Pulling Up a Sibyl by Her Own Bootstraps: Narrative Contradictions in “The Last Man”

by Sørina Higgins

The Last Man is constructed as a tri-partite narrative whose fictions are mutually contradictory, lacking closure, inhospitable to the reader, and difficult to interpret. The three putative narrators are “Mary Shelley,”[1] the Cumaean Sibyl, and Lionel Verney. “Shelley” begins by claiming: “I visited Naples in the year 1818.”[2] She describes her explorations of a cave complex in Baiæ Bay that turns out to be the ancient haunts of the Sibyl. Here, “Shelley” collects leaves “traced with written characters” (3).[3] She spends time “deciphering these sacred remains,” editing, translating, organizing, adding material, and shaping the fragments into a narrative (3). Indeed, she admits: “Sometimes I have thought … they owe their present form to me, their decipherer” (4). Shelley thus uses this first frame to plant suspicion in the reader’s mind about the accuracy of the story displayed within: not a welcoming move.

The second narrator is nearly subsumed into the first: the Cumaean Sibyl is not allowed to speak for herself, but only as channeled through “Shelley” (who is, of course, channeled through Shelley). Within the frame, the reader is meant to believe that the main components of the story originated in Sibylline oracular writings—i.e., that they are divinely inspired and inescapably true. This origin story renders the embedded tale of humankind’s devastation by the plague as a warning. Many predictions of disaster include a comforting caveat; after Jonah’s declamation to Nineveh—“Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4)—repentance led to God’s “relenting” and holding back “the destruction he had threatened” (3:10). The readers of The Last Man, however, have no such option. No repentance is called for. No method of avoiding destruction is offered. Their only hope, oddly, is to disbelieve the story and put its inaccuracy down to the distortions introduced by “Shelley” during her process of “adaptation and translation” (4). This is a strange way to frame a novel: By encouraging readers to disbelieve it. Clayton Carlyle Tarr writes that frame narratives “frequently disturb narrative cohesiveness,” and that is certainly the case here.[4] From the very opening of The Last Man, the reader is encouraged to trust its veracity as a divinely-inspired prophecy of the future and simultaneously to suspect its accuracy due to its dubious reconstruction.

The third narrator is Lionel Verney, the main character, and his account contradicts the other two. Those may be harmonized with each other (the Sibyl could have written the leaves and “Shelley” could have transcribed them), but if his account is true, theirs must be ignored and erased to make space for his supposed authorship. When he is the last person alive on earth (as far as he knows), he decides to write a book dedicated “to the illustrious dead,” speculating that “the children of a saved pair of lovers” somewhere will re-populate the globe and read his book (339). In it, he narrates his life from solitude through young love, domestic life, and political action to solitude again. His writing of the book introduces a strange loop somewhat similar to the variously-named bootstrap paradox that bedevils time travelers. If the Sibyl wrote the leaves and “Shelley” edited them, then Lionel did not write the book; but then the prophecy is false, because the prophecy includes and is in some way predicated upon the book’s being written. If Lionel did/will write the book, then the Sibyl did not write it, and it is not a divine prophecy.

The Last Man’s frames, then, contradict one another; the first two are historical, the last is prophetic. One scholar asks: “Do prophecy and history contend as narrative modes?”[5] They certainly do in Shelley’s novel. This book “complicates conceptions of history and authenticity, and, because the opening frame never returns, Shelley leaves us with a perplexing understanding of what we have read and how we have read it.”[6] Have we read a prophecy of our own future? Or a fictional account of future we need not fear? The most crucial question raised by these debating narrative personae may be: Why did Shelley write a book whose conflicting frames alienate a reader via skepticism?

Scholars have wrestled with the destabilizing implications of The Last Man’s narrative frames. They may be merely a pragmatic writing technique, allowing the past-tense narration of events in the future.[7] But more is going on. Morag Veronica McGreevey thinks that “the novel’s annihilating conclusion denies the possibility of an audience,” which then forced Shelley to create the Sibylline frame as an excuse for the book’s creation in the past so that it may have an audience in the present (before the plague-ridden apocalypse).[8] But this ignores Lionel’s hope that survivors might still exist to be fruitful and multiply. Emily Steinlight takes the opposite approach, arguing “The Last Man does not foretell a destiny, much less an end of history,” because it assumes a present audience.[9] This ignores the story’s claim that it was written (by the Sibyl) in ancient times and edited by “Shelley” in 1818 and thus could easily be read in the nineteenth or twentieth centuries.

Many scholars read the open-ended narrative frame, with its account of questionable editing practices, as a destabilization of faith in authors, editors, or publishers.[10] The most dramatic of these is Tarr, who argues the lack of closure is “an enduring horror.”[11] This reading sees the conflicting frames as Shelley’s intentional device, either to protest her mistreatment by the literary industry of her day or to question her role as Percy’s literary executor.

There is a way to reconcile the varying frames, but it is inhospitable to narrators and reader alike. It requires believing (contrary to her report) that “Shelley” copied the Sibyl’s prophecy exactly—that’s what we are reading—and the prophecy will be fulfilled in our future, when Lionel Verney will write, word-perfectly, the book predicted by the Sibyl, constructed by “Shelley,” and written by Shelley. It could all be true, and we are awaiting our doom. It’s coming soon, in 2100.


[1] I use the quotation marks to distinguish this character from Mary Shelley and to acknowledge the many scholars who read this narrator as an ungendered fictional figure.

[2] This is, in fact, true of Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley.

[3] I am using this edition: Shelley, Mary. The Last Man. New Introduction by Brian Aldiss. London: The Hograth Press, 1985.

[4] Tarr, Clayton Carlyle. “The Force of a Frame: Narrative Boundaries and the Gothic Novel.” University of Georgia Dissertation, 2013. Abstract.

