Lending Thoughts and Imitating Voices: Narrative Distance and Characterization in the Nonfiction of Wolfe and Lawrence

Xiyun Yang '06, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2003

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In the realm of fiction, the author commands a certain deistic aura. He has created the world and the characters; he has shaped and sculpted and molded the world from innocuous clouds of imagination. To the characters in the book, he is fate, God, and choice all rolled into one. When D.H. Lawrence and Tom Wolfe adopt the narrative structure and characterization of fiction, this omnipotence translates into a sense of condescension. The departure of the filtered, semi-fictional world from reality conflicts with the author's obligation to truth. Although both authors combine this inherent sense of condescension with a central theme of their respective works, Wolfe does so more effectively. By recognizing the power and knowledge he commands over his characters, Wolfe actively embraces the sense of dramatic irony and weaves it into the main momentum of his book. Lawrence, on the other hand, is too comfortable in his superior position and takes it for granted; he never integrates it as a specific part of his narrative argument. Wolfe's mockery is conscious, whereas Lawrence's condescension is unconscious, and, at times, overt. The author's sense of condescension is based upon the manipulation of narrative distance. At any given point in the narrative, any author is manipulating three sets of narrative distances at once: the distance between the readers and the narrator, the narrator and the characters, and the characters and the reader.

Like the intricately woven gossamers of a spider web, any movement in one sector resonates with vibrations in the other sectors. In Twilight in Italy and Etruscan Places, Lawrence's Ruskinian word painting and the manipulation of narrative distance creates a haughty tone, but his condescension is a function of his philosophizing. Lawrence's language is florid and polished; the philosophy intricate and complex. He uses his characters as pawns to confirm his intellectualized treatise on human nature; he is unaware of the complexities and consequences of fictionalizing his characters. Lawrence forces his way into his character's minds whereas Wolfe earns his ethos and penetrates the astronauts' minds by means of his attention to detail. The underlying irony of The Right Stuff is supported by Wolfe's imitation and exaggeration of voices, making his mockery a contributing factor to, rather than a function of, debunking social preconceptions. Wolfe constantly uses humor to illuminate the characters' complexities. Lawrence's logic of deduction contrasts with Wolfe's logic of induction; Wolfe focuses on his characters, which coalesce into a greater theme whereas Lawrence focuses on his ideas that his characters seem to prove.

The most straightforward explanation of Lawrence's superior tone is based upon the arbitrariness of fortune and geography. Lawrence, the narrator as a character in his own book, condescends to his characters. Socio-geographically, Lawrence is tourist from industrialized and prosperous England visiting the peasantry of an underdeveloped Italy. He does not challenge well-drawn class boundaries; he does not disagree with the superior status that the locals have accorded him. "On Christmas Day the padrone came in with the key of his box, and would we care to see the drama? The theatre was small, a mere nothing, in fact; a mere affair of peasants, you understand" (Lawrence, 55). Beyond this explanation, Lawrence's condescending tone is based upon the schism between the fictionalized world within the book and the actual country of Italy.

The distinct difference between the individual in real life and the character created by Lawrence is most apparent in Lawrence's rhapsody upon an old spinster in "The Spinner and the Monks." This entire lyrical digression is based on the fancies of his own mind. "She was like a fragment of earth; she was a living stone of the terrace, sun-bleached. She took no notice of me. . . . I felt myself wrong, false, an outsider" (Lawrence, 23). Lawrence himself admits the lack of verbal communication between them; the old woman refuses to grant general access to her thoughts to Lawrence. Undaunted, Lawrence proceeds to fictionalize aspects of this woman's nature and her thoughts. Here is the fissure between the identities of the old woman: the spinster, the actual person, is an unwilling participant in Lawrence's daydream, yet the thoughts of the spinster, the character, are completely legitimate, for she is Lawrence's creation. Lawrence exclaims that he knows what the woman does not know about herself. "The old woman on the terrace in the sun did not know this. She was herself the core and centre to the world, the sun and the single firmament" (Lawrence, 24). In a sense, Lawrence does know more about the spinster, the character, than she knows herself: he created her. Throughout the passage, Lawrence refers to the spinster with a sense of respect and reverence, "There was the slight motion of the eagle in her turning to look at me, a faint gleam of rapt light in her eyes" (Lawrence, 23). The reverence is nonetheless conditional. His emotions towards her mirror those of a parent towards a grown child: respectful, affectionate, proud, but never equal. He refers to the character as "my little old woman" (Lawrence, 31). The nickname is diminutive but endearing; Lawrence does not consciously create a sense of irony in this situation, he is much too comfortable in his condescension. The manipulation of narrative distance, in this case the distance between Lawrence as the narrator and a character, essentially establishes a power differential in the narrator's favor.

The nature of this power differential is mirrored in the second set of narrative distance, between the reader and the narrator. Lawrence's devotion to the pungency of language, an imitation of John Ruskin's technique of word painting, closes the narrative distance between the narrator and the reader. Lawrence uses language to overcome the limitations of language, writing a prose of discovery that engulfs the reader in the progress of his original experience.

I went into the church. It was very dark, and impregnated with centuries of incense. It affected me like the lair of some enormous creature. My senses were roused, they sprang awake in the hot, spiced darkness. My skin was expectant, as if it expected some contact, some embrace, as if it were aware of the contiguity of the physical world, the physical contact with the darkness and the heavy, suggestive substance of the enclosure. [Lawrence, 21]

The building of periodic clauses imitates the intensity of first discovery; the reader is meant to understand Lawrence's experiences as they first incurred. However, Lawrence, the character/narrator, remains staunchly in existence through out the entire passage, "I went," "my skin," "my senses." With these repeated self-identifying subjects, Lawrence keeps the reader at a certain distance; he is not trying to fuse the consciousness of the reader and the narrator into one. The reader is to retain his or her autonomy while occupying Lawrence's mind. Later on, Lawrence shortens this narrative distance when he presents his philosophical ruminations to the reader. In "The Theatre," Lawrence writes his philosophical digression in the first-person plural pronoun. "We are tempted, like Nietzsche, to turn back to the old pagan Infinite, to say that is supreme. Or we are inclined, like the English." (Lawrence, 73). Lawrence has suddenly stepped across the boundary and is standing side by side with the reader. "We are tempted... We are inclined." Employing an old trick of sage writing, Lawrence artificially ingratiates himself with the reader without a clear argument. The reader is not to take these philosophies as Lawrence's views of human nature, but rather, as inherent, essential truths that "we" can all derive from interactions with the Italians.

Occasionally when Lawrence closes the narrative distance between the narrator and the characters, the distance between the narrator and the reader is also eradicated by default. In "The Dance," Lawrence recreates the fervor and intensity of a local gathering. "As he draws near to the swing, the climax, the ecstasy, he seems to lie in wait, there is a sense of great strength crouching ready. Then it rushes forth, liquid, perfect, transcendent, the woman swoons over in the dance, and it goes on, enjoyment, infinite, incalculable enjoyment" (Lawrence, 99). The staccato diction, "liquid, perfect, transcendent," imitates the rhythm of the music; while once again, the periodic sentence structure builds the intensity of the situation. However, this time, instead of Lawrence as the subject, the scene is focused on the dancing pair. Here again, Lawrence dives into their minds, presuming their thoughts. By rendering the feelings of the couple, Lawrence transplants the reader directly into his mind. To explicitly complete the full meaning of the sentence "He seems to lie in wait", the sentence should read, "He seems (to me) to lie in wait," with "me" being Lawrence, the narrator. But without adding the obvious, Lawrence has seamlessly presented the reader with a morsel of imitated personal experience. Lawrence resumes his haughty tone once again to conclude this scene. "But he is not a human being. The woman, somewhere shocked in her independent soul, begins to fall away from him" (Lawrence, 99-100). Again, Lawrence wields the power of creation over these two characters. The characters created by Lawrence based upon these two individuals is available for him to pull and stretch like taffy until they readily support Lawrence's theme. In this case it is the fundamental difference between the reserved English women and the passionate Italian men, furthering the Lawrence's theme of the emotional, raw, and atavistic nature of the Italian people.

All of Lawrence's characters are created in order to exemplify particular characteristics of the Italian people. Lawrence's philosophical explorations function by the logic of deduction; he constantly soliloquizes in general terms, "This has been the Italian position ever since. The mind, that is the Light; the senses, they are the Darkness. . . The flesh, the senses, are now self-conscious. They know their aim. Their aim is in supreme sensation" (Lawrence, 35). The essays are laced with the driving theory of the emotionally centered Italian, "but an Italian only cares about the emotion" (Lawrence, 62). After this assumption, Lawrence only presents his characters in this light, sometimes at the cost of seeming contrived. After his "Cerveteri" chapter idealizing the tribe of the Etruscans, Lawrence speaks of their decedents three thousand or so years later. "But when you sit in the post-automobile, to be rattled down to the station...you will probably see the bus surrounded by a dozen buxom, handsome women, saying good-bye to one of their citizenesses. And in the full, dark, handsome, jovial faces surely you see the luster still of the life-loving Etruscans!" (Lawrence, 16). Here, Lawrence's idealized scene of the modern "Etruscans" parallels in function, though without the grotesque, to Thomas Carlyle's symbolic grotesques: it is an exaggerated vignette that capsulate the argument and proves Lawrence's predetermined theme.

Lawrence's characters not only support his many assertions, they also frame and ground his more fanciful philosophical ramblings. Lawrence, the character, is the sun around which all the elements of the book revolve. Everything exists with him as the constant frame of reference: "'are they so far up?' I thought. I did not dare to say, 'Am I so far down?'" (Lawrence, 27). The reader is not meant to experience Italy as much as he or she is meant to experience Lawrence's experience of Italy. Annie Dillard tells of the mechanistic functions of the arrows of certain Indian tribes, "grooves along the wooden shafts of their arrows. . .lightning marks" (Dillard, 14) that spill the blood of an animal, leaving a track, and allowing the hunters to stalk and capture the wounded animal. For Lawrence, the characters are the carefully crafted arrow shaft and his congealed patches of philosophy are the trails of blood. His philosophical tangents are often difficult to tie down to the scene which catalyzed the tangent. In "The Lemon Gardens," Lawrence extrapolates the consequences of industrialization and machinery, by way of a metaphor of tigers and Jesus Christ, reminiscent of Carlyle in "Signs of the Times" [text]. Lawrence may come to the same conclusion as Carlyle, but he does not argue like Carlyle. However, though in sequence, it may seem that these philosophical tangents were wholeheartedly inspired by the individuals whom he had met; this could not have been true. Lawrence writes a calculated, intricate, ex post facto prose. His philosophical arguments are too complex to have been inspired on the spot by these individuals. The philosophical arguments lack the brevity of spontaneity. This travel narrative details a trip into the psychological philosophies of D.H. Lawrence, rather than a trip to Italy. These characters are treated as props, as the weight-bearing columns on a building Lawrence built for all to admire his philosophical architecture. Lawrence does not fully recognize the nuances of fictionalizing his characters and fails to treat them with the same respect as Tom Wolfe's treatment of characters in The Right Stuff.

Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff

Tom Wolfe embraces the unavoidable tension between the truth and his presentation of the truth. In fact, the truth had once been unfairly tweaked the first time around by the mainstream media, and Wolfe wrote The Right Stuff to remedy tainted social preconceptions of the experiences of Navy test pilots and NASA astronauts. His narrator is omniscient, cruising at narrative altitudes that blur the demarcation of fiction and nonfiction (perhaps 50 miles above ground?) then nose-diving into specific personal psyches. Like Lawrence, Wolfe constantly maintains a sense of power over characters by utilizing the fictional techniques of characterization. Lawrence's condescension by philosophy is replaced by Wolfe's mockery by valid right of hindsight. The reader already knows the fate of these characters before he or she even picks up the book, yet Wolfe represents the narrative in a linear pattern, recreating each episode as if the next has yet to happen. This underlying, consistent sense of dramatic irony is the source of The Right Stuff's momentum. The narrator guides the reader through a textured syntactical terrain of parentheses, hyphens and italics, constantly but subtly pitting preconceived notions against a broader context and creating a sense of action and excitement. Although as narrator, Wolfe's presence in the narrative of the book is much more subtle than Lawrence's -- the book is written mostly in third person, for one -- Wolfe undertakes, as every narrator does, the same reality-filtering role as Lawrence. Unlike Lawrence, Wolfe takes advantage of it, exaggerating and mimicking the voices of the characters. The nature of the story is inclined towards character specialization; as an author, Wolfe must sculpt the large ensemble of individuals into characters that the reader can easily recognize for the duration of the book. Wolfe therefore emphasizes one idiosyncratic facet of each character but uses humor and irony to illuminate the characters' complexity. As Joan Didion asserted in The White Album, "We tell ourselves stories in order to live" (Didion, 1), Wolfe's imposition of the narrative structure over this sequence of events is as partial as any "Life" special feature on the astronauts. In The Right Stuff, Wolfe is not telling the version of the story, he is telling his version.

Wolfe's ever changing, colorful tone is central to his presentation of the astronauts of the Mercury project. Structured upon the manipulation of narrative distance, Wolfe dips and glides through the borrowed voices of his characters; at times in reverence, at times in suspense, but most often with tongue in cheek. Wolfe imitates the voices of his characters when he closes the narrative distance between narrator and subject whereas Lawrence takes over the mind of his characters in his own florid voice.

The book begins in medias res, building tension while Jane Conrad awaits the news of her husband's possible death. Straight away the voice of Tom Wolfe, the narrator, begins in his tone of benign, but nonetheless condescending mockery, a defining narrative feature for the rest of the book. "Being barely twenty-one years old and new around here, Jane Conrad knew very little about this particular subject, since nobody ever talked about it. But the day was young! And what a setting she had for her imminent enlightenment! And what a picture she herself presented!" (Wolfe, 1). The exclamation points sarcastically exaggerate the excitement one would feel in a new environment. Of course, Jane's enlightenment will be the heart wrenching worry that a test pilot's wife will constantly have to endure. The exclamation points juxtapose the enthusiasm and drive felt by the test pilots with their family's emotional difficulties. Wolfe is aware of the dramatic irony; he knows of Jane's fate as the worried wife, yet she does not know what lies ahead of her. Wolfe is not mocking Jane Conrad's innocence but is rather mocking the outrageously romantic and quixotic lives of the fighter pilots. Later, using the exclamation points in the same manner, Wolfe mildly derides the astronauts. " 'Whe-ayl . . . I'm a wetback now.' The man was beautiful! Imperturbable at every juncture!. . . Smilin' Al!" (Wolfe, 210). Here Wolfe pokes fun at the bizarre combination of Shepard's crude racism and his phenomenal capabilities to withstand stress. Wolfe presents Shepard in a more complex light than mainstream media had once done; Shepard, as with the other astronauts, has characteristics both deserving and undeserving of their superhero title.

Following the opening of the book, Wolfe's conventional narrative voice takes over and presents the Condrads' backgrounds after the mild sarcasm. This uninflected narrative voice is erudite and graceful, "he had an air of energy, self-confidence, ambition, joie de vivre" (Wolfe, 2). The casual interjection of French expressions, which he continues throughout the book -- "tout le monde" (Wolfe, 90), "joie de combat" (Wolfe, 114) -- is distinctly Wolfe; there is no other voice in the book cultured enough to do so. Like Lawrence, Wolfe's differentiated social status also seeps into color his condescending tone. "Given the dreadfully low pay, the goodies, which were usually trivial by ordinary standards, tended to take on an overblown importance. That was why so many young military couples, in the late 1950's had living rooms dominated, ruled, oppressed, enslaved by the most bizarre furniture imaginable" (Wolfe, 84). Using Wolfe's own narrative voice, the peculiar diction "ruled, oppressed, enslaved," suggests a sense of pity towards the young families. The emotion of pity implies an inherent disparity of power; the individual being pitied is socially below the individual doing the pitying.

