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Empathy through Realism in Bakker's TEN WHITE GEESE

Cliffton Jacques

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Cliffton Jacques

The University of Georgia

 

Empathy through Realism in Bakker's Ten White Geese

 

Gerbrand Bakker’s novel Ten White Geese features one woman’s life in the Welch countryside leading up to her eventual suicide. The work is replete with motifs--recurring imagery, philosophical insight, and other tropes--that do not necessarily enhance the plotline at face value, but rather point towards a deeper understanding of the work. After inspecting Bakker’s work more closely, a possible interpretation is that he is attempting to evoke empathy from the reader toward a novel with a relatively simple and otherwise not relatable plotline. Ultimately, Bakker offers a replicable model for authors seeking to create a more realistic and emotional story for their audience.

 

Gerbrand Bakker’s novel Ten White Geese tells the dreary and seemingly emotionless story of a middle-aged woman who moves to Wales where she eventually commits suicide. One reviewer found its pace and plotline to be “sluggish,” admitting the meaning of the work is “untranslatable to her” (Previte). While this melancholy novel appears to have very little plot development, a close reading reveals a great deal of intentionality and experimentation. According to William Harmon, “Realists center their attention to a remarkable degree on the immediate, the here and now, the specific action, and the verifiable consequence" (quoted in Realism in American Literature).  Bakker follows in this tradition to create a realistic scenario, which can be conveyed to readers even though they have never experienced it themselves. Ten White Geese is an experiment to see if intense realistic description can evoke emotion within a reader. If the experiment is successful, realistic description points toward the reader’s ability to empathize with the work through the incorporation of mundane imagery. By providing relatable description, Bakker provides the reader with an entry point to understanding the fictional work as a whole. Ultimately, Bakker offers a model for other authors seeking to create a more realistic and emotional story for their audience.

            Bakker’s experiment seeks to translate intangible emotions into a work that focuses on real and empirical description. One might ask: Is there any need for a style that can create a sense of intimacy and realism for the reader?  It is likely that the reader has the natural creativity to understand any work regardless of how unique it is. Bakker, however, provides the reason for his experiment, alluding to it as an effort to display the difficulty of conveying an experience through words. A badger plays a small role within the work when he emerges in broad daylight and bites Agnes’s foot. The people within the small town in Wales do not perceive the incident as possible:

 

“[That is] the badger lady. A badger bit her on the foot.”

“No! That’s impossible.”

“That’s what I said, but it did.” (61)

 

The incident of the badger biting the foot initially appears to play a benign role in plot evolution, yet it is a poignant signifier for the difficulties of conveying fiction in a believable manner to a reader. People have a natural response to neglect what they do not know or understand. This neglect is clearly seen when the townspeople refuse to believe a story given to them. In the same way, it is idealistic to assume that a reader would automatically be able to connect on a personal level with such a strange narrator and story. This difficulty to communicate emotions to the reader is detrimental to empathy, to making a human connection. If literature loses its ability to convey emotion and simply seeks to describe an empirical and objective reality, then how does it differ from science? According to Rene Wellek, comparative literature is often too concerned with the direct and strict influences of specific works and its effects on other cultures. This understanding of literature limits what can be discovered in the work. As a comparatist, Wellek understands that art is not always tangible and therefore not always subject to sources and influences. Instead, to truly inspect the influence of literature, it is necessary to observe its qualitative values in addition to its empirical attributes.  Thus, the influence of Ten White Geese is its ability to evoke empathy within the reader. To fully understand how Bakker accomplishes this, we must consider the artistic qualities that influence how the work communicates. Bakker continues grappling with how to connect with readers in the townspeople’s continued conversation. The hairdresser who could not relate to the badger story goes on to exclaim that she only sees “dead badgers. On the side of the road” (62). The woman cannot relate to the story because it is not an event that she has personally experienced.  Bakker highlights the difficulty of getting an audience to empathize with something that it cannot relate to, but he continues to seek a method to tear the veil between a baffling story and  reader comprehension.

            Bakker tears the veil through graphic and encompassing--in other words, realistic--descriptions that cultivate the reader’s empathy for the mundane. Readers can relate their personal histories to the puzzling narrative through Bakker’s provision of universal and realistic experiences. Ten White Geese describes everyday images that are personal and intimate.  For example, many passages describe the body, especially Agnes’s observations of her own aging body:

 

Walking as slowly as possible, she waded out to the middle where--she with the water up to her waist--she stayed until the last ripple had died away and it was smooth again. She could see her toes and her knees, miniscule air bubbles on each pubic hair, a strange refraction of light at her belly and forearms…she was saw goose bumps appearing around her nipples (67).

 

The image provides personal imagery of the main character’s body. Later in the novel, Bakker also provides scenes in which Bradwen observes his “penis” in the bathtub (225).  Both of these visuals, though universal, are not commonly shared in public. The disclosure of a personal image establishes a feeling of intimacy with the novel that helps enhance the reality of the situation. The reader connects to the novel through an intimate image that allows for empathy and connection to the characters on an extremely personal level.