[5] ENG 274 notes: “Mary Shelley in Context.” web.stanford.edu/class/english274a/originals/lastman.doc.

[6] Tarr 36

[7] Franci, Giovanna. “A Mirror of the Future: Vision and Apocalypse in Mary Shelley’s The Last Man.Mary Shelley: Modern Critical Views, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1985) p. 186., qtd. in Albright, Richard S. “‘In the mean time, what did Perdita?’: Rhythms and Reversals in Mary Shelley’s The Last Man.Romanticism on the Net. Issue13, February, 1999.

[8] McGreevey, Morag Veronica. “Reading Apocalypse: Ruptured Temporality and the Colonial Landscape in Mary Shelley’s The Last Man.” B.A. Hons, The University of British Columbia, 2013. 1.

[9] Steinlight, Emily. Populating the Novel: Literary Form and the Politics of Surplus Life. Cornell University Press, 2018. 72.

[10] Zolciak, Olivia. “Mary Shelley’s The Last Man: A Critical Analysis of Anxiety and Authorship.” Thesis, Bowling Green State University, 2017. 50-51. Webb, Samantha. “Reading the End of the World: The Last Man, History, and the Agency of Romantic Authorship.” Mary Shelley in Her Times. Ed. Betty T. Bennett and Stuart Curran. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2000. Webb, Samantha Christine. Literary Mediators: Figures of Authority and Authorship in English Romantic Prose. Temple University, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 1999. 129. Tarr 36, 138.

[11] Tarr, Clayton Carlyle. Gothic Stories Within Stories: Frame Narratives and Realism in the Genre, 1790–1900. McFarland, 2017.

“Some folks ’ud say”: Narrative Scorn at the Sign of the Rainbow

The narrative structure of Silas Marner seems crafted to draw the reader in and hold the reader at a distance; to create sympathy and to facilitate an alienating sense of otherness, in alternating scenes of rushing suspense and of dispassionate narrative. Reading the novella in light of Hollander’s Narrative Hospitality suggests that these shifts are either reflective of or contributors to changing Victorian philosophies about the Self and the Other, about sympathy and hospitality. Even given that understanding, however, Chapter VI is jarring.

Chapter Six opens in the midst of building tension as Silas discovers his gold has been stolen, then rushes off the to pub to declare his grievance. But then, in a sudden change in tone, the narrative screeches to a halt, the chronological sequence goes into retrogression, and the perspective is wrenched from a singular intense focus on Silas’s distress to a dispersed comic scene among the rustic personages gathered at the Rainbow. The narrator refuses to offer continued narrative drama and chronological continuity just when readers most want them, pursuing an unrelated side-track for nine pages before deftly weaving together the villagers’ stories about ghosts with Silas’s uncanny appearance. However, even though the thematic connection via tales of the supernatural is clear, the chapter-long divergence appears to damage the compelling forward momentum of the story. Might it serve to heighten suspense by postponing the moment of dramatic satisfaction? Might it serve a subtly didactic function, frustrating the readers’ desire to know something on a small scale as a metonym for general epistemological uncertainty?

A closer examination of the passage in question reveals other problematic elements in addition to the postponement of narrative satisfaction. It is not clear what the narrator’s (or the author’s) stance is on these “lower-class” characters. The narrative tone, the phonetic presentation of dialogue, the absurd content of their conversation, and the caricatured portraiture combine to give the impression that the narrator holds them in great scorn. For instance, the conversation begins with an argument ostensibly about a cow, but really about these neighbors’ faith in one another’s word. Mr. Snell, the landlord, opens proceedings by asking: “Some folks ’ud say that was a fine beast you druv in yesterday, Bob?” (40). The spelling, diction, and grammar suggest a working-class dialect quite different from the narrator’s smooth, sophisticated, sometimes facetious prose. This continues in Bob’s answer: “And they wouldn’t be fur wrong, John.” This apparent mockery is not confined to dialogue. The narrative descriptions read like satire. The landlord considers people “beings who were all alike in need of liquor,” and Bob is “not disposed to answer rashly” (pausing a long time to smoke his pipe), and the farrier looks around “with some triumph” after making an inane remark. These techniques leave this reader in some doubt whether the narrator (or Eliot herself) is writing for pure fun, or out of gentle love, or from a sense of social superiority. This ambiguous attitude calls into question the narrator’s hospitality; is s/he Othering these people to the extent that they are outside the readers’ range of sympathy?

The setting is also jarring, causing the reader’s re-orientation to the novella’s spatial and environmental elements. A police station, courtroom, or other official functionary location would seem more suited to Silas’s tale of crime, at least to a 21st-century reader. This shift of setting is also concurrent with—or perhaps the cause of—a change of generic features. Chapter V suggested that the story was becoming a mystery novel, but then Chapter VI suddenly presents a scene of rustic realism in stark contrast. Questions about hospitality remain, as the reader is thrust into the setting and genre that have hitherto been inhospitable to Silas and whose borders he has been unable to cross. But at the same time, the narrator’s troubling inhospitality continues towards the very people whom the reader has hoped would welcome Silas into their community. This is perplexing indeed.

There are several possible solutions to this dilemma about a troubling shift in setting, genre, and narrative perspective. One is to take the suspension of narrative closure in the Rainbow as a foreshadowing of the sixteen-year postponement to come. Just as the reader is frustrated by having to slog through a whole chapter of casual neighborhood chat while chaffing to know how Silas will be received, so the theft of Silas’s money and the mystery of Eppie’s paternity remain unsolved for sixteen years. This narrative frustration mirrors Godfrey’s refusal to let down his boundaries to his father, brother, and Nancy—and both are examples of the failure to fully open up to community and to strangers when the chance is first offered.

