Personal and the political situations - Sample Essay
Published within five months of each other (in September 2004 and February 2005 respectively), ‘The Plot Against America’ and ‘Saturday’ cover very different situations. ‘Saturday’ examines society post-9/11, a disaster which has been imprinted onto the collective consciousness of society at present; Roth scrutinises a society from a different time in a completely hypothetical scenario. Despite this superficial difference, both novels explore how the wider political scene and the private, personal lives of their respective protagonists interact.
In doing so, McEwan and Roth employ both similar and dissimilar techniques with regards to the respective structures and narrative styles. When considering the impacts of the differing structures employed in the two novels on the presentation and balance of the personal and political, the ways in which Roth and McEwan begin their novels are critical. It is made immediately clear that they are both overtly political novels, but this similarity is conveyed to the reader in very different ways.
McEwan opens ‘Saturday’ with an epigraph, taken from Saul Bellow’s ‘Herzog’. Bellow’s novel concerns the eponymous character’s addiction to his own intellect and ideas, and his consequent inability to function successfully in the outside world. The epigraph itself assesses “what it means to be a man” in the modern world, going on to state that every person must act in union with society, or else be an “idiot”.
Here, the term ‘idiot’ does not relate to the simple stupidity which it has come to denote; instead, it relates more to the ‘idiot’ in Athenian democracy, one who is characterised by self-centredness, concerned solely with their own private affairs rather than wider public affairs. With Herzog’s strong viewpoint tempering what follows, Perowne’s transition from a relatively smug ‘idiot’ to someone who is more aware of the dangers of trying to close off the outside world becomes apparent to the reader.
This transition takes root in the epigraph and is finally realised by the end of the novel, where Perowne professes to a possible “brotherly interest” in Baxter, contradicting both his earlier cold professionalism in identifying his genetic affliction and Theo’s “think small” mantra which was introduced in the early stages of the novel, and mirroring the epigraph’s declaration that the modern man is “a brother to all the rest”.
The incorporation of this epigraph, then, allows McEwan to directly and accurately tackle the balance between the personal and the political, the “idiot” mentality and the “beautiful supermachinery” of wider society, touching upon the nature of the novel’s central destination and thereby allowing for elaboration as the novel progresses. By comparison, Roth’s introduction seems less complicated, less formulated. While McEwan employs ‘Herzog’ to provide an instant political backdrop for the novel, an immediate ‘macro’ view, and uses Perowne to overtly consider both micro and macro views, Roth approaches the balance in the opposite direction.
He attempts to evoke a sense of political zeitgeist from the personal perspective as much as possible, and this can be noted in the very beginning of “The Plot Against America”. It is made abundantly clear that, as in ‘Saturday’, the personal and political are inextricably linked here, as the Philip’s childhood fears are linked to Lindbergh’s presidency. However, while McEwan uses the epigraph (and later, Perowne) to overtly ponder big socio-political issues, Roth uses the child Philip to observe the effects of large socio-political issues.
This means that, while much of the narration is concerned with the political state of affairs in the hypothetical scenario Roth sets up, this state of affairs is always divulged to the reader through the eyes of seven year old Philip, with political developments disclosed indirectly through the ways they affect and change his personal life and familial situation. This balance is reflected by Roth’s decision to begin the novel by establishing the domestic situation rather than introducing politics; when politics is introduced, it is always introduced through the effect it has on Philip directly (e. g. ” By the time I began school in 1938, Lindbergh’s was a name that provoked the same sort of indignation in our house as did the weekly broadcasts of Father Coughlin”).
So, while McEwan employs an epigraph in order to instantly introduce a debate surrounding the extent to which the personal and the political collide, Roth plunges directly into the narrative and clearly focuses on how the personal aspects of the story are affected by the political, allowing for a more organic development of the relationship between the two.
The divergence in the ways in which the novels start is indicative of the authors’ different stylistic approaches to presenting the personal and the political. This divergence can also be observed when the presentation of the balance between the two is addressed in a technical sense, that is to say, when looking at the differing styles of narration which the two authors employ. Oddly enough, the contrast between the effects the two narrative styles have on this balance comes about as a result of differing uses of the same literary technique: split focalisation of narrative.
Girard Genette, a French literary theorist, made the distinction between the two forms of narration which are on show in the novels, dubbing one ‘homodiegetic’ and the other ‘heterodiegetic’. McEwan employs the latter, also known as ‘figural narrative’, where the narrator is a third-person internal focaliser. While employing this heterodiegetic narration though, McEwan split the focalisation into two. The narrative in ‘Saturday’ is split between Perowne’s perspective (presented by the third-person internal focaliser) and an implied author, an omniscient narrative force which extends beyond Perowne.
An example of this split focalisation of narrative can be seen in the third section of the novel, or more precisely when Perowne is sitting in his car listening to the news. First comes a description of what Perowne hears (“Those who stay in their beds this Saturday morning will curse themselves they are not here”) followed by his views on the matter (“He doubts that Theo will be cursing himself”). The initial description, whilst having pretensions at objectivity, has undertones of Perowne’s cynicism; this exemplifies the half-internal, half-external focalisation of narrative which McEwan uses in ‘Saturday’.
