Academic journal article The Review of Contemporary Fiction

A Valentine for Elena

Academic journal article The Review of Contemporary Fiction

A Valentine for Elena

Article excerpt

I began by drawing conclusions: Elena embodied the incestuous family attachment that blocks individual growth; the weird ways of island society replicated the scary world a child finds outside his home. I soon came to mistrust such insights. Matters were not so simple; matters--cards of identity included--had been dealt double.

I had at first believed what I was reading, assuming that the book and the narrator's story were one. I learned that the book is a mirror reflecting the narrative for our benefit; our listening to the narrator tells us another story. After expecting a tale of discovery and rebirth, I was discovering one of repression and death. Under the social comedy lay not initiation but tragedy.

These realizations came in time. At the beginning, I went on reading because of the elegant oddness of the situation and, mostly, because of the sympathy I felt for the narrator.

Why did I sympathize with the narrator, a young man surrounded by trivial people and assailed by trivial doubts? He is not even "bad," merely confused. He does not know what he is supposed to do; he does not know where he is; he can't remember who he is. We sympathize with him, we "suffer with" him because we too are confused:

Then [Herbert] looked at all of us and slowly pushed his chin forward, like a pianist embarking on a new phrase. "As to your question, `Why do we put up with Bob?,' I should have thought that nothing would be easier to do. He's a charming young man. We are all equals now."

Herbert's closing words, delivered almost inaudibly, arose as unexpectedly out of the drift of his argument as a human arm out of the waves at night. (5)(*)

The "closing words" leave us as mystified as the narrator. We share his predicament; we're with him. Unlike him, however, we do not forget. Book and narrative here start to diverge.

The narrator is also knowledgeable and alert; we do not ally ourselves with a hapless idiot. And the trivialities reveal only one side of his character. Elena will describe his double nature thus: on the one hand, "He could reflect other people's excitement, but when he was alone he was no one at all"; on the other hand, "he [could] set himself an independent course and seldom tacked" (74). If he were merely the impressionable nobody, we wouldn't care what happened to him. As an independently minded man, he is worthy of our interest.

Forgetting Elena begins, "I am the first person in the house to awaken, but I am unsure of the implications."

"I am the first person," the first and only: the world never exists outside the narrator's anxious perceptions of it; "but I am unsure," as if to say, "`I' is the first person," a grammatical cipher as yet unsubstantiated. There is at first only an impressionable nobody uttering variations of this "I am unsure" ("I can't be absolutely certain," "I doubt," "I have no way of knowing," "I wonder," all in the first eighteen lines).

The narrator would like to know what he is--he wonders "if I am even an islander" (33). Like a child, he worries about urination and constipation; Elena will describe him as "a child, born again" (171). His state resembles that of Neoplatonic reminiscence: he recognizes things, but he has to relearn what they signify. He is a child of about thirty, and there is nothing childish about his observations:

One bush, or tree, particularly interests me because it has three different leaf shapes, one that looks like an elm's, another with three lobes and a third that resembles a mitten. This plant has arched over to touch a holly bush, creating a dark tunnel of waxy greenery and a grill of shadows. (27)

But what he notices serves egocentric immediacy: What is happening to me, how am I to respond?

Other people are at first nameless: "The men . . . burst into laughter," "Everyone urged ... ," "Someone asked...." The awareness of others invariably precedes their identification. …

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