Author photo by Jada Lillo
Introduction to an introduction
In her introduction to the 1989 edition of Best American Short Stories, Margaret Atwood describes her selection process. In this essay, called “Reading Blind,” Atwood talks about the “voice of the story,” an elusive quality she defines as “a speaking voice, like the singing voice in music, that moves not across space, across the page, but through time” (xiv). I’m fascinated by this idea of time as narrative’s medium, like a painter’s oils or a potter’s clay. Of course, the narrative voice doesn’t travel through time with only the writer for company; narrative needs readers. If narrative is “a score for voice” (xiv), as Atwood claims, then the reader’s imagination is the instrument.
However, narrative is not music, and the reader’s task of reading this score for voice is more haphazard than a musician’s experience of reading a musical score and performing a song. A musician performs a song after hours of practice, after absorbing the music as muscle memory. In contrast, the reader imagines a narrative voice at the pace of the words on the page. With novels this pace can span days or weeks. To account for this difference, Atwood shifts metaphors in her essay and describes reading as follows:
[From] these scraps of voice . . . we [the readers] patch together for ourselves an order of events, a plot or plots; these, then, are the things that happen, these are the people they happen to, this is the forbidden knowledge. (xv)
The familiar elements of plot are here, but what is this “forbidden knowledge?” And what might this forbidden knowledge have to do with narrative’s medium, time?
Atwood’s essay does not address these questions. Instead, she concludes her thoughts by finding a unifying factor in all the stories she chose for the anthology. For Atwood, this factor is a “sense of urgency. This is the story I must tell; this is the story you must hear” (xviii).
For a long time these ideas have rattled around in my head: narrative’s medium is time; narrative is a score for voice; stories share forbidden knowledge; narrative must be urgent, compulsive, imperative. If I accept Atwood’s observations then what does that mean for the novel I’m writing? What do these criteria look like on the page? How do writers create this elusive voice of the story, and most importantly, how can I do this myself?
Character thought: a crash course
At first the answer to my questions appears simple. In the context of a first-person narrative, every word, gesture, image, idea generates from the character. Technically speaking, first-person novels are all character thought. However, as readers of first-person novels, we have felt how this reading experience differs from reading other first-person accounts: letters, journals, interviews. And what does a novel have that these other modes of discourse lack? The answer—character thought—seems simple, which should have been my first clue that I had a lot to learn. In a section called “Novel Thought” in Douglas Glover’s Attack of the Copula Spiders, Glover gives an excellent crash course on the subject, which I’ll quote and paraphrase here, but I recommend a full reading. To begin his discussion Glover describes character thought as “stylized and systematic, unlike real thought” (12); he also says character thought “functions by concentrating on time and motive” (12); finally, character thought occurs within the point-of-view character’s mind (14).
Stylized and systematic language, time and motive from inside the point-of-view character’s head are just the beginnings. For example, Glover continues his analysis by elaborating on how writers use character thought. First, character thought looks back, “remembering where [characters] have been and why they have come to where they are . . . obsessively” (12). Also, characters constantly “[assess] where they are now . . .” (12), even though “they don’t have to be right in their assessments, they just have to be true to themselves in the context of what’s gone before” (12); finally, characters must “[look] ahead”  and decide what actions to take based on what’s happened before (13). Here is a partial answer to the question about how writers work with time: characters project into the future, evaluate the present, and reflect on the past.
But what makes these temporal gestures both “stylized” and “systematic?” How does character thought distinguish itself from the other elements of first-person narration? While Glover’s descriptions of character thought provide a significant starting point, I couldn’t answer my questions without returning to the original teachers: books.
Categories of character thought
I identified four approaches to character thought. As with most things to do with writing, these are broad categories that often overlap and are not intended to be proscriptive. However, throughout the novels I studied this semester, I encountered these patterns again and again, with each author implementing these approaches in idiosyncratic ways. As I read and studied, I noticed that each of these approaches provides some insights or intuitions about my questions related to the first-person voice and character thought. The categories are as follows:
- Direct Statement: the author uses signal phrases, such as “I thought,” “I wonder,” “I understand,” etc., to transition into a direct statement of the character’s thoughts.
- Indirect Statement: the stylistic use of diction with powerful, personal connotations—often times, indirect statement happens at the adjective, noun, and verb level.
