A.S. Byatt and the Elemental Storyteller

Stories or narratives – as they are frequently called – have been shared in every culture and in each land as a means of amusement, cultural edification, continuation of civilization and last but not least to instil moral principles. As long as humanity has had language as a means of communication storytelling has existed. Oral storytelling was used as a way of passing on culture, knowledge and wisdom from a generation to the other, to educate the younger members of the society, to entertain and to explain more or less the world around them. Consequently, most of the stories were allegories of the human kind and their struggle for continuation, their adventures and findings, in other words their metaphorical travel between cradle and grave. Each of these stories inculcated in the younger members of the society a sort of respect for the positive aspects of the world, for their origins, for their way of living and for their customs. In fact, human beings have always had the tendency to construct narratives for themselves and that is the thread we follow from one day to the other. People who crumble as personalities are those individuals who lost that string. Man is without doubt a storyteller. His continuous search for a purpose in life, a cause, an ideal, is the struggle in finding a plot and an outline in the progress of his existence, his life story, a story which is without pattern and meaning.

However, as time passed, the evolution of technology has changed the apparatuses available to storytellers, and stories gained a more aesthetic value as partially different from the ethical value. With the dawns of writing, the use of symbols to represent language stories started to be transcribed and shared over wide regions of the world. Thus, stories have been not only inked onto wood, pottery, stone, parchment, paper, silk, canvas and other fabric but also scratched, carved, painted, printed. Moreover, multifarious forms of tattooing may also be considered as stories which contain information about origins, affiliation and societal significance. Traditionally, oral stories were committed to memory and passed as such from parents to children, inside a certain local societal form of organisation. Nonetheless, in the most recent past, written and televised media has largely surpassed this method of communicating local, family and cultural histories, dislocating stories from the milieu they were created in.

Nowadays, the traditional implication of storytelling has altered and suffered innumerable transformations operated not only by modern storytellers but also by modern listeners. One could speak of a loss of moral significance or, in a more positivist manner, a gain in aestheticism1. Namely, narratives are no longer seen as means of a sort of propaganda but as a type of art which ultimately implied a cathartic effect. This change in view could also be seen as a new form of storytelling which has become self-conscious and aligned itself to the requirements of the modern society. In a materialistic world one could no longer tell stories about princes and princesses, dragons and other monstrous creatures because they could not appeal any more to the modern tastes. On the other hand, psychiatrists – following Miranda’s view of a story which could alleviate deafness – have found a way to use storytelling as a cure for mental diseases. For instance, Jacob Levy Moreno introduced the so called psychodrama through which patients with mental issues were helped to find modes of coping with their behaviour pattern by the use of role taking, spontaneity, creativity, empathy and catharsis. In addition to this, storytelling is used as a therapeutic medium of support and education that facilitates self-understanding and problem solving. Nevertheless, storytelling – as everybody knows it – found ways of escape through ingeniously built perspectives and kept transparent ties to its traditional forms. These ties are represented by universal concepts such as love, experience, death, concepts which are not historically or spatially determined, and which refer to the immortality of human thought and sentiment. A paradox would be that, adjacent to this thematic continuation, writers (storytellers) have challenged their own uniqueness and inventiveness and tried through various techniques to keep the tradition of storytelling despite formal innovations.

