13 June 2011
The Focal Point: External vs Internal Focalization in Guillermo Samperio’s “She Lived in a Story”
According to Manfred Jahn, focalization is the way in which a story is told—it is the way in which a story is presented; it tells us who is telling the story, if they were involved in the story, and the story itself is told from this person’s point of view (Jahn N 3.2). Focalization can be divided up into several sub-categories that help readers to decipher whether the narrator is within the story, if it is told by an outside source, whether the story is told by multiple narrators, a single narrator, etc. Guillermo Samperio’s story “She Lived in a Story”, is a clear example of the different types of focalization that authors use within their works. Samperio switches from what Jahn calls “external focalization” to “internal focalization” and then to “hypothetical focalization”, all within just a few short pages. The first change being from external focalization, a story being told by a heterodiegetic narrator (a narrator that is not a part of the story-i.e. third person narrative), to internal focalization, a story being told by a character within the story from their point of view; a homodiegetic narrator. This is obvious to readers due to the immediate change in Samperio’s use of pronouns and tense; his story begins with the narrator speaking about the character Guillermo Segovia in the third-person from a past event, and then immediately changes to a first-person narrative in the present; which is being shown through the eyes of a completely different character, known simply as Ofelia. This switch is one that happens throughout the story, going from first to third person, and often switching back, causing readers to pay very close attention to the narrative style; for example:
She raised her hand to forehead and repeatedly passed her fingers through her hair; alarmed, suddenly understanding the situation, she said to herself: “I’m inside the eye.” She lowered her arm slowly and, following the idea in what she had just said, she continued: “I’m inside the gaze. I’m living inside a stare. I’m a part of a way of seeing. […] My name is Ofelia and I’m opening the wooden gate to my house.” (Samperio 59)
Samperio begins this quote with the narrator describing the character Ofelia in the third person; this can be noted due to the pronouns used within the first two sentences. His repeated use of “she” shows that it is not the woman Ofelia speaking, but rather a separate party all together. This is what Jahn has told us is known as heterodiegetic narration; readers can clearly see the use of an external narrator. Yet as the quote goes on, Samperio switches his narrative focalization—readers can see this switch if they are doing a close reading—going from external to internal focalization. The use of internal focalization within this quote is extremely obvious due to the immediate change in pronoun use. The character Ofelia has defined herself as the new narrator of the story, strongly defining who she is and what she is doing. When she begins to speak, the story’s first shift in narrative focalization takes place. “My name is Ofelia”, she states. Previously in the story, readers have not seen the narrator refer to themselves as “I”, “me” or “my”; it is due to Ofelia’s definitive announcement and her verbally narrating her actions, that readers can see this narrative shift. This shift, though easily identified by a close reading, leaves readers questioning whether they are reading the story that the character Guillermo Segovia has started writing about the young woman named Ofelia, or if they are actually listening to the woman Ofelia speak; this is the most confusing part of Samperio’s story. Samperio’s constant shift of narration leaves the reader questioning who the true author of the story is. Is it this heterodiegetic narrator that has no place within the story as we know it, but just knows of the story he is relating to us, or perhaps could the entire story be told by the woman Ofelia, as she views it, but holds back her identity until she has been defined by Segovia.
Hypothetical focalization, as Jahn has explained, is a narrative voice in which we are told the events of a story through a hypothetical observer (Jahn N 3.2). Samperio’s story not only shows readers the switch between internal and external focalization, but it also gives a prime example of the narrative shift into hypothetical focalization. It may be difficult for readers to understand this shift within Samperio’s story because it comes very quickly and abruptly, and it is only a few words within a sentence that show this shift. When this shift takes place, readers are being told about Guillermo Segovia through the eyes of Ofelia, and she is quoting his thoughts. Samperio writes, “Standing at the foot of the stairs, he thinks: ‘That gaze could be Ofelia’s’ ” (Samperio 61). After studying Jahn, it is easy to determine that the first half of this quote is being stated from a third person point of view; but readers who have been engaging in a close reading of the story, know that this narrator is none other than Samperio’s character Ofelia. Ofelia is writing a story about the character Segovia, which makes her a character outside of the story—a heterodiegetic narrator—which would explain the use of the pronoun “he”. When she writes that Segovia is thinking that the stare he feels could possibly be that of her own—which adds to the confusion of the story—it is here that readers see a prime example of hypothetical focalization. When Segovia thinks “That gaze could be Ofelia’s”, no one is actually staring at him. This hypothetical situation occurs within Ofelia’s story about Segovia. It is not a situation that is actually occurring, nor is Segovia actually thinking about someone staring at him. Hypothetical focalization is the most difficult focalization to understand, but Samperio’s constant shift makes it easier for readers to understand the different focalization techniques—even the difficult ones.
Jahn, Manfred. “Narratology: A Guide to the Theory of Narrative.” Poems, Plays, and
Prose: A Guide to the Theory of Literary Genres. Cologne: U of Cologne Press,
Samperio, Guillermo. “She Lived in a Story.” New Works from Mexico. Ed. Reginald Gibbons.
Evanston: TriQuarterly, 1992. Print.