- Comparative Language: metaphor, simile, analogy create opportunities for character’s to reveal their thoughts in a dynamic, stylized way; in addition to figurative language, comparative language happens in the syntax (through devices like antithesis) and in the content.
- Parenthetical Expression: character thought set off between commas, dashes, parentheses; these expressions interrupt the normal syntactical flow of the sentence and often shift the tone, which of course reveals the character’s attitude toward the subject matter
With these general categories in mind, I’d like to look at the novels I read that formed my ideas about how writers use “systematic and stylized” character thought to create the first-person voice, work with narrative’s temporal medium, and reveal the forbidden knowledge of these stories.
Christa Wolf’s 1983 novel Cassandra reimagines the story of Cassandra of Troy, Priam and Hecuba’s daughter who prophesies the downfall of her city, but Apollo’s curse ensures that people do not believe her visions. The frame story for this novel transpires in a matter of hours, beginning with Cassandra’s arrival at Mycenae and ending with her execution. However, the material of the novel ranges through different times in Cassandra’s life—her childhood as a member of the royal family, her adolescence as a priestess, her adulthood as social pariah, prisoner, and fugitive—; the chronology remains loose and is sometimes elusive, but by the ending I have a profound sense of Cassandra’s desires, how her actions and choices have shaped her life, what she believes and why. As a reader, I have gathered the scraps and stitched together the who and the what. I have discovered the forbidden knowledge. But how does Wolf’s writing make possible my reading experience? How does character thought work in this novel?
Early in the text, Wolf makes it plain that forbidden knowledge is one of the overt subjects of this novel. Here is a representative passage, from pages four and five in the Jan van Heurck translation:
The same sky over Mycenae as over Troy, only empty. Shiny like enamel, inaccessible, polished, clean. Something in me matches the emptiness of the sky above the enemy land. So far, everything that has befallen me has struck an answering chord. This is the secret that encircles and holds me together; I have never been able to talk of it with anyone. Only here, at the utter-most rim of my life, can I name it to myself: There is something of everyone in me, so I have belonged completely to no one, and I have even understood their hatred of me. Once “in the past”—yes, that’s the magic word—I tried to talk about it to Myrine, in hints and broken phrases. Not to obtain relief, there was no relief; but because I believed I owed it to her. Troy’s end was in sight, we were lost. Aeneas had pulled out with his people. Myrine despised him. And I tried to tell her—no, not just that I understood Aeneas; that I knew him. As if I were he. As if I were crouching inside him, feeding in thought on his traitorous resolves. “Traitorous,” said Myrine, angrily raining ax blows on the undergrowth in the trench surrounding the citadel, not listening to me, perhaps not even understanding what I said, for since I was imprisoned in the basket I speak softly. It is not my voice that suffered, as they all thought. It is the tone. The tone of annunciation is gone. Happily gone.
This passage begins with comparative language—Mycenae’s sky versus Troy’s sky. This comparative gesture begins with a clear declarative: the skies are the same. However, Wolf quickly moves into a qualification of the similarity. Mycenae’s sky is emptier, shinier, and these qualifications become more precise through another layer of comparison: the simile linking sky to enamel. Through the use of comparative language, Wolf works within narrative’s temporal medium: Mycenae’s sky is now, Troy’s sky was then. The character’s present and past are connected through both similarity and difference, accomplishing one of Glover’s dictums about character thought. The character both assesses the present and reflects on the past in this example.
Next, Wolf continues her stylized construction of character thought through an extension of the previous comparative gesture. However, this extension changes the comparative terms, with Mycenae’s sky now connected to Cassandra’s self—she matches this “sky above the enemy land.” Through this comparative gesture, Wolf characterizes Cassandra, not as others have seen her and portrayed her in art through the millennia, but as Cassandra sees herself. Whether or not she is accurate in this self-assessment does not matter, as Glover asserts, but this self-assessment must show the character as true to herself.
While comparative language demonstrates the “stylized” nature of character thought, the next three sentences develop through direct statement. The “systemized” nature of character thought demands this change because the previous comparatives set up the necessity. For self-assessment to function as character thought, the narrative must show Cassandra’s fidelity to herself. In these sentences, the shift from comparative language to direct statement occurs with the signal phrase, “So far . . .” This signal phrase introduces an idea Wolf develops through a series of sentences, all self-evaluative, all connecting Cassandra’s now to her past. Also in this series, Wolf announces a portion of her subject matter: Cassandra’s “secret.” This secret has to do with Cassandra’s power, not as a prophetess, although that’s part of it, but as a woman, as herself.
