The principal narrator of a novel is usually the main character. That goes without saying, right? However, some stories call for a different strategy: the narrator as observer. A popular example was William Styron’s classic 1979 novel, “Sophie’s Choice.” The story focuses on two young lovers, Nathan Landau and Sophie Zawistowski. The narrator is a young writer from Virginia named Stingo. He is a boarder at a rooming house in Brooklyn, New York, where Nathan and Sophie live together.
The story revolves around the relationship between Sophie, a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps, and Nathan, who poses as a Harvard graduate and a biologist. Nathan and Sophie befriend young Stingo. The reader finds out later that Nathan has invented his background and he is a paranoid schizophrenic. Nathan is at times generous and at other times abusive. Stingo finds out from Nathan’s brother that Nathan is schizophrenic and he has made up his career as a cellular biologist working on important medical research. Stingo and Sophie leave Brooklyn when Nathan, believing they are having an affair, threatens to kill Stingo. Sophie shares with Stingo her harrowing past as a concentration
Without revealing any further plot details, Sophie’s “choice” refers to the dilemma when an individual must choose between two equally horrible alternatives. So why did Styron choose a character other than Nathan or Sophie as the main character?
As the narrator, Stingo described the events of the story years later when he was an older, successful novelist. He tied in his own family’s past history as slave owners in the South, which Stingo abhorred. I suspect Styron selected Stingo as the narrator because he is the only character who could view the relationship between Nathan and Sophie with some measure of objectivity. Stingo as narrator also underscored the theme of the universality of cruelty and racism. Nathan, as a Jew, is obsessed with and haunted by the holocaust. Sophie, as a Polish-Catholic, lost her family and suffered as a result of the tyranny of the Nazis. Stingo’s family also took part in the racist system of slavery.
Author Philip Roth has published eight novels where the character Nathan Zuckerman appears. In “American Pastoral,” Zuckerman is not a major character but is an observer/narrator. Swede Levov is the main character. Another famous example is Nick Carraway in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, “The Great Gatsby.”
The narrator-observer technique creates distance between the reader and the main characters. Stingo cannot possibly know Nathan Landau’s true state of mind. What Stingo brings to the story is a greater degree of reliability. The reader trusts him. He can present the complex relationship between Nathan and Sophie in a way that neither of them can. Styron presents Stingo as an earnest and honest young man. He has an avid curiosity and he uncovers details about their relationship as he becomes a confidante, especially to Sophie.
The narrator-observer is an unusual narrative technique. It’s rarely used, but it can be an effective tool in a story where the main characters are too biased to reveal all of the dimensions of a novel.
Have you ever used the narrator-observer point-of-view? Can you think of other examples of this technique in literature?