The Fat Man in History

by Peter Carey

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

“The Fat Man in History” is told without any direct quotations; everything the characters say is provided via indirect discourse, a reporting method where a character’s words are not disclosed verbatim. For example, the narrator says, “Eventually the-man-who-won’t-give-his-name says, it is generally considered good manners to knock,” rather than “Eventually, the-man-who-won’t-give-his-name says, ‘it is generally considered good manners to knock.’”

When a narrator reports characters’ speech by using indirect discourse rather than direct discourse (i.e., providing verbatim accounts of their speech set off in double quotation marks), it tends to produce a rather monotonous effect on the work. Perhaps this is meant to mimic the feeling that the six men experience as they move through this world in which they are mistreated and judged because of their body size. Their days are the same, as they are generally ostracized from all of society, with the possible exception of Milligan, the taxi driver.

Thus, the text is meant to imbue a sense of this monotony on the reader through Carey’s use of indirect discourse, a technique which also maintains an emotional distance between his characters and his readers. But why would Carey desire to keep readers at an emotional distance from his characters? Perhaps it is because this is how all the characters feel about each other, and so making readers feel uncomfortable and isolated emphasizes characters’ feelings by forcing readers into a similar emotional position.

For example, Finch feels that he must hide his activities and possessions from Fantoni, and the man who will not share his name with the others hides his own identity as well as his affair with Florence Nightingale from the others. There does not seem to be much camaraderie among the men, as they know so little about one another. What little camaraderie they do have seems to break down once they decide to cook and eat Fantoni, their unofficial leader, rather than Florence, as they had planned. The narrator’s mode of reporting helps us to feel the men’s discomfort, distrust, and emotional distance from each other.

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