Wolfe also uses his own voice to describe the mechanics of engineering behind the fighter jets and Mercury missions. When this voice utilizes exclamation marks it is in genuine awe, "My God! -- to be a part of Edwards in the late forties and early fifties! -- even to be on the ground and hear one of those incredible explosions from 35,000 feet somewhere up there in the blue over the desert and know that some True Brother had commenced his rocket launch" (Wolfe, 51). Although Wolfe is channeling the awed voices of those who were actually at Edwards in the late forties and early fifties, the reference to distinct measurements "35,000 feet" and the rather poetic phrase "somewhere up there in the blue," clues in the reader to Wolfe's presence as the narrator. However, Wolfe still can not keep from letting a bit of sarcasm leak in, borrowing the term True Brother as a literary exaggeration.

After Wolfe's uninflected narrative voice takes over in the beginning passages of the book, it progresses to distance the narrator and the character by speaking in the general and the hypothetical, "a wife begins to feel that the telephone is no longer located on a table or on the kitchen wall . . . a wife in this situation finds herself staring at the front door" (Wolfe, 2-3). Like Lawrence, the sense of condescending mockery is most obvious when the distance between the narrator and the character is decreased. When Wolfe pulls back in the general, it is because the subject on which he speaks can not be spoken of in the specific. In this case, it is the horrific progress of discovering and delivering the news of a dead pilot, a dead husband, "a human body that now looked like an enormous fowl that has burned up in a stove, burned a blackish brown all over, greasy and blistered, fried, in a word"(Wolfe, 3). Wolfe employs the same distance when he explains the tacit and intricate components of "the right stuff" (Wolfe, 19) in the hypothetical second person and the faceless "young man" (Wolfe, 19). Wolfe narratively tries to recreate his characters' reality; he abides by the rules by which his characters abide. Wolfe can not speak of the right stuff in any specific terms, for the pilots themselves are not to speak of it at all.

Because the pilots are forbidden to refer explicitly to "the right stuff," the fears of the young pilots seep into the narrative by means of Wolfe's use of italics, "at every level in one's progress up that staggeringly high pyramid, the world was once more divided into those men who had the right stuff to continue the climb and those who had to be left behind" (Wolfe, 19). Back in the opening of the novel, Wolfe uses italics (which appear here as bold fonts) to present Jane Conrad's thoughts directly, "my own husband -- how could this be what they were talking about . . . you, my love!" (Wolfe, 3). Such empgases are emotional emulations directly opposed to the detached, generalized death of the pilot; they are eruptions in an otherwise immutable narrative landscape. Throughout the rest of the book, Wolfe uses italics as a bridge between the inertia of an incontrovertible situation and the individual, obscured emotions running parallel. In the section after the first successful flight into space made by an ape, Wolfe's use of italics and exclamation points represents the dissenting opinions in a national frenzy of impressed celebration. "Louder! Crazier! Totally out of their gourds! Yammering roaring, brawling, exploding lights beside their bug-eyed skulls! Suppose they threw him to these assholes! Fuck this -- "(Wolfe, 188). The humor Wolfe injects into the situation by speaking from an ape's point of view subverts and lampoons the irrational media frenzy surrounding the space race. Later, the italics are used to give voice to the indignant brethren of Edwards, "the first flight -- the coveted first flight of the new bird -- that fullbore first flight that every test pilot strove for -- had just been made in Project Mercury. And the test pilot was an ape!" (Wolfe, 188). The italics express a voice otherwise buried under the fabric of mainstream conceptions.