A second possible reading considers the weaving together of narrative threads. This is a macrocosmic metaphor of Silas’s microcosmic literal weaving. The story presents first a single-stranded thread: Silas in Lantern Yard. After following this thread for a time, it shifts to a double- or triple-stranded thread: Godfrey’s, Dunstan, and perhaps Molly’s situations. Finally, in the chapter in question, the third many-stranded thread of the whole Raveloe community is braided together with the others. These men in the tavern will be Silas’s friends once Eppie unites him to them. Hospitality is thus enacted in the text as his life is woven together with theirs, raveled together in Raveloe when he thinks his life has unraveled.

However, neither of these readings explains the apparent scorn in the narrator’s tone or what seems to be Eliot’s mockery of lower-class characters. It may be that she did consider herself superior to uneducated villagers, or it may be that she is teasing out the reader’s own prejudices, revealing our unwillingness to spend time in a common pub with these folks, encouraging the reader to open mental doors and welcome these rustic characters in with intellectual and readerly hospitality. Perhaps the very frustration this scene raises is meant to create general epistemological uncertainty—can we ever truly know another human being?

~ Sørina Higgins

Readerly Vanitas

After reaching, at long last, the final page of the many pages of William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, many readers might find the novel’s resolution (or lack thereof) to be a bit unfulfilling. After all, it seems reasonable to think that with more than eight hundred pages to work with Thackeray should have been able to tie things up pretty tidily. We might expect to be devastated by a crushingly tragic outcome or to be sated by a graciously comic reward of virtues (such as we can find them). And we do see a bit of both. But, on the whole, the ending feels rushed, following from some climactic (more anti-climactic) crisis and resolution for Amelia and none at all for Becky with whom we have spent a majority of our time.

We seem to have a pretty satisfactory wrapping up of things with the marriage of Dobbin and Amelia, and in several ways their union does curtail the tragic direction which the novel seemed to be heading for a while, by putting young George on the right track (or at least edging him off the wrong one) and by rescuing Amelia and Dobbin from their stupidity and “spooney”-ness respectively. But Rebecca remains in a decidedly ambiguous position socially, a somewhat obscure one financially, and a pretty dismal one morally (having profited from if not orchestrated the great Waterloo Sedley’s demise). Nothing has been resolved for Rebecca, and Thackeray undercuts even our resolution concerning Amelia and Dobbin, by hinting at the imperfections of their marital state on the final page! The very last thought we hear from Emmy, or from any of the novel’s characters, is her reflection on Dobbin’s fondness for their daughter: “Fonder than he is of me” (809). Clearly, Thackeray does not intend to let marriage stand as a shining signifier of the long-sought happy ending.

In short, the novel does not seem to end so much as it does simply stop. As such, we might pause to consider whether this sense of some incompleteness, even arbitrariness, is a failure in Thackeray’s masterpiece or an essential part of his novel’s structure.

It might be particularly useful to ponder this question in light of D.A. Miller’s “Problems of Closure in the Traditional Novel.” Miller considers the difficulty which every novelist faces in ending her novel which arises from the non-narratable happy ending. Miller argues that because the movement of a novel arises necessarily from conflict, trouble, or problems of some kind the happy ending cannot be narrated in the same way as the preceding plot. In fact, the novelist must be careful not to attend to her happy ending too closely or its imperfections will inevitably be disclosed, since any presentation of life requires the implicit recognition that life is a process of change and the reality of change reminds us that happiness can go as quickly as it came. Thus, a novelist can only really resolve her story by a sort of sleight of hand, defining the happiness against the conflict which came before while distracting the reader from the many perfectly apparent ways in which the happy ending could be, or already is, problematized.

However, Miller’s “problem of closure” is not a problem for Thackeray at all. If we consider the stated context of the novel along with Thackeray’s narrator’s final words it becomes apparent that the lack of resolution in his novel is no accident but rather an essential part of the novel’s plan. After describing Becky’s rather paltry and unstable success and problematizing Amelia’s marriage by noting her jealousy of her own daughter, Thackeray concludes his novel by reminding us once again that what we have been observing all along is merely the foolish play of Vanity Fair:

Ah! Vanitas Vanitatum! Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? or, having it, is satisfied?—Come children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out. (809).

Here, Thackeray recognizes with Miller the impossibility of really resolving a novel. There is no ending which can really bring full satisfaction. Or, at least, there is no such ending in Vanity Fair and thus, correspondingly, in Vanity Fair. The very meaning of “vanity” includes the inability to provide ultimate satisfaction or meaning. Thackeray has shown his characters in quest of satisfaction for eight hundred pages, and, while his ending is by no means tragic, it could not be called comic either. Amelia and Becky are still in pursuit of their happy ending, and the readers are shown that that pursuit will likely continue forever uncompleted.

Thackeray not only explicitly denies his readers a happy ending to his story but actually denies them a happy ending in their own lives as well! The narrator’s rhetorical questions clearly imply that it is not only Becky and Amelia who cannot achieve finally satisfying desires but also each of us reading this novel or watching this “play.” We, as readers, might all along have been waiting for, perhaps expecting, satisfaction of our readerly expectations, and Thackeray achieves his ends by purposely flouting those hopes. We have been led to identify, sometimes uncomfortably, with the characters throughout the novel, and now we identify with them in their experience of that nagging feeling that something is still missing.

And if a frustrated reader were to splutter out that, after all that time and effort spent, he felt as if he’d gotten nowhere, we can imagine that Thackeray might well smirk and satirically query, “Do you mean, perhaps, it was all in vain?”

