Postmodernism Essays and Criticism

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Narrative Techniques in Postmodern Fiction

(Literary Movements for Students)

One facet of Postmodernism that sets it apart from Modernism is the attitude that postmodern authors bring to fiction. While the modernist was concerned with precision both in language and presentation, the postmodernist breaks with these established practices. Time lines are often disrupted, leaving it to the reader to determine the order of events. At other times narrative expectations are upset as the author either contradicts the narrative or intrudes deliberately into the story line.

The way an author tells a story is through a narrator. Generally the narrator is not the author but a created persona with a personality, a behavior pattern and special reasons for telling the story in the manner it is being told. For example, the narrator of the Edgar Allan Poe story “The Tell Tale Heart” desperately tries to convince the reader that he is not crazy.

These narrators fall into one of the following categories: first person narrator; third person omniscient narrator; third person limited narrator; dramatic narrator (a phenomenological narration that makes no comment on or judgments about any of the actions or scenes in the tale); and in some circumstances the stream of consciousness narration (a specialized narration in the first person through the mind and thoughts of that person). However, there are notable variations to these types. In “A Rose for Emily,” Faulkner used a first person plural (“we”) narrator. In this story the townspeople tell the tale.

The only contact a reader has with a tale is through “the act of its being told (or retold)” by the narrator, according to Henry McDonald in “The Narrative Act: Wittgenstein and Narratology.” Therefore, the reader must have a sense of the narrator’s reliability. If the narrator is lying or telling the story in a slanted fashion, the reader must then come to grips with that fact and make a judgment about the story from that vantage point. This does not mean that a story cannot be understood even if the storyteller is lying; it means that the reader must reconcile knowing about a lying narrator with the information that the narrator presents. Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “The difficulty is to realize the groundlessness of our believing.” Therein lies the task of the perceptive reader: to locate and to understand the nature of the fictive world and to recognize the “truth” of that fictive world and to separate it from an unreliable presentation of it. The reader must determine the grounds for identifying that “truth.”

An important aspect of the narrative presence is the structure it takes. In “The first thing the baby did wrong . . .,” by Donald Barthelme, the narrator tells his story in monologue style. In the story the father describes his baby’s behavior in a first person continuous narrative that describes how she is punished for tearing pages out of books. The monologue uses a familiar tone, referring to the audience as “you” to create a sense of intimacy (“She got real clever. You’d come up to her where she was playing.”) and to request sympathy for the parents’ dilemma with the baby’s actions. As the baby seems to enjoy her punishment, the father’s narrative reveals frustration and a resolve to maintain rules set by the parents. In this story the narration is a simple one drawing the audience into the family circle and asking for sympathy.

Sometimes the narrative gives the reader a sense of being a part of the story as it unfolds. In the story “Montezuma and Cortez,” Barthelme uses the continuous present to tell the story. It opens: “Because Cortez lands on a day specified in the ancient writing, because he is dressed in black, because his armour is silver . . . Montezuma considers Cortez to be Quetzalcoatl.” The remainder of the story maintains this use of present tense, which gives the reader a sense of immediacy and an eyewitness- to-history feeling about the tale. The reader is not told the story after the fact, but...

(The entire section is 8,713 words.)