Thursday, March 12, 2009

Tear Down This Wall? Okay; Here Goes

fourth wall, the--the boundary between reader and characters; a conceptual enhancement of the illusion of the audience eavesdropping on characters in the midst of story; a convention observed by authors for the purpose of implying that their activity is happening now, in real time.

A character in a novel or stage play who addresses the audience is said to be breaking the fourth wall, which by implication extends the three sides of a stage setting to the remaining dimension, the space between players and audience. The convention of the fourth wall is as old as storytelling, a given that has produced memorable breaches.

As far back in time as Greek drama, characters were breaking the fourth wall by addressing the audience. Even before poems, plays, and stories were set in movable type and printed on a press, Geoffrey Chaucer was imaginatively breaking the fourth wall in a poem, Adam Scrivendi, by telling his scribe to copy his lines with care, avoiding the skewing of Chaucer's intended meter by using regional spelling and accent marks. 

Shakespeare would later have his characters break the wall with asides to the audience, including preludes in which a chorus would directly address the audience. In his film version of Shakespeare's Richard III, Laurence Olivier had Richard directly tell the audience what he had in mind. In eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and twentieth-century novels, numerous authors spoke directly to the audience in some manner, examples being Henry Fielding's frequent asides to the reader in Tom Jones, Rudyard Kipling actually addressing his daughter in the Just So Stories, and James Michener addressing the reader in the opening chapter of Hawaii.

The major objection to fourth wall violations is the argument of broken reality; a broken wall is thought to be an advertisement that the story is illusory, distanced from any connection with reality, to which it may be argued that the nature of the story, the manner in which the characters interact and respond to the dramatic situations are all factors contributing to the verisimilitude or sense of reality the writer strives to achieve.

It may be argued that use of the intrusive authorial point of view is a constant shattering of the fourth wall and indeed, some of the modernists (Donald Barthelme and Italo Calvino come to mind) may evoke the amusing conflation of Ronald Reagan's exhortation to Mr. Gorbachev, "Tear down this [the Berlin] Wall with the ghost of the elder Hamlet, haunting the battlements to enlist his son in his desire for revenge. Shall the fourth wall come down? Only if it has to.

It is a truth universally recognized that literary conventions arose in the first place in response to some technical impasse but now await artful trespass. If breaking the fourth wall in a novel or short story serves a purpose which will make the narrative more effective, then break away with clear conscience. 

The only valid reason for not breaking the fourth wall or, for that matter, any convention is when doing so will seem more an act of anarchy or pretentiousness than a contribution to the artistic, emotional, and intellectual payoff of the narrative.

See suspension of disbelief
See also plausibility
See also conventions

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