Meredith J. Madyda, Criticism of Children’s Literature, Simmons College, Spring 2012
Life on the Page:
The Construction of Character in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
In “Beyond the Grammar of Story,” Maria Nikolajeva states that rather than ask traditional questions such as “What do characters represent?” and “Who or what are they?” (7), narratologists inquire, “How are characters constructed by authors?” and “How are they revealed for readers?” (8). According to Nikolajeva, while the pedagogical approach employed by many schoolteachers encourages students to apply a mimetic lens to characters’ ontological status—whereby they treat characters as living, breathing, persons (8)—narratologists approach characters semiotically. The semiotic approach “treats characters … as a number of words, without any substance” (8). In other words, narratologists believe characters are merely constructs on the page, and do not exist outside the text. The semiotic approach allows narratologists to examine a number of ways through which character is revealed—without letting personal judgment cloud their analysis. In this brief paper, I will use semiotics to examine the creation of character in an award-winning young adult novel.
To understand the how Sherman Alexie constructs the character of Arnold “Junior” Spirit in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, it is worth examining two semiotic approaches to studying character: external description and defamiliarization. Arnold, the narrator-protagonist, provides readers with an external description of himself. Although Nikolajeva states that external description is “tangibly didactic” (9), and therefore doesn’t allow the reader to use his or her imagination, it is necessary for Alexie to use external narration. Readers must have a solid picture of Arnie’s appearance because his many visible health problems are central to the story. He has to wear cheap eyeglasses, his eyes are “lopsided” (Alexie 3), and he is very skinny, with huge feet and hands. He describes himself in a comical, self-deprecating manner to demonstrate that he doesn’t take himself too seriously: “With my big feet and pencil body, I looked like a capital L” (3). These physical differences mark Arnie as “other” among Indians as well as among his new classmates in an all-white school. These differences create obstacles for him to overcome throughout the course of the story. External description is supplemented by a humorous self-portrait (5), a concrete means of conveying Arnie’s physical appearance.
Alexie also uses defamiliarization, a characterization device that “allows authors to put their characters into situations that are unfamiliar” (Nikolajeva 9), to reveal Arnold’s determination to make a better life for himself. Although this device, Nikolajeva states, is used primarily in fantasy (9), Alexie has made fine use of it in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian in order to reveal Arnold’s courage in a world that wants to oppress him. Arnie’s geometry teacher, Mr. P., tells him, “You’re the smartest kid in school … You deserve better … You deserve the world” (Alexie 40-41). Mr. P. sees that Arnie possesses an untapped potential to go far in life, and it seems that if Arnold were to stay on the reservation, his life would be over (43). Arnie is scared, but willingly removes himself (54) from the familiar because he knows he needs to be where there are more opportunities for him to lead a better life. He leaves the reservation school to attend school in Reardan, where “the kids … are the smartest and most athletic kids anywhere. They are the best” (46). Life at his new school is difficult, as among the all-white populace, Arnie feels “less than less than Indian” (83), but with his sense of humor and endurance, he finds a place among his new classmates.
Throughout the novel, Alexie uses external description and defamiliarization to construct a young man who doesn’t let his extreme differences from those around him in both settings to prevent him from living life. Instead, Arnold approaches challenges and new situations with courage and a sense of humor.
Alexie, Sherman. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009. Print.
Nikolajeva, Maria. “Beyond the Grammar of Story, or How Can Children’s Literature Criticism Benefit from Narrative Theory?” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 28.1 (2003): 5-16. PDF.