1 July 2011
Focalization and the Narrator: How a story is constructed using Miguel De Cervantes Saavedra’s, The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha and Guillermo Samperio’s “She Lived in a Story”
Introduction: The Importance of Narratological Terms
All literature tells a story. There should be a conflict, climax and a resolution that takes the reader on a journey. There are characters, a narrator, a setting, conflicts and most important there is a point of view in which the story is told. Who is telling the story and most importantly, can we trust their narrative? These are two very important questions that must be asked of the reader. The theory and study of narratives and narrative structure is known as Narratology. When a reader is engrossed in a book, they should not have to stop to figure out what is going on. This will lose momentum and confuse the reader. For this reason, readers and writers use Narratological terms to construct a story that will guide the reader from beginning to end.
The way a story is structured is very important to the understanding of the book itself. When a reader can follow the story and understand the author’s vision, it makes the reading experience more enjoyable. In Narratology, two key terms to remember are focalization and narrator. The person who tells the story or the way the person wants the reader to perceive the work is known as focalization. Every written narrative has a voice that changes the effect of the story and guides the reader.
In this article I will use two texts, The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha, by Miguel De Cervantes Saavedra, and the short story, “She Lived in a Story” by Guillermo Samperio to demonstrate the importance of point of view and the narrator in a text and ultimately how it shapes a story.
Narratology: What is that?
A narrator is created to tell a story the same as literature is there to tell a story. The narrator’s job is to guide the reader from start to finish so they can fully understand the story. When we look at narrators, we usually think of them in terms of first-person narrators and third-person narrators. First -person narrators is when a story is narrated by one character speaking for and about themselves. Third -person narrators are more flexible using “she”, “he” and “they”. However, these terms can sometimes be confusing and fail to paint a picture of who the narrator is. For example, in the classic novel The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison tells the story of Pecola Breedlove, a young girl who prays for blue eyes. She believes that if she had blue eyes, people would think she was beautiful and her father would stop raping her. Morrison uses Pecola’s friend, Claudia MacTeer as a narrator in a mixture of a child and adult perspective. There is also an omniscient narrator present to fill in the reader. This narrator knows the story fully and gives the reader inside thoughts about how the young girl’s feel. In Cervantes’s Don Quixote, however, the first-person narrator spends most of the book telling us the story of Don Quixote and Sancho, from which he is much removed.
The case is similar with third-person narrators. We can have an omniscient narrator like The Bluest Eye, who inserts wisdom and judgments into the text (The novel begins thus: “Quiet as it’s kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941.”) This line sets the story’s tone and the reader is transported to the fall of 1941, wondering what has happened.
Manfred Jahn supplies us with classifications so the reader can differentiate between narrators. For starters, narratology, as stated by Jahn is “the theory of the structures of narrative. To investigate a structure, or to present a ‘structural description’, the narratologist dissects the narrative phenomena into their component parts and then attempts to determine functions and relationships” (Jahn N2.1.1). Jahn differentiates between “overt” and “covert” narrators. An “overt narrator” gives us information about himself and projects a voice (Jahn N1.8- N1.9). And a “covert narrator ” has “a largely indistinct or indeterminable voice” (Jahn N1.9).
It is important to recognize that this is not merely a black or white issue. There have been many instances in which they overlap. Thus, you might have two narratives that are overt, but one might be more overt than the other. For example, The Bluest Eye has more of an “overt” narrator than Don Quixote because more information is given. Claudia weaves in and out of the story but the reader is not confused because where she leaves off the omniscient narrator picks up.
Jahn also gives another important standard by which to classify narrators:
A text is homodiegetic if among its story-related action sentences there are some that contain first-person pronouns (I did this; I saw this; this was what happened to me), indicating that the narrator was at least a witness to the events depicted; a text is heterodiegetic if all of its story-related action sentences are third-person sentences (She did this, this was what happened to him)” (N1.11).
