Style and Technique
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 525
Anderson’s use of the first-person narrator is crucial in creating the subtlety of “I’m a Fool” and illustrates the instinctive quality of Anderson’s best work. A third-person narrator, for example, not only would have robbed the character of his emotional intensity but also would have revealed the fragility of a commonplace plot. Instead, the narrator’s voice gives the almost banal situation an earnestness, an honesty, that is both powerful and moving.
Though the use of the first-person narrator was certainly not new, Anderson’s adaptation of it for this kind of story is significant. Mark Twain had already created the character of Huck Finn in 1884 by allowing Huck himself to record his adventures in his Missouri vernacular. There is, in fact, even an echo of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in “I’m a Fool” in the relationship between the narrator and the black man, Burt.
However, the relationship is suggestive more of the narrator’s frustration than of his freedom and moral superiority, as is the case with Huck’s relationship with Jim. Besides, Huck’s narration is often of stirring action, satiric comedy, and shrewd character portrayal. By contrast, the narrator of “I’m a Fool” speaks more about his feelings; he records in his ungrammatical English not the external action, but the internal, the private, the quiet experience of his emotions.
The indebtedness of “I’m a Fool” to Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is further evident in the skillful use of irony; like Huck, the swipe communicates deeper meanings than he intends. When, for example, the narrator describes the lakeside setting of his tryst with Miss Lucy, he uses the simplest analogies, comparing the evening to the sweetness of an orange. In so doing, the swipe reveals not only his simplicity but also his sensitivity, his almost poetic “soul.”
Furthermore, when the narrator seems to stumble and digress from his “story,” he is inadvertently giving clues to the reader about his feelings of inferiority, as when he discusses his family background and begins to mention his proud grandfather in Wales; “but never mind that,” he concludes.
Thus, the use of the first-person narrator not only establishes a sensitive personality but also makes the story a collaboration between that personality and the reader, forcing the reader to draw inferences from the narrator’s offhanded remarks. Collaboration such as this is a characteristic technique of twentieth century literature.
Finally, if “I’m a Fool” is indebted to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, it is also in its own right a literary ancestor of such modern works as J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951). Anderson’s handling of the sensitive young narrator was emulated by Salinger in the characterization of Holden Caulfield, highlighting the conflict between the compromised world of the adult and the idealistic world of the adolescent. Though Holden is not uneducated in the same way as the swipe, he is as confused and frustrated as his predecessor.
“I’m a Fool” is a modern classic whose deceptively simple style is the chief method by which the emotions and personality of the central character are portrayed.