator of a story. It's related to point of view because it has to do with how deeply the reader gets enmeshed in the perspective of the narrator. The choice of first or third person pronoun is only part of the issue. I've heard people say they've been told to get closer to their protagonist, and that they think they should consider switching to a first person pronoun because "you can't get closer than that." Let me just say that pronouns aren't all of it.

I'm not going to go into depth (in this post) about what contributes to narrative distance, but as I said in my 2006 article on point of view, you can use lots of niggly little grammatical tools to create a sense of closeness. Articles can convey the internal knowledge of the protagonist; deictic pronouns (this that here there etc.) can add a dimension of closeness by implying the physical and temporal location of the protagonist; choice of words with implied desires, volition or judgment can infuse your narration with the sense of your protagonist as someone with wants, goals, and judgments.

Another thing that can contribute to narrative distance is the choice of how to express thoughts and perceptions. The more instances of "I/he/she saw," "I/he/she thought," etc. that appear in the narration, the more distance the reader is going to perceive. People don't think of themselves in these terms. For example, we don't stand back from ourselves and say "I see someone coming in" - we say, "Gee, someone's coming in!"

In this post, I thought I'd share with you something about narrative distance that I thought was just fascinating. It concerns the Royall Tyler translation of The Tale of Genji, which was written in the year 1009 in Japan by a woman known as Murasaki Shikibu. Here's the kicker, and why it's related to the issue of narrative distance: in the ancient Japanese in which the Tale was written, there was no such thing as indirect quotation.

Think about it. No way to say, "He said he would take the carriage." You could only say, "He said, 'I will take the carriage.'" Similarly, there was no way to say, "She thought she would die of grief." Instead, you had to say, "She thought, 'I will die of grief.'"

Here's a quote from a lecture by Royall Tyler (the lecture itself can be found in full here):

Murasaki Shikibu seems to have been the first Japanese writer to exploit interior monologue fully as a narrative technique. When it appears, one suddenly finds oneself listening directly to a character's thoughts, as in the following example from chapter 49. A young man whose great love has died nurses his sorrow, even as his politically advantageous but otherwise unwelcome marriage approaches. The text shifts from third-person narration to first person interior monologue and back again.

At heart he knew he would never forget a loss he still felt keenly, and he simply could not understand why, when they had clearly been meant for each other, they had nonetheless remained strangers to the end. Oh, how I could love someone whose looks recalled hers a little, even if she were unworthy in rank! If only I might see her again, just once, at least in the incense smoke of that old story! He was in no hurry to consummate this exalted alliance.
It is almost as though he sang a brief, first-person aria. However, first-person musing like this is unusual in English, and previous translators therefore rendered it in the more common third person, as in "He said to himself that...,'' "It seemed to him that...,'' "He reflected that...,'' and so on. I cannot blame them, since I too started out that way. However, when I understood the importance of the first person, I adopted it completely and refined my use of it even as the author refined hers.

Tyler says,"...first-person musing like this is unusual in English." I think this was true for a very long time, but on the other hand, Orson Scott Card's book Ender's Game springs immediately to mind as an example of a book that uses this precise kind of switch from third person narration to first person expression of thought. Today isn't the first time that I've told people they'll be closer to their narrators if they avoid such expressions as "he thought" and the like.

The effect is dramatic. The culture of Genji's Japan is removed from us by a millenium, but when you read Royall Tyler's translation, you feel it with amazing immediacy. The most remarkable thing to me is that the immediacy in the narrative isn't just a decision made by the translator, but a more accurate reflection of the actual use of the language of the time.

The Tale of Genji comes alive. And narrative distance comes full circle.

Those who are interested in learning more about Royall Tyler and his translation can check out an interview with him, here.


  1. A great post! Thank you!

    My crit partners hate it when I switch to first person for just a line or two. Now I can tell them it's a thousand-year-old tradition. ;-)

  2. Ooooh! I love this. The things you can do with careful application of the art of language are amazing.

    I almost want to pick up the book now--if I could find a good translation and pick it apart for its language. But...

    I think I better stick to writing and reading good articles on this kind of stuff. :shakes head at self:

  3. If you're curious about the Tale of Genji, be forewarned - the book is over a thousand pages long. It's a marvel, but also a big investment of time.

  4. Good post, Juliette--thanks. I've been thinking about this for some while and dropping even italics from interior monolgue to express thoughts. The reader gets it, and it makes for much greater immersion.

    According to Wikipedia Jane Austen was an early adopter of the technique (see 'Free Indirect Speech.'


  5. Glad you liked it, Dario. I'll have to go digging into my Jane Austen and check it out...

  6. The actual term is "free indirect discourse." It's become more common in modern fiction, and many writers--especially newer ones who haven't learned the metalanguage of the writing craft--use it without realizing it. Yes, Austen was one of the first to use it in the English language; Chekov used it later (1890's), most notably in the short story "The Lady with the Dog."

    I explain free indirect discourse to my high school entry-level creative writing students as a temporary shift in the narrative from 3rd person POV to 1st without any direct indication from the author that the shift is occurring. Of course, it is more a shift in *perspective* than point of view, and once they start to grasp the basic concept we discuss the perspective angle further.

    This, of course, makes them rely on the discussion we had about the difference between POV and perspective earlier in the year :). It also tends to open up great discussion about the separation that exists between the author, narrator, and characters.

    Invariably, after we have the FID discussion, I am bombarded with students who have discovered it in their own personal reading selection and bring it in, excited to show me. Maybe I'll start a list this year of the examples found by my students.

    Anyway, I hope this added to the discussion.

  7. Thanks for the comment, JCA. It's great to see an instructor comment! I'm quite curious about your definitions of perspective and point of view, and how they differ, if you would care to give me a quick summary!