This refers back to the first distinction we made between the narrators of The Bluest Eye and of Don Quixote. Claudia is a homodiegetic narrator, because she is a character in the story, influencing the events that take place. She plays a dual role of character and narrator. The narrator of Don Quixote is a heterodiegetic narrator for the most part, because he exists only outside of the action: he tells us what Don Quixote and Sancho did, but he does not act as a character in the story or influence the events. However, I say “for the most part” because this classification can overlap as stated before.
The narration starts on 0:24. In the film Monster, Charlize Theron plays serial killer Aileen Wuornos. She acts as a homodiegetic narrator.
Another important term to discuss is focalization, which is the point of view in which the story is told. Jahn describes it as “a means of selecting and restricting narrative information, of seeing events and states of affairs from somebody’s point of view, of foregrounding the focalizing agent, and of creating an empathetical or ironical view on the focalizer” (Jahn N3.2.2). A focalizer is the person whose point of view is used to articulate the story. Jahn describes focalizer as “the agent whose point of view orients the narrative text. A text is anchored on a focalizer’s point of view when it presents (and does not transcend) the focalizer’s thoughts, reflections and knowledge, his/her actual and imaginary perceptions, as well as his/her cultural and ideological orientation” (Jahn 3.2.2). Focalization is then broken down into two main categories of internal and external focalization. Internal focalization deals with “the narrative events are presented from a character’s point of view” (Jahn 3.2.1). External focalization is when “the primary candidate for a text’s perspectival orientation is the narrator” (Jahn 3.2.1).
Narration in Don Quixote
OK, now that we know the terms, let’s take a look at the narrator in Don Quixote. Chapter I of Don Quixote says:
In a village in La Mancha, the name of which I cannot recall, there lived not long ago one of those country men or hidalgos… His surname’s said to have been Quixada, or Quesada (as if he were a jawbone, or a cheesecake): concerning this detail there’s some discrepancy among the authors who have written on the subject, although a credible conjecture does suggest that he might have been a plaintive Quexana. But this doesn’t matter much, as far as our story’s concerned, provided that the narrator doesn’t stray one inch from the truth (Cervantes 25).
According to Jahn’s definition of an overt narrator, the narrator of Don Quixote is overt, because he refers to himself in the first-person and tells us a little about himself throughout the text. However, much of the information that is told becomes muffled. On one hand, he cannot get his story straight. He is unaware of details and key elements. He can’t be sure of the main character’s name (Quixada, or Quesada), the name of the village he is in (somewhere in La Mancha), or even a time reference to when the story is taking place (not long ago). Yet he claims that, as narrator, he “doesn’t stray one inch from the truth.” What? A red flag should be raised by the reader. As mentioned before, it is up to the reader to determine whether or not to trust the narrator. A narrative should be able to tell us what happened in the story. They should be able to give the 5 w’s and how. If the narrator is unable or unsure of what is going on, then you can be certain that the reader is confused as well. This reading of the narrator is further complicated in Chapter nine, in which the narrator tells us how he discovered the outcome of the fight between Don Quixote and the Basque. But the narrator explains that he is unable to completely narrate a fight between Don Quixote and the Basque because “the trouble is that at this very point the author of this history leaves the battle unfinished” (70). By suggesting that he is not the original author of the work, and that he does not even know the entire story, the narrator proves that he is not one of the story’s present characters.
For most of Don Quixote, the narrator appears to be a heterodiegetic narrator. However, at this moment in the text, the narrator switches to a homodiegetic narrative in which he centers as the one who discovers a text chronicling the rest of Don Quixote’s relationship with Basque.
A Little more on Focalization
Given a story like that of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, the way the narration is constructed plays a very crucial part in the understanding of the entire piece. As we have learned from our reading of Jahn’s, “Narratology: A Guide to the Theory of Narrative” the mood of the story is created through the narration of the story. After a thorough read of Jahn’s constant depiction of point of view, we as readers have learned that focalization is the way a story is told and in Jahn’s piece he writes, external focalization is when “the primary candidate for a text’s prespectival orientation is the narrator” (Jahn N3.2.1) and internal focalization occurs when information from a text is restricted to a character’s field of perception (N3.2.1). In chapter nine of Don Quixote, readers are introduced to Cide Hamete Benengeli, who is a character given a role that plays a huge part in the way readers understand Don Quixote. We are also introduced to Cervantes, the character, who is in search for the truth behind the tale of Don Quixote.
