Perceptions and the Past in The Night Watch

29 April 2016

Perceptions and the Past in The Night Watch

First impressions are fleeting, momentary snapshots of a person’s life and are therefore not to be trusted. Judging a character on an impression one develops based on information one’s just learned at one’s first meeting cannot give a true sense of that character’s personality. Waters’ decision to write her novel The Night Watch in reverse chronological order influences and ultimately enhances the readers’ perceptions of the characters. Waters’ form of narration goes from a series of events from the latest date, to another long stretch of time from an earlier date, to the earliest events that started it all. This unique structure creates different expectations for the readers. Instead of wanting to know where the characters end up, the readers want to know how they ended up where they are, which is a lot more true to life when one meets a person for the first time. Though the readers know many of the end results, the later sections still hold suspense and value for the reader because we don’t know how these things resulted. By including four different and equally detailed characters’ points of view, the readers become equally invested in each story and its progression, or rather its regression. One of the many messages this novel conveys is that first impressions should not be relied on when judging one’s character; one’s past is essential in discovering how people came to be the way they are. Waters’ communicates this message through her choice to start at the end – the results of the characters’ life choices – and move backward in order to discover what these choices were and how they were made.

One of the more transparent moments when the characters help demonstrate the effect of such a narrative form is when Kay describes her cinema-going habits: “‘Sometimes I sit through the films twice over. Sometimes I go in half-way through, and watch the second half first. I almost prefer them that way—people’s pasts, you know, being so much more interesting than their futures. Or perhaps that’s just me …’” (110) This passage presents an idea from a character that the novelist seems to have taken on herself in her novel, but it is her character’s explanation of this idea that I find most compelling. Kay “prefer[s]” to have a clear understanding of a film’s characters’ motivations which occurs only when she sees films “twice over” and especially when she sees the “second half first.” Most commonly, the first half of a story introduces characters and develops them by including details from their past that shape their frame of mind and how they perceive the world and why. The second half is the result of these perceptions – the choices the characters’ make in their lives based on their developed values. By being exposed to their life decisions before understanding the motivation for these decisions, Kay, or Waters, creates a dynamic that is truer to life. In reality, one doesn’t know why people do what they do upon first meeting them. Kay presents the idea in a way that sets up the reader to like the novel; it is as if she assures the reader that if these hundred pages so far have not been overly gripping to us, that the next pages will be when we travel backward and learn the first halves of her characters’ lives second. This distorted narrative is unconventional, but makes more sense when it comes to the gradual process of getting to know an individual.

This notion is further emphasized by Kay in the opening sentence of the novel: “So this, said Kay to herself, is the sort of person you’ve become; a person whose clocks and wrist-watches have stopped, and who tells the time, instead, by the particular kind of cripple arriving at her landlord’s door” (3). Her current view of herself, the “sort of person you’ve become,” emphasizes the change that has occurred in her character, to which the reader is not yet privy. This passage adds to the overwhelming sensation the reader gets upon reading the first section of the novel that the characters feel settled at this point in their lives. Most of them are not content with their current situations, but there is the strong impression that they have worked up to where they are in this section. Kay’s emphasis on frozen time with “clocks and wrist-watches have stopped” adds to this settled, unchanging atmosphere of the characters, and alludes to the fact that previous events must have caused this stagnation.

The sense of settled time in the first section of this novel also teaches us that the characters have come to some sort of a conclusion about their environment and the people in it, and should therefore be trusted when it comes to their perceptions of other characters over our own perceptions, which are only just formed at the beginning of the novel. This becomes tricky since the final results of the characters come at the beginning, so the characters have undergone developments that we have not seen yet. Therefore, those who are more informed on a character’s past and thus motivations should be trusted when making perceptions of these characters over those, like the readers, who are not. For this reason, we should trust Viv, who has a well rounded impression of both Duncan and Mr. Mundy since she is so involved in both their lives, instead of our own upon reading the first scene with the three of them, since we do not know the circumstances of Duncan and Mr. Mundy’s relationship yet. Viv’s description of her surroundings in Mr. Mundy’s house gives us the perspective we need to be able to make judgments on these characters.

Mr Mundy’s house, itself, rather gave her the creeps: an old person’s house, it was, its little rooms crowded with great dark furniture, its walls swarming with pictures. On the mantelpiece were flowers of wax and piece of coral under spotted glass domes. The lamps were gas ones still, with fish-tail flames. There were yellow, exhausted photographs: of Mr Mundy as a slim young man; another of him as a boy, with his sister and mother, his mother in a stiff black dress, like Queen Victoria. It was all dead, dead, dead; and yet here was Duncan, with his quick dark eyes, his clear boy’s laugh, quite at home amongst it all. (28)

At this point in the story, we don’t have any particular reason to believe that Mr. Mundy is anything but a kind, fatherly figure to Duncan. However, Viv’s perspective gives us a shadier view of Mr. Mundy and, since she is his sister and is therefore more attuned to Duncan’s life than we are, her judgement should probably be valued over ours. Firstly, she says outright that the place “gives her the creeps,” which is a strong statement, but she also qualifies this statement as only her own opinion by specifying that it gives her a feeling of uneasiness. Her opinion contrasts with Duncan’s, who appears at ease in the environment, or “quite at home amongst it all.” By gaining Viv’s perspective, we become more informed of the overall atmosphere of Mr. Mundy’s house and Mr. Mundy himself. Words like “swarming,” “still,” “exhausted,” and the repetition of “dead” not only support her initial claim of a negative vibe toward the house, but remain associated with Mr. Mundy in the reader’s mind and therefore color our opinion of him later in the novel, yet earlier in the plot. Viv doesn’t make statements like this based on first impressions like we might; she has spent countless hours in this room in the presence of Duncan and Mr. Mundy and has developed informed opinions on both of their characters.

Further contrast between the two siblings’ opinions is provided with the way they each choose to address him. While Viv calls the old man “Mr. Mundy,” which is how he is known later in the novel to the prisoners, Duncan calls him “Uncle Horace.” This peculiar address adds a significant amount of familiarity to their relationship, while Viv insists on maintaining the standard address in order to keep a more detached relationship. Again, though we may not see anything wrong with Duncan’s address yet, we should be more inclined to trust Viv’s since she is the perspective we are given in this scene, and she has information about these characters that we haven’t yet gotten.

In our first impression of Duncan interacting with Mr. Mundy, we witness him act like a small child by letting himself be taken care of by the older man. We come to find that the emphasis on Mr. Mundy’s ancientness brings out the child in Duncan. This first impression is given more context much later in the novel when we see Duncan and Mr. Mundy interact in prison, and there are already hints of Mr. Mundy acting as caretaker to the younger man.

Instead he got slowly to his feet, then came to Duncan’s bunk and sat beside him; and he put his hand—his left hand, with the cigarette in it—on Duncan’s shoulder. He said, in a quiet, confidential tone, ‘You think of me, when you get low; and I’ll think of you. How’s that? You and me are alike, after all … I’ll think of you— well, I won’t say as a father thinks of his son, for I know you’ve got your own dad to do that; but let’s say as a man might think of his nephew. (354)

With this context, the reader realizes the inappropriateness of the two men’s relationship. By giving us the reasoning behind why Duncan calls Mr. Mundy “Uncle Horace” much later in the novel, our full understanding of their connection is suspended, as it often is in real life. One doesn’t have answers to the questions one develops about others upon meeting them until much later in one’s relationship with them. Sometimes years go by before one finds out a significant fact in another’s life that changes one’s entire perspective on that person. In this case, hundreds of pages go by before we get this sort of fact to give us an accurate perspective of Duncan and Mr. Mundy’s relationship.

When meeting new people, we enter their lives in a linear fashion; our paths cross others’ in a way that we only find out certain facts about their lives that color our impression of them. Without all the facts, our impressions are often wrong or underdeveloped. Since a person’s life story is not included in one’s first impression of that person; it must be earned through the development of trust over time. Waters creates a structure within her novel that emphasizes the importance of this gradual earning of events of others’ pasts that define their characters and change our impressions of them. Through the careful treatment of which facts are revealed when, Waters demonstrates what it is like to meet a person without any of the background knowledge one often receives about characters at the beginning of a more conventionally structured novel. Waters’ structure is more beneficial when one thinks of meeting her characters as we meet new people everyday. It helps us ask the right questions – the questions we would ask in real life as opposed to those we might ask at the beginning of a novel.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *