Humour, Narrative Perspective, and Meaning | Margaret Atwood and Xiaolu Guo

The world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel.

Horace Walpole

For Jonathan Swift, writing humour, or rather satire, is as simple as a pair of bellows blowing wind up a dog’s rear end until, at last, the poor thing explodes. (Have tastes changed all that much?) But fiction writers employ comedic devices for an array of purposes. As Mark Twain said, “Genuine humour is replete with wisdom”, and it is one of the writer’s many literary tools by which he/she lays bare the human condition and exposes all our follies. In doing so, a great writer can both lift the spirits and make the whole world cry.

When it comes to comedy, narrative perspective (first-person, second-person, third-person) can drastically impact its landing. The disconnect between character and narrator can transmute something utterly taboo into something hilariously absurd. Comedy is idiosyncratic and one’s sense of humour a byproduct of class, race, and upbringing. Things often get lost in translation. It arises from a veritable soup of disparate factors — context is key — and while it can certainly be malicious, more often than not, it betrays a shared experience, and inspires feelings of empathy in us all.

Today, we look at Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last and Xiaolu Guo’s A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, examining, in both novels, the many ways in which humour, perspective, and meaning intertwine.

The Heart Goes Last: Margaret Atwood: 9781408867785 ...
The Heart Goes Last

The Heart Goes Last[1] follows Stan and Charmaine, a homeless married couple living out of the back of their car in a nondescript dystopian future. The economy has crashed and so, fearing for their futures, apply to take part in a radical new social experiment wherein they take turns living as both residents and prisoner inmates in an idyllic Stepford-esque walled community. Atwood combines third-person narrative voice and free indirect speech to tell Stan and Charmaine’s story. The narrative voice switches between perspectives, shifting style and tone to inhabit each character, allowing us access to their thoughts.

However, while playing the roles of Stan and Charmaine, the narrator, though always present, never actually announces this fact. This creates an ambiguous gap between narrator and character, allowing for an ironic vein of black humour to run through the novel. Like the narrator, the reader is privy to information of which either Stan or Charmaine may be unaware. For example, “It’s good to have goals again,” Stan notes, when considering “the discovery and seduction of Jasmine”[2]. He believes Jasmine to be one of the alternates living in his Consilience house when he and Charmaine are in prison. But instead of “the yielding, the rubberiness, the humid jungle heat”[3] Stan expects to find, the narrator and reader both know that Jasmine is actually Charmaine, who has been having an affair with their alternate Max.

Stan’s voice is an aggressive male one, though he rarely has the courage to live up to his own expectations. Both a misogynist and occasional coward, he also wets himself more than once[4]. In addition to Stan’s elaborate sexual fantasies starring Jasmine, he goes to great lengths planning an equally elaborate scheme to track her down. His assumption is that he will seduce her and have his way with her. However, the third-person narration imbues the prose with an absurdity that would be missing in the first-person. Instead of being in Stan’s shoes, we are watching him from afar, which makes his actions seem more inexplicable. In addition to Stan’s “lusting for a woman [he’s] never seen”[5], he is also frustrated by his relationship with the passive and childlike Charmaine. He wishes she were more like the Jasmine he imagines, and yet, again, the reader knows them to be one and the same, which allows the narrator to make light of Stan’s frustration.

One of the difficulties of third-person narrative voice with multiple protagonists is differentiating those voices so that they sound distinct. Free indirect speech allows Atwood to succeed here. Charmaine’s voice is passive and uncertain[6], filled with references to television and the antiquated maxims of her grandmother. On the other hand, Stan’s voice is characterised by an abundance of curse words and explicit, often misogynistic, sexual fantasies[7]. Atwood uses free indirect speech “by morphing the narrator’s voice to take after [Stan and Charmaine’s] [which] often encourages empathy in the reader”[8]. But it also leaves the reader uncertain, as we are forced to “switch between different characters, […] keep pace with […] plot revelations,” alternate between “[changing] moral positions” as well as “respond to difficult situations in ways that can be equally understandable and disagreeable.”[9] This makes it difficult to relate to Stan and Charmaine’s unusual circumstances, as the distance created between reader and character creates a further sense of detachment from the already outlandish plot. However, free indirect speech is only possible in the third-person.

In the first-person, we are limited solely to the protagonist’s perspective, and thus, their thoughts and sense of humour, provided they have one. A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers[10], a semi-autobiographical work inspired by author Xiaolu Guo’s experiences leaving China for Britain, follows a young Chinese woman called Z, beginning in broken English which improves as the novel progresses.
Guo’s use of first-person narrative voice allows her to explore the many cultural differences, and reactions to them, that protagonist Z experiences. Additionally, this often provides a source of humour (sometimes, perhaps, unintentionally). As a result, Z is portrayed as being very blunt, which can make her seem unlikeable. She makes comments like “Are you a bit fatter than me?” and “I don’t believe we same age. You look much older than me.”[11] Moreover, she holds controversial beliefs, such as Tibet belonging to China, that many Westerners, including her unnamed older boyfriend, would disagree with: “You see things from a white English’s point of view.”[12] However, the first-person perspective softens our dislike of Z, as she attributes her behaviour to her Chinese upbringing: “All this manners very complication. China not have politeness in same way.”[13] Similarly, her boyfriend is perhaps less likable. He repeatedly condescends to Z, treating her like a child and contesting her non-Western logic. For example, “The future will decide for you, not you for the future. You’re from a Buddhist country, I would have thought you would know that.”[14] Having two separate main characters who are so difficult to like can be a struggle for the reader. However, despite her rudeness, and the odd, often dangerous decisions she makes, we nevertheless come to empathise with Z.

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo ...
First US Edition

Z’s sense of alienation is a major theme throughout the novel. From the beginning, her trepidation is made clear: “I not having life in West. I not having home in West. I scared. I no speaking English. I fearing future.”[15] She initially lives with a Cantonese family, whom she cannot understand[16], which only alienates her further, even from those whose cultural background she shares. This alienation is surely a feeling anyone can relate to, as she is already estranged from her own family, with Z’s struggle to comprehend and navigate Western culture a source of both empathy and humour. There are many moments where Z chooses to render a thought or maxim in her own language, with the English beside it.

For instance, “Old saying in China: ‘Birds have their bird language, beasts have their beast talk’ […] English they totally another species.”[17] This line can be appreciated on a comedic level, in that it shows how hopelessly Z tries to improve her English (an admittedly difficult and contradictory language even for native speakers), while its wisdom tells us more, perhaps, about Z and her culture than her actions do in the novel. It seems these short lines and passages in Mandarin allow her to express that which cannot be expressed in her broken English, namely her frustration and loneliness.[18] Equally, it is these small “almost accidental observations that […] allow [Z] to throw off the [early chapters’] faux-naivety […], [so that] she comes much more fully to life.”[19]

Additionally, the dictionary style of Guo’s novel is acceptable to the reader only because of the first-person narration. It humanises Z, as it is somewhat plausible that she would structure a diary like this when learning English. The use of images, sections in Mandarin, handwritten notes, and drawings all support the diary-dictionary format in a metafictional level. In the third-person, however, this would all draw attention to the novel’s artifice, ruining the effect and distancing us even more from Z. Moreover, there are times when the progression and ineptness of Z’s English seem too convenient or implausible, and may, to some readers, be viewed as nothing more than “a stagy literary device that never really convinces”[20].

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo
First UK Edition

Professor Harriet Evans of Westminster University notes that the novel deals with the “dislocated experiences of movement and migration”[21]. As such, the use of first-person narrative voice in Guo’s novel helps cement the feelings of isolation and alienation experienced by Z in her travels. We have no other form of reference outside of her perspective. The novel places us in Z’s shoes as she tries to navigate the European cultures she encounters, all of which are so vastly different to her own. In tandem with Z’s cultural exploration, we the reader are made to bend to the novel’s written style if we are to understand and appreciate Z’s struggles. As Ursula K. Le Guin writes, Guo’s novel “succeeds in luring the western reader into an alien way of thinking […] the irony and pathos of the book [being]: how can we talk to one another in different languages?”[22] This would not be possible in a third-person text, which can only render character thoughts in either reported or free indirect speech. Both the former and the latter would create too much distance between reader and character, limiting any sense of poignancy the novel creates.

In contrast, the distance between narrator and character is what allows The Heart Goes Last to succeed. When combined with third-person narration, free indirect speech allows Atwood to mimic the voices of her two characters as effectively as a first-person narrative. But the sense of separation from Stan and Charmaine also makes the reader complicit, with the narrator, as voyeurs to their lives. Both Positron and Consilience are heavily guarded against potential escapes, contact with the outside world, and any deviant behaviour from their inhabitants. Similarly, “[the authorities] take boundaries very seriously”[23] and it is rumoured that “Surveillance can see around corners.”[24] The separation between character and narrator imbues the prose with the very thematic material it describes, as it requires the reader to “enjoy [it] from a distance […], [drawing] attention to how naturally the practice of surveillance comes to us.”[25]

Much of the comedy in The Heart Goes Last relies on low humour, such as the characters’ various sexual shenanigans. Stan complains about Charmaine and her “chirpy, childishly high Barbie-doll voice”[26] and inability to satisfy his needs: “What he wants is sex that can’t be helped. He wants helplessness. No no no, yes yes yes! That’s what he wants.”[27] He wants excitement from Charmaine, not passivity. The story again pokes fun at Stan’s situation as, in Charmaine’s section, we find that, with Max, she is everything Stan wants her to be with him. With Stan, Charmaine “didn’t want to do bed things except where they belonged, in a bed”[28]. But with Max, she is “the person [she, and Stan, has] always wanted [her] to be”[29]. Furthermore, when Stan is with Jocelyn, a “torturous and humiliating vice”[30], he is forced to take on a passive role, in which he sometimes fears for his life[31]. For instance, “If he roughs her up and fucks her, it’s because she told him to; if he isn’t up to it, he’s a failure; so whichever it is, he loses.”[32] Early in the novel, the reader is likely to laugh when Stan is intimidated into becoming a pimp in Consilience’s chicken-sex trade.[33] We see that he takes pride in the contribution he has made “in his Positron role as Poultry Supervisor”[34] and his transition to “chicken pimp”[35] is absurd, abject, and incredibly funny.

Atwood often employs a light treatment of dark subjects in her novel, while tactfully glossing over others. For instance, Charmaine is threatened with the prospect of having her brain surgically altered so she can become Ed’s sex-slave. Veronica almost endures a similar fate, but the botched surgery instead generates a romantic fixation on a blue teddy bear.[36] The image of the blue bear is a recurring motif throughout the novel, also appearing on the cover. It appears in scenes dealing with both comic and incredibly dark material. For example, the production of “Possibilibots” or, more accurately, “prostibots” is a major plot point in the novel. Having escaped Consilience and Positron to Las Vegas, and there playing the role of a gay Elvis impersonator, Stan oversees delivery of male prostibots to elderly women. Like Stan, the prostibots look like Elvis, and are described as being “like a super-dildo, only with a body attached.”[37] Likewise, Stan is tasked with powering them down in the event of a malfunction, because “No one wants to be fucked to death”[38]. In the third-person narrative, one-liners like this flow seamlessly one after the other, as the narrator allows it. In the first-person, these jokes, and the novel’s slapstick, would seem too flippant or implausible. It is only when viewed from the distance third-person creates, that these elements succeed.

On a darker note, the blue bears also come as an accessory with the “kiddybots”[39] Positron produces, a subject Atwood wisely only touches on briefly. The suggestion is left to the reader’s imagination, with little exposition to guide us. We can laugh at the sexual comedy of Charmaine’s affair with Max, or at Stan’s Elvis-impersonating escapades, precisely because they are shown to us in so much detail. In the first-person, these shenanigans would lack the absurd sense of humour as is embodied in the third-person, as these events would be related to the reader directly from the characters, with no omniscient narrator as intermediary.

The juxtaposition of Atwood’s allusions to “kiddybots” against the comedy of the surrounding text ensures this small detail stands out amongst everything else. While it is not the only dark theme explored in the novel, it is arguably one of few subjects treated with complete seriousness. There are also several allusions to Charmaine’s childhood which hint at repressed memories of abuse. The first suggestion comes from Grandma Win: “You should try hard to forget those other things, because a man’s not accountable when he’s had too much to drink”[40]. Much later in the book, the theme is touched on again, as Charmaine struggles to remember: “I’ll teach you to talk back! Now who had said that? And how had she talked back? Did crying count as talking back? Yes, it did, because after that something bad happened. Let that be a lesson to you. But what was the lesson?”[41] This is particularly powerful because Charmaine does not know about the “kiddybots” as Stan, the reader, and narrator do.

But Stan is unaware of this aspect of Charmaine’s upbringing, which, if he were, would make the “kiddybots” all the more repulsive to him. There are many parallels between Charmaine and the “kiddybots”, as Charmaine even used to wear the same white cotton nighties[42]. If Atwood’s novel were written in the first-person, we would still be able to detect these parallels, though they would not be as impactful, as the abjection between the two would not be possible. It is only in the third-person that moments like these can stand out so hauntingly, because they are presented to us by the same narrator responsible for the absurd comedic backdrop of the rest of the text.

In A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary, after Z is sexually assaulted, we are tied to her perspective and the feelings of numbness and shame that are enacted in the text. Atwood aims for comedy despite the horrifying implications of her story. Despite its absurdity, the plot is wholly cynical, a scathing assessment of base human nature, whereas Guo’s novel is empathetic, its humour emerging as a byproduct of Z’s search for meaning and connection.

One should also note the “contrast between […] that rather bleak characterisation of ordinary […] young Chinese people and what you see on the covers of [Guo’s] books.”[43] The first US edition[44] of Guo’s novel features a little red book, much like Chairman Mao’s which Z frequently references, in the centre of the cover. Behind it is an artist’s depiction of two birds sitting on branches from two different trees. The two birds’ plumages are noticeably different, as are the leaves on each branch. One bird’s head is out of the picture, while the other peeks out from behind the little red book. The first UK edition[45], on the other hand, features a red clothbound background, covered with bright green fig leaves and dangling fruit, which partially obscure a nude Asian woman. The US cover is subtler, far more minimalist, and opts for less of an orientalist cliché.

These dichotomies are frequently explored in Guo’s novel(s). Z herself is often characterised as a stereotypical Chinese tourist (i.e. her mispronunciations of words, misunderstanding of English customs, love of pork vs. her boyfriend’s vegan lifestyle). Simultaneously, her boyfriend’s lack of knowledge about China leaves her exasperated. Z is also incredibly thoughtful and introspective, making profound (sometimes humorous) statements about Chinese medicine[46], language[47], and culture.[48] As Guo herself notes, “I’ve been so disappointed [by] the Western knowledge about […] China that I will support anything cliché […] and anything original”[49].

Z’s peasant experience growing up in China, and her time living in Europe, may resonate with non-Western readers on a far deeper level than with English. The West’s failure to truly understand China is frustrating for both Z and Guo, whose “true point is to talk about individuals’ alienation”[50]. For Z, there is “Something missing, something lost in [her] life, something that used to fulfil in [her] China life”[51]. She feels that “loneliness in this country [Britain] is something very solid, very heavy […] touchable and reachable, easily.”[52] The first-person narrative voice allows us to see through Z’s eyes, to speak her language, to understand how she is, to use Guo’s words, [cut off] from where [she has] come from [and held back from] where [she is] going”[53].

Bibliography [accessed 08 April 2020].

Atwood, Margaret, The Heart Goes Last (London: Virago, 2015).

Cadwalladr, Carole, ‘Heathlow airport? Oh how we laughed’, The Guardian, [accessed 18 April 2017].

Evans, Professor Harriet, ‘Xiaolu Guo on Novel Writing’, [accessed 18 April 2017].

Firth, Kaya, ‘Margaret Atwood: The Heart Goes Last (2015)’, The Ontarion, [accessed 16 April 2017].

Guo, Xiaolu, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers (London: Vintage, 2007).

Guo, Xioalu, ‘Xiaolu Guo on Novel Writing’, [accessed 18 April 2017].

Le Guin, Ursula K., ‘Sorry of my English’, The Guardian, [accessed 13 April 2017].

Li, Grace Z., ‘“The Heart Goes Last” Unsettling but Not Unsatisfying’, The Harvard Crimson, [accessed 18 April 2017]. [accessed 18 April 2017]. [accessed 18 April 2017].


[1] Margaret Atwood, The Heart Goes Last (London: Virago, 2015).

[2] Atwood, p. 84.

[3] Atwood, p. 84.

[4] Atwood, p. 312.

[5] Atwood, p. 91.

[6] Atwood, p. 17, p. 104.

[7] Atwood, pp. 64—65.

[8] Grace Z. Li, ‘“The Heart Goes Last” Unsettling but Not Unsatisfying’, The Harvard Crimson, [accessed 18 April 2017].

[9] Ibid.

[10] Xiaolu Guo, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers (London: Vintage, 2007).

[11] Guo, p. 37.

[12] Guo, p. 181.

[13] Guo, p. 37.

[14] Guo, p. 319.

[15] Guo, p. 5.

[16] Guo, p. 42.

[17] Guo, p. 10.

[18] Guo, p. 180.

[19] Carole Cadwalladr, ‘Heathlow airport? Oh how we laughed’, The Guardian, [accessed 18 April 2017].

[20] Cadwalladr, The Guardian.

[21] Professor Harriet Evans, ‘Xiaolu Guo on Novel Writing’, [accessed 18 April 2017].

[22] Ursula K. Le Guin, ‘Sorry of my English’, The Guardian, [accessed 13 April 2017].

[23] Atwood, p. 111.

[24] Atwood, p. 70.

[25] Kaya Firth, ‘Margaret Atwood: The Heart Goes Last (2015)’, The Ontarion, [accessed 16 April 2017].

[26] Atwood, p. 128.

[27] Atwood, p. 61.

[28] Atwood, p. 136.

[29] Atwood, p. 104.

[30] Atwood, p. 136.

[31] Atwood, p. 151.

[32] Atwood, p. 136.

[33] Atwood, p. 90.

[34] Atwood, p. 86.

[35] Atwood, p. 91.

[36] Atwood, p. 287.

[37] Atwood, p. 341.

[38] Atwood, pp. 341—342.

[39] Atwood, pp. 275—276.

[40] Atwood, p. 4.

[41] Atwood, p. 343.

[42] Atwood, p. 24.

[43] Professor Harriet Evans, ‘Xiaolu Guo on Novel Writing’, [accessed 18 April 2017].

[44] [accessed 18 April 2017].

[45] [accessed 18 April 2017].

[46] Guo, pp. 287—289.

[47] Guo, pp. 62—67.

[48] Guo, pp. 140—142, pp. 151—154, pp. 155—158.

[49] Xioalu Guo, ‘Xiaolu Guo on Novel Writing’, [accessed 18 April 2017].

[50] Ibid.

[51] Guo, p. 156.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Xioalu Guo, ‘Xiaolu Guo on Novel Writing’, [accessed 18 April 2017].

Written by Michael Conroy.

Photograph from Pixabay.

Copyright © 2020 Sirius Editorial | All Rights Reserved

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