The Fourth Wall

November 22, 2007

The "fourth wall" is the invisible, transparent wall between the stage and the audience, in a play. Breaking the fourth wall means that, for instance, an actor on stage suddenly speaks to the audience as if there was any, which there is, but not in the world of the play, until you break the fourth wall, that is.

The term is also used to any other narrative art. And this will be the focus of this chapter. Think of a novel like Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, which is one astounding piece of literature, especially considering the insanely young age at which she wrote it. [Having reread this recently, I am afraid the novel is not as astounding anymore, to me, especially because of Shelley's famous husband's "corrections", in which he replaced every simple word by a more complicated one: "get" becomes "obtain" and "I think" becomes "I reflect within my own mind" and etc.] In this novel, and if my memory serves me right, the narrative structure is as follows: a sailor writes letters to his wife, in which he repeats what Dr. Frankenstein told him on the ship. You quickly forget that framework because the narrative gets so deep that you just don't think of this anymore at all. Think also of Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontė, which is a story told by a man who hears the original story from a woman at whose house he sleeps, if I remember correctly. [In fact, if you research that, you'll find that it is even more complicated than what I had remembered.]

In either of those novels, the narrators show a prodigious memory. They can tell you a novel's length of text that were told to them only once, and that, I can't do myself even after reading the novel. But what exactly is the connection to the fourth wall here, you may ask?

Well, simply this: these narrators aren't credible. Nobody has a memory like this, not to mention that this good sailor and that other man aren't conceived as authors in the story, and yet they show a more than serious talent for writing. They are excuses, in short, and while it may not hinder the story or anything, it still bugs people like me who think a little too much for their own good.

The other problem with that, and I will resort to Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov for this one, is that this human narrator who happens to live in the world of the story also happens to know things he can't possibly know. The narrator of Dostoyevsky's monumental novel is apparently someone from the village where the events take place, if my memory still serves me right. All is fine up to that point, but how is this person capable of knowing what shade of red such and such character gets in his cheeks at such and such point of the story? Once again, after several hundred pages of intense prose, and extremely sparse, if any, reminders that a character is telling you this story, you forget that the narrator is the voice of someone, and instead, you read it in "God Mode" as I call the disincarnate voice of third person narration ex nihilo.

The good sailor of Frankenstein cannot possibly remember so much about what Frankenstein told him; that is simply beyond his abilities. The breaking of the fourth wall happens when it becomes obvious to the audience that it can no longer hold the willing suspension of disbelief. This cool term was coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1817, and it basically refers to what you do when you watch a movie: you don't spend the whole movie telling yourself you're looking at actors and at images shot through a camera, instead, you let yourself immersed in the story. You know it's a movie, but that does not matter; it's not an illusion which you're beholding, it's a work of art.

The problem of human narrators who happen to be characters in the story is that when these are given supernatural memories and other extraordinary abilities without justification, is that it kills the suspension of disbelief. It is as when the microphone shows up at the top of the image in a movie. All of a sudden, you're forced to face the fact that this is a movie, filmed by cameras and a crew, one of which perhaps had a little cramp in his arm and dropped the perch a little more than he should have. Not to mention the others who failed to see that obnoxious microphone.

Another example is one I take from comics, or graphic novels (see related chapter on that term). In a comic book like the Sin City series, the protagonist is also the narrator. He lives the story, and he tells of it, in square bubbles. The same happens in movies with a voice off. The problem with this is the following question: where does this narration come from and how can the character both live his adventures and tell us about it? The idea, somehow, is that we can read the character's mind, but I highly doubt that Marv would actually word such well-written thoughts as he clobbers villains, murders hitmen, and torture to death a psychopath. Thoughts aren't well-written, they are raw material; and even if Marv happened to think well-formed sentences and everything, you would still have to find an explanation of why we are able to read them.

Anne Rice finds such a trick in her novel The Vampire Lestat in that her vampire has supernatural abilities such as mind-reading and telepathy, and the opportunity to literally read the past, which makes him the perfect narrator as happens in the God Mode I mentioned earlier. Her previous novel - Interview with the Vampire- resorted to a similar trick: in that book, the vampire is telling his story to a journalist, who records the testimony, and types it in book format. In these two ways, the fourth wall is spared, because the narratives are justify in a way that makes sense. The first novel of Anne Rice eventually becomes a novel in the story of her vampire chronicles; it is a book in the story itself, which the characters read.

Mark Z. Danielewski's impressive novel House of Leaves uses a similar device. Everything in this book exists as text in the story itself, by which I mean, the text is also a text within the universe of the narrative. By which I mean, in the world of the story, if you were a character in there, you would be able to get a copy of the book. This is always very interesting, because it makes holding the book an experience of grasping an item from the universe which it creates, and which created it. It's a crazy self-eating snake, or rather, self-creating snake.

To be fair, Frankenstein is an epistolary novel (which means a novel made of letters, or "epistles") and thus, the text also exists in the reality of the universe of the story. What I criticised about the book was the impossible memory of the sailor who writes those letters to his wife, so it's not as related as it may appear, but I felt like adding that it was an epistolary novel indeed.

The greatest epistolary novel, known to me, is Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, which is one of the best French texts I had the pleasure to read. And why am I telling you about this? I'm not sure, but the novel certainly deserved to be mentioned when dealing with epistolary novels. So there you have it.

The epistolary novel is a great example if texts that exist in the world they create, since the letters are written by the characters themselves, and read by them too. It adds a reality effect that is absent from regular third person God Mode narratives.

Similar to this are the texts that are written as stories by the narrator. I can remember a class on A.L. Kennedy's book So I Am Glad in which one of the students mistakenly thought that the line "that writing a book thing" was a metatextual reference, or an admission from the author that she was writing a book, whereas, in truth, it was the narrator who made this comment, and thus there was no metatextual implication. "Metatextual" simply means "the text about itself", and that is a typical instance of a breaking of the fourth wall. It is the same when a cartoon character refers to itself as a cartoon character, or comments that its author doesn't do a good job of drawing them, or giving them interesting plots to live through.

Sometimes a book is also a book in the world it creates, but does not state it so explicitly.