Word and image
Word and image

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Word and image

3.4 Characterisation and narrative

Many literary works use images as clues to characterisation. A good example is found in Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003), a book widely read by both adults and children. Christopher, the central protagonist and narrator, is fifteen years old and has Asperger's syndrome. He has trouble understanding what people mean if they depart from the strictly literal – in particular he finds gestures, facial expressions and metaphors incomprehensible. In other words, he cannot read the semiotic codes on the connotative level:

I find people confusing. This is for two main reasons.

The first main reason is that people do a lot of talking without using any words. Siobhan says that if you raise one eyebrow it can mean lots of different things. It can mean ‘I want to do sex with you’ and it can also mean ‘I think that what you just said was very stupid.’

[…]

The second main reason is that people often talk using metaphors. These are examples of metaphors:

I laughed my socks off.

He was the apple of her eye.

They had a skeleton in the cupboard.

We had a real pig of a day.

The dog was stone dead.

The word metaphor means carrying something from one place to another, and it comes from the Greek words (which means from one place to another) and (which means to carry) and it is when you describe something by using a word for something that it isn't. This means that the word metaphor is a metaphor.

I think it should be called a lie because a pig is not like a day and people do not have skeletons in their cupboards. And when I try and make a picture of the phrase in my head it just confuses me because imagining an apple in someone's eye doesn't have anything to do with liking someone a lot and it makes you forget what the person was talking about.

(Haddon, 2003, pp. 19–20)

Highly intelligent and logical, Christopher documents these complexities throughout the book and details his rationale for telling his story in his own way (for example, by using prime numbers for the chapters of his story, complete with diagrams showing how prime numbers are identified). As you can see in Figure 11 below, he illustrates his writing when he feels the need to explain detail which to most people would seem superfluous, but which to Christopher is crucial.

Figure 11
Figure 11 Christopher's narrative style (Haddon, 2003, pp. 46–7).

In this book, many aspects of Christopher's character are accessible to the reader through the writing itself, but his somewhat obsessive attention to detail evidenced by the images sends the reader a strong message about how he thinks and how he sees the world. It is possible to see the visuals in The Curious Incident as ‘closing down’ the range of interpretations potentially available to the reader, although you may not agree with this. I will return to this point in Section 5. I now move on to look at texts in which the images almost assume the role of the narrator.

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