Sunday, December 11, 2011

How Focalization Guides the Reading of Egypt: The Book of Going Forth by Day

The foalizer is of primary importance in the narrative address of Egypt: The Book of Going Forth by Day (Egypt) by M. D. Coverley. The key focalizing point is the narrator, and the specifics of the character influence reading of the work. The role of the focalizer is described by Mieke Bal as “an interpretation, a subjective content. What we see before our mind’s eye has already been interpreted. This makes room for reading of the complex structure of focalization” (Narratology 166). The focalizer of Egypt is Jeanette, a woman who is searching for her brother, Ross, while he searches for an ancient silver coffin, along the course of the River Nile, and against a backdrop of archeology, ancient myth, and colonial nostalgia. One example of how focalization determines address is in a letter written by the narrator to her sister early in the text. Jeanette describes how “I’d be more annoyed about Ross being so elusive, but how like him to be caught up in The Great Drama of the Hour. It seems we knew something of this hide-and-seek game, too, since we are so often trying to find the right magic to follow him” (Egypt, my emphasis). Both the reader and the narrator (“we) are following Ross, and it is necessary for the reader to subscribe to the perspectives of Jeanette in her role as narrator. Accordingly, narrative contexts are developed in Egypt within the relationship of Jeanette and Ross, and the reader encounters them via the device of the focalizer.
                      The primary focalizer in Egypt restricts readings via the use of reportive speech related to the gendered pair of the narrator and her brother in stereotypical roles.[1] Ross leads the pair, and as a result of the focalizing narrator, the reader as well, through the narrative, performing actions and initiating situations. Jeanette observes and relates the actions of Ross to the reader. This relationship between Ross and Jeanette functions as a dual point for focalization, or as the aperture through which the entire narrative addresses the reader. Jeanette as narrator reports the speech, actions and events related to her brother, often at the expense of her own agency. Ross dominates the relationship he has with his sister by acting instead of speaking (the reader never received his words directly). In a reflective moment of assessing her own agency in the narrative, the narrator reflects, “I was no longer sure exactly why I had come so far. What did I want from my brother? What else was going on here? Had I stumbled into a drama that was already in progress, playing itself out no matter what I did?” (Egypt). Of all the characters this sense of swept-away powerlessness is confined to Jeanette, the only female in the story, who is following Ross despite spectacular events of danger and violence, and never knowing quite why she is doing it. Due to the focalization upon Jeanette as the narrator, the reader only experiences Bal’s “an interpretation, a subjective content” (166) of the narrative from the perspective of Jeanette, forcing a set of restrictions upon reading according to the gender roles and relations between the characters.
The narrator as the focal point results in the reader sharing her visual, spatial and temporal perspective. The narrator functions as a type of avatar in the narrative structure, at the point “where the representation of ourselves is located in the virtual environment” (Jää-Aro 39). During the boat journey down the Nile, at Abydos in the dark of night, the features of the place take over from the knowledge provided by sight, when the narrator describes in the darkness, “the original Temple had been built over a natural spring, and the sacred pool now spilled through the center of the tomb, I didn’t worry too much about the moisture seeping into my shoes” (Egypt). The sensation of moisture in the shoes is all the reader has to interpret the actions from, as the narrator is in the dark. Moving into the light, the moisture is revealed to the reader and the narrator and her companitons to be blood. The reader is thereby restricted in perspective to the space and time of the event, through the words of the focalizing narrator and not the visual imagery or audio of the work. The simultaneous character/reader awareness in narrative operates throughout the narrative, in such examples as when she states, “He gave me a glance that was a question and not a-question. I nodded, to seem agreeable, but I was not sure about what he meant by that look. He probably thought I knew more than I was letting on. Small chance!” (Egypt).  In this instance, and through the narrative, the narrator and the reader share the same first-person knowledge of what is going on in the story in the same time frame.
The focus on the narrator influences the reading of the other characters and the events in Egypt. Places take on danger or nostalgia, and other characters become either sinister or helpful depending on the narrator. The narrator’s perspective on events and characters draws the reader’s attention to the state of Ross, based on the anxieties of Jeanette. The concerns of Jeanette that are not related to Ross are confined to passive activities devoid of agency, such as leisure and observation. The resulting agency for the narrator becomes the agency of the reader as when “Ross and Trimble spent all day down in the ‘library’ (really the parlor that had been converted to a serious map room), studying hieroglyphic inscriptions. They shooed me away when I suggested that we should all enjoy some recreation. I sat alone as the towns drifted by, reading Death on the Nile” (Egypt). The low degree of narrator agency produces limitations for the reader based on a dependency upon the perspectives of Jeanette. The consultation of maps by Ross and Trimble produces the next destination in the quest along the Nile, but no insight into why they, the narrator and the reader are going there. As the main focalizer in the narrative, the effect of this arrangement for the reader is, as Bal points out, that the narrative is based on the narrator’s perspective. With a low degree of agency in the focalizing character, in this case the narrator, room is made in the narrative for reader interpretations, but only according to the perimeters set by the degree of narrator’s agency. A level of control is thus asserted over reading via the limitations of the focalizer.
Gender roles assigned to the narrator define much of the reading experience of Egypt. In writing to their sister, Jeanette questions her relationship to her brother Ross as, “I don’t know what the balance is between us. You and I have speculated for twenty years about the meaning of devotion, his intentions and reasons” (Egypt). This devotion by the female narrator to her brother is a dominant subject in narrative. She follows and attempts to keep up with him, and as she does so, so does the reader. The resulting perspectives include key elements in the story that are only revealed simultaneously to Jeanette and to the reader. Ross does not express his own perspectives regarding the events of the narrative. Rather, the perspectives of the narrator are what the reader interprets as she reports on the actions and events related to Ross. These perspectives are defined by the narrator’s roles as younger sister, caregiver, devoted lover, incestuous mother to their child and follower. Based on these roles, focalization aligns reader perspective with that of the narrator.

[1] These gendered elements are emphasized in such passages as, “Ross took a long bath, and I cleaned up the rest of his cuts and bruises, tucked him into bed. He was asleep almost as soon as he was horizontal. I waited until the sun went down, then climbed in beside him” (Egypt).

Works Cited
Bal, Mieke,  Narratology: An Introduction to the Theory of Narrative. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997.

                 Coverley, M. C. Egypt: The Book of Going Forth by Day. Califa 2006. CD-ROM. 16 February 2011,

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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