"Ouch! This Sure Herts!": Narrative Perspective and Reader Empathy in George Saunders' Short Fiction
The freedom to change perspectives in order to elicit empathy for a character exists within short story collections, as each story can have a different point-of-view. Short story authors are able to experiment with different narrative styles within one collection, and the styles found in American contemporary short stories often affect the connection one has with the characters. As a studied example, George Saunders implements first and third person narration to elicit reader empathy for a character (or characters) in his short story collection, Tenth of December. The way in which the author utilizes the perspective can vary. For example, a first person narration could be applied to form a connection with the narrator, or could be used to form a connection with another character aside from the narrator. In order to understand how empathy forms through differing narrative devices, this paper will take a closer look at the styles employed in two of Saunders' short fictional pieces.
The first work under study is Saunders’ “The Semplica-Girl Diaries.” A standard notion of the effect of first person narrative is that “as a reader, we are not only limited by what the character shares, but what the character knows. He/she may not have all the information or knowledge about events. We would also not know what other characters are thinking,” (Surber). Not knowing what other characters are thinking/feeling is not the same as not being able to associate with the emotions of other characters. Through Saunders' first-person narration, it is possible to relate to the narrator even though the subject at hand is another character and to connect with other characters and reject the personality of the narrator.
One way of applying the first person narrative in order to evoke empathy for a character is represented in “Semplica-Girl Diaries.” Saunders devises a narrator through the first person diary entries of a middle-aged married man. The protagonist is representative of middle-class America in Saunders' alternate-present setting. The protagonist writes, “Stood looking up at house, sad. Thought: Why sad? Don’t be sad. If sad, will make everyone sad. Went in happy, not mentioning bumper, squirrel/mouse smudge, maggots” (Saunders). The protagonist's clipped sentences and a colloquial manner of speech show the personality of the protagonist. Throughout the story, one continues to experience the narrator's frame of mind. The more one reads the protagonist's thoughts, the more unsavory his opinions and ethics become. It is through this disconnection from the protagonist that empathy for the Semplica-girls is achieved.
In his article, “The Impersonal Voice in First-Person Narrative Fiction,” Henrik Skov Nielsen explains that “the protagonist in first-person narrative is often recognizable by his idiolects, idiosyncrasies, prejudices, etc., as these directly appear in the rendering of the narrative,” (Nielsen). Saunders uses the first person narrative of diary entries in order to get into the head of the protagonist. He states, “Do not really like rich people, as they make us poor people feel dopey and inadequate. Not that we are poor. I would say we are middle… it is not right that rich people make us middle people feel dopey and inadequate,” (Saunders). The protagonist is consumed by the idea of middle-class America struggling to keep up with upper-class families, and this is expressed through the clipped, blunt nature of the narration. His thoughts may be clipped because they are familiar, and this implementation of colloquial speech expresses his unfiltered opinions of his thoughts on status. The protagonist's casual, middle-class voice highlights his position in society and reiterates his status for the reader throughout the piece. Though one may not agree with the protagonist's statements, one can identify his point-of-view and can gain an insight to his personality through his unique voice.
Saunders adopts the concept of disagreeing with the protagonist throughout the work. The more sympathetic and contrasting character to the protagonist is his eight-year-old daughter Eva, who is conflicted about the purchase of the Semplica-girls (third-world country workers who function as lawn ornaments, and have “holes in their heads, for one thing; the surgery is risky; they’re away from their families for years at a time; it’s incredibly boring; and all the while, they have to watch this other family happily living right over there, in that warm, cozy house,” (Treisman)). Saunders' writing creates a first-person narrative that does not lead to reader empathy for the narrator. Instead, one experiences the same conflicting emotions that Eva feels. Eva, though not the protagonist, is the character that holds a connection with the reader.
The first-person narration in the work also aids in the exploration of Eva's emotions. The protagonist describes his daughter's school drawing, noting “In yard, SGs frowning. One (Betty) having thought in cartoon balloon: “OUCH! THIS SURE HERTS.” Second (Gwen), pointing long bony finger at house: “THANKS LODES.” Third (Lisa), tears rolling down cheeks: “WHAT IF I AM YOUR DAUGHTER?” (Saunders). There is an interesting point to note here Saunders' construction of the story. Though the protagonist is speaking in the first-person, so are the Semplica-girls in Eva's drawing. Eva expresses her worry and connection to the Semplica-girls through a first-person depiction of each of the girls. She humanizes the girls, and in doing so expresses empathy for them.