By using this split focalised narrative, McEwan conveys Perowne’s feelings at all times (as the writing always has shades of subjectivity), but also gives the sense that there is an omniscient narrator present, independently reporting Perowne’s actions. This partnership between Perowne’s consciousness and the omniscient narrator is the way in which McEwan presents Perowne’s views. The omniscient narrator picks up on external details with relative objectivity, and these observations are then tempered by Perowne’s viewpoint.
This is a direct example of how McEwan makes a wider political theme (the protest march, in this case) interact with the personal views of Perowne, and this template can be seen across the novel whenever the political arena is mentioned. Against this constant narrative vehicle, which sets the macro against the micro, the aforementioned transition which Perowne undergoes, which is so central to the overall destination of the novel, can be seen clearly. Roth employs the former of Genette’s classifications of narration, using a homodiegetic narrator.
This involves the narrator describing his or her personal and subjective experiences as a character in the story. Unlike McEwan’s split between heterodiegetic narration and his omniscient implied narrator, the split narration in ‘The Plot Against America’ is encompassed by the homodiegetic narration. The split in the narration is directly between political upheaval and personal turmoil, contrasting the formal retrospection of an older Philip, imbued with political and psychoanalytical awareness, against the simple anxiety of a child trying to piece together a sense of circumstance from an increasingly dysfunctional family.
The balance between the two sides of the narrative, then, correlates precisely with the balance between the political and the personal. The balance in the narrative often swings from one side to the other in great blocks of writing, with a political backdrop being provided, before Philip’s own experiences show both personal and political developments. The ‘political’ blocks contain little personal detail, detailing developments in the wider political arena; this is a necessity in Roth’s presentation of counterfactual history.
It is the ‘personal’ blocks which show how aforementioned political developments impact upon the family and cause the “perpetual fear” which binds the novel. This overlap of political and personal in a ‘personal’ block occurs prominently when the Roth family are collecting Alvin at the train station, and the nurse states that “people get angry… at how things turn out”. This not only relates to Alvin’s anger at becoming an amputee (the personal aspect), but also relates to his anger at the political situation, an anger which he articulates with great vehemence before his decision to join the war.
This overlap shows the extent of inextricability between the personal and the political: as critic Michael Schaub says, ‘The Plot Against America’ “presents fairly convincing evidence for anyone who believes that the personal and political are the same thing”1. The difference between the way the two novels treat the balance between political and personal in the narrative is exemplified by the difference in the methods of narration. While ‘Saturday’ is concerned with Perowne’s personal view on wider issues, ‘The Plot Against America’ is concerned with the effects of wider issues on Philip’s personal life.
The key difference is that the focus on Perowne’s views in ‘Saturday’ leads to a narrative where his thoughts take precedence over any political goings-on, whereas Roth makes it clear that the political funnels down into the personal and affects it indelibly; the half-homodiegetic, half-omniscient narration in ‘Saturday’ allows for Perowne’s mental wanderings, whilst the heterodiegetic narration in ‘The Plot Against America’ is bound by an immediacy derived from the constant effects of the political upon the personal.
In ‘Saturday’, any wider, political aspects, while intrinsic to the novel and its destination, are not the primary concern; as critic Ryle says, the novel is “scarcely about the impending war”2 in an active sense. The real micro/macro balance concerns the balance between personal autonomy (which Perowne craves at the novel’s beginning) and personal responsibility (which Perowne appears to learn by the novel’s close); the role of the wider arena (such as the news, especially when Perowne sees the news during his squash match: “Isn’t it possible to enjoy an hour’s recreation without this invasion, this infection from the public domain?
“), is to serve as a parallel to personal responsibility. At this stage in the novel, just as Perowne craves autonomy and no interruption from the public domain, he wants nothing to do with personal responsibility, wanting only to enjoy himself. The real balance in ‘Saturday’, then, is encapsulated within the personal, with the political running alongside to strengthen the destination.
By contrast, Roth makes it abundantly clear that the personal and political are intimately connected, that the political funnels directly into the personal rather than running alongside it, while McEwan’s use of the political is quasi-allegorical. The immediacy of both the narrative and the beginning of ‘The Plot Against America’ is indicative of this more direct and natural approach to a balance where the political and personal are symbiotic and, fundamentally, real. The beginning and narration of ‘Saturday’ indicate a novel overtly concerned with ideas, with how wider interaction with the private is perceived.
‘Saturday’ details a change in an individual psyche with focus on ideas and viewpoint; ‘The Plot Against America’ details a change in actual circumstance with emphasis on the physical manifestation of the political as personal: in both novels, the personal and political are used in very different ways, with McEwan’s formulaic purpose set against Roth’s forthright storytelling.
McEwan, I. , 2005, Saturday, Vintage Roth, P. , 2004, The Plot Against America, Vintage Ryle, M. , 2010, ‘Anosognosia, or the Political Unconscious: Limits of Vision in Ian McEwan’s Saturday’, Criticism: A Quarterly for Literature and the Arts, Wayne State University Press WEBOGRAPHY Schaub, M. , 2004, ‘The Plot Against America by Philip Roth’, Available: http://www. bookslut. com/fiction/2004_10_003275. php 1 Schaub, M. (2004), ‘The Plot Against America by Philip Roth’, Available: http://www. bookslut. com/fiction/2004_10_003275. php 2 Ryle, M. (2010), ‘Anosognosia, or the Political Unconscious: Limits of Vision in Ian McEwan’s Saturday’, Criticism: A Quarterly for Literature and the Arts, 52 (1), p. 25