The Function of Narrator in 3 Short Fiction
The narrator in a short story provides for the readers the eyes and mind by which they see and understand everything that happens in the story. He affects the perspective by which they approach and digest the story. The narrator always creates a subjective viewpoint for the reader, however omniscient and objective the writer makes him out to be, because choosing a particular viewpoint in which to tell the story would omit some aspects of a story that could be examined further had the author chosen another character or viewpoint by which to narrate the plot. The choice of narrator, therefore, affects the overall reading.
The narrator of the plot, however, is carefully chosen by the writer in order to accomplish the said subjective viewpoint that the author would like the reader to get from his reading. This paper would examine the functions of the narrators in three short stories, namely: “A&P” by John Updike, “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker, and “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” by Katherine Anne Porter. Updike’s “A&P” is the story of Sammy, a teenage sales clerk at an A&P grocery, whose dull day at work suddenly becomes significant when three young ladies come into the store in their swimsuits.
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Sammy fantasizes about the girls, especially on the one he names as Queenie, the prettiest and leader of the group. However, Lengel, the store manager, does not share Sammy’s appreciation for the girls when he confronts the trio about the inappropriateness of their clothing. Sammy defends the girls from the prude manager and resigns right there and then, hoping at the same time that his gesture would be appreciated by the girls. The story is narrated in the first person by the hero, Sammy.
The theme of the story is about disappointment and disillusionment after responding to what the individual believes is an impulsive call for heroism or a chance to rise from one’s lowly and commonplace existence. By using the protagonist as narrator, Updike is able to juxtapose the discrepancy between fantasy and reality. Sammy, we learn from his own narration, aspires for a bigger and better life than what all the small-town people he considers as like “sheep pushing their carts (Updike)” have. He is bored with his work, the unexciting town, and life in general.
The girls, coming from a more affluent part of town, are a breed apart from him and the regulars of A&P, and one that he would like to be a part of someday. When he sees the opportunity to defend the girls from Lengel, he thinks the girls would thank him and probably, befriend him. The train of events and associations he must have imagined at the sight of those girls and the fact that he defended them consumes him, enough for him to make the sudden decision of resigning from his job. The final disappointment however, is just as strong in its impact when he realizes that the girls have gone without even acknowledging his heroic act.
The reader feels the sting of reality check along with Sammy when the protagonist expresses: “I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter. (Updike)” In Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use”, the narrator is Mama or Mrs. Johnson, an African-American living in the South just after the years of emancipation. She is uneducated, lived, and survived a hard life. Mrs. Johnson still carries the old feelings when blacks were uncomfortable in the presence of whites yet at the same time, are very proud of their native African heritage.
The conflict in the plot plays up the differences between Mrs. Johnson’s generation and her daughter’s. Dee, intelligent and educated in the city, has her own way of regarding her indigenous identity. She looks at her African-American heritage as something one displays for others to admire. She visits her mother to get a butter churn top and dasher which she would bring back with her to the city where she would display them like museum pieces in her home. Mrs. Johnson, however, could not understand why one needs to display these everyday things when they could be put to their intended uses.
The conflict climaxes at the point when Dee asks for the quilt Mama already promised to give the other daughter, Maggie, on her wedding. Mrs. Johnson refuses adamantly. “You just don’t understand…your heritage, (Walker)” Dee accuses her mother and sister. Walker could have chosen Dee as the narrator of the story and the same theme would still be adequately explored from the conflict between Dee and Mrs. Johnson. After all, it is the dialogues of both characters, specifically their arguments, which move the story forward.
Obviously, however, the writer would like the readers to sympathize with Mrs. Johnson thus allowing her character and her viewpoints to dominate in the text. Mama’s image is the first that the reader meets in the story thus establishing an immediate affinity between reader and heroine, and the final image is again of her and Maggie “just enjoying (Walker)” their simple life, creating the impression that her philosophy, ultimately, is the better one. One’s cultural heritage would survive longer and best valued when it is practiced in everyday life by the members.
Mrs. Johnson is right and her daughter Dee, is not. The third story, Katherine Anne Porter’s “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall”, is told in the third person, but it is the most intimate of the three in that as the narrator leads the reader into the mind of the 80-year old protagonist, Granny Weatherall. It looks into the life and personality of the old woman and allows the reader to realize things that may be vague, unrecognizable and sometimes incomprehensible to the failing mind of its main character.
By choosing a third person narrator that delves into the consciousness of the character, the reader becomes acquainted with the Granny Weatherall’s personality; but more important to that, are the revelations that the images that run through her mind—her accomplishments, her sources of pride, the unfinished tasks, her jilted dreams, frustrations, fears, —provide for the reader’s analysis of her character, and in turn, of the meaning of the literary piece. The events of Granny Weatherall’s life are presented in snippets, the past overlapping with the present, the sequences of events occur through associations rather than chronologically.
For instance, the sound of rustling leaves outside the window brings back memories of her daughter, Cornelia, when she was a child that in turn, triggers more memories from her hard life, and all that she has survived and outlived. The most poignant memory, however, is that of her wedding day 60 years ago where she was jilted by her lover at the altar. At the end of the reading, one does not only get a whole picture from the fragments of memories but also realize that the writer has attempted to recreate the experience of dying in prose form and succeeds in it.
By choosing to narrate the story through the consciousness of the old woman, the reader gets the impression of Death hovering everywhere in the story: from Granny’s detachment from everything that’s happening, to the flashbacks, and her struggles to look through “a whirl of dark smoke (Porter)” that blurs the images in her mind and disorients her. The final betrayal mentioned in the final paragraph, the realization that what she has long been expecting with the coming of death might not be what really happens in the end after all, becomes more felt as the narrator ends the story with the slow darkening of light until it is fully extinguished.
The narrator of a story has a lot to do with both the intention of the writer for writing the story and the lingering effect that the story has upon the reader as he thinks about what he read and attempts to analyze it. One can read two stories with the same plot yet employing different narrators and he would realize the different effects produced by the readings. There is no best narrator as all stories can be told in various perspectives; however, the fact is that the quality of the final narrative would depend greatly on how the narrator tells the story and what the reader gets from his viewpoint.