With his daughter's objections to buying the Semplica-girls, the protagonist continues to alienate himself from the readers, as with humanity, from an empathetic standpoint. When describing how the Semplica-girls look before being strung up by their heads in the yard, he states, “SGs holding microline slack in hands, like mountain climbers holding rope. Only no mountain (!)” (Saunders). He speaks of the girls holding the line strung through their brains in a light and joking manner. His perspective is detached from Eva's opinion and the reality of the Semplica-girls' situation, but this detachment establishes the dichotomy between Eva and the protagonist. As David Galef's review of Saunder's says, “At their best, the voices are ridiculous and poignant at the same time, defeating their own pitiable qualities with a half-realized truth about love or justice in this world” (Galef). The protagonist here embodies the “ridiculous” voice, while Eva represents the “poignant” moral compass.
The protagonist seems to be in denial about the ethical implications of having the Semplica-girls. When the girls are being strung up by the doctor, he says “[Doctor] gives me meaningful look, cuts eyes at Pam, as in, Wife squeamish? Pam somewhat squeamish. Sometimes does not like to handle raw chicken. I say, Let’s go inside, put candles on cake,” (Saunders). Here Saunders depicts the protagonist as someone avoiding the unpleasant in order to obtain social acceptance. This is achieved through the first-person as one sees into the reasons the protagonist decides to do what he does (though it must be noted that this “seeing” is not an automatic reaction to all first-person narratives). The narrator's continued self-absorption and immorality does not bolster an empathetic connection to him. As the girls are strung up by their heads, he has decided to decorate a cake, which signifies his disconnection from the Semplica-girls' terrifying reality. He has shielded his wife and children from viewing the Semplica-girls being mounted in the yard, which suggests that he has a vague understanding of the grotesque nature of the concept; however, he ignores the negativity (or in his mind, perhaps, the inconvenience) of the Semplica-girls' shared medical procedure. This is supported by his statement, “SGs up now, approx. three feet off ground, smiling, swaying in slight breeze… Effect amazing. Having so often seen similar configuration in yards of others more affluent makes own yard seem suddenly affluent... feel different about self” (Saunders). The blunt first-person entry shows the protagonist's complete obsession with his family's place within society, and how he gets satisfaction from being affluent, even if that involves the exploitation of lower-class people. This concept can be connected to the current exploitation of undocumented Latin and Central Americans in the United States: their low pay scale, their long working hours, and their grueling jobs that middle-class United States citizens do not wish to do (e.g. manually harvesting peas from 5 in the morning until 9 at night for a season whilst away from family (Berger)).
After Eva releases the Semplica-girls, there is a moment where the protagonist finally muses on the mind-set of the girls. However, this is in relation to his own hardships (for lack of a better term) in losing the girls and being responsible for their replacement fees. He says, “SGs very much on my mind tonight, future reader. Where are they now? Why did they leave? Just do not get,” (Saunders). The protagonist's narration highlights the empathy one experiences for the Semplica-girls. The statement “do not get” invokes the reflection of why one, unlike the protagonist, “gets” it. One has empathy for the girls through the alienating nature of the protagonist's first-person narration. The last line of the piece solidifies the materialistic nature of the protagonist and the existence of the Semplica-girls as ornamental objects instead of human beings. He states in annoyance, “Empty rack in yard, looking strange in moonlight. Note to self: Call Greenway, have them take ugly thing away,” (Saunders). Now that the rack no longer has the exploited girls on it, the protagonist does not want to look at it. It has become “ugly” to him merely because it is no longer a status symbol. This end leads to the ultimate rejection of the opinions of the narrator and to empathy towards the Semplica-girls.