From a technical point of view, despite the fact that storytelling is the conveying of events in words, images, and sounds often by improvisation or embellishment, narratives always have a well defined structure which contain such elements as plot, characters and last but not least a narrative point of view. Conventionally, the mode of narration frequently refers to the method used by the author(s) in order to convey their stories to a possible audience/ reader. On the other hand, the narrative point of view determines the person whose eyes the story is conveyed through, while the narrative voice determines the ways in which the story is expressed to the audience. In other words, a viewpoint does not refer to a singular narratorial entity but rather to the relationship between the narrative voice, story, and reader, and thus could be only seen as a continuous process of configuration. As an effect of this process of continuous formation a narrative is no longer stranded to a single point of view and offers a wide variety of possibilities for the reader. Of course, the path presented to the reader is automatically a pathless path and is not always explicit because the narrative voice is permanently shifting masks and hiding inside the tissue of the text. Another outcome of this would be the creation of a system of catoptrics in the inner mechanisms of the text thus producing multiple points of view which have an apparent autonomy in relation to the narratorial voice. Thus, one could no longer speak of overt authorial narrators but rather one could bring into discussion the idea of covert authorial narrators. Their existence is implied in the act of reading, recognised but they are actually absent because their identity is split into the multifarious sides of the story. At a more technical level, this type of narrator does not intrude or interfere in the action, a narrator which lets the story events and actions unfold as they are by the help of an internal focalizer. Usually, the internal focalizer is a character or a group of characters which could be perceived in the same technical way as masks of the narrator. Undoubtedly, the narrative attitude is a figural2 one and the narrator sees and tells the story as if it were seen through the eyes and/ or spoken in the mind of one of its characters. However, this narratorial attitude automatically implies a sort of game which helps the viewpoint to transcend the two levels of the story: a microcosmic level (strained to the character’s mind, to that particular part of a horizon which is wider and which cannot be seen in its entirety) and a macro-cosmic level (a self-conscious level in which the narrator is aware of all the segments which compose its entity – as the narrator is placed outside it and could see its configuration – and is able to put those segments together). Furthermore, the figural narrative attitude could be perceived as a way of avoiding both the character-bound and authorial attitudes by combining the two into a single entity.

Antonia S. Byatt’s Elementals, a volume of short fiction which contains a number of six Stories of Fire and Ice, is a kaleidoscope of ways in which the figural narratorial attitude could be rendered in a written text. Except for some parts in one of the stories in which the narrator uses first-person narrative, the entire collection of texts uses third person narrative but, as I have mentioned in the theoretical introduction, the viewpoint is neither character-bound nor authorial and is engaged permanently in a sort of movement between several projections/ characters inside the system of catoptrics. The viewpoint movement is doubled by the movement between the macrocosmic level and the microcosmic level of the text. In a more explicit way, the movement is performed between ‘seeing’ and ‘noting’3 (in this particular order) at the macrocosmic level (the text seen in its entirety) and between ‘noting’ and ‘seeing’ (in this particular order) at the microcosmic level of the text (seen in its fragmented state).

The external structure of the ‘story’ is a combination of two elements, namely an image and the text itself, hence the first movement between ‘seeing’ (the image which accompanies the text) and ‘noting’ (the text itself). What is interesting at this point is that the image at the beginning of each of the stories does not come as a prolongation of the text but it is rather the text that is a sort of continuance/ textual projection of the image. Still, the images do not reflect what is actually happening in the text and the text does not explain what the image represents, but rather the text comes as a reaction – be it emotional or rational – to the image. While the image is the representation of a static object, the text following it reproduces the contemplation of that object and the memories/ feelings associated to it or it builds an aura of legend around it. In other words, neither the image nor the text have direct links to each other, they simply relate through an idea just like a synonym relates to a certain word, similar but never the same. At the sight of the image one may have the impression that it comes as an additional element to make the story interesting or as an illustration of what happens in the story, but at the end of the story the reader realises that the image is a vague ornament which has no purpose; as always the truth is somewhere in the middle. Accordingly, the cathartic effect of the story is of a different nature because the author does not encourage either ‘seeing’ or ‘noting’ hence the figural narrative attitude and the multiple foci. The story simply ‘happens’ to the reader.

The internal structure of the story is much more intricate as the narratorial game performs the same movement as in the external structure only the other way around just as a mirror reverses vertically the reflected image. Thus, inside the text the movement is between ‘noting’ and ‘seeing’ as the story unfolds through images and sensations rather than describe actions. What is interesting at this point is that the above mentioned shift is just a little part of a grand mechanism in which mirrors reflect each other. As a result, ‘noting’ and ‘seeing’ is accompanied by two other processes which involve ‘watching’ and ‘learning’. The intricacies of the text continue with the use of embedded narratives. From a technical point of view, narrative embedding arises when a character begins to tell a story of his/ her own, creating a narrative within a narrative or a tale within a tale. Consequently, the original narrative becomes a ‘frame narrative’, and the story told by the narrating character becomes an ‘embedded narrative’. In our case, with Byatt’s stories the embedded narrative becomes a mise en abyme mirroring the situation in the frame narrative. However, as in the case of the images which come along with the text the mise en abyme is a partial reflection which reminds the reader that the text has self-awareness and that the characters know they are in a story.

