Exploring the Paradoxes of the Genre by Reinterpreting Altman’s Epistolarity
In her book, Altman states that “the paradox of epistolarity is that the very consistency of epistolary meaning is the interplay within a specific set of polar inconsistencies.” (Altman 1983: 190) and in chapter six she compares the style to a mosaic in which the pieces have their own meaning but also gains meaning by interacting with one another. (Altman 1983: 169).
These “polar inconsistencies” will be the foundation of this paper. The key ideas will be outlined and analyzed as well as applied and reinterpreted for Where Rainbows End. The epistolary genre is built on these paradoxes, without them, the same meaning would not be achieved. It is because of as well of despite the contradictory elements it entails that this type of novels is so unique.
Getting to Know the Correspondents: confiance/non-confiance relationship
The first paradox is the one that defines confiance and non-confiance. The following graphic will be referred back to in order to better illustrate the relationships between characters in the book with the purpose of analyzing their bonds in relation to Altman’s ideas.
Three main notions are to be explored, firstly the notion of trust required for a character to become another’s confident. Which can sometimes evolve into an amorous relationship if played along the lines of candor and dissimulation. Second, the distinction between passive and active confidants can be applied to the novel so examples will be provided. Third, as Altman puts it on page 48:
In order to make a confidence, as epistolary characters so often do, one must have confiance in the confident. If confidences constitute part of the epistolary medium (letters written to confidants being one of the fundamental vehicles of epistolary narrative), the loss and winning of confiance are part of the epistolary subject.
This means that the meaning behind a change in confidants as well as the absence of correspondence between some others does also have repercussions for the novel and its understanding, therefore being interesting to analyze.
A Matter of Trust
Rosie and Alex confide in each other and have a great trust in one another, to the point that Stephanie -Rosie’s sister, she is the person Rosie turns to when looking for advice- tells her “the problem with you two is that you’re too honest. I can’t think of one friend of mine that I would feel comfortable saying, ‘I hate your husband/wife to […]” (Ahern 2004: 143) Their trust and love for one another drive them to stay in touch through several decades and thousands of miles apart.
In the second chapter of her book, Altman analyzes how closely-related to one another are the relationships of love and friendship and how through the epistolary model this can be exploited or seen to develop across time.
“The choices as well as changes of confidant reflect the letter writer’s own shifting values, selves and self-perceptions.” (Altman 1983: 57) this is particularly true, because one thing that is interesting to deduct from both the quality and the quantity of the correspondence exchanged between all the characters, is not only the fact that both Rosie and Alex write the most to one another, but that every other character’s writing also revolves around the two of them, focusing the action only on their lives. “Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of epistolary language is the extent to which it is colored not by one but two persons and by the specific relationship existing between them.” (Altman 1983:118)
Nevertheless, if any of the two write to their siblings, they are looking for life advice that the other cannot provide. When Rosie is unsure about her friendship and with Alex she talks about it with her older sister instead of with him. On the other hand, Alex only told Phil about the silence he felt when Rosie kissed him during a visit early on in the book, while never directly having confessed it to Rosie.
Active and Passive Confidants
Phil, Rosie’s Mom, Stephanie and sometimes even Katie are passive confidants. They do not take action for changing the protagonists’ lives since their role is mainly to listen and help them find their way on their own.
Ruby is more of an active confidant. She is frequently paraphrased by Rosie in letters to Alex but Rosie also listens to her and confides in her deeply. Both provide an emotional outlet for one another where they can vent about their lives and support each other by doing so.
An even more active role is played by the second category of confidants, who not only listen to, comment upon, and relate part of the hero’s story, but actually influence it. […] This more enterprising type of confidant usually has a well-delineated personality, independent from the hero’s; after listening to the hero’s plight, he decides either to help him attain his goal or to hinder him. (Altman 1983: 51-52)
Ruby also tells her the hard truths she does not want to hear, but this is also one of the reasons Rosie respects her. She passively observes Alex and Rosie’s relationship but does not keep quiet about it. On page 305 she downright tells Rosie
Here’s an idea Rosie. Why don’t you just tell Alex how you feel? Why don’t you just finally get all those feelings out in the open, and clear your messed-up little head? At least then he’ll know that you’re not going over not because you don’t care about him, but that in fact you love him, more than he knows, but you need to stay here for Katie. Then that will put the ball in his court. He can make the decision whether to come to you or not.
She actively tries to get them together and she just wants Rosie to be happy. They even go dancing together and she is a very important emotional support for her. As Rosie is for her, too.
Changes and Absence of Confidants
If the turn toward a particular confidant can be an important articulation in the narrative structure, those moments when there is no confidant at all, rare though they may be, are likewise privileged. In narrative composed exclusively of letters, occasionally there may appear “fragments” written by one character to no particular official addressee […]. These are the points of high tension, of tragic isolation […] (Altman 1983: 57)
As Rosie gets older and especially after her father’s death, she becomes closer to her mother and both of them start writing letters to one another more frequently. There is also a letter from her father that is of great significance to her and it gives her strength as well as making her proud of her achievements and hard-work even after having her life turned around by an unplanned pregnancy. More correspondence with her siblings as well as less with Alex for a while is proof of character development in Rosie’s case.
The reader also witnesses Katie’s coming of age and the development of her relationship with her father Greg and his first best friend and then boyfriend Toby. There is also a development in her correspondence from her relying mostly on Toby to her opening up a lot to Alex who is her godfather as well as a deep honesty and trust with her mother that builds up later on.
Regarding the absence of confidants, the absence of letters from Bethany and Sally is notorious. This allows for the antagonization of them from Rosie’s perspective since they never get to share their story. The reader learns about them only through Rosie’s and Alex’s eyes. In the following excerpt this notion of a biased and or even limited narrative is presented by Altman, too:
In letter narratives characters are created less by what they do than by what, and how, they write. The gestalts we form, however, are also a function of distribution of activity among correspondents, their choice of who writes, and with what frequency, is a determinant structure. The fact that a character is merely written about but is not a correspondent himself affects reader response. (Altman 1983: 177)