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Strangers in our own culture

Everyone is a prisoner of his own experiences. No one can eliminate prejudices - just recognize them.
Edward R. Murrow

Differences in type of narrative structure may lead to differences in the way a story is perceived by a

reader. Where the use of an omniscient narrator may make the reader feel in control of the narrative

situation, a first-person point of view may make the reader identify with that particular character. Yet,

the type of narrator can disguise another important aspect of how a narrative is written; namely the

focus of character, or focalisation. A narrator can be so authoritative that the reader may forget that

events in the discourse do not necessarily have to be perceived by that narrator. In other words, the

focalisation can for example be with one of the characters, or several of them. The objectivity of the

narrator is then likely to overshadow the more subjective experiences of the character the focus lies

with. Consequently, a prejudiced character is likely to get away with not being objective because the

reader will not question the authority of the narrator. Thus in a case where the focus of character lies

with someone who has a background in a Diaspora culture, this background may highly influence the

focalisation as that particular character is likely to have been forced to leave their (traditional and

ethnic) homeland and thus be subjected to a culture that is not their own. Compared to novels which

characters do not have this origin in a Diaspora culture, it is interesting to see whether this seemingly

natural subjectivity towards the new culture really influences the focalisation in a novel which

characters do have a background in a Diaspora. Is there then a significant difference in focalisation

between Anita Desai’s Baumgartner’s Bombay, which clearly has this background and Emily Brontë’s

Wuthering Heights, which has, apart from Heathcliff’s uncertain origin, no connections to a Diaspora,

or Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, which protagonist is also subjected to a new and unfamiliar

culture?

In order to be able to evaluate the influence of Hugo Baumgartner’s background in a Diaspora

culture on the focalisation, it is important to establish the fact that there is a tendency in the novel for

the narrator’s comments on what other people think of Hugo to be quite similar to Hugo’s own

feelings of inferiority. Because of the shift between the focus of narration and the focus of character
the reader is easily led to believe that Hugo is indeed almost rejected by the native Indian people,

because the focalisation never shifts to one of these natives. Consequently, the narrator’s refusal to tell

the reader about positive associations that people have with Hugo makes the reader feel that Hugo is

not projecting his own prejudices on other people and that it is not unreasonable of him to keep

thinking that he is always seen as ‘the foreigner’. A number of passages quite early on in the novel are

useful to exemplify this tendency. ‘The woman, washing, automatically edged her sari over her face

with a twitch of her wet hand as she did in the presence of any male; actually she hardly thought of

Baumgartner, a lump in grey pants, as one: the gesture was a conditioned one, now instinctive.’ (7) ‘…

the watchman on his stool shifted his legs to let Baumgartner pass, smiling faintly out of politeness but

with a twist of distaste at the corner of his mouth.’ […] ‘[Hugo] went down the steps into the street

with his bag, uncertain as ever of which language to employ. After fifty years, still uncertain.

Baumgartner, du Dummkopf.’ Because, in both cases, the narrator describes a negative association

with Hugo, Baumgartner’s insecurity, which is prominent in the third passage, is confirmed and

justified. The focalisation is thus not of any apparent importance, because the narrative structure

always confirms the focus of character that is subjected to feelings that derive from the characters

background in a Diaspora culture. Contrastingly, if an adjective similar to tired, bored or disinterested

had been added to the description of the watchman (i.e. the disinterested watchman on his stool…),

the reader would have been more likely to dismiss Hugo’s feelings of insecurity as being overly

sensitive or inflicted by his own insecurity rather than by his feeling inferior to other people in this

culture that is not his own. It is Hugo’s background and feeling of exile that makes him feel as

insecure as he does, but it is the way the narrative structure imbeds this background in the focalisation

that highlights it.