At a close reading of the stories each of them appear as images made out of words which shift colours and hence produce sensations appealing to all of the senses. For instance, the first story, entitled Crocodile Tears, could be seen as an image that contains in itself other images and particular sensations associated to them forming a sort of puzzle. What is more, to sustain my argument, the fact that the main character of the story reads Proust is not accidental. Memories come and go just like dreams escape through the rigid boundaries of the conscious part of the mind. Thus, Patricia’s husband is dead but she continues to see him through associations of images and sensations, she lives in a hotel, far away from home, and even though she tries to repress the memory of her house and her dead husband she continues to live in a ‘home of the mind’ together with a ‘husband of the mind’. The beginning of the story is filled with images but as the story progresses images start to lose their intensity and are replaced with sensations. However, the reader could not transcend what he has been taught at the beginning of the narrative, namely, to see everything in colours and images. As a result, the reader does not see the textual world made out of an association of images and sensations but rather a world made out of images of words, images of smells, images of sounds. I think no reader could escape the splendour of such captures as Nils standing with his face in his hands and Patricia standing beside him both surrounded by the stony stairs under the hot light of the sun.

The second story included in the volume is entitled A Lamia in the Cévennes and it is a story about visual ideas. Colours are associated with verbs. There are no longer images but rather colours that move, change thus giving birth to images. The idea of the story is similar to that of The Picture of Dorian Gray except the fact that the main character of the narrative is a painter in search of those visual ideas. Bernard finds that visual idea in the snake-woman he finds in his pool but when she becomes real, when she leaves the category of the visual idea and becomes a real woman she is no longer of interest for the painter, for the artist in general. She is no longer the translucent idea which he wanted to immortalize in his painting, as a real woman she has a ‘resolved’ state of being as opposed to the aura of legend that she has as a snake-woman.

Cold is the story of a red flame (Fiammarosa) and it renders the idea that objects, be them animate or inanimate, contain enclosed in themselves a sort of desire of going back to origins. In other words, origins manifest themselves inside the object through desire: Sasan, the glass-blower prince, a being of the deserts, bathes in the hot sun because he is made out of those elements and therefore he becomes a symbol of passion, while Fiammarosa, the icy princess bathes in the snow because she is an organism created out of cold. The story is also about the harmonious fusion between seemingly opposite elements such as ice and fire and their possible coexistence. In this case Byatt uses the oxymoron as a basic stylistic device. For instance, the heroine of the story, Fiammarosa (meaning ‘red flame’) is in fact cold and has a death defying desire for cold things.

The next story is entitled Baglady and it speaks about alienation and loss of identity. Nevertheless, the story is particular from a technical point of view as it introduces multiple points of view. What is innovative in this story is the fact that at certain moments in the story various events or objects are seen through a second look, with a different pair of eyes. The first pair of eyes is that which sees the event in their occurrence and relates them to the audience, while the second pair of eyes is that of the character itself. Thus, at the end of the story Daphne sees herself, interestingly not through her eyes but rather through the eyes of another character. In other words, the characters could be seen not as individuals but as mediums through which the reader could reach the textual reality. As in the other stories, the reader is offered the possibility to ‘travel’ through different characters in order to gather the fragmented pieces of the text and form an entity which is coherent and sustainable in itself.

Jael is a first-person narrative and first-person narratives are a particularly intriguing form because they claim so boldly to be reporting the true experiences of real people. When a first-person narrator tells its readers that he did, he felt and thought and informs them that there were many things they did not know or understand, the reader is usually inclined to feel less unwilling to question the limited information he is given. Readers prefer to believe what they are told, and they hope it is true, especially if it sounds convincing. First-person narratives are naturally designed to create an illusion of the reality of the story and that is why we tend not to challenge its truths. The entire text is actually a discussion, an interview and it is ultimately a story about individual memory and the way in which human beings correlate their memories in order to stabilize their own identity. On the one hand we memorise important events such as births, marriages, deaths, journeys, failures and on the other hand we also keep the ‘curiously bright-coloured, detailed pointless moments that won’t go away.’ But what the story demonstrates is that most of the times it is those detailed memories which constitute our identity and not the numberless rituals we often perform.

The last story of the volume, entitled Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, is again a story about images and representations because it reproduces the genesis of a painting. In this sense, the story is in a way similar to Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. In this particular case, the painting which is revealed at the end of the story becomes a mirror for Dolores, the protagonist of the story. However, this painted mirror produces catharsis and at a certain moment, following Dolores’ startled gaze, there is a split between the painted image of the woman and its referent. Because she sees herself as she is, Dolores is able to transcend her condition and her laughter is a sign that she has done that. This Dionysian outburst is a sign of critical distance and of self-awareness.

