The Power of the Narrator Throughout American Masterpieces: The Lethal Combination of Narrative and Cultural Incorporation
by Chloe Varenhorst
Many important American novels utilize narration in unconventional ways to expose new perspectives and ideas to the American social conscience. Literary achievements such as Farewell, My Lovely, Invisible Man, and Lolita all use narration as a means to dazzle readers—and to accomplish so much more. Fusing cultural critiques of American society and unconventional storytelling has enabled these novels to retain not only popularity but also relevance in modern society.
Keywords: American literature, storytelling, narrator, cultural critique, narrative style, Invisible Man, Lolita, Farewell, My Lovely
Across American literature, narrative styles in certain notable books have sparked new genres, new controversies, and new perspectives. Due to their combination of popularity and prestige, these books have defined popular culture and guided literary discourse for generations. Raymond Chandler’s novel Farewell, My Lovely established the narrative style of the iconic character of Philip Marlowe and thus the entire genre of hardboiled detective stories. Many of Chandler’s works were made into successful films, influencing the evolution of television and movies from the 1940s–50s into film noir. Chandler himself wrote multiple famous screenplays and infused them with the same believable slang and quippy narrative style found in his novels. In Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man, the narrator’s surreal approach to identity, setting, and allegedly benevolent institutions reflects the embittered journey of a young black man out of the South and into the North. The feeling of powerlessness plaguing the narrator resonates, and the perpetual namelessness of the narrator made Invisible Man all the more relatable. In addition, the early 1950s context of Joseph McCarthy’s power and rising racial tensions made Invisible Man an incendiary sensation. Controversy also contributed to the popularity of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita due to the obscene and contentious content of the story. Only Nabokov’s deft and beautiful writing style could eclipse the revolting inner workings of a pedophile actively defending his actions from a cell. The narrative of Lolita has also had implications for psychotherapy, as Nabokov frequently used Humbert Humbert to ridicule the colloquial pseudoscience of psychotherapy. Due to the combination of ingenious narration, cultural significance, and overall popularity, Lolita, Invisible Man and Farewell, My Lovely all grew wildly popular and lastingly influential, solidifying their statuses as American Masterpieces.
With a multitude of popular detective novels, Raymond Chandler was one of the definitive writers of the hardboiled crime genre, and his novel Farewell, My Lovely encompasses the author’s writing style perfectly. The recurring character of Philip Marlowe narrates this book while conducting business as usual as a private investigator in Los Angeles in the 1940s. The narrative style of Philip Marlowe proves short and sequential, taking the reader methodically through the mind of a successful snooper. The narration maintains a logical and comprehensible methodology to sniff out facts, in part due to the almost stream of consciousness approach:
Something felt heavy against my left ribs. The gun in the shoulder holster. That was a nice touch. They left me my gun. A nice touch of something or other-like closing a man’s eyes after you knifed him. I felt the back of my head. My hat was still on. I took it off, not without discomfort and felt the head underneath. Good old head, I’d had it a long time. It was a little soft now, a little pulpy, and more than a little tender. But a pretty light sapping at that. The hat had helped. I could still use the head. I could use it another year anyway. (Chandler 64)
As this excerpt highlights, a pervading cynicism with the veneer of humor fits well for a private investigator, carrying Philip Marlowe through the dangerous quagmire that is the corrupt world of L.A. crime. This sarcastic approach extends beyond the work of a private detective and into the social life of Philip Marlowe, particularly in regard to women. Strange but coherent metaphors are distributed throughout the book, but few more potent than the following: “It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window…Whatever you needed, where-ever you happened to be, she had it…” (Chandler 93). Marlowe’s narration comes across as humorous and lucid, and it blends seamlessly with the dialogue of the novel. Throughout Farewell, My Lovely, Raymond Chandler’s methodical narrative style allows the reader to jump effortlessly inside the warped head of a P.I. hounded by trouble. No matter the situation or its possible danger, Philip Marlowe’s narration retains the same short and comprehensible structure punctuated with off-beat quips and irregular metaphors.