The Problem of Problemlessness in Sterne’s “Sentimental Journey”

Sterne’s brief novel, A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy, comes pretty much precisely as advertised. The narrator, Yorick, journeys through France and Italy and shares a variety of sentimental experiences with the reader. Especially to the modern reader, however, this formula might seem to present a problem, and that problem is basically the fact that, colloquially speaking, nothing happens. D.A. Miller explains in “Problems of Closure in the Novel” that plot depends upon difficulty and trial, and as such there might appear to be a problematic lack of problems in Sterne’s account. To be sure, the plot does become problematized from time to time, such as when Yorick fears the Bastille due to his passport-less condition, but, as John Mullan explains, the primary interest for Sterne’s readers would simply have been participating in Yorick’s many sentimental encounters. Nonetheless, such attractions offer little to contemporary readers so how does the novel still “work” today? I think that a partial answer might be found in an incident which at first appears to be a problem in itself.

This incident is Yorick’s quite obviously unkind and entirely unsentimental first engagement with the poor monk in Calais. This meeting happens very early in the book before Yorick writes his “Preface in the Desobligeant” where he establishes himself as a sentimental traveler, inviting the reader to join him in a journey not so much of development but of sequential incidents of sentimental sympathy. The sentimental reader is little more nor less than a guided sentimental traveler, one whose experience of the sentimental is filtered through one more additional teller. Thus, as John Mullan makes clear in “Sentimental Novels,” the reader’s primary source of enjoyment comes both from appreciating the sentimental disposition of the narrator/protagonist and from partaking themselves in that disposition by sympathizing with the narrator and the other characters of the book.

However, another important shift also occurs in the desobligeant. It is only at this point that Yorick begins his narrative in earnest. This beginning indicates that the account which we were reading before the desobligeant was conceived differently and, perhaps, intended for a different purpose or even a different audience. Our narrator is the same but his narrative purpose may have shifted. In fact, in the first entry, prior to the “Preface in the Desobligeant,” Yorick makes a direct address to his Eliza which might indicate that he is addressing her in that narrative, perhaps in a letter or at least in a journal intended for her eye. However, the account which Yorick begins to keep in and after the desobligeant is intended, not only by the author Sterne but by the narrator Yorick, for us, for the readers.

The incident of the monk and this shift in narratorial audience work jointly to complicate the relationship between the reader and the narrator. The reliability of the narrator is subtly but continually called into question, such that the reader’s surface level enjoyment of sentimental experience is accompanied by an underlying tension arising from the narrator’s questionable motivations. Thus, Sterne’s story attains greater staying power than later more simply sentimental novels, as Mullan observes, because Sterne compensates for the lack of any consistently problematized plot by problematizing the narrator himself. Just as Yorick is fascinated by the mystery of the man who implores charity from women only, so the reader is fascinated by the mystery of Yorick, as they watch him dance an often very fine line between noble sentiment and not-so-noble sensuality.

The way that the incident of the monk accentuates this ambiguity of motivation can be seen clearly by examining Yorick’s second encounter with the monk. This second encounter where Yorick apologizes for his previously unkind behavior occurs in conjunction with Yorick’s meeting with the Calais lady and the first of his several extended hand-holding sessions. On the surface level, Yorick’s second encounter is a perfect example of an incident attuned to cultivate sentimental enjoyment. As Yorick holds the lady’s hand, the monk approaches them and offers Yorick a pinch of snuff to which Yorick responds by offering the monk his own silver snuff box in its entirety, declaring, “when you take a pinch out of it, sometimes recollect it was the peace-offering of a man who once used you unkindly, but not from his heart” (99). With these words, Yorick suggests that his prior harshness does not detract from his supreme sentimentality on display throughout the story because it was not a natural outpouring of his heart. This account seems to be validated by the earlier incident in which Yorick describes how he formed a premeditated conviction to not be moved by the monk’s story, and the story waxes more sentimental yet as the monk and Yorick exchange snuff boxes and Yorick recalls how sweetly he wept at the monk’s grave some year afterward with his snuffbox in hand.

However, this sentimental sweetness cannot be accepted without reservation. At the very end of the entry prior to the one in which the snuffbox exchange occurs, Yorick is concerned about whether the monk might have told the lady about his cruel conduct, and he declares, “I set myself to consider how I should undo the ill impressions which the poor monk’s story, in case he had told it her, must have planted in her breast against me” (98). This confession casts an undeniable shadow over the snuffbox exchange. Yorick contrasts that action with his prior behavior by implying that his kindness comes from the heart while his avarice did not, but his earlier remark indicates that his kindness, at least in this incident, might be every bit as premeditated as his unkindness was before. Indeed, since he has a particular object in mind for his kindness (the good favor of the lady), it might seem to be more calculated than his unkindness which, to all appearances, actually did arise from an immediate impression.

Furthermore, that aforementioned object of Yorick’s perhaps premeditated generosity, casts even more doubtfulness on the purity of his sentiment. It is only after the shift in narratorial audience which occurs in the desobligeant that Yorick begins recounting the many sentimental incidents which put him in emotionally, if not physically, compromising positions with various ladies. Somehow Yorick’s sentiment always seems to culminate in him holding the hands of attractive women, and it seems unlikely that these incidents would be mentioned so freely were Eliza still the narratee.

Thus, this exchange with the monk aptly captures the tension in Sterne’s novel which solves the problem of problemlessness. The reader, prompted to suspicion by this early incident, is left wondering throughout the account whether Yorick’s sentiment might be more strategic than he claims or if even the natural outpourings of Yorick’s heart might not be accompanied by equally natural outpourings of desire from other less pure quarters.

Distance and Sympathy in “Camilla”

Frances Burney’s Camilla is, almost from beginning to end, a long (very long) series of misunderstandings. While personal defects and even deviousness do play a part in the novel, the vast majority of the plentiful conflict arises from well-meant but poorly executed interpretation. Camilla misreads Edgar’s intentions, Edgar misreads Camilla’s every action, Eugenia misreads Bellamy’s professions, and Dr. Marchmont misreads the entire female sex. This basic formula of increasingly disastrous misunderstanding is a common one, especially in comic drama such as Shakespeare’s where it always culminates in a rapid resolution of the near-catastrophe when the disguises are removed and everyone resumes their original genders.