Beyond technical innovations I believe that A. S. Byatt has managed to keep the essential means of storytelling without alteration. At a time when many people no longer read anything at all, it is of major importance to see writers keep their faith in the literary craft. Storytelling is first of all essential for our subsistence because it offers a place of freedom, a place which could not be reached by politics and its denigrating discourse.


1 In The Way of the Storyteller, Ruth Sawyer signals the fact that starting with the 60s there has been a particular concern in aesthetics, namely in the form of the stories and not in their themes and motifs. This point of view is also shared by Marie Shedlock in her Art of the Storyteller.

2 Dianne Doubtfire, Creative Writing, UK: Cox and Wyman Ltd, Reading, Berkshire, 1996, p.14.

3 In one of the stories (included in the mentioned collection of stories), entitled A Lamia in the Cévennes, Byatt uses this metaphorical distinction between ‘seeing’ and ‘noting’ and between ‘watching’ and ‘learning’, however, the distinction is purely done for artistic purposes. In this particular case, the two terms are used to illustrate a conceptual distinction.


  1. Mieke Bal, Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative, 2nd ed., Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1977.
  2. Hans Bertens, Literary Theory: The Basics, London and New York: Routledge, 2001.
  3. A.S. Byatt, Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice, London: Vintage Books, 1999.

  4. Dianne Doubtfire, Creative Writing, UK: Cox and Wyman Ltd, Reading, Berkshire, 1996.
  5. Bernard Duyfhuizen, Narratives of Transmission, Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1992.
  6. Gérard Genette, Narrative Discourse: An Essay on Method, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1980.
  7. Marie Shedlock, The Art of the Story-teller, New York: Appleton and Company, 1917.
  8. Ruth Sawyer, The Way of the Storyteller, USA: Penguin Books, 1990.

Learn more about A.S. Byatt.



Violent Delights and Violent Ends

On the nature of violence in Michael Ondaatje’s Divisadero

Jim Morrison, an American poet and singer, once said that human beings fear violence less than their own feelings because ‘personal, private, solitary pain is more terrifying than what anyone else can inflict’. If we are to dig deeper into this matter, I believe Morrison brought to the fore a really persuasive argument concerning the nature of violence. From a terminological point of view, violence has often been defined as an act of aggression which usually occurs in the presence of resistance, in the context of trespassing predetermined rules or laws. Still, bearing in mind Morrison’s words, there is something which escapes this definition of violence. Phenomenologically, violence is related to the phenomenon of suddenness, its boundaries are always confined to a delimited span of time and space. Its occurrence is acute but short, and that is why ‘solitary pain’ is much stronger than the one inflicted by somebody else, because private pain extends the limits of violence, it makes it unpredictable, with no end in sight. However, from the point of view of a literary aestheticism, violence has often been viewed as a phenomenon with great cathartic potentialities, permitting the purging of the perceiver’s emotions, and the Greek philosophers were the first ones to see it. Plato, for instance, suggested banning poets from his perfect society because they had the aesthetic capacity to create narratives about promiscuous behavior and as such corrupt the unripe human minds. In other words, Plato wanted to convey the idea that whatever happens in the things one reads, in the things one sees, it tends to ignite a similar a behavior in real life. On the other hand, Aristotle had a totally different view as he tackled the idea that, on the contrary, tragedy had the capacity of offering the viewer the possibility of cleansing his/ her emotions, of deflecting their negative feelings. As opposed to Plato’s idea of reflection in real life, Aristotle was essentially creating his idea about cathartic phenomena by implying that whatever happens on stage is not so likely to happen in real life. The dark side of this was that probably for the first time Aristotle was starting to detect indirectly the manipulative essence of a representation. Consequently, the representation of violence on stage was a sort of therapeutic drill because it exorcised violence out of the spectators and decreased the possibility of violence occurring outside the theater. Nonetheless, what I would like to stress here is that there is something happening during any act of violence, a significant aspect which changes suddenly the course of things. Now, one may argue that starting from a traditional definition, the act of violence is caused by the presence of resistance and results into flattening out that resistance, into restoring a predetermined order of things. Personally, I would argue that indeed one type of order is restored after the occurrence of each violent act, but it is rather a dissimilar state of things which is introduced. Mainly, each act dislocates realities and identities as they re-furnish a state of immediacy. At this point, it would be interesting to observe the way in which some acts of violence open not only the viewer’s door towards emotional cleansing but also the character’s gate towards reshaping itself through sheer force, and I believe Michael Ondaatje’s Divisadero might provide one with the possibility of this kind of analysis.