Obviously, it is difficult to determine whether the narrative structure or the character’s

background in a Diaspora culture is the factor that makes the focalisation significant. In order to

clarify this, it is relevant to compare Baumgartner’s Bombay to Robinson Crusoe, as the focus of

character in the latter novel lies with the person who is also the narrator of the story, namely Robinson

himself. ‘However, I saw the poor fellow was most terribly scared; for nothing ran in his head but that

they had come to look for him; and would cut him in pieces and eat him..’ (226) Because Robinson
Crusoe is the narrator, the focalisation cannot shift to Friday and what he is actually feeling, as

Robinson can never know what other people think. He is not an omniscient narrator. Because

Robinson is in the first place a reliable and objective narrator, it is easy to forget that this lack of shift

in focus of character strengthens Robinson’s own feelings and fears towards the ‘savages’. ‘…and

especially while my mind was thus filled with thoughts of revenge, and of a bloody putting twenty or

thirty of them to the sword, as I may call it, the horror I had at the place and at the signals of the

barbarous wretches devouring one another abated my malice.’ Creating a situation where the

focalisation should have shifted to Friday in order to get an objective idea of what that man is thinking

and feeling, but not doing so because there is no omniscient narrator, backs Robinson’s own point of

view even while it is in fact an unreliable observation. It is hereby important to realise that also

Robinson Crusoe is a work of fiction and not a narrative based on a real person’s experiences. The

author thus chose to create a narrator who was also the protagonist of the story. An omniscient

narrator, as in the case of Baumgartner’s Bombay, would have decreased the intensity of Robinson’s

feeling of exile. Thus in order to retain the feeling of exile in a novel that is based on a character’s

experiences in a culture that is not his own, be it as a consequence of a Diaspora of because of a

shipwreck, it is necessary to keep the focus of character with the person who is exposed to that

different culture. In that way, the focalisation reflects the (Diaspora) background of the character, and

therefore the Diaspora background and its reflection in the focalisation are more important than the

ability of a narrator to influence the reader’s perception of the novel, of which I gave the example of

the watchman. To stay with the previous example about the watchman in Baumgartner’s Bombay, the

suggestiveness of the narrator in connection with the manners of the watchman are less likely to

influence the reader than if the narrator had chosen to shift the focus of narration to the watchman and

actually describe what that man felt when he saw Hugo. Then, a situation similar to the one where

Friday would be the subject of focalisation in Robinson Crusoe would be created.

Another way to find out whether the background of a character, in this case the Jewish

Diaspora background of Hugo Baumgartner, has any influence on the focalisation in the novel is to

compare it to a novel which has no background in a Diaspora culture whatsoever. Emily Brontë’s

Wuthering Heights can be described as a novel in which the characters are hardly subjected to any
cultural differences. This is even true to the extend that the novel could not have existed in its present

form if the island-structure had not been imbedded as it disables the characters from interacting with

any other people besides their neighbours. Their isolation from ‘the world’ is the exact opposite from

Baumgartner’s situation in a multi-cultural society that is not his own. Because the narrative of

Wuthering Heights is told and re-told by two characters who also take part in the action, they are the

subjects of the focus of character in the novel. A couple of passages from the novel can clarify the

focalisation. ‘ “Get it ready, will you?” was the answer, uttered so savagely that I started. The tone in

which the words were said revealed a genuine bad nature. I no longer felt inclined to call Heathcliff a

capital fellow.’ and ‘ “I devined, from this account, that utter lack of sympathy had rendered young

Heathcliff selfish and disagreeable, if he were not so originally; and my interest in him, consequently,

decayed: though still I was moved with a sense of grief at his lot..”’(176) These passages, the first

uttered by Mr Lockwood and the second by Nelly Dean, make clear that it is the subject of the

focalisation that is important rather than the background of the subject of focalisation. It is the

unavoidable subjectivity of the person who the focus of character is with that makes it subjective. Had

Heathcliff or any other character in the novel been the narrator of the story, he would have been the

subject of the focalisation, which would have changed the story entire, presumably. The credibility of

the novel relies on the fact that we have a prejudiced narrator, who inflicts his own views on the story.

