6 July 2011
The Necessary Narrator: The Differences in Narration between Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote of La Mancha and Edgardo Vega Yunqué’s The Lamentable Journey of Omaha Bigelow into the Impenetrable Loisaida Jungle
In this article, I will use narratological terms and devices such as overtness and covertness, heterodiegetic and homodiegetic, and intratextual and extratextual to characterize the narrators in both Don Quixote of La Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes and The Lamentable Journey of Omaha Bigelow into the Impenetrable Loisaida Jungle by Edgardo Vega Yunqué. The narrative voice is a very important element in a story. The narrator decides what is being said in a story and how it will be told. Since a reader has to read a text as oppose to hearing it, the narrative voice in a story plays an important role in how a reader will interpret a certain part of a story or even the story as a whole. Changing the narrative voice in a novel has a great impact and can even change the meaning of the story and what the reader takes away from it. Because of this, I feel it is important to know how to characterize the narrative voice in a story in order for the reader to decide how the story is meant to be told and understood.
In a novel or story, “a narrator is the speaker or ‘voice’ of the narrative discourse” (Jahn N3.1.1). He or she is the one who communicates with an addressee and decides what is to be told, how it is to be told, and what is to be left out. At times, if necessary, the narrator will defend a story and even comment on the purpose, lesson, or message of the narrative (N3.1.1). However, not all narrators are the same in every narrative. In order to recognize which kind of narrator is telling a certain story, the reader can use different characteristics demonstrated by certain narrators in order to identify the type of narrator. Depending on how the presence of a narrator is evident in the text, one can distinguish between overt and covert narrators (Jahn N3.1.4). An overt narrator is one who refers to him/herself in the first person, and who directly or indirectly addresses the narratee and has a distinctive voice (N3.1.4). On the other hand, a covert narrator is one who exhibits none of the features of overtness listed above; specifically, he or she is one who neither refers to him- or herself nor addresses any narratees. A covert narrator also has a more or less neutral, non-distinctive voice and style, is sexually indeterminate, and does not intrude or interfere, but rather lets the story events unfold in their natural sequence. Usually, overtness and covertness vary in inverse proportion such that the presence of one is an indication of the absence of the other (N3.1.4).
In some cases, the type of narrator categorizes the story as a whole. The distinction is based on the narrator’s relationship to the story; i.e., whether he or she is present or absent from the story (Jahn N3.1.5). In a homodiegetic narrative, the story is told by a narrator who is present as a character in the story. This means that the individual who acts as a homodiegetic narrator is also a character on the level of action. In a heterodiegetic narrative, the story is told by a narrator who is not present as a character in the story (N3.1.5).Usually, the two types correlate with a text’s use of first-person and third-person pronouns: a text is homodiegetic if among its story-related action sentences there are some that contain first-person pronouns, indicating that the narrator was at least a witness to the action; a text is heterodiegetic if all story-related action sentences are third-person sentences (N3.1.5).
In the classical narratological model, ‘voice’ is primarily associated with the narrator’s voice (Jahn N3.1.7). Textual or intratextual voices are those of the narrator and the characters; whereas the extratextual voice is that of the author. One normally considers the author’s voice in two scenarios only: (a) when one has reason to believe that it is more or less identical to that of the narrator, or (b), conversely, when the author’s and the narrator’s voices are likely to be significantly different – in other words, when one assumes that the author intentionally uses a narrative voice distinct from his or her own (N3.1.7).
In Don Quixote of La Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes and The Lamentable Journey of Omaha Bigelow into the Impenetrable Loisaida Jungle by Edgardo Vega Yunqué, the respective narrators play important roles in the telling, and even the action, of the stories. By characterizing the voice of the narrator in each story as overt, covert, intratextual, or extratextual, the reader can then categorize each story as a homodiegetic or heterodiegetic narrative. In both cases, it is obvious that the story could not be told without the voice of the narrator. However, between the two narratives, there are differences in narration that change the way the stories are told.
The Narrator of Don Quixote of La Mancha
The Overt Narrator. In Don Quixote of La Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes, the narrator begins the story with a description of a certain character that has an obsession with fictional books of knight-errantry. In the description, the narrator mentions that the character’s “imagination became filled with a host of fancies he had read in his books-enchantments, quarrels, battles, challenges, wounds, courtships, loves, tortures, and many other absurdities” (Cervantes 58). From this quote, one can conclude that the narrator of the story is an overt narrator. At the end of the list in the quote, the narrator uses the words “many other absurdities” (58). This leads the reader to assume that the narrator believes the previous “fancies” (58) listed were absurd as well. The narrator is inserting his or her own opinion into the description of the character. The character himself does not believe the “fancies” (58) to be absurd; the narrator does. If a covert narrator were to give this description, he or she could not insert an opinion in the text because the voice of a covert narrator must be inconspicuous (Jahn N1.9). However, this narrator feels free to provide the reader with an opinion about the character, making the voice that of an overt narrator. The reader feels as though he or she is listening to the voice of another character in the story because of the opinionated nature of the narrator. The fact that the narrator makes the reader aware that there is in fact a narrator telling the story is a characteristic of an overt narrator. If the narrator of Don Quixote of La Mancha had been covert, the reader would be unaware that there is someone actually someone telling the story.