Besides from referring to a street in San Francisco, or the Spanish word for division, the title of the novel may also be referring, as Ondaatje himself noted, to the word divisar, signifying ‘to gaze at something from a distance’. My point here would be that in this particular novel acts of violence stir a negative cathartic phenomena because they transport the characters not only into a different spacial representation but also into a different emotional state as they contemplate past events from afar. First inseparable, then cast away into spending their lives separated from their own persona and from the others, the characters find themselves contemplating a common history which feels like it is not theirs anymore. They look at photographs which seem to be victims of a ‘violent shutter’ which imprisons different sides of a single soul. A terrifying act of violence seems to have thrown them away from each other and into the lives of others at the same time posing a serious question about the nature of identity. As they plunge into other people’s lives they actually trace their own identity, they try to create an identity which would stand out of that common history, an autonomous being out of the confusion of similarity. Similarly to the cathartic effect, the violence instilled on them dislocates their identities and sets them on other trajectories. In Ondaatje’s novel violence does not result into restoring a predetermined order of things, on the contrary, it becomes the handle of a slot machine which, once pulled, re-orders the characters’ lives, throws them against different backgrounds. My argument here is that the cathartic output of violence is no longer aimed at that Aristotelian therapeutic usage but rather it is being used aesthetically as the molding force of the characters’ destiny. The characters hold in themselves a sort of dormant, latent openness to violence which makes them vulnerable to the splitting force of pain inflicted by the otherness. Subjected to this vulnerability they become fragmentary beings trying to break loose spatially and temporally from traumatic past events, watching them from afar. In the novel, each act of violence performs a doubly reversed catharsis as they release not only pent-up energies but also an accumulated identity abruptly dispersed and then concentrated around another center, and as such around another story. Hence, if at the beginning of the novel we are introduced to a more or less bound family nucleus, an act of violence reorders that nucleus and throws its members against dissimilar stories and backgrounds.

Bearing this in mind, maybe the most representative embodiment of this type of cathartic output is none other than Coop, ‘a compulsive risk-taker, dangerous even to himself’ (Ondaatje, 2008: 59), who seems to be born out of a terrifying act of violence. As the rest of his family members were murdered ‘by a hired hand who beat them to death with a wooden board’ (Ondaatje, 2008: 11), the fact that he was actually cast into life by a criminal act becomes the significant driving force of his own destiny. In the eyes of the narrating voice, Coop takes on the characteristics of ‘the endangered heir of a murder’, always wavering and ‘taking no more than he was given’ (Ondaatje, 2008: 17). What is even more important is the fact that Coop is not only thrown into a life which eventually turns out to be filled with violence but he is also hurled into another life, that of the half-sisters Anna and Claire, along with their indrawn father. Hence, the narrating voice notes that it was ‘the murder on the neighboring farm that brought Coop into our household’ (Ondaatje, 2008: 11). Moreover, Coop is brought into the story through the occurrence of two acts of violence, both including the loss of a maternal figure. Significantly, he is brought into the life of the story through a written account which at the same time represents the textual portrait of a lost motherhood. This second birth makes Coop not only the subject of a second maternal loss but also, just like a true descendant/ son, the bearer of that motherly figure, a figure like a ghost, imprisoned into Coop’s memory. Nonetheless, Coop is not the only character born out of violence because even the birth of Anna and Claire resembles an act of disruption similar to that produced by violence. Logically, any burst of violence is enabled by the clash between two opposite elements, one trying to engulf the other, until one of those two sides gives in, and the birth of the two girls ‘born the same week’ (Ondaatje, 2008: 11) seems to work on the same principle. Metaphorically, they represent the victorious side, the element of life which draws its essence out of the death of another organism but at the same time, the element which inherits, as in the case of Coop, the same violent pattern of existence. To put it differently, Anna and Claire were born out of the death of their mothers and at the same time the two deaths brought them together. In addition to this, even the land’s myth of genesis bears the blueprint of a violent existence because ‘at each filament-like dot on the county maps, something had happened’, a significant thing, either ‘two brothers killed each other arguing about which direction to travel’ or ‘a woman was traded for a site’ (Ondaatje, 2008: 14). In other words, the space inhabited by the characters retains in its threads the echo of violent acts. Yet, the dividing force of the suddenness of violence does not stop here.