However, while Camilla does at long last resolve in a similar way, the progression toward that point is not experienced in nearly so lighthearted a manner as is typical of a comedy. Unlike the “comic equivalent of fear” which R.S. Crane describes as the result of similar misunderstandings in Tom Jones, the reader of Camilla is likely to feel genuine concern, perhaps disappointment, and almost certainly frustration. I believe that an important reason for this less comical readerly experience can be found by considering the various distances at work in the novel.

In Wayne Booth’s seminal Rhetoric of Fiction, he describes a number of kinds of distance in the novel which shape the reader’s experience. These distances include the distance between the reader and the narrator, between the implied author and the narrator, and between the narrator and the characters. Booth explains how different combinations of these kinds of distances mold almost every aspect of a novel, and one critical aspect of the novel experience determined by these distances is sympathy (particularly sympathy between the reader and the characters). Booth notes that, in Tom Jones, it is the closeness of the narrator and the reader which makes possible the “comic analogue of fear” described by Crane, and he considers how Austen must maintain a closeness between Emma and her readers without letting them ever get too close, in order to maintain Emma’s appeal.

Booth’s observations provide insight into why we experience the complex web of errors in Camilla so differently than similar plots of error in other works. Unlike Tom Jones, the author and the narrator of Camilla both remain fairly undeveloped and unobtrusive. Burney implicitly acknowledges her creative role in the first paragraph of the book, but beyond that point she assumes the voice of her narrator who, while not dispassionate, could hardly be identified as a “character.” Thus, although the reader is close to the narrator insofar as they trust her and hold knowledge in common with her, they are not close to her in a way which shapes their expectations for the characters. The frequent intrusions of Fielding’s narrator in Tom Jones assure the reader that Tom will be just fine, but Burney’s narrator becomes little more than an accurate lens through which to view the characters and their world.

And through that lens we view a large array of characters and the activities of their respective hearts and minds. Indeed, one of the more striking aspects of Burney’s novel is the number of characters who are granted at least some interior exposition in the course of the story. Burney allows us more access to Camilla’s hopes and fears than to the others’, but, within the novel’s commodious narrative, there is still plenty of time spent in Edgar’s suspicious heart, Eugenia’s naively intelligent mind, and the feelings of many other secondary characters as well. Burney uses almost every instance of interior exposition to create sympathy for the character being exposited. In fact, almost the only character of import who is granted no interior exposition is Bellamy, such that all our knowledge of internal motivations is consonant with the overall impression of disastrously entangled good intentions.

This widespread interiority brings the reader fairly close to many characters but not very close to any one. We, along with the narrator, know a little bit about what everyone is thinking, and thus we are always kept somewhat distant from what any one character is thinking since we possess knowledge which allows us to see their frustrating folly or reasonable error. This distance might render the reader’s sympathy for the characters somewhat fragile so Burney’s challenge is to paint every character in as positive a light as possible despite the fact that they all succeed at damaging one another quite prodigiously. For example, if Camilla were to cause trouble with vanity like Emma’s, we would dislike her for it, since Burney does not bring us as close to Camilla as Austen brings us to Emma.

It is this almost overwhelming number of fairly sympathetic characters in Camilla which causes us to experience the plot of errors in a not entirely lighthearted way. The frustration we feel is not so much Camilla’s or Edgar’s, but rather it is our own, the frustration not of one character’s perspective of the overall mess but of our own perspective which puts us in contact with such a vast cacophony of voices, all of which we wish well, that, without direct assurances to the contrary by the narrator, we begin almost to fear that the disaster has gone too far and not even our unobtrusive author can entirely set things to rights.

Jenny, Jenny, Jenny

If West’s Return of the Soldier was a play, Jenny could be viewed as the director. It is her view and reading of the action that the audience ultimately sees. Jenny’s role as narrator is essential to the story because hers is the only voice heard; even Chris and Margaret’s stories are ultimately told to the audience through Jenny. So how do we read this novel because of Jenny? Because of Jenny’s self-awareness and empathy, we learn a great deal about the characters although a bias towards Margaret shouldn’t be ignored.

Focalization is the term for what Jenny offers; Jenny is the lens by which the story is transformed and told, like rose-colored glasses. Jenny focuses on what she chooses and ignores that which she doesn’t want to talk about. This focalization is why we may sympathize with Margaret over Kitty, because that is how Jenny feels. Jenny tells this story from the first-person perspective which helps the story to feel personal. It is easy to identify this POV because of her use of the word “I.” The benefit of this voice is that it allows the audience to feel like we are in the middle of the action.

Kitty is the wife of Chris and starts the novel as Jenny’s main companion. Most of what we read of her is her distaste for Margaret and her attempts to make Chris remember her. Rather than give ten quotes comparing Kitty and Margaret to show her self-obsession, Jenny gives a succinct assessment of the woman: “she could not have conceived that we could follow any course but that which was obviously to her advantage” (115). Kitty’s perspective is lost in this novel the moment she stops having Chris’ wellbeing as her foremost important goal. In anger Kitty remarks that Chris is “pretending” and this hurtful statement makes Jenny respond that “I was past speech then, who had felt his agony all the evening like a wound in my own body, and I did not care what I did to stop her” (70). Kitty’s perspective is lost when she Jenny finds herself unable to empathize with her position.

Chris, the soldier referenced in the title of the novel, is the subject of all the drama. His perspective is gained through the stories that he tells about his past to Jenny. However, we must keep in mind that these stories are still told by Jenny to us. Jenny does not focus on his perspective past her initial moment of trying to understand him. Jenny’s version of Chris, and thus the version we see, is a man who was so troubled by the war and the loss of a son that he reverted to the last time that he was truly happy. This is authenticated when the Doctor says much the same thing and Margaret’s cure of shocking him into remembering is successful.

