The Objective Narrator in Fiction

Last spring I read A Single Man and The Hours, and found both Isherwood’s and Cunningham’s use of an objective narrator (the detached observer) quite revelatory. The objective narrator, in my mind, is the best narrator for fiction, especially when the author wishes to keep his (or her) own judgments out of the text. The best fiction is that which creates a living, breathing world in which the characters live their lives, creating action and conflict, climax and resolution, through their own needs and desires, illuminating and, in their own way, documenting the eternal struggle between the interests of the individual and the seemingly “greater” interests of the community, group, state, or nation.

As I see it, fiction fails when the author creates a narrator who passes judgment on the situation, the characters, the landscape, or time period, whether the remarks are positive or negative, humorous, or grave and biting. We live in a world in which we are always being judged, whether we like it or not, and this truth is ultimately inescapable. Yet as readers we should have the freedom to judge the narrative and the situations the characters find themselves in without a narrator interjecting their own thoughts and opinions on the characters or the story.

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The beauty of A Single Man and The Hours, for example, is in the invisible hand (if you will) of the novels’ authors. Man has always been an existential being; he has always lived in a state of anxiety, of questioning and conflict, internally and externally. A work of literature that takes human beings and thrusts them into a world in which they must discover themselves and their true place and purpose, whether through internal conflict, external conflict, or both, without recourse to any deus ex machina of sorts or romanticizing of the situation on the author’s or narrator’s part, is a true work of art. For me, this is a quality that Isherwood’s and Cunningham’s books share.

Where is God in these texts? Where is religious, even spiritual faith, as we have come to know and understand it? The lives of the characters in these novels are in their own hands; they are not in the narrators’ hands nor does either narrator cast doubts or judgments, shadows from his own mind, onto the path down which each character is heading. Do not get me wrong; I know full well the author is in control here in a sense; he is the creator of these men and women, and so he is also their sustainer and destroyer; but the art of fiction is in making one’s characters so real, so human, so alive, that one does not see the author’s hand in the action or hear condescension or humor in the narrator’s voice as to what the characters are doing, thinking, or saying. The detached narrator’s true purpose is to narrate the events and provide the “local color” of the landscape, of the time and place, without judgment. The third-person narrator’s beliefs and judgments have no place in the story of other people’s lives. In a word, the narrator is meant to be a stand-in for the author, plain and simple, in telling the story.

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The haunting brilliance of The Hours and A Single Man comes from the thoroughly human characters in each novel who go through the trials forced upon them by human nature itself and the awful, problematic balance that they must continuously strike between the fulfillment of their own needs and desires and that of those with whom they are in personal relationships, as well as the need to also reconcile their own self-interests and pursuit of happiness with the ever-fragile peace and order that must be maintained by the larger community and society in which they live. And all of this is done (or not) without judgment from the narrators.

These novels bring the existential crisis of what it means to be a human being in private, in society, and in personal relationships front and center and ask us to question, feel, and judge without the narrator intruding with his or her own thoughts or sentiments. These are characters who have to fight the great war of life without holding on to someone or something that can give them stability, because there is no stability in a world that is always in flux, in which all is constantly changing, and this is symbolized in the ghost of the memory of George’s dead partner, Jim, in A Single Man. What these men and women must do is find the inner strength, the sense of self and purpose within, upon which to rely in order to move forward, past the tragedies as well as the triumphs they experience, for each is as fleeting and inconsequential as the other, and the only thing any human can count on in the existential void we call the world is ourselves and the purpose we find to live in it, silencing the ever-present white noise of the abyss that is always attempting to annihilate our self-reliance and bring us to the edge of despair and push us over.

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