Brought together by the violence of death into a step-twinness, Anna and Claire, seemingly inseparable, are essentially diverging, ‘pacing ourselves privately into our own version of ourselves’ (Ondaatje. 2008: 18), but they have the same idol, their student in matters of language, Coop. Their openness to violence stands in this almost competitiveness nurtured between the two of them in relation to the nearly silent Coop. Just like in Fuseli’s Nightmare, Anna’s body, ‘lying inert on the ground in the dark silence of the barn’, appears displaced, and as the scene is repeated, that displacement seems even more seeable. Hence, when the scene is replayed the narrating voice, Anna, makes a clear linguistic differentiation between a ‘me’ and something else, a passive identity which ‘had already been knocked down by the attacking horse’ (Ondaatje, 2008: 19), as if she can contemplate the scene outside her body, trying to retrace the hidden meanings of that act of violence. As the scene moves on, the narrating voice switches back to Anna’s perspective with ‘the same horse’ (my emphasis) swerving ‘out of the darkness’ (Ondaatje, 2008: 19) and turning to attack Claire. The use of the word ‘same’ in ‘the same horse’ could possibly hint at the narrator’s intention of emphasizing the sameness of the scene, dragging the reader’s attention back to the initial shot. At a structural level, the enraged horse actually sets into motion ‘something significant’ (Ondaatje, 2008: 19), and at a closer look, the way the characters act reflects a changing identity. When Claire enters the horse barn she is on her feet, standing erect, and as she does that she sees Anna’s body lying inert, but the horse comes out of the darkness ‘throwing her down’ (Ondaatje, 2008: 19). To put it differently, Claire is no longer standing, and for a couple of moments her body has the same status as that of Anna, lying down. After the scene is consumed through ‘sparks and flames to represent the loudness’ (Ondaatje, 2008: 19), as Claire opens her eyes, she sees Anna sitting up, ‘looking at her lazily’ (Ondaatje, 2008: 20). Suddenly, the roles are entirely changed and it would be of no wonder that when Coop enters the barn the first thing he does is to crawl beside Anna and call her Claire, ‘so that Claire herself became confused, uncertain for a moment as to who she was’ (Ondaatje, 2008: 20). It is like the angered hooves of the horse had definitively and physically cracked open that seemingly inseparable connection between the two sisters. A dissimilarity which had been dormant is awakened along with the need of differentiation. Anna and Claire suddenly pass into another phase of their identity, ‘into the large uncertain world of adults’ where they would need continuously ‘to be distinctly Anna and distinctly Claire’ (Ondaatje, 2008: 20). Starting with that moment of confusion, their competitiveness in attaining Coop’s affection intensifies. Brought to life and brought together by the violence of death, the two sisters divide, something which the two of them ‘never achieved in the series of photographs that kept the two of us arm in arm’ (Ondaatje, 2008: 20). What is more important is that even at the level of the plot Coop starts to move towards the center of the story. The boy who at first was caught in photographs which seemed to be rather ‘preoccupied with texture and light’ (Ondaatje, 2008: 21), whose reflections and shadows haunt some of the images, becomes the main protractor of this confusion of identity as his words, ‘Claire, my God, Claire’, uttered while lifting Anna into his embrace are the actual verbalization of this confusion. At the same time, Coop’s words lead Anna toward a sort of anagnorisis, the understanding of the necessity for differentiation since ‘I am not Anna, then that must be Anna over there’ (Ondaatje, 2008: 21). Still, as the story unfolds, roles shall change once more as another act of violence makes characters crumble.

