Elmer's English 304 Magazine
Eroticism and Ecstasy
by Elmer G. Wiens
An author can influence readers' emotional involvement with a novel's characters by writing text that is difficult to understand. M.H. Abrams defines alienation effects as literary devices that make "familiar aspects of reality seem strange" (44), and unreadable text as wording that does not conform to acceptable literary conventions (200). Readers feel perplexed by dialogue that does not identify the speakers, disrupted by jarring flashbacks, and estranged if actions are presented in a disordered manner. By manipulating the aesthetic distance, an author can diminish or increase readers' identification with the novel's characters. These distancing techniques may cause readers to assume a critical attitude to the events and to take steps to change the social reality the novel portrays (44).
Suppose an author, with objectionable or hidden desires, wants to influence people's perception of these traits. By imbuing her characters with these traits, she can negotiate how people value these characteristics. At the beginning of the novel, the author distances readers from characters; then draws them closer as the novel progresses. With a sufficiently intense emotional response, they will identify with the characters. Abrams claims that while a readable text, "comfortably interpretable and naturalizable in the activity of reading," induces a "quasi-erotic response" in readers, an unreadable text that "persistently shocks, baffles, and frustrates standard expectations in the process of reading" induces an "orgasmic ecstasy" response (200).
In Ana Historic, Daphne Marlatt manipulates her readers' aesthetic distance from Annie and Ana by offsetting the many sentence fragments that parade through Annie's inner monologue, with formal language that describes Ana's activities. To illustrate, when Annie feels held back by acceptable girl play, Marlatt writes, "it wasn't tom, or boy, it wasn't hoyden, minx, baggage, but what lay below names" (13). When Ana frets about the way men look at her, she writes, "But a cold nod never failed to establish distance and they move on" (95). These devices draw readers closer to the historical Ana than to the modern-day Annie. While her difficult and poetic text frustrates readers, Marlatt does provide a number of stimulating incidents that foreshadow developments. For example, Annie recalls coming to a fork in the road while walking in the woods with her girlfriend Donna. Along one branch, a car with two women making love blocks the trail. Annie is struck by the women's daring, and by:
the leafy tunnel they had chosen, the silence of the dripping woods and,
under glass as under water, two mouths meeting each other. (107)
Should she accept her sexual desires? In the end Ana and Annie come to terms with their lesbianism. Having lead a double life most of her life, Annie commits overtly to her lesbianism by moving in with Zoe (151), while Ana marries Ben Springer, using the prostitute Birdie Stewart to satisfy her desires (139). With Ana providing the eroticism, and Annie the ecstasy, Marlatt helps her readers value their sexual orientation.
Abrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 4th ed. New York: Holt, 1981
Marlatt, Daphne. Ana Historic. Toronto: Anansi, 1988.