On bringing the audience into the character’s confusion

I read to the children for ~20 minutes nearly every night. I try to balance a mix of youth literature along with things that will be more challenging. This past year’s selections have included everything from Ramona the Pest and an A to Z Mystery to The Lord of the Rings. After reading The Swiss Family Robinson and Peter Pan recently, I thought I would try something a bit more grown-up with Lewis’s Till We Have Faces. What a wonderful piece of literature; but alas – after a couple of chapters it became apparent that the blood and sex would not be appropriate for some of the young ‘uns at this time.

At my wife’s initiative, I switched to The Secret Garden. Now this was a book that I had not anticipated enjoying myself. We own several copies and the covers were so very “girly” and the one-paragraph summary of the classic seemed downright boring. The reality has proved to be otherwise though. What excellent writing, excellent characters, and sufficiently interesting plot it has indeed.

Earlier this week, my wife and I watched (for the first time) the neo-noir Christopher Nolan film Memento. Though I was a bit frustrated by the ending, I really appreciated how well the audience is brought along with the main character and made to feel the confusing effects of his mental illness. The film effectively puts the watcher in the shoes of the protagonist, while maintaining just enough of an outsider perspective to keep the thing glued together.

It struck me that some of the same techniques are being used in The Secret Garden, especially with respect to language. Our young Mary Lennox is ripped away from her neglected/spoiled childhood in India and thrust into a cold Yorkshire full of people whose accents she can barely understand. But though we experience the story in the third person, we take part in much of the same confusion the young heroine does. She is constantly being bombarded with new words and ideas. But rather than being given a glossary or an aside, we are left wondering what they mean ourselves. We have to be shown as well – it’s not ever spelled out for her or us.

In the story, the moor is often spoken of. But what is a moor exactly? We aren’t ever told – only shown and often only obliquely. I still am not entirely sure even now. The wikipedia article of fen wetlands is perhaps worse than useless.

She sat and looked out of the window, curious to see something of the road over which she was being driven to the queer place Mrs. Medlock had spoken of. She was not at all a timid child and she was not exactly frightened, but she felt that there was no knowing what might happen in a house with a hundred rooms nearly all shut up—a house standing on the edge of a moor.

“What is a moor?” she said suddenly to Mrs. Medlock.

“Look out of the window in about ten minutes and you’ll see,” the woman answered. “We’ve got to drive five miles across Missel Moor before we get to the Manor. You won’t see much because it’s a dark night, but you can see something.”

In other cases, a definition could be given by another character, but it nearly never is. Experience fills in the meaning.

“Listen to th’ wind wutherin’ round the house,” [Martha] said. “You could bare stand up on the moor if you was out on it tonight.”

Mary did not know what “wutherin'” meant until she listened, and then she understood.

And so we the reader feel like we are in the shoes of the character in the story because the author has very much limited the amount of information fed to us. We end up feeling just as afraid and full of wonder as Mary is, in a way that we never would be if we had been familiar with the context through exposition.

I know I’m likely discussing techniques that are probably staples of the 3rd week of any respectable “Fiction 101” course. Insert an eye-roll for anyone who has studied the craft in any detail. But I’m noticing it for the first time, or at least articulating it for the first time. It seems to me that not often is all this done well.