Wednesday, October 01, 2014

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Point of View in "The Explosion in the Parlor" by Bai Xiao-YI

The Story: “The Explosion in the Parlor” by Bai Xiao-YI is a spare, elegant story about perspective. The plot, which takes less than two pages to recount and offers few descriptive details, has one main plot event—the breaking of a tea thermos.

The Narrative Perspective: The initial narrative perspective in the story, the traditional third-person narrator, provides direct observation of the three characters in the storya man, his daughter, and their host at tea: “ The host poured tea into the cup and placed it on the small table in front of his guests . . .. "(289). This minimal narration is from an impersonal voice reporting on the scene. The father is described as sitting at the table; the daughter is looking out the window. When the host leaves the room, however, the narrator observes that the host is “Apparently thinking of something” as he hurries into another room, suggesting that the narrator has some limited, awareness of the host’s thoughts.

Perspective Shifts: In the midst of this impersonal scene, the titular explosion occurs, “ . . .when the crash came, right there in the parlor. Something was hopelessly broken” (289). Here, some value creeps into the here-to-fore objective report: the thermos is hopelessly broken. With this value assessment, the narration becomes more intimate and immediate. The reader now experiences not only what characters are saying and doing but also some value assessment of events.

Dialogue Perspectives: Dialogue provides further narrative perspective that is more individualized. For example, after the thermos breaks, the host rushes in and exclaims, “It doesn’t matter! It doesn’t matter! (289)” This response suggests the host desires to make his guests comfortable and doesn't want them to worry about the breakage. The reader may experience this remark as an appropriate response from a gracious host. The father’s response to the host, however, creates a conundrum for the daughter (and the reader) when he answers, “Sorry, I touched it and it fell” (290). Narration hasn’t indicated that the father touched the thermos, so the reader, at a more removed perspective, experiences uncertainty at this point. Had the father touched the tea thermos? 

Reader's Perspective: Narration delays the daughter’s perspective on the event until after she and her father leave after tea. The young girl asks her father if he really had touched the thermos. She is trying to understand what has just happened even as the reader is trying to understand the story. Her father’s admission that he hadn’t touched it leaves her (and, again, the reader) perplexed. The reader is now drawn more intimately into the experience of the story, trying to understand (along with the daughter) what has happened and why the father responded as he did.

Reflected Perspective: The daughter’s actual perspective on the event  becomes paramount at this point in the story. She says, “I saw your reflection in the window pane. You were sitting perfectly still” (290). The reader has a witness. The daughter states what she has observed. The reader, however, may question the child's perspective because she hadn’t been facing her father when the thermos fell and broke. Instead, her back was turned and she was looking at a reverse image of what was happening reflected in the window. The reader must then decide whether to trust this inverted, mirrored perspective.

Reflections as Truth: Reflective surfaces, whether mirrors, windows, or the surface of a pond or lake are commonly used in literature to suggest introspection, a turning inward, or self-referral experience of consciousness. The reversal of the image may here merely demonstrate the turn within (of awareness). So, the image may be reversed in the reflection but it often reveals the truth of a situation. An example I often use when teaching to illustrate this point about reflections is the wicked stepmother in “Sleeping Beauty”; she asks a magical mirror to confirm her beauty, but the mirror reflects back the truth—she is not the most beautiful in the land. her daughter is.

Self-Referral Perspective: If the reader considers the daughter’s gaze into the reflective surface of the window to be self-referral in nature, the reflection becomes an instrument for revealing the truth of the situation. The reader can then trust the daughter's observation: the father did not break the thermos. The daughter’s self-referral experience has the effect of passing the search for the wholeness of meaning over to the reader. It is the reader who must decide where the wholeness of the story resides—what the father's truth is.

Back to the Reader: When the daughter asks why the father claims to have broken the thermos when he hadn’t, the father’s responds, “The truer the story you tell, the less true it sounds” (290). This response  speaks to the nature of fiction itself. Story is more than just the objective narration of events. Story involves perspective—in this case, the potential perspectives involved include the narrator’s, the host’s, the father’s, the daughter’s, and the reader[1]. Although many perspectives are present in the story, it is ultimately the daughter’s self-referral perspective which serves to place the search for wholeness on the reader's shoulders. The reader must construct the truth of the story, the wholeness of the story, which contains the host’s truth, the daughter’s truth, the father’s truth, within in her or his own consciousness finally and answer the question: "Is it true that the truer the story you tell, the less true it sounds?" So, is it? 


[1] One can go further and suggest other perspectives, i.e., a social science perspective looking at social values within the story or an historical perspective on the proper performance of a tea ceremony, etc. 

 

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