Included in the edition I read are four essays Wolf calls, “Conditions of Narrative.” In the final essay, which is actually a letter, Wolf talks about this thematic concern—what is Cassandra’s power?—not as I would when teaching high school English, but as a writer who is still discovering her story. Wolf describes Cassandra’s power as follows:
This whole earthy-fruitful hodgepodge, this undisciplined tendency to merge and change into each other, this thing which it was hard to put a name to, this throng of women, mothers, and goddesses which it was hard to classify and to count, was brought under control, along with the right of male inheritance and private property, after what appear to have been long, difficult centuries, which now are described as “dark” and have been forgotten. (282)
Cassandra’s treacherous tendency to contain all the others, and to belong to no one but herself, this “undisciplined tendency to merge and change” is Cassandra’s secret, and the exploration of this secret conveys the novel’s forbidden knowledge, knowledge that is both dark and forgotten until a reader gathers the scraps of Cassandra’s voice into a narrative whole.
To return to the original passage, Wolf’s development of character thought continues, although direct statement gives way to what I’d always considered as the grunt work of narrative: there’s a scene, where Myrine the Amazon hacks at overgrowth with her ax, and the plot detail of Aeneas’s departure becomes the subject of dialogue between Myrine and Cassandra, progressing the characterization of Cassandra, Aeneas, and Myrine. This work in scene is important, and Wolf handles the technical difficulties of scene with finesse, but what interests me in this scenic material is Wolf’s continuous insertion of character thought. There’s the parenthetical expression of “yes, that’s the magical word”—and Cassandra’s reflective tone delves into a moment of discovery, revelation, recognition in the present before returning to the work of the scene, which is to describe an event from the past. There’s the comparative language linking Cassandra to Aeneas, signaled by the phrase “as if,” which shows Cassandra’s undisciplined tendency to merge into others, the reason for both her power (as a woman; as a seer) and her punishment (her imprisonment in the basket; the destruction of her people).
In the final sentences Wolf returns to comparative language, a symmetry that has been a hallmark of Wolf’s gestures throughout this passage. With these sentences, Cassandra takes up the subject of her voice, the musicality of it, and this music’s connection to her past experiences, as Atwood suggests any urgent narrative must do. After her imprisonment in the basket, Cassandra’s voice has not “suffered,” as her people believe, but its “tone” has changed. To quote: “The tone of annunciation is gone. Happily gone.” These final two sentences demonstrate the precision of indirect statement, or character thought as connotation, one of the distinguishing characteristics of first-person narrative. The word “annunciation,” with its implications of sacrifice, duty, self-destruction, reveals Cassandra’s assessment of her past. The word “happily” shifts Cassandra’s self-assessment into the present with an ironic lurch. With annunciation “happily gone,” Cassandra is in full possession of her powers. This “happily” can co-exist with her future, her death within hours. These connotations stretch character thought into all three temporal dimensions: past, present, and future. In these examples of indirect statement, this high degree of temporal flexibility, this simultaneity, generates urgency. When taken with what’s come before, the passage’s final gesture is one of highly-structured synthesis. Through different approaches to character thought, Wolf’s narrative shapes time, explores the forbidden knowledge, and tells the story as Cassandra must tell it, and as the readers must hear.
Absence in The Blind Assassin
In her 2002 essay called, “Descent: Negotiating with the Dead,” Margaret Atwood uses a question as the subheading: “Who makes the trip to the Underworld, and why?” The main thesis of this essay answers to this question in the following way: writers make the trip because writing, at heart, presents an opportunity to rescue something from the oblivion of time. To quote Atwood: “all writing of the narrative kind, and perhaps all writing, is motivated, deep down, by a fear of and a fascination with mortality—by a desire to make the risky trip to the Underworld, and to bring something or someone back from the dead” (156).
As the essay develops, Atwood claims for writing a specialized territory not occupied by other arts. According to Atwood, writing’s relationship with mortality is unique because “it survives its own performance . . . as voice” (158). For Atwood, the novelty of narrative’s artistry is how “the voice moves through time, from one event to another, or from one perception to another, and things change” (158). Much like Christa Wolf, Atwood claims the voice’s mutability as a source of power because, for Atwood, the writer’s “deeply forbidden” journey through the Underworld bears worthy fruit when “life of a sort can be bestowed by writing” (172); Atwood’s metaphors imply that life-bestowed-by-writing derives from the vitality of voice and the searing pain of absence.
