In works of fiction, authors design characters to resemble human beings by giving them characteristics that make the reader assume a character has a “psyche, personality, ideology, or competence to act” that it does not truly possess (Bal 113). This results in what Mieke Bal refers to as the “character-effect”, which occurs “when the resemblance between human beings and fabricated figures is so great that we forget the fundamental difference” (113). Sexuality, like personality or psyche, is one such aspect of human beings that fictional characters necessarily lack, but that authors must give their characters the appearance of in order to create a convincing character-effect. Sexuality is personal and individualistic, but it is also explicitly tied to the social structure in which a person functions, and as a result, it colors that person’s interaction with their world. In order to create the impression of sexuality for a fictional character, an author needs to capture both the internal and the external aspects of sexuality, both the way in which it reflects the self, and the way in which it reflects the social world. One particularly effective means through which authors create the appearance of sexuality for their fictional characters is by giving their character a sexual lens through which it focalizes other objects and events in the world-structure of the novel. This narrative technique, which I term ‘sexual focalization’, is a particular application and subset of the larger focalization technique. Sexual focalization is distinct in its capabilities to impart multiple layers of information to the reader. Where the general focalization technique provides information to the reader on both the character focalizer and the focalized object, sexual focalization provides this information, plus additional information on the social world of the novel. Sexual focalization helps the reader to construct not only a sexual identity for the character but also an understanding of the social expectations of sexuality present in the fictional world-structure.
Sexuality, by nature, is relational. Sexual desire requires a desired object outside of oneself. Thus, sexuality, as the way in which people understand themselves and express themselves sexually, must necessarily derive from the interaction between the source and the object of desire. Sexuality is extremely personal and internal, but it requires an external component, an interaction with the greater social environment in which a person lives. A person’s notion of his or her own sexuality stems from how that person understands his or her sexual desires in relation to the social world. The social world provides sexual expectations and assigns people sexual statuses based upon how well they fit or do not fit those expectations. People then construct their unique sexual identity by assessing themselves in relation to the sexual expectations put forth by society. Sexual identity, as used here, refers not just to gender identity or sexual orientation, but rather to a more comprehensive and individualistic notion of the sexual self that includes such aspects as gender, attractiveness, eroticism, and sexual preferences.
In “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution,” Judith Butler argues that gender identity, an aspect of sexual identity that has historically been treated as inherent to the human body, is instead a “constructed identity” (520). A person’s acts do not proceed from their gender; their gender, or rather the appearance of their gender, is constructed by their acts (519-520). Gender then is a performance, a fitting of oneself to a specific, societally-determined role by adopting the behaviors assigned to that role. Furthermore, it is a performance “which the mundane social audience, including the actors themselves, come to believe” (520). Essentially, Butler argues that “what is called gender identity is a performative accomplishment compelled by social sanction and taboo” (520). According to Butler, gender identity is derived from one’s society rather than from one’s innate self. A person creates the impression of their gender by matching their behavior to the societal expectations for that gender, so much so that not only society in general, but the person themself believes their gender identity to be innate.
Butler’s argument on the performative nature of gender identity can and should be extended to all aspects of sexual identity. Sexual identity, like its composite element gender identity, is a performance compelled by social expectation and designed to make both the performer and the greater social audience believe the identity is intrinsic to their person. A person’s sexual attractiveness, for example, is another aspect of sexual identity that is constructed through socially-induced performance, but which people often erroneously believe is innate to their physical body. Beauty is always subjective, and more often than not, a person’s notion of beauty is informed by socially constructed ideals of beauty. Furthermore, when it comes to the human body, beauty is not just an issue of aesthetics; it’s an issue of attraction. Society teaches people what they should or should not be attracted to, and a person’s understanding of their own sexual attractiveness is constructed based on those standards. People then perform according to those standards, matching their behavior and actions to the status of sexual attractiveness society has assigned to them. This process can be applied to all aspects of sexual identity, from gender identity and sexual attractiveness to sexual purity and a person’s evaluation of their own sexual preferences. In all cases, sexual identity is a performance, a set of behaviors designed to give the appearance of a substantive, stable identity that does not actually have any grounding in the innate self.