Third-person narrative is arguably the most common form of narrative in fictional pieces. Dina Felluga's Introductory Guide to Critical Theory states that third-person narrative “is perhaps the most common sort of narration,” (Felluga), and there are many different ways third-person narrative can be used in short fiction in order to cultivate a connection with a character/characters. George Saunders' “Tenth of December” has a third-person omniscient narrator that fluctuates between the actions and thoughts of two protagonists, leading to the possibility of the reader emotionally connecting with two differing characters.
“Tenth of December” consists of language that divides the two protagonists from one another and creates a familiarity for the reader with the personality of each character. For example, Saunders gives each protagonist a different voice, even through third-person narration. For example, when the boy, Robin, is the focus, the narration includes words such as, “Wham!” “dunderheads,” and “peen.” These are words which would normally be used by a pre-pubescent boy. This vocabulary is not uttered by Robin, but is described by the omniscient narrator. Phrases are used, as well, to express Robin's age and personality. The narrator describes Robin's emotions towards a dying raccoon: “That was sad. He didn't do well with sad. There had perchance been some pre-weeping by him, in the woods,” (Saunders). One can understand and experience Robin's emotions and his childish mentality.
The first time one sees the second protagonist, Don Eber, is through the eyes of Robin. Robin describes Don as looking “sort of mental. Like an Auschwitz dude or sad confused grandpa,” (Saunders). The narration shows Robin's description in his own words, and one can relate to how Don must look, even if Robin's perspective would not be correct for an adult to say out loud. Saunders allows the third-person narration to describe the second character through the eyes of the first, giving the audience an impression of Don Eber before having met him.
When the story changes perspectives, the language and word-choice changes as well. Following the aged, ailing man named Don Eber, the third-person narrative morphs into a vocabulary retained by an adult who is experiencing memory loss. This begins slowly with nuanced slips such as “...begat. Began. Goddamn it. More and more his words. Askew. More and more his words were not what he would hoped. Hope,” (Saunders). One feels the frustration of Don through his confusion with words and his expletives while trying to remember the correct usage. As the story continues, Don's sense of vocabulary becomes scattered. As he plunges further into the cold woods, the narrator states the thoughts occurring in Don's mind: “Let me pull this off. Lord, let me not fuck it up. Let me bring no dishonor. Leg me do it cling. Let. Let me do it cling. Clean. Cleanly,” (Saunders). This deterioration of Don's psyche is exemplified by Saunders' choice in narration, vocabulary, and sentence structure. By showing rather than telling the condition of Don's mind, Saunders creates a character that is more impactful for the reader to connect to within the story.
As Don strikes up dialogue with himself, so does Robin in the form of the fictional representation of the girl, Suzanne (a girl from his class who calls him “Roger” and does not socialize with him). Saunders applies the third-person narrative in order to have Robin interact with a fictionalized “Suzanne”, thus giving the audience a deeper look into Robin's state of mind. This excerpt shows the role Suzanne plays as the subconscious voice in Robin's head:
“He doesn't have much time, Suzanne said, bordering on the hysterical.
There, there, he said, comforting her.
I'm just so frightened, she said...
He must cut across the pond, thereby decreasing the ambient angle, ergo trimming valuable seconds off his catch-up time.
Wait, Suzanne said. Is that dangerous?
It is not, he said. I have done it numerous times.
Please be careful, Suzanne implored.
Well, once, he said.” (Saunders)
The interaction between the two runs in a string of sentences without quotation marks or conventional punctuation. This creates an air of excitement and speed for the reader. The hasty nature of his thoughts and his reassuring of Suzanne make the reader connect with Robin and the fears he projects onto Suzanne. Having a hurried stream-of-consciousness places the reader's mind at the same pace as Robin's, and the story depicts Robin's rushing through thoughts by short, quick dialogue. However, by the end of the exchange he has calmed “Suzanne,” in effect calming himself. The narration slows pace once more by returning to a narrative sentence structure. The third-person perspective shows one the emotional range Robin experiences through Suzanne, and this creates empathy for Robin and his plight by the expression of his doubts through a fast-paced (inner) dialogue.
