What is it about?

In this intriguing novella, two characters, Colin and Mary head for a disaster. Oddly, they appear to be semi-conscious of their behaviour, and thus seek their fate. McEwan achieves this by having an omniscient (or: external) narrator tell the story. This omniscient narrator only focalizes (= adopts the physical and mental perspective on) events via Colin and Mary. The mixture of the omniscient narrator's and the character's "voice" results in so-called "free indirect discourse." What is unusual is that two other characters in the story, Robert and Caroline, have meticulously planned Colin and Mary's downfall. They anticipate every move the latter make, and thereby seem to know as much about Colin and Mary's thoughts and motives as the omniscient narrator does. As a consequence, there is a disquieting, impossible "ontological" conflation between what the omniscient narrator knows and what Robert and Caroline know. Since the readers thereby also know more than Colin and Mary do, they are in a sense made into accomplices. Harold Pinter (script) and Paul Schrader (director) find admirable cinematic solutions to achieve the same subtle effect in the medium of film.

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Why is it important?

First of all, it is a pleasure to see three artists excelling in three media (novel-writing, script-writing, and filming) creating such an intellectually challenging narrative. From a theoretical point of view, it is interesting to reflect on how the notion of free indirect discourse, developed in literary narratology, can be adapted to another medium.


Looking back on this paper all those years after publication, I realize how it fits into my key scholarly research theme: understanding how visuals, alone or in combination with other modes (primarily: written language, but also music an sound) can communicate relevant information.

Dr Charles Forceville
Universiteit van Amsterdam

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: The conspiracy in The Comfort of Strangers: narration in the novel and the film, Language and Literature International Journal of Stylistics, May 2002, SAGE Publications, DOI: 10.1177/0963947002011002883.
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