“All these thoughts left me feeling puzzled and eager for exact and authentic knowledge of the complete life and works of our famous Spaniard Don Quixote de la Mancha, the light and mirror of the chivalry of that land, and the first man in our times, in these calamitous times of ours, to devote himself to the toils and exercise of the knight-errantry, and to the redressing of wrongs , the succouring of windows and the protecting of maidens who used to ride about, up hill and down dale, with their whips and their palfreys, carrying their maidenhead with them; for unless raped by some blackguard, or by some peasant with his hatchet and his iron skullcap, or by some monstrous giant, there were maidens in those times gone by who, at the age of eighty and not having slept a single night under a roof, went to their graves with their whips and their palfreys, carrying their maidenhead with them; for unless raped by some blackguard, or by some peasant with his hatchet and his iron skullcap, or by some monstrous giant, there were maidens in those times gone by who, at the age of eighty and not having slept a single night under a roof, went to their graves with their maidenheads as intact as the mothers who’d borne them.” (Cervantes 74)
This passage showcases the importance of point of view. Cervantes wants to write of Don Quixote’s tale with merit, not through false chivalry. In this passage, the character of Cervantes is given an internal focalization; he is made into a character. From this character, the writer himself is separated. When Cervantes is turned into a character in his own book, he is able to look at Don Quixote through a different set of eyes. As displayed in this quote above, the character of Cervantes wants to write of Quixote in all its truthfulness. He can criticize other characters and/or other events because he is a character within the story. (Similar to “She Lived in a Story” but more on that later.) Cervantes writes that he found the manuscript of Benengeli at a shop. In Benengelis’ version of Don Quixote, he is written about as a knight who is the opposite of Quixote. He isn’t given the same recognition as Cervantes thinks he deserves. Cervantes feels Benengeli version is a poor representation of Quixote. Cervantes as a narrator is the external focalizer because he creates the story and within his story he creates a character of Cervantes.
(This video should give you a better understanding of internal and external focalization. The guy walking is giving an internal view. We see his hands and feet. As the shot pans out we see the entire street which is external focalization.)
Focalization in “She Lived in a Story”
The narration goes back and forth between the external and internal view in Don Quixote, which is very similar to “She Lived in A Story” by Guillermo Samperio. In Samperio’s piece, he creates a character of himself to do the things that he is limited to do as a narrator. When he was a character he was able to look at Ofeila through a different eye. The same goes for Cervantes, as a character he is surpassing the restrictions of a narrator. He is criticizing the works of other writers on the translation of Don Quixote and he is showing that literature will always be debated and should evoke discussion. In this passage, Ofelia expresses her concern of the “eye” that is following her.
[..]Ofelia told herself that perhaps it had to do with her skin’s memory, foreign to her mind; in that murky landscape, perhaps it had returned to her body and was gradually possessing it. Eye-network, eye-space, large eye coming toward her, growing eye; Ofelia wanted to escape the sensation by shaking her head.” (Samperio 59)
This quote illustrates the idea of focalization because it emphasizes the importance of the “eye” to see. Focalization deals with the relationship of being seen or seeing as stated above. This is of course not the pronoun “I” but “eye”. Ofelia has a strange feeling that she is being watched. She cannot physically see an “eye” but she feels eyes watching her. What an incredibly uncomfortable feeling. She mentions her “skin’s memory” which is very interesting. She can still remember the crawling feeling on her skin as she imagined someone following her. What a scary feeling. She cannot shake the feeling and feels the eye is growing in some way. The repetition of the word “eye” gives the audience the importance of sight and narration within a story. We, the reader, can only see” what the narrator tells us. We can only go off his/her word. That is why it is important for the reader to determine whether they can trust the narrator.
