A candle is a rectangle when seen from the side, a circle when seen from above (or below), and a pinprick of light when seen in the dark.
Stories, like candles, depend on our point of view. Let me sketch a comparatively tame example. Setting: student A taking oral exam in history with Professor B.
Point of view A: Did I hear him right? I’m shaking, shambling through the narrative, yup, aaaand said that name wrong, I’ve got sweat patches on my white shirt, I should have worn dark. The professor, he keeps piercing me with that look telling me I’m going to fail, and now he’s writing something down, probably the year I just got wrong, and the battle I just misplaced, he’s counting my mistakes, disaster, disaster, disaster.
Point of view B: Aha, correct, fine, right, God this is boring, why does she keep playing with that earring, she’s already got droopy ears, now she’s tapping her foot, chewing gum between questions, and she just checked the time on her phone, again. I’m as bored as her, I gave her maximal marks the moment she opened her mouth because we both know she’s learned the book by heart, but there’s the protocol, I have to ask another question after this, tralala, let me doodle a Snoopy for a while to pass the time.
A first person narrative is an intimate experience, the closest to living someone else’s life, but it suffers from the same limitations as living your own life: it’s a blinkered perspective, prone to bias. There is no right or wrong.
The inability to see beyond ourselves to the “objective reality” can lead to a severe disparity of viewpoints. This is the so-called Rashomon effect, named after Rashomon, a film by Kurosawa from the 1950-s, where murder witnesses give contradictory statements.
Unsurprisingly, conflicts are rooted in the Rashomon effect—as are most good novels.
In mainstream fiction, truth and thoughts are fickle, highly sought-after commodities that are usually hidden by the conniving author. Indeed, most misunderstandings have to be inferred by the reader or by the characters, and only occasionally is the book’s “objective reality” made explicit in a Watson-Holmes type of interaction.
But wait, objective reality is boring; don’t you wonder what it’s like to be someone else?
Whilst in real life you can’t actually walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, or see the world through their eyes, in a book, however, you can. Remember Grimm’s Snow White? Young beautiful girl put by evil stepmother into comatose state after swallowing poisonous apple until rescued by prince? The stepmother (I’ll call her Queen) is so evil she orders a huntsman to murder the stepdaughter (I’ll call her Princess) and bring back her heart or lungs or liver, depending on which version you read, to be eaten by the Queen.
That was so 19th century.
Steps in Neil Gaiman with Snow, Glass, Apples in 1994. His short story is a retelling of Snow White—it keeps all the well-known elements of the fairy tale —but it’s written in the ultimately biased viewpoint: in first person, from the Queen’s perspective. (Far from the omniscient narrator of fairy tales.)
Quote: And some say (but it is her lie, not mine) that I was given the heart, and that I ate it. Lies and half-truths fall like snow, covering the things that I remember, the things I saw. A landscape, unrecognisable after a snowfall; that is what she has made of my life.
The change in point of view is shocking only for the first few paragraphs, but after that you’re in the Queen’s head and there’s no escape—her opinions become yours. Occasionally, hints surface that the Queen isn’t a reliable narrator (like in the Quote where not mine suggests the Queen lies too), but as with all such unreliable storytelling, the onus is on the reader to disbelieve the weighty evidence of the written word. And it takes conscious effort.
If you haven’t read Gaiman’s story, I won’t ruin it for you, but do be warned: it’s elegantly-packaged heavy stuff (think R-rated), heavier even than the old-old Grimm version of Snow White which, I believe, had the mother, rather than the stepmother, as evil.
What is at the core of the Quote?
In a debate, opposing views to your own are likely to be presented. This may be a problem, as pointed out by Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student: People who are favorably disposed to the opposite point of view will not readily open their minds to our arguments, however valid and cogent they may be. In the case of Snow White, the Princess’s story is so well-known, her goodness and innocence so entrenched, that for any other view to be heard (in the great agora of literature), hers must at least partially be refuted.
And the Queen knows a thing or two about persuasion.
Snow, Glass, Apples is essentially a story-long refutation of Snow White’s version, but I chose the Quote in particular, as it is a miniature refutation in itself:
- it summarises the statement that is being refuted (that I was given the heart, and that I ate it),
- it attacks the person who issued the statement (but it is her lie, and, that is what she has made of my life),
- it attempts a refutation by ethical appeal (not mine),
- it attempts a refutation by emotional appeal, by using a poetic simile (fall like snow) and an extended metaphor (landscape unrecognisable after a snowfall) to invoke sentiment and feeling in the audience.
Perhaps the most surprising is the ethical appeal: by putting into the reader’s mind the possibility that she too occasionally lies, the Queen is seemingly working against herself. However, this is a subtle case of insinuatio, the part of her argument where she is insinuating herself into the good graces of the audience. By admitting that she lies, and by admitting the things she has lied about in the past (which she does in other parts of the story), she generates the impression of an honest liar: someone who lies to others, but not to the reader.
If you think the Queen from Snow, Glass, Apples is devious—even when she tells the story in her own words—wait till you hear about the Princess: she’s as cold as the snow is white. Oh, and she has a very prehensile mouth.
Which fun retellings of stories do you know?
P.S. If you think you’ve read this post before under the title Stories, Retold—you have. I had to repost it and rename it due to problems with the WordPress Reader. (See here for a longer explanation.)
- Snow, Glass, Apples in Smoke and Mirrors, Neil Gaiman.
- Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student, Edward P. J. Corbett and Robert J. Connors.
- Snow White and Other Stories, the brothers Grimm. Free on archive.org.