And here we arrive at Margaret, the mysterious woman who arrives at the Baldry abode. Jenny’s initial assessment of Margaret is that she is trying to trick Kitty out of money so she thinks to herself that Margaret should “turn from our righteousness ashamed” (56). Jenny changes her tune when she sees how earnestly that Margaret cares for Chris. Jenny lovingly states that “this wonderful woman held his body as safely as she held his soul” (102). It is when Jenny

It is when Jenny successfully empathizes with and ultimately understands the character that we learn about their particular perspective. Selfish wife, traumatized soldier, and a sweet friend are revealed when Jenny gets close enough to understand their motives and emotions. It is this connection that establishes Jenny as a reliable narrator. A reliable narrator is a voice that the audience has no reason to mistrust and one we can depend on to tell us the truth. Jenny’s strength and success as narrator come from her continued attempts to understand and pursue what is right. “There is a draught” of truth that Jenny insists “we must drink or not be fully human” (115). It is this insistence on justice that truly teaches us that Jenny is trustworthy as narrator and thus the perspectives revealed by her storytelling are to be trusted.

Thomas Sr. Man of Stone

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a novel that shows very different characters and how they choose to react to tragedy and love. Thomas Sr. (hereafter just referred to as Thomas) is literally a man of few words. Foer develops a character who is flat and surprisingly static.

Looking at the multiple letters we have from Thomas, we begin to see the rationale behind the stoic, silent man. It is the loss of Anna that haunts him for the rest of the life. This loss is why he insists on the rules that we hear in “Why I’m Not Where You Are.” Thomas is entirely defined by this experience. In “My Feelings” Thomas starts to sculpt Anna by using the grandmother. The grandmother is just a literal stand-in for Anna. He is so consumed by being Anna’s boyfriend that he can’t see his wife as anything but Anna’s sister. Thomas can’t connect with his son because Anna had been with child when she died. “I’ll never be your father and you’ll always be my son” he informs the child. Thomas is entirely defined by losing Anna and this makes him a hopelessly flat character.

Thomas writes, in “Why I’m Not Where You Are,” that “I’m leaving her today.” Thomas flirts with leaving every time he enters the airport to fetch the magazines and further in he does finally leave. Thomas’ exit and re-entrance, while thematically important to understanding the relationship between Oskar’s grandparents, had the potential to redefine his person and to redirect his life, but they don’t. He doesn’t return because he suddenly realizes a profound love for the grandmother nor does he leave her because he has any intensely good or bad feelings; Thomas is afraid to live and he realizes that being with Anna’s sister is the most comfortable way to avoid the effort of connection.

Maybe some of Thomas’ flatness is a result of his contrast with rounder characters like Oskar and the grandmother, but even when he is given multiple opportunities to share his life story and emotions, he never succeeds in attaining depth.

Black and White and Red

Perhaps the most striking divergence from the typical printed page, for me, is the section written by Thomas Schell Sr. describing his experience during the Dresden firebombing. These pages are so markedly different from the rest of the book because they have been “marked up” with red-orange ink, with circles around words and phrases that the reader grasps for connections between the seemingly disconnected words and phrases. As someone who copiously marks up books, underlining and circling particularly touching phrases, marking shifts in the plot with stars in the margin, and scribbling questions in between lines, I was upset to find this section as it was. Who dared to mark it up before me and how would I be able to tell the difference between what I marked and what they marked?!


When we gathered for class and realized that all of our books had similar markings and that this was a narrative technique of Foer’s, I began to look on the section with a little bit more…patience. In fact, what Thomas Schell Sr. notes in this “Why I’m Not Where You Are” section falls right at or just after the physical middle of the novel. The content of the section is heavy, recounting Thomas’ already-fragmented experience in Dresden in 1945. The orange ink circling the first reference to “my child” (as opposed to “my unborn child”) and words on opposite ends of a line further fragments the narrative. I googled “the effects of red ink,” with several different phrasings, to figure out what exactly it was that made this chapter stand out. It is the first color that the reader encounters in the book and it stopped me dead in my tracks. Furthermore, who has made these red marks? With our knowledge from the end of the book, Thomas’ “child” has read the letter – it is the one he bases his search for his father on (!!!!!) and we already know that he uses red ink to mark up the New York Times. Since we can’t officially make this connection at this point, though, readers are left grasping for connection and meaning in the fragmented narrative, as Thomas Schell Jr. must have done upon his reading of the letter.


I think Foer perhaps chooses this method of fragmentation to slow the reader down. Oskar’s chapter preceding this one leaves the reader anticipating more lock-searching. The shift to 1945 Dresden in Thomas Schell Sr.’s perspective is dramatic and disorienting, mirroring Thomas’ own experience during the firebombing; from the first time his father shouted at him to the escaping zoo animals to the hospital room and his fragmented memories of Anna’s pregnancy, Thomas’ experience is visual and emotional and those powerful images stick with him, leading to what he conveys to Oskar and the reader. Without the physical disruption of red-orange ink where it should not be, the reader could (and possibly would) simply skim over this narrative, unsure of Thomas’ importance as a narrator yet. In effect, Foer uses the red-orange ink to disrupt the narrative to prevent the reader from skimming over tragedy. If the reader skims over this passage, Thomas (Sr.) loses his humanity that he displayed in the emotional despair of losing Anna and the depth of the tragedy of being connected to both Dresden and 9/11.

Images and Disruptions

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close has one of the most unique narrative formats. While most books are double-spaced and full-page narratives, Foer breaks away from this norm and adds countless disruptions. These aren’t just distractions though. All the strange pictures, odd fragments, and sudden breaks contribute to the reading experience, enhancing the story and allowing us to dive into his plot.