The narration is third-person omniscient, and Saunders advantageously changes the point-of-view of the narration multiple times. As Robin contemplates crossing the lake with the help of the imaginary Suzanne, Don Eber is shown attempting to freeze himself to death. The third-person narration explains the inner-thoughts of Don as it has done with Robin: “Ouch, ouch. This was too much. He hadn't cried after the surgeries or during the chemo, but he felt like crying now. It wasn't fair. It happened to everyone supposedly but now it was happening specifically to him,” (Saunders). This is an interesting device between interior-monologue and free indirect discourse. The words “Ouch, ouch. This was too much” suggest that Don is thinking this to himself, however the next sentence is clearly in the third person. Saunders has blended the vocabulary of Don within the third-person dialogue to create an emotional connection between the reader and Don. The same tone continues as Don succumbs to the cold. The narration states, “This was it. Was it? Not yet. Soon, though. An hour? Forty minutes? Was he doing this? Really? He was. Was he? Would he be able to make it back to the car even if he changed his mind? He thought not. Here he was. He was here,” (Saunders). As with Suzanne and Robin's rapid conversation, these questions and answers create an anxious tone. The representation of the tone and the emotion allow and encourage the reader to associate to the protagonists through the third-person descriptions of thought processes.
When the two protagonists interact with one another, Saunders continues to shift between protagonists through his narration. This produces the ability for one to oscillate between two points-of-view and to continue a connection with both protagonists. One can experience the terror Robin felt after falling through the lake “...there was no him, no Suzanne, no Mom, no nothing, just the sound of some kid crying like a terrified baby,” (Saunders), and Don's determined overcoming of fear through self-deprecation “He was afraid he might fall in. Ha. Dope. Poser,” (Saunders). Through this juxtaposition within the narrative, one feels and understands both of the protagonists' emotions that has been supported through their inner-monologue, candid consciousness, and individual vocabulary.
The end of the story culminates in the conclusion of the fiasco of the tenth of December. Saunders does not stray from his pattern of third-person omniscient modulation of viewpoint. He keeps the inner-dialogue of his protagonists separate through word choice, and this serves to show the audience the emotions of the two characters. The narrator says that Robin had “bolted. He'd bolted on the old guy. Hadn't even given him a thought. Blimey. What a chickenshitish thing to do,” (Saunders) and that Don had “embarrassed [his wife]. He saw that. He'd embarrassed her by doing something that showed she hadn't sufficiently noticed him needing her,” (Saunders). Robin feels guilt and disgust at leaving Don, and Don feels guilt and disgust at leaving his wife.
In regards to the protagonists' emotions, both characters experienced two different scenarios together, but ended up feeling the same emotional strains by the end of the piece. Galef points out that, “Saunders iterates his message of empathy in his essays [and] has really thought long and hard about what ails us... He advocates one human's helping another,” (Galef). Here, Galef believes that Saunders focuses on the emotional experiences within humanity, as well as each individual's ability to empathize with another through shared experiences. This is considered empathy as opposed to sympathy in that Saunders attempts not only to explain/understand a character's emotions, but also to create an emotional effect on the reader. In this piece, for instance, Saunders shows both characters feeling as if they should have done more, while at the same time knowing that they had tried to help the other. This relationship between two different humans and the representation of that connection to the audience forms the foundation of empathy within the work.
These examples of Saunders' use of first and third person narratives show the importance of the application of a particular viewpoint in order for the reader to associate empathetically with characters. When Saunders constructs empathetic fiction, point-of-view is taken into account in regards to how the characters are portrayed. It should also be highlighted that egocentric characterizations hinders an audience's empathetic experience; the attempt to evoke empathy will always be vulnerable to this risk, though Saunders has utilized egocentricity to elicit empathy for other characters apart from the protagonist. In conclusion, Saunders uses these forms of narration in non-conventional ways to evoke empathy for a character. By using narrative voice skillfully, the desired connection of the audience to a character occurs within Saunders' "Semplica-Girl Diaries" and "Tenth of December," representing Saunders' overarching themes of pursuing empathy within humanity.
Amanda Bigler studied English and French at the University of Kansas. She then completed her Masters in Literature and Creative Writing from Loughborough University. Currently, she is finishing her PhD at Loughborough University focusing on contemporary American short fiction and empathetic writing devices. Her first novel, The Takers, was published in 2015. She is an English lecturer at the University of Lorraine and Sciences Po in Nancy, France.
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