Margaret Atwood’s novel The Blind Assassin takes absence as one of its overt subjects. The Blind Assassin is a family novel, telling the story of Iris and Laura Chase, sisters who come of age during the Great Depression. This story unwinds through three modes of discourse: first, Iris Chase’s first-person narrative of her family history, childhood, marriage, and the aftermath; second, a novel-within-the-novel, also called The Blind Assassin, which Iris published under her sister’s name, after Laura’s death. This novel-within-the-novel is a third-person limited story of an affair between an unnamed “he” and an unnamed “she” that takes place during the inter-war years and ends during World War II; and third, a series of newspaper and magazine clippings, small announcements, obituaries, political and fashion columns, all mentioning people intimately connected to Iris.
Atwood’s novel is, ultimately, about absence. As Iris’s first-person narrative unfolds, she reveals a history of betrayals. Her marriage to Richard Griffen, an economic arrangement intended to keep open the Chase family business, ends in ruin. Richard closes the Chase factories; he uses Iris as a sexual object and abuses her; later, he transfers his physical and sexual abuse to Laura, but Iris cannot see what is in front of her because she is mired in betrayals of her own. During the years of Laura’s deepest trauma, Iris engages in an affair with Alex Thomas, the man Laura loves, and when Iris reveals this information to her sister, this revelation propels Laura to suicide, the suicide announced in the novel’s opening sentence: “Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge” (1). However, through most of Iris’s first-person narrative, Alex is an absent entity, a gap, a hole, in contrast to his presence in the other modes of the novel, for example as the “he” in the novel-within-the-novel. As I read this novel, my questions once again center around the word how? How does Atwood create this tension between absence and presence? How does a character vanish from the narrative while at the same time establish a presence in Iris’s every action?
The answer is through character thought. Throughout the complicated structure of this novel, character thought systematically links the various modes of discourse through association and reflection. For example, in the chapter “The Chestnut Tree,” Atwood begins with a two-paragraph sequence that is entirely character thought:
I look back over what I’ve written and I know it’s wrong, not because of what I’ve set down, but because of what I’ve omitted. What isn’t there has a presence, like the absence of light.
You want the truth, of course. You want me to put two and two together. But two and two doesn’t necessarily get you the truth. Two and two equals a voice outside the window. Two and two equals the wind. The living bird is not its labeled bones. (395)
Just as in the Christa Wolf passage, this example from The Blind Assassin announces its subject: absence. This passage begins with direct statement, signaled by the subject/verb pairs “I look back,” and “I know.” This sentence situates the reader within a triangular relationship between what Iris has written in her first-person narrative, and what she remembers, which is just as must absence as presence. The narrative is “wrong” because of what is missing. This contrast between absence and presence continues as the sentence transitions from direct statement to comparative language, signaled by the “not because . . . but because” correlation. With no full stop between direct statement and comparative language, the second gesture becomes an extension of the first. As Iris reflects on her writing in the present, she recalls but does not express her past. While moving through different modes of character thought, this sentence also moves through time. Now the writing is “wrong” because of what Iris has “omitted” from back then—behind that word “omitted” is a remembered history. There, in those memories, is the forbidden knowledge, and Iris’s voice spirals around it but does not touch it directly . . . yet. As character thought, comparative language makes this spiraling between times possible. The spiral structure lends itself to the discussion of absence: the circular movement around a narrowing gap.
The final sentence of this paragraph confirms this spiral structure. The sentence begins with direct thought—Iris’s commentary on her writing—“What isn’t there has a presence.” Then the simile (“like the absence of light”) moves the sentence into comparative language, echoing the gestures from the previous sentence, but at a quicker pace. The spiral narrows. In this comparison, presence becomes absence, darkness become light. The forbidden knowledge takes on dimension.
The next paragraph changes rhetorical direction with the direct address of “you.” However, rather than functioning as a move away from character thought, this rhetorical shift adds another temporal dimension to the character thought sequence introduced in the previous paragraph. The use of anaphora—“You want . . . You want”—and the simple, declarative syntax indicates character thought through direct statement. In addition, the “you” isn’t another person in the room; instead, the “you” is a projected future reader, Iris’s estranged granddaughter Sabrina. These “you” sentences project Iris’s thoughts into the future, but they remain Iris’s thoughts.
