Friday, March 15, 2013

Epistolary Identities and Perspective: Similarities between "Gone Girl" and "Code Name Verity"

HOLD UP. Before you starting reading this essay, I need to warn you that the post contains extremely detailed and important spoilers for both Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. Both these novels are excellent, and I highly, HIGHLY recommend you read them first before reading this commentary. Believe me, the joy of surprise is pretty important to how you read these novels (at least for the first time). If you've already read them, or don't care, read on. But you've been warned. 

In terms of actual story and tone, Gone Girl and Code Name Verity couldn't be more different. Gone Girl is a twisted, contemporary thriller about a truly disturbed married couple. Code Name Verity is a heart-tugging historical YA about a unique friendship between a lower-class pilot and an upper-class spy.

However, the plots of both novels depend on the use of epistolary narratives and the manipulation of perspective to fuel the element of surprise and the theme of identity.

In fact, their narrative structures are nearly identical. The first halves of Gone Girl and Verity rely on the epistolary narratives of one of the protagonists - with Girl it's Amy's diary and with Verity it's the story Queenie writes down for her Nazi interrogators.

Both of these written narratives are intrinsic to the reader's perception of the protagonists' identities. The first words Queenie writes are, "I am a coward." Her narrative, despite the occasional sharp jab of gallows humour, is fraught with guilt, fear, and shame. She is a collaborator, after all. The other tortured prisoners mock and spit on her as a traitor, for trading her eleven wireless codes for the return of her clothes and a warm blanket.

Throughout the first half of Verity, the reader has to reconcile Queenie's personal account of her daring escapades with the cowardly result. For all her cheeky wit and ambition, when faced with real conflict, with real torture, Queenie cannot measure up. Through Queenie's writings, we see a reckless girl who is, at heart, unprepared for the true darkness of war.

In Gone Girl, Amy's innocence and naiveté in the face of a darker world also come through in her writings. Her diary entries detail her headlong tumble into love with her husband Nick, as well as her struggle to maintain her optimism as lay-offs, financial troubles and relocations strain their marriage and turn Nick into a stranger. She just wants to make her husband happy. She just wants them to be a family again. So why is Nick suddenly becoming violent with her?

However, the second halves of the novels both focus on the deconstruction of these initial narratives - as well as the false identities they create. Oddly enough, both novels achieve this with the introduction of the perspective of a believed-dead character who turns out to still be alive. In Gone Girl, we realize Amy has faked her own death in order to frame her husband. In Code Name Verity, we discover Queenie's best friend Maddie survived the plane crash that brought them both to France, and is aiding the French Resistance.

These sudden changes in perspective pose an important question: who were these initial epistolary narratives written for? Initially, we're to believe they're for the protagonists themselves, for their own mental survival and well-being.

However, the second parts of these novels indicate otherwise. As a not-dead Amy reveals in Gone Girl's second half, her entire diary is a ruse, meticulously researched to correspond with important dates, and left in a place where the police can easily find it. Brilliant, sociopathic Amy intentionally uses the social construct of diary writings to create an irrefutable condemnation of her husband - after all, why would Amy lie in her own diary? No one else is supposed to read it!

Amy's mere existence reveals the lie behind her epistolary identity. She's not the naive, optimistic, sheltered victim with an abusive husband as depicted in her diary - instead, she's a monstrously vindictive genius with both the will and the intelligence to punish those who scorn her in truly horrifying ways.

The second half of Code Name Verity is a little more uplifting - well, okay, not uplifting. Queenie dies, after all - and at Maddie's hand, to protect her from being maimed and dragged off to a concentration camp for experimentation. However, after Queenie's death, Maddie gets her hands on her written confession.

Only then do we discover Queenie's true identity - that of Lady Julia Beaufort-Stewart, or "Julie," as Maddie calls her. Just as Amy's diary was an intentional construction intended to fool the police, so was Queenie's "cowardly" confession intended to fool the Gestapo, delay her execution, and help the Allies. Those eleven wireless codes she gave up in return for a sweater and a blanket? Fake. The names and locations of the airfields in her reminiscences? Made-up and incorrect. Those weird lined passages and strange combinations of letters and numbers at the start of every chapter? Codes allowing the Resistance to sneak past Nazi security and take over the prison.

This reveal is the essential emotional gut-punch behind Code Name Verity - that Lady Julia Beaufort-Stewart is the absolute opposite of a coward. She not only sacrifices her freedom, her physical comfort, and ultimately her life for the cause - but also her integrity, by creating such a convincing epistolary identity of a weak, cowardly collaborator that even her fellow prisoners mistreat her. She preys on the Nazis' belief that women are too delicate for true warfare, while remaining utterly true to herself and her country until the very end.

The subtext beneath Queenie's confession is also extremely poignant - for the Nazis, she frames her narrative with her "cowardly" intention to stay alive. However, once Maddie reads through her confession with new eyes, she (and the reader) recognize through Julie's use of metaphor, symbolism, and tone that Julie did not and probably never intended to survive the ordeal. While the military information she provides is worthless, her depictions of her friendship with Maddie are true, and the paradigm shift is truly tearjerking. Her retelling of the best years of her life were not written for her own comfort - but for the comfort of those she knew would be reading this confession after her death.

It truly is fascinating how two very different novels use the same narrative device and story structure to tell two very different stories.

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