On Narrative Voice (2): For the Record

During the audience question time at the end of the lecture I gave last week, a questioner contended that, with regard to the narrative voice in The Road, my entire argument was fatally flawed. The narrator, she said, cannot be some omniscient entity wounded by the apocalypse because the narrator is plainly and obviously the boy at the heart of the narrative, looking back as a grown man on his survival ordeal and retelling it in a faux third-person voice: a displacement technique that suggests ongoing psychological trauma.

That contention seemed to me to be unjustifiably speculative, but the questioner insisted that it was the case and cited as evidence a passage from The Road in which the third-person narrator inexplicably slips into the first-person voice. Off-hand, I could not say exactly which passage she had in mind, but Wikipedia agrees with the questioner — “[a]t one paragraph only in the discussion of the journey, the story is told in the first person”  and so too does the blog Sycorax Pine, where the first-person slippage is explicitly identified:

On p.74, there is a sudden shift in narrative voice — while the rest of the novel is in the third person, a single paragraph at the top of the page is in the first person, in the father’s voice. What is odd is that this passage deals with memory and seems to “correct” the central narration: “He doesn’t remember any little boys.” What is going on here? Does this happen at other points in the novel, points that I just missed?

And here is the passage in question, in what does indeed appear to be the first-person voice:

The dog that he remembers followed us for two days. I tried to coax it to come but it would not. I made a noose of wire to catch it. There were three cartridges in the pistol. None to spare. She walked away down the road. The boy looked after her and then he looked at me and then he looked at the dog and he began to cry and to beg for the dog’s life and I promised I would not hurt the dog. A trellis of a dog with the hide stretched over it. The next day it was gone. That is the dog he remembers. He doesnt remember any little boys.

Since this supposed “shift” in the narrative voice is a shift to the voice of the father, it would of course undermine my questioner’s suggestion that the entire narrative is told in retrospect by the boy when he becomes a grown man. That aside, let me state, for the record, that to read this passage as a “shift” from the third-person voice to the first-person voice is to divorce it from its context within the narrative as a whole. The implication of such a “shift” would be that the first-person voice of the father has somehow obtruded upon the voice of the third-person omniscient narrator, as if the narrator had somehow been shunted aside for the space of a paragraph before being allowed to continue speaking. But this implication rests on a disregard for the remainder of the narrative, the seventy-three pages of third-person omniscient narration that precede this passage and the one hundred and sixty-six that follow it. The narrator is omniscient. As I have suggested, he has had certain limitations imposed upon his ability to express what his omniscience allows him to know about the apocalypse that has destroyed the world, but, even so, he remains able to leave the boy and the man behind and extend his view of the ravished earth, or else to become so intimate with them that he can easily perceive their innermost thoughts. Consider, for example, this passage:

Later when the boy was asleep he went to the house and dragged some of the furniture out onto the lawn. Then he dragged out a mattress and laid it over the hatch and from inside he pulled it up over the plywood and carefully lowered the door so that the mattress covered it completely. It wasnt much of a ruse but it was better than nothing. (125)

Or consider this passage:

They began to come upon from time to time small cairns of rock by the roadside. They were signs in gypsy language, lost patterans. The first he’d seen in some while, common in the north, leading out of the looted and exhausted cities, hopeless messages to loved ones lost and dead. By then all stores of food had given out and murder was everywhere upon the land. The world soon to be largely populated by men who would eat your children in front of your eyes and the cities themselves held by cores of blackened looters who tunneled among the ruins and crawled from the rubble white of tooth and eye carrying charred and anonymous tins of food in nylon nets like shoppers in the commissaries of hell. (152)

Or consider this passage:

He sat in the floor of the cockpit and sorted through the tools. Rusty but serviceable. Pliers, screwdrivers, wrenches. He latched the toolbox shut and stood and looked for the boy. (191)

In the first passage, who exactly judges that the mattress covering “wasnt much of a ruse but it was better than nothing”? In the second passage, who exactly holds a fear of “men who would eat your children in front of your eyes”? In the third passage, who exactly deems the tools in the cockpit to be “[r]usty but serviceable”? For reasons that vary from passage to passage, the words quoted here do not belong to the third-person narrator. They belong to the man, and yet in each instance the narrator seems to represent the man’s thoughts via a “slip” into a voice other than the third-person: the implied first-person in the third and first passages, and the second-person in the second passage.

What we have, then, is a third-person omniscient narrator with a history of using his very omniscience — or what remains of it — to lay bare the thoughts of the man at the heart of his narrative. In other words, the passage seemingly spoken in the first-person voice of the man is not a deviation from the voice of the third-person omniscient narrator but is rather a product of the narrator’s very omniscience. He grants us temporary access to the man’s thoughts just as he does throughout the narrative, albeit at greater length here than at any other point. We can only understand this, however, when we read the passage within the context of the narrative as a whole — that is, when we read it not as something isolated from the remainder of the novel, but, on the contrary, as something sharply attuned to the remainder of the novel.

I hasten to suggest that Henry James would have also seconded such a reading of this passage. His was a distinctly holistic literary criticism, a criticism that directed all discussion of the constituent elements of a work of literature towards a greater discussion of that literature in its totality. If we extract the fragment from the big picture, we misunderstand how exactly the fragment contributes to the construction of the big picture and thus how it simultaneously invests meaning in the big picture and obtains its own meaning via the investment it makes.

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