In the paragraph’s last four sentences, Iris responds to the projected “you.” The conjunction “but” and the direct statement, “two and two doesn’t necessarily get you the truth,” set up this turn and lend a call-and-response structure to this paragraph. Within call-and-response structures reside another implicit reference to time; first the demand then the response, a structure containing both sequence and causality. In this example from Atwood, time unfolds in several ways within the call-and-response; first through the future projection of “you” reading and wanting certain responses; second in Iris’s answers to “you’s” demands because these answers transpire in not only the now of her writing but also the future of her voice talking to “you,” to her granddaughter Sabrina. In this future, Iris will reveal the forbidden knowledge of their family’s history. That this extension of Iris’s voice takes her into a future beyond her death shows another way Atwood uses character thought to explore the nature of absence. Even as Iris writes, the movement of her thoughts through different temporalities generates the presence of her absence.
Finally, the last three sentences return to the gesture of comparative language. All three sentences use metaphor to express Iris’s thoughts about the slippery nature of truth. The first two metaphors announce their relationship to the paragraph’s previous sentences through anaphora: “two and two equals.” Syntactically, this comparative language connects to the previous direct statements, which continues the temporal dimensions of the previous sentences. Iris writes now; her granddaughter will read her voice in the future. In addition to present and future, these metaphors also stretch character thought into the past: “ . . . a voice outside the window” and “ . . . a wind.” Within the context of the overall novel, not to mention this specific chapter, both the voice and the wind connect to memory, to the past, to regret, to absence.
The last sentence makes these connections explicit; the metaphor shifts away from the “two and two” echo to convey Iris’s thoughts about the ambiguity of truth: the “living bird is not its labeled bones,” Iris writes. In this metaphor, time and mortality, presence and absence exist within the single figure. The image of the bird—alive then dead—and the distortions of truth—the living bird is more true than the bird’s bones, but the bones are also true. Presence and absence exist within both of these comparative terms: the bird once lived; one can imagine the living bird by labeling its bones, which exist now, have presence now, but not living presence. This metaphor applies not only to truth in the abstract; this comparative language also applies to Atwood’s entire novel. Each of the modes of discourse—first-person narrative, novel-within-the-novel, and newspaper clippings—also presents a version of truth, but as separate entities these modes are only the bones of a story. Character thought connects the novel’s three modes of discourse; through this connection the novel becomes a living bird.
Conclusion: The Golden Notebook
In Doris Lessing’s 1993 “Introduction” to her novel The Golden Notebook, she comments on her surprise at the novel’s progress through the decades, surprise at how many people read the novel, surprise at the book’s many lives. In this introduction, Lessing speculates on why The Golden Notebook remains a vital experience for multitudes of people. As she observes, “novels give you the matrix of emotions, give you the flavor of a time in a way formal history cannot” (x), which is why she “[has] to conclude that fiction is better at ‘the truth’ than a factual record” (xi). Emotions and time, fiction and truth—here are the prerequisites for Margaret Atwood’s urgent voice; also in Lessing’s ideas are the necessities for character thought.
Throughout The Golden Notebook, the protagonist, Anna Wulf—woman, writer, communist in 1950s London—describes a private, euphoric experience she calls “the game.” In the game, Anna imagines herself in her room, builds the room object by object around her. Once her mind secures the room, she imagines the house, the street, the neighborhood, London, Great Britain, Europe, the world. With each addition, Anna also maintains the image of herself, her room, her house. On good nights, Anna can, for an instant, finish the game—her imagination holds all these places together, what Anna calls “a simultaneous knowledge of vastness and of smallness” (513). A brief vision of spectacular unity before the moment passes: pure “exhilaration” (513).
I think the game makes a good analogy for character thought in fiction. In a technical sense, character thought provides the apparatus for the writer to create an emotional matrix through the medium of time, to create voice. Character thought infuses plot with meaning, and meaning is what grants fiction with its texture of reality, its feeling of truth. Reading a good novel, being caught in the net of character thought, feels a bit like Anna’s game: exhilarating.
In addition to writing, teaching, and parenting, Erin Lillo reads too much and listens to music too loud. She also has an ongoing competition with her husband to see who can work the most lines from The Big Lebowski into everyday conversation. Currently she’s losing. Her work has appeared in Chicago Quarterly Review and The Tishman Review. Her poems appeared in an earlier issue of Numéro Cinq. She has an MFA in poetry and fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts.