Youthful Initiative: Narrative Voice And Characterization In Rattlebone

1120 words - 4 pages

It is the rare person who cannot remember being dealt a great injustice as a child: one that felt egregious in youth, but was revealed to be perhaps less so with time. This shift in perception is due to the fact that children tend to see things in black and white. Therefore, a sign of nascent maturation is an understanding of the incalculably vast grey scale that lies between the two absolutes. In Maxine Clair’s Rattlebone, the reader is privy to the thoughts of Irene Wilson thro ughout the stories “Secret Love” and “October Brown”. This youthful viewpoint is what allows the reader to glean an understanding of not just Irene as an individual, but the nature of growing up into a world that is unnervingly contrary to the simplistic one perceived in childhood.
Irene’s disillusionment begins with the disintegration of her family: a process partially depicted in “Secret Love”. In this story, Clair takes advantage of the natural empathy generated from the use of a first person narrator as the reader witnesses the weakening of James and Pearlean’s already tenuous bonds. Both Irene’s parents have, by this point, committed adultery and what has perhaps been inevitable since the first time James talked to October Brown seems now to be unfolding. Irene’s reaction to her mother moving James’s things out of their bedroom is initially devoid of emotion. When considering her mother’s behavior, her thoughts are “By my calculations [the affair] shouldn’t still count against him. Besides, hadn’t my mother evened the score?” (128). The words “calculations” and “score” are of particular interest here. Irene is not flipping misty eyed through a scrapbook filled with reminders of happier times: she’s tallying indiscretions and cool-headedly concluding that Pearlean doesn’t have a quantifiable reason to support her actions. After James slept with another woman, “he had come back . . . and stayed”; in Irene’s mind, this absolves him of his crime (128). After Pearlean slept with another man, she physically removes herself from proximity to James. Where James is generous, Pearlean is selfish. For Irene, armed with her diametric and inflexible sense of right and wrong, there is only one choice: to side with James. She feels guilt, as though she has betrayed her father, and in her compliance “made the bed upstairs where he must lie” (131). Irene can’t know the pain, regret, anger and resentment that her mother is feeling and so for the span of “Secret Love”, neither does the reader. The defeated figure of James “[coming] down the stairs slowly, as if he were just waking up” evokes far more sympathy that than Pearlean’s pronouncement that “women have needs”, even though one story earlier (in “The Great War”) the reader’s heart went out the isolated and lonely woman trapped in an unhappy marriage (131, 128).
Just as Pearlean’s motives are portrayed unsympathetically in “Secret Love” by Irene’s youthful description, so too are October Brown’s in the...

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