In particular, I found the image on page 98 very interesting. Oskar has just started his search, and after visiting a woman named Abby Black, he wants to take a picture of her. She hesitates, so he captures the back of her head instead. Although I didn’t think much of the picture at first, I realized its symbolism as I got farther into the story. In my opinion, this indirect shot of the woman parallels Oskar’s life – he struggles in dealing with his pain and fears directly. For example, when asked to come to the ninth floor of a building, Oskar says, “I can’t go up…Because you’re on the ninth floor and I don’t go that high” (90). Oskar is scared of heights. He is haunted by his father’s death. He is terrified of the future. To me, this indirect picture mirrors Oskar’s beginning character: afraid, unsure, and hurting.

If Foer had not included such images, he would have lost a major element of the story. In the book, there are countless disruptions like the one described above that add an additional layer of depth to his book. I loved Foer’s narrative techniques because his story reflects real life where everything connects. The present connects to the past, the past connects to the future, and the future connects to the present. By using these disruptions in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Foer crafted an extremely realistic and unique masterpiece.

(A Lack of) Resolution

Jonathan Foer walks a thin line incredibly well at the end of his novel. While Foer must have felt obligated to provide resolution to the fictional aspects of the story—particularly Oskar’s quest for the lock—he would also be trying to balance the real, unresolvable tragedy of September 11th, too. As readers, we want loose ends of the story to be tied up. As a people, we know that the dead of 9/11 cannot be brought back. We’ve pledged to ourselves not to forget them.

Foer balances these two conflicting desires by layering the fictional and less fictional conflicts in the novel. Oskar’s quest for the lock, then, is a conflict that can achieve some sense of resolution because it is entirely fictional. The key opens William Black’s safety deposit box at the bank. Oskar’s inner conflict about coming to terms with his father’s death is not so easily resolved because far too many people suffered unrecoverable losses on that day.

Even though Oskar finds the lock, he realizes that it doesn’t make him hurt any less—“it had nothing to do with Dad” and “now [he’ll] wear heavy boots for the rest of [his] life” (302). This may be an important milestone in Oskar’s grieving process, but it is far from resolution.

Foer uses many of these mixed moments of fictional resolution and irresolution (Oskar’s grandparents’ final conversation, Oskar’s mom’s tears, etc.) to show that while the story is moving forward, there is still a long way to go for healing.

This sense of irresolution and the ending sequence of pictures in particular addresses the broader conflict felt by those who lived through 9/11 or are just trying to make sense of the modern world. Oskar’s desire to reverse the order of the pictures that may or may not show his dad falling to his death reflect our own desire to save the man suspended in the pictures. Many of us who watched on screens “the same images over and over, as if the world itself were repeating” (272), can deeply empathize with Oskar’s wish. If only…

a falling man

Foer leaves the final sequence of pictures without commentary afterward because there is nothing to say that will make our wishes true or less painful. Instead, he lets his readers sit with the pain in their own personal journeys to healing.

How Multiple Resolutions Form Oskar’s Final Resolution

In Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Foer resolves each character’s conflict, but instead of them all being separate, they all contribute to Oskar’s final resolution. The first thing resolved is the key and what it opens. Oskar had been so close to the owner of the key when he visited Abby Black, the second Black he met with. The owner of the key has also lost his father. In Edmund Black’s letter to William, it is revealed that their relationship was not all that great. The letter was formal and business-like in nature. It was distant. Oskar then follows up this story with his own last message from his father; which seemed to be almost begging for “you” to answer the phone. Through this meeting Oskar does not get any closer to his father. The key that he thought was his, actually belonged to someone else and his father gained it on accident. What Oskar did get from this exchange was that his father was finally being remembered as a good man. He looked for his dad in Mr. Black’s bio for the longest time and was still hopeful up until he pulled his own name out of the bio.

Next we have the resolution of Grandma and the renter. Once again this is all in a letter being addressed to Oskar. This is written the day after Oskar and the renter dig up his dad’s grave, so it is important to note that at the end of the book, when Oskar is back in his room, he has not received this letter. In this letter, the reader witnesses the grandma’s desire to remain together with Thomas. She says that she cannot stand to be alone and that she will do whatever it takes to remain together, even f that means staying at the airport, this in a way mirrors the lady that stays in the Empire State building. Both grandma and this lady cannot stand to return to their previous lives if the one that they loved were not there. She ends her letter with a sad story about not being able to tell her sister that she loved her the night before the bombings. She then follows that by saying, “It is always necessary.” This is a comment on how unexpected life can be and that just because things seem to be alright now, in a few moments they could drastically change. This is evident in the messages left for Oskar by his dad. In five out of six messages, his dad was calm and collected. He seemed to be fine, but in the sixth Oskar knew that something was wrong, and he never got to tell his dad that he loved him or anything because he could not answer the phone.

Lastly we get Oskar resolution with his mother and Ron. Oskar begins to give Ron a chance, even though he may be asking him extremely difficult questions, this is the most Oskar and Ron have interacted in the novel to this point. The next morning while he is trying to sneak back in, his mother and he have a talk, which results in a lot of crying by both parties. Oskar is bonding with both Ron and his mother, before he even gets his Grandma’s letter. His talks with William Black leads Oskar to be closer to his mother, as he does not want be have a similar relationship William had with his father. He wants his mom to be happy and is willing to allow her to fall in love again. This shows great character development in Oskar. He no longer restrained by his father’s death. He has found a way to live. His dad will be remembered as a good man, at least by William Black, and his mom still has a shot at love, and she knows that Oskar loves her.

How the Disruption of the Text Helps Readers


One simple written word jars readers from a comfortable complacency. Out of context, the word “help” could mean anything. It could refer to anything. But to us, and more importantly, to Oskar, help is everything.  FullSizeRender-4

Situated on an empty page, “help” screams louder than any block of text ever could. Why use 100 words when one will convey the same message?

