Children’s literature

Part I. Theory and critical approaches


12. Narrative theory and children’s literature


Maria Nikolajeva


Narrative perspective


Of all narratological questions, narrative perspective has been discussed most (Booth 1961; Genette 1980; Chatman 1978; Rimmon-Kenan 1983; Bal 1997). Narratology goes beyond the simple question: ‘Who is telling the story?’ examining instead how the narrative is manipulated through an interaction of the author’s, the narrator’s, the character’s, the narratee’s and the reader’s perspective and subjectivity. For children’s literature, the key question is what strategies adult writers can use for conveying a child’s perception of the world. A children’s novel is by definition constructed in a dialogical tension between two unequal subjectivities, an adult author and a child character. The concept of heteroglossia, developed in the works by Mikhail Bakhtin (1981, 1990) - the ‘hetero-’element emphasising the diversity of voices - is extremely helpful in indicating the specific aesthetics of children’s literature (see the examination of the dialogic construction of subjectivity in McCallum 1999).

Narratology distinguishes between the narrative voice and the point of view. These do not necessarily coincide, and in children’s literature they seldom coincide, not even in first-person narratives using a child narrator. The voice usually belongs to an adult (in first-person narratives, sometimes the protagonist is an adult), while the perspective lies with a child. The many successful attempts to circumvent this dilemma - from E. Nesbit’s The Treasure Seekers and Astrid Lindgren’s The Children of the Noisy Village to Beverley Cleary’s Dear Mr Henshaw and Peter Pohl’s Johnny My Friend - by using a simultaneous first-person child narrator, do not avoid the dilemma (see Wyile 1999). Narratology forces us to differentiate who speaks (the narrator), who sees (the focalising character, focaliser) and who is seen (the focalised character, focalisee). In children’s literature, the fact that a character may stand in the focus of the narrative yet not necessarily serve as a focaliser is decisive for the creation of subjectivity. Readers may find it problematic to liberate themselves from the subject position imposed on them by the text; therefore the choice of narrative perspective in children’s fiction is in many respects more important than in general fiction (see Stephens 1992: 47-83; McCallum 1999).

An essential question for the discussion of the narrative voice is the distance between the narrator and the narrative (Genette 1980: 161-211). Irrespective of whether narrators are covert or refer to themselves in the first person, they can tell the story either in retrospect or more or less as the events unfold. Even adult personal narrators telling about their own childhood (for instance, Treasure Island or Jacob Have I Loved) are distant from the narrated events and can restructure them and comment on their own actions from a wider life experience (as is often the case in adult novels describing the protagonist’s childhood, such as Jane Eyre), even though the illusion of a naive perspective can be maintained. The difference between personal and impersonal narration is in this case less important than the distance between the narrator and the story. Andrea Schwenke Wyile refers to the various narrative patterns in terms of immediate-engaging, distant-engaging and distancing narration (Wyile 1999). Although the terminology may be arguable, the emphasis on the wide spectrum of the narrator’s involvement with the narrative is essential. Sometimes narrators are characters, even main characters in their own stories, which in itself may present a dilemma, bringing forward the much-discussed question of reliability. The complexity of the issue of narrative voice goes far beyond the simple division between personal and impersonal narration. There is a broad continuum between a detached witness-narrator and a self-reflective - and in children’s literature often solipsistic - personal child narrator, and an equally broad variety of impersonal narrators, from omniscient to introspective (see Golden 1990: 60-73).

Barbara Wall examines various types of narrators in children’s literature: didactic, authoritative, detached and empathic (Wall 1991). Yet she overlooks the fact that all these voices can be combined with a variety of points of view, external and internal, literal and transferred (Chatman 1978: 151-2). Sharing a child character’s so-called literal point of view, readers see what the child sees, which may contradict what the narrative agency states explicitly. The ‘transferred’ point of view - that is, the child’s understanding of what she sees, the child’s thoughts and opinions - can be still more problematic. Narratologists often use What Maisie Knew as a unique example of a description of a child’s naive and innocent perception (e.g. Cohn 1978: 46ff). In this novel, readers share both Maisie’s literal and her transferred point of view. Adult readers can perhaps liberate themselves from the imposed point of view of the text and understand that things are not really as Maisie sees them.

Young readers are mostly just as naive and inexperienced as the child protagonists are supposed to be, and thus may fail to recognise the irony of narration. Since more and more contemporary writers employ internal focalisation of their child characters, it is a challenge for critics to investigate which strategies might work and why. If writers want to create an illusion of an authentic child perspective, they must pretend that the narrator does not know or understand more than the focalising character. The various forms of dual-voice (or heteroglot, or dialogical) narration, including the first-person child narrator, show how this can be employed through a blend of authorial and figural discourse.