Change the narrator, change the story

I have read so many books in the past month in which a male(ish) narrator tells a woman’s story: The Reader, The Book Thief (this is where the -ish comes from), The House of Special Purpose, and The Witch of Napoli. Between this odd streak and attending a literary analysis class, I’ve been feeling a low-burning feminist anger.

Martta Wendelin

I wrote a note on the first page of The Reader: What if Hanna Schmitz had told her own story? That’s not what The Reader is about, of course. This is Michael Berg’s story. Hanna remains mysterious throughout the book, primarily because Michael doesn’t understand women—especially Hanna.

Perhaps I’m bothered because I know full well that male authors can write fully-realized, believable female characters. Thomas Hardy springs to mind. (Yes, really.) With the exception of The Book Thief, I felt that there was something missing from the portrayal of the women in the novels I listed in the first paragraph of this post.

A thought just occurred to me. What if my problem is that I don’t fully understand male characters? I never seem to get how they feel about women, how they view women. Part of the reason we are drawn to story is that it lets us into other people’s worlds. When I read male narrators discuss women, I want to reach into the text and correct their misapprehensions more than I want to understand them.

Another thought I’ve had about this probably springs from my recent proximity to literary criticism. When an author chooses and first person narrator, if they’re not careful, they end up silencing the other characters. And the silencing of female characters raises my ire.

This is why narrator choice is so important. The story belongs to whoever narrates it, even if the bulk of the plot centers on some other character’s experience. This is particularly frustrating when you can’t understand or identify with the narrator or the narrator is outclassed by the other characters—which is absolutely the case with Michael Berg and Hanna Schmitz in The Reader. I wasn’t interested in Michael the way I was (and still am) interested in Hanna. One can’t help but feel that a book could have been amazing if the author had just chosen another character.

This is my 1,000th post. Thanks for reading everyone!