How narrative devices support a novel’s theme
Writers are often more concerned with plot, character, and world building when they’re outlining or writing their novels. Consequently, theme is often something that gets lost.
Theme and subject are not the same thing. Theme relates more to the message of a story – be it a film, play, or novel. In Sebastien Japrisot’s novel, A Very Long Engagement, the subject matter is World War One and its aftermath. The theme is the horrors of that war and of war in general.
The subject matter supports the theme. But there are other narrative devices in this novel that contribute further to Japrisot’s message. In this post I’ll examine some of these devices.
A Very Long Engagement
“Once upon a time, there were five French soldiers who had gone off to war, because that’s the way of the world.”
So begins Sebastien Japrisot’s 1991 novel, A Very Long Engagement, winner of the Prix Interallié.
Japrisot was a crime writer, screenwriter and film director. But his real name was actually Jean-Baptiste Rossi – his pseudonym is an anagram of his birth name.
By 1991 he had already written a number of extremely successful crime novels. His career started off in literature and A Very Long Engagement is both a crime/mystery novel and a literary meditation on the horrors of war.
From the first page, A Very Long Engagement immerses us in the horrors of World War One, and we are introduced to five condemned soldiers. We learn something of their backgrounds, their personalities, and the reasons for their terrible predicament.
This is also the first time their families back home are referenced, and most of their wives and partners will later appear in the narrative.
Then, before these soldiers reach their destination, the novel cuts away, leaving us to wonder about their fates.
The rest of the novel is an investigation into what happened.
The central character of A Very Long Engagement is Mathilde. Still a teenager at the beginning of the book, she makes it her life’s goal to find out what happened to her fiancé who was one of the condemned men. She does not know at the outset that he was sentenced to death, believing instead that he died in the course of the war.
She’s a memorable heroine – determined, loyal, not above lying and plotting to get what she wants, and immensely stubborn in the face of opposition.
As previously mentioned, A Very Long Engagement is a novel highly critical of war. More specifically the First World War which saw an enormous loss of life without the moral purpose of defeating something like the Nazi regime. It was a senseless war, a crime against humanity which contained many smaller crimes, to be hidden by the relevant authorities if necessary.
Indeed, the novel begins with a crime – the sentencing of five men to be shot by enemy soldiers. This is the novel’s opening hook. The deliberate withholding of the letter of reprieve is also a crime of a different sort, and we find out about that much later.
There are many comments throughout the book about the futility of war. The novel criticises both the military and political hierarchy.
The characters, from different classes and walks of life, also show through their experience how the war impacted different parts of society.
One of the condemned men, Six-Sous, a trade unionist with family connections to the Paris Commune, dreams of a time when countries no longer go to war.
The men who mutilated themselves to be invalided out and sent home are portrayed with compassion and sympathy. They are not seen as either cowards or traitors. Their actions come from desperation, from fear, from a longing to see their loved ones, wives and girlfriends, or because they’ve simply had enough of the whole nightmare.
Furthermore, the author never condemns the German soldiers in the opposite trenches. They are portrayed with sympathy and at times show more compassion for the condemned men than some of those responsible for sending them over the top.
While there are many comments condemning the war, what’s more important is the way Japrisot illustrates his theme by showing the impact on those left behind, and on those who made it out alive. He accomplishes this through a layering of narratives from different people from different backgrounds.
Characterisation merges with viewpoint to illustrate theme.
Point of View
The central narrative belongs to Mathilde and is reported in what appears to be omniscient present tense.
However, the author leaves clues throughout that the narrator who sometimes comments on things from their god-like perspective is really Mathilde – old Mathilde, looking back on the quest of her youth, to find her lost love.
She has a mahogany box in which she stores all the paperwork collected over the years, including her own notes where she represents herself in the third person.
The rest of the book is mostly first-person past tense, including the letters that make up so much of the book, as well as the accounts told directly to Mathilde.
So, the novel uses different point of views: present tense third-person, omniscient at times for the present story (which is actually being told decades later), and first-person past tense for the witness accounts.
I never found the switch in point of view styles to be inconsistent or abrupt.
The advantage of the first-person viewpoint in accounts of the past is that it makes those events more vivid for the reader.
The advantage of the third-person and omniscient point of view is that they provide a commentary, emphasising the war theme by showing humans used as pawns, their lives disposable from an almost god-like perspective.