Though Farewell, My Lovely was just one of many works from Chandler, his stylistic influence on film in the 1940s and lasting popularity are not to be underestimated, particularly when considering his influence in film noir. After a B-side film adaptation of Farewell, My Lovely in 1942, another version was made in 1944 and redubbed Murder, My Sweet for marketing purposes. With the shrewdly edited title serving as the only major change, the second attempt at film adaptation of Chandler’s second novel fared much better, precipitating the launch of Chandler’s career in Hollywood. Though he appears in many other stories, the second film adaptation of Farewell, My Lovely served as the debut for the hardboiled detective Philip Marlowe. Due to the success of Murder, My Sweet, Philip Marlow was seen as a game-changing character who eventually became a defining character of film noir’s detective stories. The narrative style follows Marlowe through the film, and his brusque yet effective method of dealing with living puzzles persists throughout the dialogue. When speaking with two unnamed thugs, Marlowe’s speech retains its sardonic edge throughout the interaction:
“Now that we are all between pals and no ladies present we really don’t give so much time to why you went back there, but this Hemingway stuff is what really has me down.”
“A gag,” I said. “An old, old gag.”
“Who is this Hemingway person at all?”
“A guy that keeps saying the same thing over and over until you begin to believe it must be good.”
“That must take a hell of a long time,” the big man said. (Chandler 164)
The quick and slangy speech of Marlowe manifests itself in the people surrounding him, as they return his volleys with nearly equal gusto and skill. This style of dialogue in film quickly spread throughout the film noir genre, resulting in a fast-talking carney-type affect in many prominent movies. Combined with the classic film noir aesthetic of Murder, My Sweet, the dialogue constructs an enthralling world of tricky characters and questionable morals with both verbal and aesthetic representation. Later down the line, the classic private detective was reincarnated when Farewell, My Lovely was remade as a neo-noir film in 1975, which reclaimed the original title and succeeded once again at the box office. The success of these two films solidified Chandler’s influence over Hollywood mysteries and their quippy narration. Thus, the iconic narrative style of Philip Marlowe in Farewell, My Lovely catapulted the hardboiled detective genre into the public’s eye and eventually their affection, changing both the detective genre and film noir for good.
When published in 1952, Invisible Man had implications for modern society due to its pervasive ideas about power and corresponding inequality in American society. The story follows an unnamed narrator through a journey of growth and disillusionment across several powerful institutions in America. From university to the workforce to an underground brotherhood, the narrator maintains a pattern of self-definition based on the social institution in which he resides rather than his actions within the society. After a period of upward mobility and growth, forces conspire to hinder the progress of the narrator, prompting him to leave the institution. Due to his skills as an orator, the narrator begins his ascent through a shadowy institution only to find leaders who use him as a pawn rather than an agent of lasting social change. After spontaneously giving an incendiary speech about dispossession, the narrator is brought into the world of a brotherhood attempting to better society, a world the narrator immediately accepts at face value. He is tasked with another speech, and he accepts the challenge, throwing himself fully into the hands of his cohorts:
I had been transformed, and now, lying restlessly in bed in the dark, I felt a kind of affection for the blurred audience whose faces I had never clearly seen. They had been with me from the first word. They had wanted me to succeed, and fortunately I had spoken for them and they had recognized my words. I belonged to them. I sat up, grasping my knees in the dark as the thought struck home. Perhaps this was what was meant by being “dedicated and set aside.” Very well, if so, I accepted it… I would do whatever necessary to serve them well. If they could take a chance with me, then I’d do the very best that I could. How else could I save myself from disintegration? (Ellison 353)
The narrative style projects not only the narrator’s inability to fully and cohesively comprehend the politics of institutions and their operators but also his inability to focus his energy on more realistic and tangible goals. Because the narrator fails to manifest himself without the aid of a greater institution, his personality and view of the world prove fragmentary yet grandiose throughout the journey. Without a solid internal foundation, the narrator is unable to find lasting meaning in any of his surroundings, resulting in his rejection of society as a whole.
