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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 551

The basic narrative convention that Barrett uses in “Servants of the Map” is the form of the epistolary novel, popular in the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries, in which the entire story is told by means of letters. However, Barrett departs from the pure epistolary novel by interspersing the letters...

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The basic narrative convention that Barrett uses in “Servants of the Map” is the form of the epistolary novel, popular in the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries, in which the entire story is told by means of letters. However, Barrett departs from the pure epistolary novel by interspersing the letters Max sends to Clara with comments by an omniscient narrator, who expresses the feelings of loneliness, despair, and confusion that Max believes he cannot or should not tell Clara. Furthermore, by having Max frequently comment on the very limitations of trying to communicate his feelings by writing letters, the story becomes less an attempt to replicate the old epistolary fictional form and more a self-reflexive exploration of the nature of that form.

An implication of the writing process of which Max becomes aware is the reader’s need to imagine what the writer can only hint at. Max asks Clara to imagine things he describes, for he says that when he tells her enough to let her imagine them clearly, he can imagine himself. Trying to discover the self through the act of writing thus becomes not only the central theme of the story but the central technique as well.

The fact that Max is writing to one that he loves makes the task even more difficult. For the writing process reminds him of the common lover cliché that “words cannot express” the way that one feels. In his letters, Max wants to communicate himself truly, but in letters there is always the danger of the recipient “reading between the lines” and misunderstanding. Thus, the writer must be more careful than if he were present with the loved one. Max wants to give Clara his truest self, everything he is thinking, seeing, feeling, but increasingly as he tries to do this he becomes more self-conscious and therefore uncertain about who that self really is. “How,” he asks himself, “can he offer these aberrant knots of his character to Clara?”

At one point Max considers writing intimate about sexual fantasies to Clara, but decides he cannot, and then feels despair that Clara can never know who he is these days if he hides both his worries and his guilty pleasures. More and more Max learns that there are aspects of human experience that cannot be clearly mapped or easily recorded. Over and over, he thinks that his learning to “see” these subtle and complex aspects of experience is more important than anything else. More and more, he writes Clara saying he cannot tell her certain things, that he should not tell her certain things. As time passes and his self-consciousness about the limitations of language grows, he changes more and more, his past life seeming to disappear and his memories becoming jumbled, as if he were dissolving and turning into someone he does not recognize. Grappling with this loss of confidence in language, he finally stops writing to Clara altogether.

The metaphor of a “servant of the map” that holds the story together suggests that when Max loses confidence in his ability to map the mysterious terrain that identifies where and who he is, the resulting loss of self is positive rather than negative, for he realizes that there is something inherently limiting and even false in limiting the self by mapping.

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