First-person accounts told directly to Mathilde are not presented within quotation marks. This embeds them more firmly into the main narrative.
The use of first-person voice also distinguishes these narratives from Mathilde’s sections.
Japrisot is so deft with his use of viewpoint and tense that the reader should easily follow the past and present narratives without confusion.
Looking at the point of view alternatives – a constant omniscient or distant third would have led to a less engaging and poignant novel, characters forever kept at a distance. A close third following Mathilde would have made the first chapter, the men marching through the trenches, impossible. The opening scenes of the novel could then only have come through a witness statement.
As it is, the opening chapter is the hook for the novel, with the events of that January night up front and centred.
The use of a commenting omniscient voice, with a close third, and then an intimate recollection of events through first is probably what makes this novel so successful.
Each of the points of view has a function that ties in with the book’s themes, the structure, and the method of delivering information, emotional impact, and rueful commentary.
To mix these different points of view creates a highly complex and layered narrative. This occurs partly through additional devices such as the use of letters.
A large proportion of the book is made up of letters. They enhance the narrative rather than disrupt it. They present layers of evidence and witness statements.
This is an excellent device when it comes to a mystery or crime novel. Indeed, it also worked very well in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, where the body of phonographic recordings, letters, diary entries, newspaper clippings and a ship’s log built a body of evidence for the existence of the vampire. In the case of that novel such devices added credibility to the story and aided suspension of disbelief.
In this novel, the letters also offer clues which Mathilde and the reader can piece together. Because they are date stamped, they also contribute to a clearer chronology in the main narrative.
Timeline and chronology
Chronology and time are incredibly important to the structure of this book and the subject matter and themes. Many novels are told in a simple chronological or linear manner. Japrisot opted for a different way of telling his story, since there is a mystery that needs to be solved.
Mathilde must return again and again to the events of that January night and the days that followed, listening to different accounts, piecing it all together.
These accounts become a multi-layered testimony.
It helps that chapters begin with date headings, or with dated letters. The puzzle within the narrative and the complex chronology demand clarity on time and place. This keeps the reader straight on the timeframe of each scene. Letters within the narrative are also dated, and there is much reference to particular dates, and also the use of transitional phrases like ‘some days later’ or ‘the next day’ and so forth.
Japrisot uses another technique too – as mentioned before, Mathilde’s third-person viewpoint is almost always in present tense, whereas the accounts are in past tense (and usually first person).
This helps separate the different narratives further in terms of time.
Yet, Japrisot is in some ways playing games with the reader when it comes to time and the omniscient narrator. As we discover, Mathilde is the omniscient narrator.
Towards the end of the book, the narrative jumps decades ahead, more than once, ending in 1965. Periodically Mathilde has still, in those future years, added more pieces of evidence to her box. Since the narrative’s latest time period is 1965 (though merely in a passing reference), this leads to the assumption that Mathilde is remembering her search and investigation as an elderly woman. But she is reliving it, through the detailed notes she made and the letters and other paperwork she received.
If the real ‘now’ of the novel is the 1960s, even though it’s barely touched on, then this explains the reflective voice of the omniscient narrator who knows so much about Mathilde and some of the other characters (who in the future have become friends).
This presents two ‘nows’ for Mathilde – the future and the present time of the book. The Mathilde of the present doesn’t know what the Mathilde of the future knows. But the Mathilde of the future understands the young Mathilde perfectly.
Japrisot’s narrative has a very complex approach to time and moving around in time, yet there is an underlying pattern. Letters and first-person accounts are presented in order. And Mathilde’s thread is also presented chronologically. So there is a definite structure in place when it comes to dealing with time.
Given the many viewpoint threads, the different accounts of the past, and the present meanwhile moving forward, structure and chronology are intimately fused, and they fuse again with point of view.
In this example, the author has utilised a number of devices to illustrate and strengthen the book’s theme. This is perhaps a more complex example with the layering of different narratives, points of view, etc, and the complex use of time.
Of course the central mystery of what happened to the men sent to their deaths at the beginning drives the plot, allowing the truth about the war to spill out over the rest of the novel.
There are other devices like characterisation – even when it comes to the more minor characters – where the impact of the war resonates on them years down the line.
No one who survives fully escapes the fallout of World War One.
A Very Long Engagement was made into a film starring Audrey Tatou and directed by Amelie director Jean-Pierre Jeunet. It is very much worth a watch.