The general air of disenchantment with powerful structures was scandalous enough, but the heavy implication of communism and interplay across race lines made Invisible Man incredibly subversive. Though Ellison never explicitly labeled the Brotherhood as such, his heavy allusion was enough to create a cloud of controversy surrounding the novel that persists to this day. This is unsurprising, considering the context of the second “red scare” and the power held by Joseph McCarthy in 1952, the year Invisible Man was published. Though communist overtones would be enough to label Invisible Man intolerable, Ellison embraced further controversy by painting a grim picture of race relations in America that transcended lines of both region and gender. Though the narrator leaves the South in his past, he finds the same racism runs through the streets of Harlem on his journey toward greatness. During a drunken encounter with another party member named Sybil near the end of the novel, the narrator also unearths the grim image of black masculinity held by the white women with power. When unable to cope with his task of fulfilling the rape fantasy of Sybil, the hollow notions of equity and improvement finally crash upon the narrator as he tears through Harlem on a night of concurrent destruction and unrest. Ellison’s brutally honest discussion of stereotypes combined with his blatant disdain for supposedly benevolent institutions highlighted subconscious social issues that plague Americans still today. Due to the surrealist narrative style, the accessibility of the narrator, and the experience of stunted progress, the story of the narrator in Invisible Man resonates with the every-day reader while challenging the social norms of race relations, censorship, and blind government loyalty in American society.
When considering the controversial content of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, the unwaveringly beautiful narrative style serves as a verbal filter that makes the story palatable. The narrator paints his world and actions in an alluring way that appears seductive at first, captivating the readers with an atmospheric sweetness that drowns out all other implications. This beautiful wash on the world quickly oversaturates the narrative, cloying the reader with the outright delusion of Humbert Humbert. One specific way Nabokov used art to cover the distasteful subject of pedophilia came in the form of a new metaphor for beautiful young girls: the nymphet. By invoking the image of a classically beautiful Greek myth in a younger form, Nabokov unforgettably defines the sumptuous nature of innocence seen by Humbert. Though he favors the Greeks and Italians, Nabokov frequently reaches across time and culture for a source of beauty strong enough to overpower the stain of Humbert Humbert’s character.
There is nothing wrong, say both hemispheres, when a brute of forty, blessed by the local priest and bloated with drink, sheds his sweat-drenched finery and thrusts himself up to the hilt into his youthful bride. “In such stimulating temperate climates [says an old magazine in the prison library] as St. Louis, Chicago and Cincinnati, girls mature about the end of their twelfth year.” Dolores Haze was born less than three hundred miles from stimulating Cincinnati. I have but followed nature. I am nature’s faithful hound. (Nabokov 135)
The beautiful filter combined with the methodical defense of pedophilia creates a potent argument, though there can be no redemption for Humbert’s character. After all, Humbert states at the beginning of the story that his reason for writing Lolita is to present the manuscript at the upcoming trial, and it shows. As if to poke fun at the situation, Humbert frequently addresses his readers as “ladies and gentlemen of the jury,” demonstrating a sharp awareness of the pending audience and its consequence. This awareness is also demonstrated by Humbert’s frequent claims of insanity and self-declared lack of free will in regard to his actions, as both can be used to build a more powerful legal defense. By covering the distasteful subject of pedophilia with artful language and a thorough argument justifying his behavior, the pleading tale of Humbert Humbert comes across as a skewed narrative painted over with beauty. Despite the abhorrent nature of Lolita’s story, Nabokov demonstrates the full power of a skillful narrator with his relentlessly elegant writing style, exhaustive defense of Humbert Humbert, and overall masterful construction of narrative to trump the staggering flaws of the narrator.