Anything that occurs to Ofelia is written by Segovia, and therefore, Ofelia’s actions shed light on Segovia. Every time she narrates, we know that Segovia is writing another line. In this excerpt, Ofelia displays the conflict of external and internal focalization:
“I’m inside the gaze. I’m living inside a stare. I’m part of a way of seeing. Something forces me to walk; the fog has descended and its murky fingers reach out toward the windows. I’m a silhouette from the past sticking to the walls. My name is Ofelia and I’m opening the wooden gate to my house.” (Samperio 59)
As stated before, Ofelia is a character that is made up by another character. She is not real and cannot control her actions. Think of her as a pawn on a chess board. In the italicized portion of the story, the reader follows Ofelia as she walks around. The reader is inside of Ofelia’s mind and we can read her thoughts and feel the tension. She feels that she is being watched and eyes are staring at her. She keeps looking over her shoulder but no one is there, at least physically. The importance of sight is a key element in focalization. The narrator must be able to tell the reader what they should be seeing. The fact that Ofelia starts to refer to herself in third person gives the reader an indication that she is not in control of herself. She is not a real human that can make decisions for herself. She is a silhouette, a form of herself but not the real deal. A higher being is controlling her and putting her “inside a gaze.” Here we can see the complexity of the short story. Guillermo Segovia is writing this story about Ofelia using internal focalization because we are getting the point of view of the Ofelia. But the story is external as well because Samperio is controlling the entire game. Also, Ofelia somehow becomes the narrator and the story switches to a homodiegetic form of narration.
The narrator begins the story with, “During the evening hours, the writer Guillermo Segovia gave a lecture at the Preparatory Academy of Iztapalapa. The students of esthetics, under the direction of the young poet Israel Castellanos, were enthusiastic about the detailed presentation by Segovia. (Samperio 54). The narrator is clearly heterodiegetic, because he writes in the third person. Segovia then goes home to create Ofelia and the “story within a story.”
Jahn’s differentiation of narrative voice remind us that the questions “Who is telling the story?” and “How are they telling the story?” are just as important as “What is the story about?” This article argues that in both Don Quixote and “She Lived in a Story,” we are confronted by overt narrators that indulge in homodiegetic tangents in addition to recounting the heterodiegetic stories that are the main purpose of their writing. And most importantly, it is up to the reader to decipher whether the narrator is telling the truth.
In both stories, the narrators put on facades, only to prove the facades fake and are up to the reader to sift through. Indeed the narrators of the two stories are markedly similar. Samperio created a story that contained two characters writing about one another. They were unaware that they were a part of the game until the end. Don Quixote used a narrator that was removed from the action and the reader could not trust him. The question remains: Can I trust the narrator?
Writing a story is like a building a house. You need a strong foundation and then allow your ideas to grow upon that. It is extremely important to use the work of Manfred Jahn in “Narratology: A Guide to the Theory of Narrative” to be able to create a story that has substance behind it. Focalization and narration are key elements of a good story. Once you have a good story you can then go on to take all the steps required to create something everlasting. Reading the great works of Miguel De Cervantes Saavedra, The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha, and “She Lived in a Story” by Guillermo Samperio, readers learn the duality of elements that work together to create such memorable works.
De Cervantes Saavedra, Miguel. The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote de laMancha. 1605. Trans. John Rutherford. Columbus, MT: Penguin, 2003. Print.
Samperio, Guillermo. “She Lived in a Story.” TriQuarterly. Trans. Russel M. Cluff and L. Howard Quackenbush. 85 (1992): 59. Print.
Jahn, Manfred. 2005. Narratology: A Guide to the Theory of Narrative. English Department, University of Cologne.
Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. Chelsea House, Philadelphia: Harold Bloom, 1999. Print.
“Nikon D3100 Focalization test.” Youtube.com, 24, April 2011. Web. 5 July 2011.
“Monster part 1/10.” Perf. Charlize Theron. Youtube.com 28 June 2010. Web. 5 July 2011.