Friday, August 2, 2013

Epistolary Novels: Another Narrative Choice

Chaucer invented a raison d’etre for his short stories in a somewhat dispassionate but never objective narrator, one among several pilgrims on their way to Canterbury.  His device, as I noted last week, is similar to the one employed by Emily Brontë in Wuthering Heights.

Robert Browning and Barbara Kingsolver used multiple narrators instead of just one, a choice similar to an early novel narrative technique: epistolary novels. Instead of providing detailed settings and seques between places and people, authors tell the story in a series of letters (hence, the name: epistotle, epistolary), each penned by a different significant character. Sometimes the form is diary entries or a combination of documents such as news articles, letters, and diary entries.

Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982) is an epistolary novel as is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). In each, letters between characters reveal the conflicts and complications, but each character has a unique perspective and vested interest. Thus, readers must weigh the reliability of each letter-writer. What is not on the pages of his or her letter may be as important as what is on the page.

For example, the sea captain who plucks Viktor Frankenstein from the icy north and listens to his story is predisposed to sympathize with Frankenstein. First, Frankenstein is an educated nobleman who, by accident of birth into a socio-economic class, receives respect and trust whether or not he has ever acted to earn either one.  Consequently, the Captain endows Frankenstein with good character and judgment without knowing anything about the man.

Frankenstein's Castle © Lcro77 | Dreamstime.com

Second, the Captain and Frankenstein are both men of daring. Letters to the Captain and from Frankenstein’s family prove that each man eschewed the advice of those who love them in favor of a desire to be extraordinary and remembered. The Captain, against the advice of his family, seeks a shorter sailing passage over the North Pole and abides alienating his family while risking the lives of his crew in pursuit of an ideal, one that readers recognize as foolhardy. Frankenstein, of course, dared to become a god by creating life. In pursuit of his goal, he abandons his family and scholarship in favor of frenzied, sleepless research and desecration of human bodies.

Frankenstein succeeds, of course, but then Shelley shows him to be reprehensible. He is guilty of giving life to a creature that he deems ugly, unworthy, primitive and ill-conceived, but he refuses his responsibility to nurture and parent his creation. He rejects the child, leaving it to struggle alone in an unkind world, and this rejection, by slow degrees, transforms the creature into a monster, bitter, cruel, and vengeful.

The Captain recognizes how petulant and irresponsible Frankenstein was, and in that recognition, the Captain turns back to take his crew safely home. He wants to prevent needless suffering, realizing that failing to uphold moral duties to family and friends leads to ruin. He recovers humility and agrees to be responsible for those in his care.

Letters in Frankenstein let us hear the voices of perpetrators and victims. Similarly, Alice Walker lets the voices of her letter writers reveal themselves and the limited information each has. Only the reader has all the information and can judge the relative guilt or innocence of each character.

Reading Challenge:

Read one or both epistolary novels: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. Consider also other works that make prominent use of letters or diary entries: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl

Africa Sunset © Drflash | Dreamstime.com A setting suggestion from The Color Purple

Writing Challenge:

Tell Cinderella’s story through letters written by her father (before his passing, of course), Cinderella, her stepmother and stepsisters, the Prince, and the magical creature that works to bring happiness to Cinderella. I think you’ll have great fun with this.