(In the TV show, How I Met Your Mother, a father is telling his children the story of how he met their mother. He is narrating the history of his friends to his children, and his voice pops into the show on more than one occasion, making it obvious the show is being narrated.)
The Homodiegetic Narrator. Not only is the narrator in Don Quixote of La Mancha overt, he or she is a homodiegetic narrator who plays a major role in the action of the story. At one point in the story, “the pleasant history stopped and was left unfinished” (Cervantes 106). The narrator then becomes a character and the responsibility of “searching for the conclusion of this agreeable story” (107) falls to the narrator. Although the story of Don Quixote cannot continue, the narrator decides to tell the readers the story of how the continuation of the history was found, and how when finding papers containing a similar story, “immediately the thought struck me that these parchments contained the history of Don Quixote” (108). The story could not have continued without the help of the narrator. Even though the narrator is not present in the action of the history of Don Quixote, the presence of the narrator is evident in the overall story itself, and it would not be a complete story without the narrator. The reliance on the narrator for the story to occur makes the narrator homodiegetic.
The Intratextual Narrator. Although the narrator of Don Quixote of La Mancha is both overt and homodiegetic, he or she is not extratextual. Cervantes did not place himself in his novel as the narrator; he maintains a separate identity as the author of the novel. The narrator refers to the author as a separate personality in the story when he mentions that, “But it is most unfortunate that at this critical moment the author of this history leaves the battle in mid air, with the excuse that he could find no more exploits of Don Quixote than those related here” (Cervantes 105). Not only does Cervantes want to keep himself out of the action of the story, he also creates a second, fictional author to Don Quixote of La Mancha to stand in the place of “author” in the story. The narrator in the story believes that this fictional author, Cide Hamete Benengeli, is the true author of the second part of Don Quixote’s history, since Cervantes did not feel the need to complete the knight’s adventures. The narrator mentions all of this when he finds the “History of Don Quixote of La Mancha, written by Cide Hamete Benengeli, Arabian Historian” (108). At one point during the story, the narrator even seems to forget there was an author to the first part of Don Quixote’s history and says:
Cide Hamete Benengeli, the Arabian and Manchegan author, relates in this most grave, high-sounding, precise, pleasant, and imaginative history that after the conversation between the famous Don Quixote of La Mancha and Sancho Panza, his squire, which is reported at the end of the twenty-first chapter, Don Quixote raised his eyes and saw coming, along the road he was taking, about a dozen men on foot strung together like beads on a great iron chain. (Cervantes 209)
The reader can see that not only are the narrator and author of Don Quixote of La Mancha significantly different, Cervantes even set up a barrier between himself and the narrator of the story in the form of a second, fictional author of Don Quixote in order to make it clear to the reader that the narrator of Don Quixote of La Mancha is an intratextual narrator.
The Narrator of The Lamentable Journey of Omaha Bigelow into the Impenetrable Loisaida Jungle
The Overt Narrator. In The Lamentable Journey of Omaha Bigelow into the Impenetrable Loisaida Jungle by Edgardo Vega Yunqué, the narrator has a highly distinctive voice in the story. When a narrator is covert, the reader doesn’t sense the narrator in the story, but when the narrator is overt, the reader realizes that the story could not be told and the novel wouldn’t be possible without the narrator. The narrator helps and addresses the reader throughout the story, saying things like, “Oh, a little note before going on” (Vega Yunqué 84), or “Oh, now you’re pissed because this is a political novel. Duh! You don’t think I’d go to all this trouble simply to entertain you, do you? Anyway, deal with it” (149). The reader gets the sense that there are some things in the story that wouldn’t be understood without the narrator, or that the narrator adds a transitional element to the story making it flow more smoothly. The narrator makes him- or herself known in the story and clearly addresses the reader as the one telling the story, making the narrator overt.
