Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Missing Narrative

I saw Edvard Munch’s painting “The Girl at the Window” at the Art Institute of Chicago again this Monday. (This month admission is free, so the Art Institute is seeing a lot of my family and me.) I was first struck by the light in this picture; the white of the girl’s dress is so luminous it seems alive. But what I find even more striking is what this painting does not show: It does not show what the girl is looking at outside, nor does it give any hint why she is trying to hide behind the curtain while peering out. No other clues are offered. We look on with her. We wonder about the dark foreground; we wonder what she’s looking at, and who or what she’s hiding from. Such is the power of the missing narrative: It engages the viewer, or, in the case of writing, the reader. A scene is rendered with enough detail to grab our attention but something major is omitted, and our imagination is engaged. The artist has created a space for us to move into, to be filled by our imagination. We keep wondering.
Musing on his short story “Out of Season” in A Moveable Feast, Hemingway wrote about this art of omission: “I omitted the real end of it which was that the old man hanged himself. This was omitted on my new theory that you could omit anything if you knew that you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.”
I am left wondering about this art of the missing narrative – how much does one need to clue the reader in, and how much can one safely omit to give the reader the space to make the story his own?

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