Given that sexual identity is performative, and grounded in appearance, authors can construct convincing sexual identities for their fictional characters because a fictional character only requires the appearance of a sexual identity to be convincing. As a person’s sexuality and sexual identity are unavoidably tied to that person’s social world, a fictional character’s sexual identity must necessarily be informed by and constructed in response to the fictional social world in which they exist. In Alexander Gelley’s “Character and Person: On the Presentation of Self in the Novel”, he argues that rather than “a mere function of the action of narrative,” a fictional character is “the enabling condition for the order of sociality,” for the “world structure” of the novel (59). He claims that there is a “centrifugal tendency in character – an exploratory, percipient impulse oriented toward, and thus constitutive of, its appropriate world” (59). The role of the fictional character is to allow the reader to access the social world of the novel, and to increase the reader’s involvement with that social world. Constructing a sexual identity for a fictional character is a particularly effective way of revealing the nuances of the fictional world-structure. Because sexual identity is both performative and derived from social pressures, an author can both convincingly portray the sexual identity, and use that sexual identity to further develop the fictional world of the novel.
One particularly effective technique to give a fictional character the appearance of sexual identity is to provide them with a sexual lens through which they understand the world around them in relation to the sexual identity that world helped them to construct. This sexual lens can best be understood in terms of focalization, for sexuality and sexual language is one of the means through which a character focalizes the elements of its fictional world. According to Mieke Bal’s definition of focalization, a focalizor can either be external to the fictional world, or it can be a character within the fictional world (153). In the latter case, when the perspective through which the elements of the novel are seen is that of an Internal or Character Focalizor, this focalization is affected by the sexuality of the character. Focalization presents the reader with a certain image of an object – or character, landscape, event, et cetera – that is filtered through the eyes and thoughts of the Character Focalizor. Through this process of focalization, the reader learns not only about the object being described or presented, but also about the character itself from the filter through which it sees (Bal, 153). This filter is informed by all aspects of the fictional character, and is an accumulation of that character’s experiences, personality, and culture. One aspect that helps to make up this filter is that of the character’s sexual identity – the performance of their sexuality compelled by their social world. I refer to this narrative technique of filtering the elements of a fictional world through the sexuality of a character as ‘sexual focalization’.
Due to the nature of sexual identity as a socially constructed identity, sexual focalization improves upon the amount of information imparted to the reader by the narrative technique of focalization. While focalization provides the reader with knowledge of both the focalized object and the character focalizor, sexual focalization provides additional information on the sexual expectations of the social world of the novel. It is unsurprising that in Bal’s chapter on Focalization in Narratology two of her three largest examples deal explicitly with sexual focalization. In order to explain how a focalizor’s presentation of an object informs the reader’s understanding of that character focalizor, Bal quotes J.M.A. Biesheuvel’s “Fautst,” The Way to the Light:
“ ‘Then the hundreds of rows of angels are clad in glorious shiny white garments. Every one of them has long, slightly curly fair hair and blue eyes. There are no men here. ‘How strange that all angels should be women.’ There are no dirty angels with seductive panties, garterbelts and stockings, not to mention bras. I always pictured an angel as a woman who presents her breasts as if on saucers, with heavily made-up eyes, and a bright red mouth, full of desire, eager to please, in short, everything a woman should be.’ ” (Bal, 154).
Bal uses this example to show how a Character Focalizor’s interpretation of an object, in this case the traditional image of the fair-haired asexual angel seen in religious paintings, tells the reader more about the Character Focalizor than about the object he is focalizing. Bal emphasizes that we learn from this passage more about the Character Focalizor’s taste in women than we do about heaven or angels (156). However, Bal fails to note one of the other important pieces of information imparted to the reader by this Character Focalizor’s interpretation – that of his social world as reflected through the lens of his sexual desires. Yes, we learn more about the Character Focalizor than we do about heaven or religious paintings of angels, yet we learn the most about the culture of the social world that the Character Focalizor is responding to with those specific sexual tastes. There is an ideal of beauty put forth – “slightly curly fair hair and blue eyes”. There is an ideal of sexual purity – “clad in glorious shiny white garments” – and a rejection of sexual impurity – “There are no dirty angels with seductive panties, garterbelts and stockings”. There is also an ideal of sexual behavior – “full of desire and eager to please”. These sexual tastes and the sexual identity they imply could not have been constructed by the character without the social world from which they are drawn. This is especially emphasized by the end of his description of the sexualized angles, where he puts forth a gender ideal: that the angels are “everything a woman should be”. This denotes that there is a “should”, an social expectation of women’s behavior from which the character focalizor is drawing his sexual tastes and through which he is focalizing the object of angels. Whenever sexualized images or language is used in focalization, knowledge is always imparted to the reader on not just the character, but on the larger social world of the novel as well.