The opening chapters of Wuthering Heights are narratives of the narrator’s experiences with the

characters in the rest of the story. Because of this subjectivity, the reader tends to agree with the

narrator’s opinion of Heathcliff in the rest of the novel. Apparently, there is a need in every novel,

based or not on a character’s experiences in a Diaspora culture, for the focus of character to stress the

subjectivity of that person; otherwise, the dramatic tension would get lost and the story would lose its

appeal to the reader, as it would become a documentary rather than a novel.

One path that remains to be explored in order to find an answer to the significance of the

character’s background in a Diaspora culture is Hugo’s own perception of the world around him in

varying cultures. The whole novel is in fact the story of a Diaspora. An accepted description of a

Diaspora is ‘the spreading of people from a national group or culture to other areas’1. That is exactly

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what happens to Baumgartner in the novel; he has lived in Germany, he has lived in India, but he has

also been in Venice and he has been imprisoned during the war. Nevertheless, Hugo does not seem to

want to fight this feeling of not being able to find a home. This apparent acceptation of the situations

he finds himself in makes it important that he is the one whose thoughts and feelings the reader gets to

know. The focalisation stresses the fact that there is no real home for Hugo wherever he comes in the

world, because in every situation the focus of character lets the reader know that Hugo is not feeling at

home. ‘Then the agony was over and he could collapse into the dark ditch of his shame, What was the

shame? The sense that he did not belong to the picture-book world of the fir tree, the gifts and the

celebration? But no one had said that. Was it just that he sensed he did not belong to the radiant, the

triumphant of the world?’ Clearly, he does not feel at home in Germany. Neither does he feel at home

in the camp, which is in his word merely an extension of Germany. ‘Anything, but not this silence –

this whining, humming silence that seemed to come from the sky that had no colour, and the dust of

the earth, its particles grating upon each other, torturedly’ and ‘Baumgartner was willing to go along

with all these absurdities in the resigned, half-hearted way taught him by years of helpless submission

to bullying, first in Germany, then in the camp, which was an extension of the former’. The

focalisation thus helps to create the feeling of exile, of not belonging anywhere and Hugo’s

background is completely relevant to explain this; he has been forced to leave the home he never had,

and never found the place that he could call home. Because the reader gets to see the world through

Hugo’s eyes, they can feel the emptiness that he feels and completely understand it, too.

Overall it is difficult to grade the significance of the character’s experiences in Diaspora

culture. The one aspect of the focalisation that is in any case relevant is the fact that without these

experiences, the feeling of exile could never have been transmitted to the reader. Because the reader

experiences the same things as Hugo does, and in the same way too, the reader can understand Hugo.

It has also become apparent that although the narrator can influence the reader’s perception of the

events that take place, it is in fact the focalisation that creates the dramatic tension because it creates

the feeling of subjectivity that makes the story interesting. This does, however, mean that it is not the

character’s background in a Diaspora culture that makes them subjective. If that had been the case, we

would all be strangers in our own culture because we can never be entirely objective with regard to the
things that happen around us. To conclude, without Baumgartner’s background Baumgartner’s

Bombay would have lost one of its most important themes, the feeling of exile, because it is Hugo’s

Jewish background that justifies his feeling of exile. Yet, it is the way in which the focalisation is

presented rather than the character’s background that keeps the tension.

Sources

Abrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 7th ed. USA: Heinle & Heinle, 1999.
Brontë, Emily. Wuthering Heights. London: Smith, Elder, and Co, 1894.

Bullen, Stephen., ed. Longman: Dictionary of Contemporary English. 5th ed. Harlow: Pearson

Education ltd., 2003.

Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe. London: Penguin Popular Classics, 1994.

Desai, Anita. Baumgartner’s Bombay. London: Vintage, 1998.

Korsten, F.W. Lessen in Literatuur. Nijmegen: Vantilt, 2002.

Vanlessen, Dimitri. Heinar Kipphardt. 2004. Kipphardt.fol.nl. 2004. 29 May 2006

< http://kipphardt.fol.nl/6b.vertellersenfocalisatie.pdf >

Source of the quotation by Mr Murrow: < http://www.quotationspage.com/ >