As a result of the large ensemble of characters to which he must give voice, Wolfe characterizes each individual with a certain flair. Like Lawrence's treating his characters, Wolfe also faces the tension between the true individuals and the characters in his book. Each astronaut is given a specific personality for easy identification. "To let yourself be turned into a personality, to become colorful, to be portrayed as an egoist or a rake-hell, was only asking for grief" (Wolfe, 132) the astronauts noted as the Life reporters were profiling them. This, however, is exactly how Wolfe wrote this book. Scott Carpenter is the obsequious one, "Scott Carpenter did not mind the note-taking of Dr. Gladys J. Loring in the slightest. Scribble away! Scott was in his element" (Wolfe, 87). John Glenn is the puritan, "you could see these pilots struggling to put up enough chips to stay in the God & Family game with this pious Marine named Glenn" (Wolfe, 96). Al Shepard is the one with multiple personalities, "Smilin' Al of the Cape and the Icy Commander" (Wolfe, 144). And, there is Chuck Yeager. The man. The legend. The physical incarnation of the right stuff. The character of Yeager is a caricature of himself, the voice of a generation of pilots. He, above anyone else, is a comic book character. Wolfe isn't reporting the exact reality, he doesn't proclaim he's done so; he is simply telling the story that the Life reporters should have told but did not tell twenty years ago. Bound by the restrictions of narration and entertainment, Wolfe emphasizes a specific aspect of each character that could easily fit onto the back of a book jacket (and in fact, it does). This filtering of reality inherently lends itself to condescension; it is easier to mock one aspect of an individual than it is to mock his entire self.

Unlike Lawrence, whose condescension is a function of his theme, Wolfe's mockery is a contributive factor to deflating accepted social schemata. Wolfe begins the book with a peek into the intensely worrisome lives of the test pilots' wives to destroy the romantic mainstream notion of the astronaut as a superhero. His continual lampooning of the astronauts is directed toward the social construction of superheroes, rather than toward the astronauts themselves. Wolfe reminds the reader by means of humor that these superheroes are human beings; gods can not be mocked, but human beings, on the other hand, can stand up against some decent ridicule. Despite all his sarcasm and mockery, Wolfe never quite makes a final judgment upon his characters. He does not continue his caricature of the astronauts forever. As Wolfe's story tapers off at the end, so too, does his sarcasm, "Yet he had ascended to a status so extraordinary it had no precedent. Some of the boys were convinced that Glenn had his eyes set on becoming President" (Wolfe, 335). This is a statement that, had it been placed early in the text, would have invited exclamation points by the truckload. Yet here, at the end, it is presented with a settled reverence. By concluding the book with a story of Yeager's superhuman ability to maintain equanimity in a disastrous situation (ie, the right stuff), Wolfe maintains a level of respect for the characters and the lost mysticism of the profession.

A reader will likely read Wolfe and Lawrence through different perspectives. Wolfe's ethos derives from retrospection and research. Lawrence engulfs the reader with language, creating the truth as he sees it. Although Wolfe's commitment to a teleological narrative end is more rigid than any other nonfiction author in the course, one can categorize him in the same narrative style as John McPhee and Bruce Chatwin. These authors tend to allow the characters to speak for themselves, rather than explicitly expounding on a grander meaning. Lawrence, accordingly, can be closely compared with Carlyle and Ruskin; specific situations, Carlylian symbolic grotesques, are created to illustrate the need for a greater ideal. However, Lawrence's combination of travel and sage writing does not allow him the same room for argument as Carlyle or Ruskin. The translation of a string of events in reality onto a narrative structure results in a tension between the real and semi-fictional world. While Wolfe develops this inherent tension into an underlying momentum in his book, Lawrence does not specifically address it. This failure to address the disparity results in wekened ethos or credibility. Wolfe's ability to channel the various voices of his characters infuses the text with a multidimensionality that Lawrence lacks. Wolfe's humorous embrace of the story's complexity gains ethos with the reader, therefore legitimizing his characterizations. Unlike Lawrence, whose main focus is himself and his philosophical treatises on human nature, Wolfe's main focus is the characters. In Twilight in Italy and Etruscan Places Lawrence overtly creates himself as a character, consciously relying the experience to the reader through himself, Wolfe, on the other hand, subtlety ingratiates his opinions into the narrative, recovering the lost personal contexts of a national phenomenon. Both authors are social commentators; Lawrence consistently stays in an elevated position, commenting on the ideals of humanity whereas Wolfe has already corrected the wrongs and misconceptions solely by writing the book.


Didion, Joan. The White Album. New York: The Noonday Press Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979.

Lawrence, D.H. Lawrence and Italy. New York: Penguin Books,1985.

Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. New York: Perennial Classics, 1998.

Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff. New York: Bantam Books, 1980.

Victorian Web Overview Tom Wolfe Victorian courses

Last modified 17 December 2003