An author has many techniques at his disposal for creating sympathy for a character. One such tool is point of view. Two short stories that utilize this in different ways are “Uglypuss” by Margaret Atwood and “My Sister’s Marriage” by Cynthia Marshall Rich.
In “Uglypuss”, which utilizes a dual character point of view, one character dominates the narrative—17½ pages for Joel and only 6 pages for Becka. “Uglypuss” feels more like Joel’s story because he controls the majority of the narrative. Joel introduces his ex-girlfriend Becka to the reader on his terms. The things Joel chooses to reveal about Becka: that she views his furniture as a personal affront, that she holds onto grudges, that their entire time together was “never a dialogue. It was merely a degrading squabble” (Atwood 487), and all of these add up to an unflattering picture of Becka.
Even as the reader realizes that Joel might be a slightly unreliable narrator—after all, who is perfectly objective when describing an ex?—but the reader is still rather indulgent with him, partly because of lines like, “Joel decides not to brood any more about boring personal shit. There are more important things in the world.” (Atwood 487) The reader knows, without being explicitly told, that Becka doesn’t ascribe to this philosophy. In less than two pages with Joel, the reader already understands that, to Becka, there is nothing more important than “boring personal shit.”
And since Joel has 17½ pages to get the reader on his side, Becka only needs her 6 pages to utterly damn herself. The reader excuses Joel his faults, even though they are plentiful. In fact, there is something almost appealing about Joel because of his honesty and ownership of who he is. He is, depending on who is describing him, a misogynist, a sex addict, a possible anti-Semite. But he comes across as honest, at least, and with the lopsided narration, the reader has time to like Joel, to be frustrated with him, and ultimately to like him again in the space of those seventeen pages. We as readers are on Team Joel before we ever hear Becka’s side.
When the reader finally meets Becka, she is walking down a street covered in blood and carrying an axe. The blood is from Joel’s cat Uglypuss, whom she has drugged, kidnapped, and stuffed into a garbage can. She used the axe to ransack his apartment after she showed up at their old place and realized Joel was out with another woman. And since we already know that Joel is a womanizer and have had time to accept this, the reader has also had time to realize that Becka is a little unhinged and is not going to react positively to being ditched by Joel.
Therefore, it only takes six pages for Becka to be fully cast in the role of villain. While she’s waiting in Joel’s apartment, she imagines him coming back, smelling like sex with another woman and she thinks that [s]he’d have the choice of ignoring it, in which case he won, or saying something, in which case he won also… It would be just another example, he’d say, of why things couldn’t work out. That would make her angry—they could, they could work out if he’d only try… (Atwood 502)
In a less slanted narrative style, with equal attention to Becka and Joel, the reader would not be as inclined to sympathize so quickly with Joel. But by the time we meet Becka and are finally privy to her thoughts—her belief that every confrontation with Joel has a clear “winner” or “loser”, her belief that she and Joel could work on their damaged relationship if only Joel would change—we have already sided with Joel.
In “My Sister’s Marriage” by Cynthia Marshall Rich, a different point of view style is used, subjective narration. This narrative style usually features an unreliable narrator and the story is often told after an event has happened. This point of view is known for its attempt to get the reader on a particular character’s side, most notably the narrator’s side. But Rich subverts this point of view, and by the end of “My Sister’s Marriage,” the reader’s sympathies lie not with the teenaged narrator, Sarah Ann, but with her older sister Olive, whose elopement with a travelling shoe salesman has torn apart the girls’ relationship. The main difference between this story and “Uglypuss” is how the lopsided narration affects the reader. In “Uglypuss,” Joel lures the reader to his “side” thanks to the point of view. In contrast, the point of view in “My Sister’s Marriage” has the opposite effect—the narrator’s skewed version of the past actually causes the reader to side with Olive. The reader never fully embraces and trusts Sarah Ann as a narrator—she’s too naïve to fully understand the events of the past, and the subjective narration is ultimately what leads the reader to side with Olive instead.
The story begins with Sarah Ann reminiscing about her and Olive’s childhood. Sarah Ann and Olive were raised in a small town by their father, a prominent doctor. But from the beginning of the story, little warning bells go off in the reader’s head when Sarah Ann talks about her father. The reader senses that something was off in his relationship with his girls. In fact, it starts to appear that Olive had it right when she ran away from both her father’s clutches and her oppressive hometown. The reader feels sorry for Sarah Ann, for being the dutiful daughter content to stay at home with her father, instead of desiring to see the world at large or experience romantic love. There is a difference between feeling sorry for a character, though, and siding with her. The more Sarah Ann denigrates Olive’s “rebellious” nature and attempts to paint her as the antagonist of the story, the more the reader sympathizes with Olive.
Sarah Ann points out that Olive was always their father’s favorite. She tells stories about their childhood, which are meant to elicit disgust with Olive for leaving behind such a wonderful upbringing, but which instead portray the extent of Sarah Ann’s naiveté. When their mother passed away, it was Olive, not Sarah Ann, who was cast into the role of “wife.” Sarah Ann remembers family dinners, of how
She [Olive] used to be very proud of being the lady of the house, of sitting across the candlelight from my father at dinner like a little wife. Sometimes my father would…say: “Olive, every day you remind me more of your mother.” (Rich 201)
The reader senses that, at first, when Olive was young and innocent like Sarah Ann, she would have been pleased at this new role in the family. Sarah Ann remembers “[t]aking care of our father was like playing a long game of ‘let’s pretend’, and when little girls play family nobody wants to be the children.” (Rich 201) But as Olive grew up, and met new people and longed to see the world, she naturally would have found her home life stifling and possibly unnatural.
Sarah Ann also reflects on her father’s behavior when Olive became a teenager and would go on walks with young men: “I knew that he was missing her [Olive]… When she came up the steps he said, ‘I missed my housewife tonight’…” (Rich 202) Their father’s behavior doesn’t come across as loving and concerned, but rather as controlling. By page two of the story, the reader is already wondering why Olive didn’t leave sooner, why she waited so long to escape the clutches of a father who morphed his daughter into a “wife.”
The subjective point of view of the story allows a different narrative emerge, a narration in negative space; that is, the picture Sarah Ann paints of her and Olive’s childhood is revealing because of the darkness and shadows that emerge from her telling. That Sarah Ann still believes that it was wrong of Olive to leave, that she believes Olive had everything she ever needed in life at home with their father, is disturbing. This is one advantage of the subjective narration—it allows the reader to view events from a different perspective than the narrator. Sarah Ann might have the benefit of hindsight to interpret events, but ultimately she is still too close to the events to be objective, unlike an unbiased reader.
Both “Uglypuss” and “My Sister’s Marriage” utilize point of view to sway the reader. “Uglypuss” achieves this with a lopsided narrative style, allowing the character who dominates the narrative to emerge as the more likable and sympathetic character. In contrast, “My Sister’s Marriage” utilizes a subjective point of view, and the surprise of this style is how the teenaged narrator’s musings about her sister’s scandalous past increases, not decreases, sympathy for the “bad” character.
Atwood, Margaret. “Uglypuss.” Points of View: An Anthology of Short Stories. Ed. James Moffett and Kenneth R. McElheny. New York: Penguin Group, 1966.
Rich, Cynthia Marshall. “My Sister’s Marriage.” Points of View: An Anthology of Short Stories. Ed. James Moffett and Kenneth R. McElheny. New York: Penguin Group, 1966.