Monday, February 20, 2012

Third vs. First: Point of View Choices in Lilith's Brood

When it comes to critiquing literary figures the concept of being relatable, and how it solidifies a connection between reader and character, is integral to the success of a story. Characters are often defined by how relatable or “unrelatable” they are to certain cultures, ethnicities, or society as a whole. The idea of art imitating life versus life imitating art is a colloquialism that can be assessed to the point where it is not unreasonable to say that the relationship between art and life, and the influence they have on one another, is decidedly fluid. Because of the way in which art is based in reality, readers expect a level of mimetic expression in literature—regardless of artistic exploration towards the fantastic, Avant-garde, surreal, or mythical, in the end a character must maintain at least an iota of relatable emotion for the reader to be satisfied. For example, what gives Frankenstein’s monster significance as a character within the novel, and within the landscape of classic horror fiction, is not that he is a monster, but rather that he is a monster with human qualities to which anyone can relate.

Although a character’s choices, motivations, and sentiments are the obvious ways in which a writer connects a reader to a character, there are other ways to do this. Form specifically is a crucial method for an author to develop a relationship between the reader and the character. This is evident throughout Octavia Butler’s trilogy Lilith’s Brood. In the first book Dawn, both the reader and the protagonist are being introduced to a world that is strange and unfamiliar. Butler utilizes the classic structural strategy of having the reader find out information as the main character is finding it out. For example when Lilith is around Jdahya for the first time, the reader is feeling the same confusion and fear that Lilith is: “She did not want to be any closer to him. She had not known what held her back before. Now she was certain it was his alienness, his difference, his literal unearthliness. She found herself still unable to take even one more step towards him” (13). Although Lilith’s Brood is an example of science fiction (a genre that often maintains a level of coldness in terms of intimacy between reader and story), the characters drive the story equally to the plot and therefore must maintain a level of understanding from the reader. However, because the plot of Lilith’s Brood itself is so fantastical (dealing with an imaginative race and made-up global events), Butler must connect the reader to the novel not only through character development but form. By having the first book be in third person, the reader is following Lilith apposed to experiencing things with Lilith. This distinction is noteworthy because at this point Lilith’s level of disorientation and discovery is akin to the reader’s, so a connection closer than third person is not needed. The reader does not need to associated with “I” statements to feel as though they themselves are experiencing what Lilith is experiencing and learning what Lilith is learning about the Oankali and her new life in general. In essence, Lilith knows the same amount of information that the reader knows, so Lilith asks the same questions that the reader wants to know the answers to, and thinks similar thoughts, such as “She spoke quickly, trying to blot out thoughts of more surgery or some sort of sex with the damned ooloi. ‘What will you make of us? What will out children be?’” (Butler 42). Therefore the distance of third person as a structural form is barely a distance at all.

Because of this Butler’s choice to use third person for the first two books makes the intimacy of first person more profound in the third. Although the level of confusion and ambivalence that Jodahs feels is very much relatable, like Frankenstein Jodahs is, by his hybrid nature, not completely relatable to the reader. However, by transitioning into first person Butler maintains a level of connectedness to the reader that otherwise could have been lost as we move further and further away from Lilith herself, who, by filling the “every man” archetype is easily the most sympathetic character for the average reader. The need to ensure a level of relatability between reader and protagonist in Imago is exemplified when Jodahs describes “I needed rest now, but I would not sleep until the Humans made some decision—either to go away or to come satisfy their hunger and their curiosity. But I could be still in the Oankali way. I could lie awake using the least possible energy, and as Lilith and Tino said, looking dead. I could do this very comfortably for much longer than most Humans would willingly sit and watch” (Butler 616-617). This illustrates Butler’s use of form to solidify the reader’s empathy towards Jodahs: although he is a creature unlike anything in reality, it is still easy to feel linked to his story because of the use of first person and the way in which it allows the reader to put themselves in the place of the main character.

1 comment:

  1. There's some chaff in the introduction, which distracts from the strengths of the essay, which is your strong engagement with questions of literary form (an engagement you've often shown in class, very productively). The discussion of mimesis is interesting and opens a potential topic, but you don't need it: what you need here is the exploration of Butler's search for intimacy (why, if so much science fiction is cold, does she want so much intimacy? It's an interesting question...), and how she saves the best, but most heavy-handed, tool for last.

    Once we're past the introduction, I find the flow of your argument convincing. I would have been happier if you'd found more ways of directly engaging with the text. Strong examples of behaviors or ideas that Jodahs has that would be repugnant or unsympathetic (I don't like relatable/unrelatable as words, incidentally - maybe I'm being picky), but that are effectively forced upon us by the intimacy of the language, would help.

    Note that Jodahs is a seducer and at least arguably a betrayer. Could you pushing your points about its character (and how about the weird dimensions of making the "it" the "I"?) have done something there?

    I think this is probably your best work so far, probably because you're directly working with your interests and strengths.