Thursday, October 8, 2009

Psychic Distance: A Comparison WHITE TEETH and OLIVE KITTERIDGE

While it is obvious that novels are written by people, the presence of the author may or may not be “felt” by the reader. Burroway describes this distance, is “the degree to which we as readers feel on the one hand intimacy and identification with, or on the other hand detachment and alienation from, the characters in a story.”1 It is the writer’s task to, based on the needs of the story, choose and control psychic distance.


There is a relationship between the degree of intellectuality and emotionality of a novel and the psychic distance found in the novel. In novels with a higher degree of intellectuality, there is a shorter psychic distance; in novels with a higher degree of emotionality, there is greater psychic distance.

In TEETH the author’s presence is keenly felt by the reader. This is due to the constant intellectualism and frequent author judgments of characters and situations. By contrast, in OLIVE, the author is farther away from the reader. This distance is the result of frequent and various sensory details which encourage the reader to feel, experience, rather than intellectualize.

In TEETH, Smith intentionally inhibits the emotional response of the reader and thus inhibits total immersion into the fictive dream. By withholding the emotional connection she forces the reader to be dependent on her. Smith’s characterization and detail selection demonstrate this. The following is a turning point passage in which the author is making a judgment about character, Samad, who is striving to get meaning out of life. As a result of the details, which require thought rather than emotion, the reader is not fully transported into the fictive dream and psychic distance limited.


"Samad has decided to “cement his friendship with Archie. Often this is done by passing on a singular piece of information: some sexual peccadillo, some emotional secret or obscure hidden passion that the reticence of new acquaintance has prevented being spoken. But for Samad, nothing was closer or meant more to him that his blood. It was natural then, as they sat on holy ground, that he should speak of what was holy to him.” (pp83-84)

Samad’s subsequent realization is the result of thinking and having knowledge which is brought on by “white dust” (morphine) that could be found like, “…hidden eggs on an addictive Easter trail.”

"Then every nerve in his body would be alive, and the information, all the information contained in the universe, all the information on walls, would pop its cork and flow through him like electricity through a ground wire. Then his head would open out like a deckchair. And he would sit in it a while and watch his world go by. Tonight, after just more than enough, Samad felt particularly lucid. Like his tongue was buttered and like the world was a polished marble egg. And he felt a kinship with the dead dissenters…he wished he could speak with them about the mark they made on the world. Had it been enough? When death came, was it really enough? Were they satisfied with the thousand words they left behind?" (pp85-86)

While there is a simile that engages the sense of taste, again the majority of the details require thought rather than emotion and again limit psychic distance.

On the other hand, in OLIVE, Strout intentionally encourages the emotional connection through use characterization and detail selection. The following is a turning point passage in which the author invites the reader to make a judgment of the character who is striving to get meaning out of life. To accomplish this, Strout has included sensory details that promote an emotional response from the reader. As a result of the sensory detail, the reader is further into the fictive dream; there is greater psychic distance.


“…smaller rocks could be heard moving as the water shifted them. Also there was the twanging sound of the cables hitting the masts of the sailboats moored. A few seagulls gave squawking cries as they dove down to pick up the fish heads and tails and shining insides that the boy was tossing from the dock as he cleaned the mackerel. All this Kevin saw as he sat in his car with the window partly open…He was as much a stranger up here now as any tourist might be, and yet gazing back at the sun-sliced bay, he noted how familiar it felt; he had not expected that. The salt air filled his nose, the wild rugosa bushes with their white blossoms brought him a vague confusion; a sense of sad ignorance seemed cloaked in their benign petals.” (p31)

Kevin’s subsequent realization is the result of a conversation with Olive.

“What he began to want was to see his childhood house—a house he believed, even as he sat in his car now, that he had never once been happy in….That house where the sweat-shirts and woolen jackets stank like moist salt and musty wood—the smell made him sick, as did the smell of a wood fire, which his father sometimes had I the fireplace, poking at it in a distracted way. Kevin thought he must be the only person in the country who hated the smell of a wood fire. But the house, the trees tangled with woodbine, the surprise of a lady’s slipper in the midst of pine needles, the open leaves of the wild lilies of the valley—he missed it.” (p44)

As in the previous OLIVE passage, the majority of the details are sensory and again widen psychic distance.

In both TEETH and OLIVE the psychic distance has been carefully controlled throughout. This deliberate control is emphasized by the running heads of the novels. Although both TEETH and OLIVE are a collection of stories linked to tell one story, the running head layouts are not the same. In TEETH, “ZADIE SMITH” appears on the verso page and “WHITE TEETH” on the recto page. In OLIVE, “OLIVE KITTERIDGE” appears on the verso page and the title to the individual story on the recto page. Since putting the book title on the verso page is no longer common practice and putting the author’s name is2, it is reasonable to conclude that not placing the author’s name on the verso page of OLIVE was a conscious decision done in support of the intent of the novel.

1-p287, Burroway, Janet. Writing Fiction

2-1.81, Chicago Manual of Style

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