A particularly revealing example of sexual focalization can be found in Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer. The main character, through whose eyes the narrative is focalized, is plagued by his social status as a bastard, specifically as a bastard of mixed race. This status affects how he is viewed sexually by his society, for he does not fit into the traditional sexual expectations. One consequence of his status as a bastard is a reduction in the possibilities for sexual relationships. The sympathizer explains,
“Bachelorhood is one of the unexpected benefits of being a bastard, as I was not considered much of a catch to most families. Not even families with a daughter of mixed ancestry welcomed me, for the daughter was herself usually frantic to squeeze into the elevator of social mobility through marriage to someone of pure pedigree” (36).
The sympathizer is given a specific sexual status by the social structure present in the novel. The character then responds to this sexual status imposed by his social world through a form of self-analysis that leads to his conception of his own sexual identity. In the case of the sympathizer, his sexual status as a bastard leads him to construct a sexual identity of himself as “impure”. After admiring a fellow character’s sexual transformation from an innocent girl to a sexually liberated woman, he explains,
“Some men preferred those innocent schoolgirls in their white ao dai, but not me. They belonged to some pastoral, pure vision of our culture from which I was excluded, as distant to me as the snowcapped peaks of my father’s homeland. No, I was impure, and impurity was all I wanted and all I deserved” (124).
The sympathizer believes himself to be sexually impure, and identifies himself with impurity, because his social world taught him that he was impure. Still, he considers this impurity as innate to himself, so much so that he only “deserve[s]” other forms of impurity. The sympathizer’s sexual identity as impure then becomes part of the sexual lens through which he focalizes the other elements of the novel. For example, when the sympathizer goes to visit the crapulent major’s widow, she shows him her sleeping children, and he thinks to himself, how “these children, just a year old, were still unconscious of their guilt” (206). This leads him to think back to being taught guilt by his priest father and to his experiences of being casted out by society for being a bastard. Returning from this digression to the crapulent major’s children, he asks himself,
“as for these sleeping children, how long would they stay unawake to the guilt they already bore, to the sins and crimes they were doomed to commit? Was it not possible that each of them in his little heart, as they tussled next to each other for their mother’s breasts, had already yearned, however briefly, for the disappearance of the other?” (209).
Not only does the sympathizer think of himself as impure, but he thinks of himself as being born impure, and this, in turn, influences his understanding of the guilt and sin a person with which a person is born. Thus, when he focalizes the crapulent major’s children, he sees in them the guilt and sin that they are not yet aware of, or that they have not yet experienced. From this sexual focalization, the reader is given three levels of information. The first is a description of the focalized object, the sleeping children themselves. The second is an understanding of the character focalizor, the sympathizer, based on how he sees these children. The reader learns that the sympathizer believes children are born with guilt, and that he is pessimistic with regards to human goodness, expecting one twin to already want the other gone. In addition to this, the reader learns that the sympathizer’s conception of guilt and sin is tied to his experiences as a bastard. This allows the reader to draw out a third level of information, this one on the social world in which the sympathizer lives. The reader learns that when the social environment that exists in the structure of the novel attributes to a child the sexual impurity of being a bastard, it also attributes them with an inescapable guilt and sin.
In order to create a compelling character-effect, authors must create the appearance of certain elements of human nature for their fictional characters, including personality, capability to act, and sexual identity. However, as sexual identity is inherently performative, it is a particularly effective element to mimic in fictional characters. Furthermore, as sexual identity is derived from and informed by societal expectations, it is useful means of imparting information of not just the character, but on the larger social structure of the novel. Due to the societal influence on sexual identity, the technique of sexual focalization can be used to efficiently provide information on not just the focalized object and the character focalizor, but also on the social pressures existing in the fictional world.
Bal, Mieke. Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative, University of Toronto Press, 3rd Edition, 2009.
Butler, Judith. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory”, Theatre Journal, Vol. 4, No.4, 1988, pp.519-531.
Gelley, Alexander. “Character and Person: On the Presentation of Self in the Novel”, Narrative Crossings, Johns Hopkins UP, 1987.
Nguyen, Viet Thanh. The Sympathizer, Grove Press, 2015.