Structurally, the novel shifts toward the love story between Anna and Coop and as his quiet cabin starts to acquire some color, nature seems to break loose foreshadowing the occurrence of another violent act. From a narratorial point of view, the change of voice permits the reader to watch the events from a detached point of view, that of an omniscient narrator. The second part of The Orphan reflects the formation of a couple which, similarly to the Anna-Claire dichotomy, is split through an act of anger. Anna and Coop’s passionate love affair is disrupted by the intervention of Anna’s father who attacks ‘Coop’s beautiful strong face as if that were the cause, as if in this way he could remove what had happened’ (Ondaatje, 2008: 33). I believe that the violent reaction of the father is actually a reflection and a reminder of Coop’s own violent origins as one cannot truly affirm the possibility of an incestuous relationship between him and Anna, even though we may argue that since Coop was raised like a child by Anna’s family, then the father has every right to inflict violence upon him. Still, Coop seems to be perfectly aware of his mistake because he does not strike back, in a way he knows that he would hit somebody who has behaved like a father towards him, so he freezes into a ‘strange submissiveness’ (Ondaatje, 2008: 33). Yet, just like the horse from the previously discussed scene, the father takes the attributes of an unstoppable force as he ‘clutched [Anna’s] neck and began to crush her windpipe’ until ‘she dropped to her knees and went limp’ (Ondaatje, 2008: 34). In Ondaatje’s novel any act of violence means there is no turning back, there are no middle grounds. If we come to think of it, Anna’s father seeks no reconciliation because he just drags her away, puts ‘Anna in the trunk and drove off with her’ (Ondaatje, 2008: 38), at the same time denying the possibility of any future spacial proximity between the two. Now, as mentioned before there is another change of roles following the occurrence of this act of violence. If in the horse scene it is Coop who comes to the rescue of the two sisters, in this case Claire is the one who rescues Coop, she is the one who takes care of him. Furthermore, as the story unfolds, we find out that Claire will also be the one to take care of him in the following period. Despite the apparent insignificance attributed to the incident ‘in retrospect something very small, something that might occur within just a square inch or two of a Brueghel’ (Ondaatje, 2008: 59) it will stalk them all, as Anna, Claire, and Coop are cast away from each other and from their childhood home.

The enraged father creates a moment which deforms the characters, and the outcome of that violent act shall not diminish in time, because as they move away from each other the characters seem to bear the stigma of violence. Coop becomes a professional gambler and a wanderer, Claire finds a job out of which she is continuously trying to escape as she seeks consolation on horseback, while Anna is the one to move the furthest. As she tries to stray away from her past both emotionally and physically, she goes to France and immerses into studying the manuscripts and journals of a writer named Lucien Segura, ‘as if distance would dilute whatever existed between Coop and me’ (Ondaatje, 2008: 146). However, with her ‘orphan’s sense of history’ (Ondaatje, 2008: 148) and through what she does she is actually conveying a metaphor of her own sore search into the past, as she herself notes ‘it is what I do with my work’, she looks ‘into the distance for those I have lost so that I see them everywhere’ (Ondaatje, 2008: 149), and later on, toward the end of the novel she adds ‘so I find the lives of Coop and my sister and my father everywhere … as they perhaps still concern themselves with my absence, wherever they are’. This emotional and physical drift consumes itself into her relationship with Rafael because indirectly she is perceiving this relationship as something new, or at least she is trying to define it as new, another attempt at erasing any leftovers from what was between her and Coop. Hence, everything is a first with Rafael, ‘her running up and down the corridor naked, the loose grip even now on her wrist’, Rafael’s ‘almost sleepy sexuality where there seems no boundary between passion and curiosity and closeness’ (Ondaatje, 2008: 187). Yet, despite this almost desperate attempt at forgetting the past, Anna’s affair with Rafael seems to echo the one with Coop, in the sense that both relationships revolve around a feeling of possession. As such, Rafael’s sense of affection for Anna takes different shapes along the story from a ‘loose grip’ to ‘his callused fingers hold her at the wrist again’ (Ondaatje, 2008: 186). In a way this reflects an earlier moment in the novel when Anna makes love to Coop and ‘then his palms released the grip that held her against the deck’. I believe that this reflection of the past into the present is actually based on a previous metaphor, a sexually related one. Just before the violent scene with the angered father while Coop and Anna were making love, Anna suddenly realizes ‘that whatever was in each of them had leaped out into the body of the other’, namely ‘that she’d replaced her heart with Coop’s’ (Ondaatje, 2008: 32). The idea of being transported into the other, of replacing the other metaphorically is similar to Wilhelm Von Humboldt’s theory of communication according to which every time we express something in the presence of somebody else, that which we express remains imprinted onto the other so that the otherness bears forever the seeds of our own experience. From the point of view of this terminology, Anna’s relationship with Coop is very much like an act of communication when something leaps out into the body of the other. Nonetheless, taken as such, the novel poses some serious questions about the nature of identity: if the past is able to shape our present in a deep manner, just like in the case of Anna or Coop, then it means that one can never be free from it, that one can never create an autonomous identity, no matter how much one might try. In the novel, this inseparability between past and present identities is translated more or less through the idea that even when characters like Coop or Anna throw themselves into the lives of the others they are not building new and independent identities, but they are rather outlining an already formed one. Consequently, each identity becomes a montage nurturing ‘the hidden presence of others in us, even those we have known briefly’, presences which can never be wiped out because ‘we contain them for the rest of our lives, at every border that we cross’ (Ondaatje, 2008: 17). In Anna’s case not even strong acts of violence can erase those presences. Despite her own struggle to regard her affection towards Rafael as being unexampled she still cannot surmount that ‘replacement’ of hearts with Coop.