            In addition to the badger example, Bakker uses animals as a literary device to foreshadow Agnes’s death. In the novel, a fox slowly kills off geese--a relationship that appears to be a countdown to Agnes’s suicide. Even though she tries to save the geese through barriers and shelters, she is unable to curtail the predation of the foxes. The predator-prey relationship between the fox and the goose is understandable to most people either through personal experience or reinforcement as an archetype in stories such as Aesop’s fables and Disney’s rendition of Pinnochio. The portrayal of animals allows readers to connect with the novel’s characters because most people have some experience with animals and have a decent amount of knowledge regarding their behavior. Animals perform this role in many other works due to their relatable nature. For example, in the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewynn Davis a cat is used for this same purpose. The cat in the movie is often running away. Through the movement of the cat, the main character moves as well in an attempt to catch him, propelling plot development. Similarly, realistic and relatable use of animals in Ten White Geese nurtures anticipation and emotion in the reader toward the Agnes’s suicide.

            In addition, Bakker juxtaposes descriptive language with an absence of description to heighten the emotional reaction of the reader. Bakker’s intentional vagueness at times raises the question whether the crafting of detail-rich and detail-poor portions of the narrative serves an overarching purpose. For example, most of the scenes involving Agnes provide an astonishing amount of detail:

 

On her own path. Across the stream and through the oiled kissing gates and the small wood of ancient trees, where the path grew clearer each time she used it. Songs from birds she could not identify and had never known; a squirrel. She walked straight through the stone circle and onto the embankment through the marshy ground (66).

 

This detail-rich approach, placing the reader firmly in the midst of the situation, starkly contrasts with many of the scenes involving Agnes’s husband. For the majority of the novel, this character is simply called “the husband” and his traveling companion is simply called “the police officer” (95). Depriving these characters of a name allows the reader’s mind to fill in the traditional stereotypes of such roles, but this method also makes each of them extremely archetypal and difficult to empathize with. Creating a husband with little character depth, Bakker fashions a roadblock to empathizing with his situation, so that the reader may focus upon Agnes’s depression. The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus understood oppositions as a form of giving more reality to the various parts of an object. Bakker creates focus through the presence and absence of descriptive language, thereby establishing an environment where the reader is fully able to relate to the main character without unimportant distractions.

            Bakker employs the method of repetition and opposition in imagery throughout the novel. One of the most obvious repetitions is the ingestion of red wine:

 

She walked into the living room, poured a glass of red wine, fluffed up some cushions and sat down close to the wood burning stove.  The cigarette she lit tasted like a first cigarette. It grew dark very slowly, as if the light was being sucked out of the window like fine dust (29).

 

Agnes is always drinking red wine as if it was a “tonic” (104). Agnes’s uncle, who like his niece attempts suicide, also drank a “Bloedwijn” (literally, blood wine) almost every night (104). The presence of “blood” in this wine is highly suggestive, and reinforces the patterns of their drinking before Agnes and her uncle both commit suicide.

            The act of smoking frequently accompanies the ingestion of wine in the novel. The reader notices Agnes’s blatant disregard for her own health, especially in her explicit moments of deep sadness or depression. This repetition of motifs, such as the commonplace or mundane actions of smoking and drinking wine, allows us to comprehend the emotions Agnes is experiencing whether the narrator states them explicitly or not. While Agnes drinks red wine, the family that she has left behind is seen drinking “white wine” (53). It makes sense that her family is in a constant state of bewilderment in understanding Agnes or her uncle. Both of these people focus on their own sadness, while the rest of the family does not appear to suffer from depression. The contrast of red and white wine establishes the differences in understanding the worldviews within the family. Not only does the novel use the reader’s personal experiences to convey a message, but it also creates a background within the work to paint a picture and provide context. In addition, the contrast provides a glimpse of hope to the reader. During Bradwen’s stay, Agnes’s emotions fluctuate. During one of these moments she states that she must drink “white wine” today because it matches the meal that Bradwen is preparing. While it is common to match wines with meals, the change also instills a feeling that Agnes’s mindset has ceased to be focused on her own death due to the deviation from her standard pattern. The use of patterns establishes a reality within the work with which readers can empathize.

            Bakker’s novel is often considered to have little development and does not appear to be a groundbreaking literary work. This claim clearly does not take into account the tremendous accomplishment of translating the actions within the story into a relatable experience for the reader. Incorporating relatable events and symbolism makes it possible to empathize with the depressing ending and suicide of Agnes. Other authors can replicate Bakker’s method of instilling empathy in an audience despite the mundane nature of the plotline. By providing description in the story that is relatable to the reader, Bakker creates the insight for the reader to understand the entire narrative. An author can capture common experiences in his audience and use it as a bridge to understand the fiction as a whole.

 

 

WORKS CITED

 

Bakker, Gerbrand. Ten White Geese. Great Britain: Penguin, 2012. Print.

Campbell, Donna M. "Realism in American Literature, 1860-1890." Literary Movements. Dept. of English, Washington State University. 7/4/2013. Web. 4/22/2014.

Graham, Daniel W., "Heraclitus", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2011/entries/heraclitus/

Previte, Deb. "Ten White Geese "disappointing" ." A Bookish Libraria. N.p., n. d. Web. 10 Apr. 2014. <http://abookishlibraria.blogspot.com/2013/04/ten-white-geese-by-gerbrand....

"Realism in American Literature." Washington State University. N.p.. Web. 10 Apr 2014. <http://public.wsu.edu/~campbelld/amlit/realism.htm>.     

           

           

 

 
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