Foer often diverges from typical printed pages to show relationships and how his characters’ minds work and process. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a novel that explores these relationships and the interwovenness of human life through and around tragedy. Foer, through this atypical writing style, seems to be making the claim that life is not linear. Contrasting to what most authors would have us believe, life is a constant mystery, a jumble of emotions. Only at the end can we make sense of what has happened.

FullSizeRenderEvents are messy and so is the mind. Through these divergences, Foer expresses the mind of a young boy, tragically trying to make sense of the death of his father. Pictures, letters, and handwritten words from his grandfather all add to the experience of Oskar’s loss. To the reader, this adds to our confusion and helps us to reside in Oskar’s miFullSizeRender-1nd. We feel his emotion. We are confused with him. Our minds travel in all of his tangents. As readers, Foer takes us for a ride through this unusual writing technique.

The disruption of this technique lies in our expectations as readers. We are conditioned to read a story from beginning to end, expecting semi-linear motions. Foer challenges this notion. However, his challenges lend towards the aforementioned result: we enter the mind and life of Oskar Schell.

Breaking Up the Mundane

The most notable moments when Foer diverges from regular print is on several occasions in the grandfather’s, Thomas Sr, narrative. Foer goes for pages without a break from the typical printed page, and then suddenly switches to a type of printed work that is not normally seen. He will type a sentence or sometimes only a word on each blank page.
This type of page break is first seen when we are introduced to a narrative of a character that is not named. It turns out to be the grandfather but we do not really connect that until later on. We learn that the grandfather was not always silent but once he came to America and tried to talk about Anna that was when his silence hit. Soon after that is found out we get the blank pages with only a sentence or word on the entire thing. This greatly disrupts the readers thought process. They were involved in a regular narrative then jolted out of their comfort zone. Which is exactly what Foer wants. For this specific character in order for readers to truly get a sense of what he is feeling and going through this break in regular format must happen.
It shows how this silence has disjointed his life and made it harder to communicate. The reader is shocked out of their comfortable reading mindset and that is like what is going on in Thomas’s. If Foer had not done this most readers would have merely trudged through that section and found it some freak accident but never had any emotional connection to the character. This interruption caused readers to feel the shock and sympathize with Thomas Sr.
Foer uses this method several times in the grandfather’s narrative. Each section does have a bit of a different context but they all take the reader out of their mundane reading mind and transport them into the feelings and thoughts of the grandfather. This gives Foer’s novel a spark of genius and the ability to make an impact on readers.

Tin Cans and String



How are you?

I’m doing well.

These are some basic questions and answers that people use to communicate. Communication seems to be an ever increasing complicated word in our world. In Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close the lack of communication is a problem, and he shows this by using an interesting style of writing to display the difficulty of communication.

One of the examples that stuck with me was the pages of numbers on page 269-271 when the Grandfather is trying to talk to Oskar’s mom. I am ashamed to admit how long I spent trying to figure out what the numbers were saying, and I went through a lot of paper. The first few numbers are simple, “Hello, is it really you?” and a couple of lines down it repeats, “Is it really you? Help!” Oskar’s mom, of course, cannot understand what he is saying because all she hears is beeps. Two pages full of beeps where a couple of words were caught like, “My name is…arrived…airport.” The “language” barrier is weaved throughout the novel and is also a larger theme for the time period and in our own lives.

Oskar and his grandmother have difficulty communicating what and how they feel to others, while his grandfather has a difficulty communicating to people since he does not have the ability to talk. And throughout the novel we meet many Blacks who have the inability to communicate effectively.

Communication is a way to exchange ideas and news, and is a connection between people and places. However, what happens when there is a barrier or a loss of communication. For Oskar not being able to fully communicate how he feels after his dad’s death leads him on this mission to find what the key opens. For his grandparents this leads to trying to find purpose in their lives since their lives have no purpose after all they have lost. The larger implications lie in the fact that after the tragedy of 9/11 we had a loss of communication in how to deal with the tragedy. In how to understand how this could happen so in turn we were afraid and that fear lead to anger and to misunderstandings of an entire people. Foer is able to express this more fully with the pages of numbers, the pictures, and the black pages. But in this it is not only a miscommunication it is a way to learn that people are different and that we communicate in different ways. To take the time to learn how a person communicates and how they understand could save us all a lot of fear, anger, and misunderstandings.

Characters’ Emotional Connection

In Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, we go from

“My first jujitsu class was three and a half months ago. Self-defense was something that I was extremely curious about, for obvious reasons, and Mom thought it would be good for me to have a physical activity besides tambourining” (2)


“To my unborn child: I haven’t always been silent” (16)

It’s a bit of a culture shock after fifteen pages of listening to a nine year old to suddenly hear from this older gentleman.Who is this man? How is he related to Oskar? Why am I reading this letter? All of these questions come up instantly in the reader’s mind when the narrator changes.

This sub-plot of sorts of the Grandparents’ letters certainly adds a new dimension to Foer’s story. Adult perspectives with wisdom and insight are able to present events quite differently from Oskar’s inevitably childish perspective.

Having this insight come from the first person point of view helps the reader to connect with the character’s emotions on a level that would not be the same in third person.

“Grandma knew Oskar was in the room, being silent.”   is very different from

“You were silent, but I knew you were there.      I could feel you.”

This shows readers the emotional connection that Grandma feels to Oskar, and that this connection is so real to her it is almost tangible.

The emotions this novel invokes are deep and complex, inspired by Foer’s ability to draw us in with each of the characters’ narration. The love between each of these characters is so real you could almost touch it, and it seems unlikely that this depth of emotion would be possible without the first-person narratives of all of these characters.