The only character who is able to more or less transcend the past in the true meaning of the word is none other than Coop. Beaten up, a cruel act of violence which makes him look as if ‘someone had beaten half the blood out of his face’ (Ondaatje, 2008: 157), Coop loses his memory. From this viewpoint, I think he is the only character, cast away by another tearing act of violence, who actually has the possibility to experience a new beginning. Taking care of him and trying to find out who did that to him, Claire realizes that Coop ‘doesn’t know what I’m talking about’ (Ondaatje, 2008: 158). Strangely enough, at one point when she attempts to help him remember the past, Claire seems to be making a differentiation between her and Anna but as she utters the words ‘do you remember me’ and ‘do you remember Anna’ Coop’s reply is representative for the entire novel: ‘Anna’ and immediately after ‘thank you Anna’. Once again, the two sisters come together as one. The idea is that Claire’s words were actually referring to two distinct entities as the term ‘me’ denotes ‘herself’ while ‘Anna’ refers to a distinct person. Just like an echo, Coop’s inability to make the difference between ‘me’ (i.e. Claire) and ‘Anna’ automatically sends us back to another episode filled with violence and in which something ‘significant’ happened. Thence, in Ondaatje’s novel the cathartic force of violence not only reformulates lives but it also functions as an excision of memory. Coop is left without his past but he still seems to retain some learning capacities, he is ready to take in another identity. Even so, he is also emptied of purpose, ‘obsession, so finely tuned, is displaced with this dramatic loss of autobiography’ (Ondaatje, 2008: 159). I believe the expressed bitterness of the situation does not stand in the fact that Coop lost his memory but rather in the easiness and the physicality of that loss, ultimately in the unbreakable yet feeble joining of tissue and memories: ‘one organ, the hippocampus, closes down, and we are redirected into an emptiness’ (Ondaatje, 2008: 159). Coop’s loss produces a painful contradiction because ‘faces become anonymous to him now, like shadows in the grass’ (Ondaatje, 2008: 159) while for Claire he is still Coop ‘this unclear shadow of him in the moonlit room’ (Ondaatje, 2008: 160). Nonetheless, as in the case of Anna, the past is inescapable even for somebody who has a memory loss. Coop continues to gamble with the freshness of a neophyte while his mind still refuses to recall his life on the farm back in California. Violence cannot erase what the characters have become but rather it can wipe out what they could have become.

To sum up, in Ondaatje’s novel violence seems to be having an unbreakable tie with the nature of identity, because each time an act of violence is inflicted upon one of the characters something significant occurs. I believe that the cathartic energy of violence does not purge the characters’ emotions but it rather purges their identity by throwing them against different backgrounds and into the life of an otherness which seems to reflect the past. Despite their almost desperate attempts at laying their life in a different manner they are still retelling their past. By trying to weave a different life they realize that the outcome is always a similar pattern.


The Nightmare is an oil painting by John Henry Fuseli and it is the representation of a sleeping lady on whose chest lies a grotesque, gargoyle-looking demon. More compelling though is the presence of a savage, white-eyed black mare, strangely watching over the demon and the sleeping lady.


1. Belifiore, Elizabeth S. Tragic Pleasures: Aristotle on Plot and Emotion.Princeton University Press, 1992.

2. Humboldt, Wilhelm Von. On the Diversity of Human Language Construction and Its Influence on the Mental Development of the Human Species. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

3. Ondaatje, Michael. Divisadero. London: Bloomsbury, 2008.


6 thoughts on “Sententia

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