The Heterodiegetic Narrator. In The Lamentable Journey of Omaha Bigelow into the Impenetrable Loisaida Jungle by Edgardo Vega Yunqué, the story is being told by a heterodiegetic narrator. The narrator begins the story with the announcement that “the night Omaha Bigelow’s life changed forever began quite badly” (Vega Yunqué 1). The narrator continues with descriptions of Omaha Bigelow, such as, “Omaha Bigelow was as high as a kite” (1), and “Omaha Bigelow was feeling much too mellow” (1). The narrator does not use pronouns such as “I” or “me” because a heterodiegetic narrator tells a story about the experiences of others (Jahn N1.13), (in this case, the story of Omaha Bigelow), and not a story of the narrator’s personal experience (N1.13). The narrator even goes so far as to repeatedly use Bigelow’s name instead of the pronoun “he” in the narration, such as “Omaha protested” (Vega Yunqué 2) and “Omaha said fuck” (2). This can be seen as a method used by the narrator to emphasize to the reader that this story is about Omaha Bigelow and not about anybody else – especially the narrator.
The Extratextual Narrator. In The Lamentable Journey of Omaha Bigelow into the Impenetrable Loisaida Jungle, the reader also has reason to believe that the voice of the author is identical to that of the narrator. Vega Yunqué, who plays the role of author and narrator simultaneously, makes it obvious in the text of the story that he is both author and narrator. While it is obvious there is a narrator to the story, Vega Yunqué throws in lines, such as “I won’t reveal the ending yet because it wouldn’t be fair” (Vega Yunqué 209), and “When I asked Lady Liberty what she meant by the message on her T-shirt, she simply said: ‘Vega, sometimes you are such a schmuck” (116). Quotes such as these make it obvious to the reader that not only did Vega Yunqué create a narrator for his novel, he decided to play the role himself and become part of the story.
Throughout the novel, the author Vega Yunqué speaks to the reader without the medium of the story. He addresses the reader directly and sometimes even speaks of things unrelated to the action of the story. At one point in the novel, Vega Yunqué explains to the reader that:
As a service to Americans, who, it often seems, can earn geography only by bombing places, here is a bit of information on the capital of the Ivory Coast. It was extracted from the Encyclopedia Britannica. I bought the CD and have had no other use for it, so here goes… (Vega Yunqué 195)
Also, Vega Yunqué often refers to himself by name to make sure the reader knows who is speaking. Vega Yunqué tells the reader about himself throughout the story and throws in little pieces of information that seem to have nothing to do with the action of the story. For example, Vega Yunqué feels the need to tell the reader that:
I started using Edgardo Vega Yunqué again because too many Ed Vega’s were turning up: a poet, an astronomer, a Hollywood designer, a choreographer who died and scared the hell out of my friends because they thought it was me. So I went back to my long Spanish name. (Vega Yunqué 84)
Unlike Cervantes, Vega Yunqué wants the reader to know that he is in fact both the author and narrator of the story; he is writing and telling the story as the same person.
(In Bridget Jones’ Diary, Bridget Jones is writing the book, which is her journal, and narrating her story to the audience at the same time. In essence, she is both the author and narrator.)
This article concludes that the narrators of Don Quixote of La Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes and The Lamentable Journey of Omaha Bigelow into the Impenetrable Loisaida Jungle by Edgardo Vega Yunqué are both overt narrators. However, while the narrator of Don Quixote of La Mancha is homodiegetic and intratextual, the narrator of The Lamentable Journey of Omaha Bigelow into the Impenetrable Loisaida Jungle is heterodiegetic and extratextual. By applying literary techniques such as the point of view and the use of pronouns to a story, the reader can extrapolate what type of narrator is telling the story.
There is no doubt in my mind that the authors of these two novels created their narrators like this for a reason; however, I will leave it to the reader to decide why. But before any reader tries to decide why the author of a story created the narrator in a certain way, he or she must know how to identify the type of narrator, which is the process analyzed in this article.
CBS. “How I Met Your Mother: How I Met Your Mother – Katy Perry Guest Stars.” YouTube.com. YouTube, 5 Feb. 2011. Web. 4 July 2011.
De Cervantes Saavedra, Miguel. Don Quixote of La Mancha. 1605. Trans. Walter Starkie. New York: Signet Classic, 1964. Print.
Jahn, Manfred. “Narratology: A Guide to the Theory of Narrative.” Poems, Plays, and Prose: A Guide to the Theory of Literary Genres. Cologne: U of Cologne Press, 2002. <http://www.uni-koeln.de/~ame02/pppn.htm>
Movieclips. “You’re On Speaker Phone Scene – Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason Movie (2004) – HD.” YouTube.com. YouTube, 27 June 2011. Web. 4 July 2011.
Vega Yunqué, Edgardo. The Lamentable Journey of Omaha Bigelow into the Impenetrable Loisaida Jungle. New York: The Overlook Press, 2004. Print.
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