Though the shock value of the narrative contributed heavily, the context of American culture in the mid 1950s and a particular incident prior to Lolita’s publication fanned the flame of interest in Humbert Humbert’s story. In America, psychoanalysis was at the height of its popularity and Freud’s teachings were seen as therapeutic gospel, particularly his theories of personality and dream analysis. Nabokov, however, had an infamous distaste for Freudian psychology and uses Humbert Humbert as a proxy to mock the legitimacy of psychoanalysis. For instance, Humbert describes abstract and symbolic dreams that would have any psychoanalyst frothing at the mouth:
Sometimes I attempt to kill in my dreams. But do you know what happens? For instance, I hold a gun. For instance I aim at a bland, quietly interested enemy. Oh, I press the trigger all right, but one bullet after another feebly drops on the floor from the sheepish muzzle. In those dreams, my only thought is to conceal the fiasco from my foe, who is slowly growing annoyed. (Nabokov 47)
Considering the marital troubles of Humbert Humbert at the time of this dream, the allusion to impotence provides an easy medical explanation for the factors that precipitate the eventual rape of Dolores Haze. Though the use and mockery of a wildly popular medical practice enlarged the popularity of Nabokov’s book, the tragedy of Sally Horner had the issue of pedophilia on everybody’s mind (Celt). The actual story of the kidnapping of a pubescent girl for similarly nefarious purposes and her eventual death is directly referenced when Humbert states, “Had I done to Dolly [Dolores], perhaps, what Frank Lasalle, a fifty-year-old mechanic, had done to eleven-year-old Sally Horner in 1948?” (Nabokov 289). Though most were probably too afraid to broach the subject, the tragedy of the Sally Horner story primed the subconscious of the public for the discussion invigorated by Lolita. The frequent jokes about the absurdity of Freudian psychology paired with the obvious parallels to the story of Sally Horner brought together two widely known subjects together in a beautifully packaged story, which propelled Lolita to the top of the list of important and influential works of American Literature.
Though the brilliant narratives certainly contributed, the incorporation and critique of then-current culture throughout Farewell, My Lovely, Invisible Man, and Lolita solidified the significance of these works in American culture. The inner workings of Philip Marlowe, Ellison’s narrator, and Humbert Humbert not only brought new perspectives to the forefront of the American mind but did so in innovative ways. Philip Marlowe’s quippy inner monologue enthralled readers throughout the story on his perilous journey to track down murderers, jewel thieves, and corrupt politicians near the glitzy city of Los Angeles. The grit of Marlowe’s adventures as a private detective both on screen and paper remain appealing due to Chandler’s iconic characters and natural narrative style. The narrative style of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man introduced a previously unheard voice of interest to the American public with a surreal and nonlinear narrative. In a black man’s world of disillusionment in the South and the North, the subjects of racism and communism in the face of McCarthy and segregation were finally addressed. By discussing these taboos through an unnamed narrator, Ellison constructed a story in which the blatant cynicism of the novel is intimately applicable to the audience. Though the narrator could not be just any reader, the unresolved identity of the narrator meant they could be anyone, anywhere in America. For readers of Lolita, the beautifully constructed plea for the soul of a pedophile at first seduces then baffles and disgusts as the actions of Humbert Humbert grow more grotesque. The taboo content of Lolita fascinated not only the medical community but the general public, which was primed and ready for this discussion after Sally Horner. Not only were the narratives of these three novels well crafted, but their immediate cultural relevance accelerated the diffusion of these novels to the average American. Once popularized, their astounding quality forced evolution within the genres of American detective novels, African American literature, and American “romances.” Due to the intimacy intrinsic to the narrative style, Farewell, My Lovely, Invisible Man, and Lolita have remained popular as their enduring critiques of American society remain relevant and applicable to every reader to this day.
Celt, Adrienne. “The True Story of the Real Lolita.” Electric Literature, Conversations, 14 Mar. 2019, electricliterature.com/the-true-story-of-the-real-lolita/. Accessed 11 Apr. 2019.
Chandler, Raymond. Farewell, My Lovely: A Novel. Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 2002.
Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. Vintage, 2010.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita. Vintage, 2010.