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Plot Structure Comparison: a Pale View of Hills and Waiting for the Barbarians

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Plot structure in any novel is an important literary technique that can differ greatly from one novel to another. While the actual story tells the reader the events that happen to the characters, the plot is the technique used to form a time line for the story, whether the events are placed in chronological order or not. The novels Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee and A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro have plot structures that do not conform to the basic idea of a story in chronological order as time passes by, however their structures are vastly different nonetheless.

In the novel A Pale View of Hills, Ishiguro uses a very unique strategy to tell the story of Etsuko and her life. Instead of laying out the story in the present, he reaches back into Etsuko’s memory to find the story. He structures the plot around her thoughts and memories to bring back the story of her life in a way that makes the reader pay close attention to detail in order to understand where the characters are in time throughout the book. Ishiguro uses Etsuko to lay out the novel, but Etsuko cannot necessarily be relied upon. The author uses memory to skew the timelines of the events that take place in the novel, making the plot of the novel one that jumps around through time and blurs the lines between fiction and fact. The very beginning of the novel is set in the past when Etsuko’s daughter Niki comes to visit her. “She came to see me earlier this year, in April, when the days were still cold and drizzly” (Ishiguro 9). The only time that Etsuko’s memory seems to always be correct is in the times that she is with Niki.

In the novel Waiting for the Barbarians, the structure of the plot differs greatly from that of Ishiguro’s work. Instead of flashing back to the past and having the main character, the Magistrate, narrate the events from the past, Coetzee structures the novel in a very straightforward way. The events come to the Magistrate, as well as the reader, as they are happening. This sets a tone of mystery and intrigue for the reader that does not appear as much in A Pale View of Hills.

Both authors of these novels use unique strategies to shape the plot. In A Pale View of Hills, Ishiguro uses Etsuko’s memory, or lack thereof, to offset the plot and make the reader question what is going on in the character’s life. “It is possible that my memory of these events will have grown hazy with time, that things did not happen in quite the way they come back to me today” (Ishiguro 41). Ishiguro also starts the novel with telling the reader the most important event in the main character’s life, the suicide of Etsuko’s daughter, Keiko. This not only sets the tone for the whole novel, but makes it so that the reader can tie events of Etsuko’s memory in with this life changing event that has scarred her. “Memory, I realize, can be an unreliable thing; often it is heavily colored by the circumstances in which one remembers, and no doubt this applies to certain of the recollections I have gathered here” (Ishiguro 156). Ishiguro also uses the plot structure to repeat significant events in the life of Etsuko. “It was towards the beginning of summer – I was in my third or fourth month of pregnancy by then – when I first watched that large American car, white and battered, bumping its way over the wasteground towards the river. It was well into the evening, and the sun setting behind the cottage gleamed a moment against the metal” (Ishiguro 12). Later in the novel, Etsuko sees the same car and it has a similar impact on her. “It was the latter part of the afternoon, a day or two after our outing to Inasa, and I happened to glace out the window. The wasteground outside must have hardened significantly since the first occasion I had watched that large American car, for now I saw it coming across the uneven surface without undue difficulty…The glare on the windscreen prevented me from seeing clearly, but I received a distinct impression that the driver was not alone” (Ishiguro 157). In both instances where this American car comes into the novel, they are gone again in an instant and are never explained or commented on further. Ishiguro uses this as a way of bringing the plot around in a circular way, making the story more difficult on which to place a sense of time.

The author of the novel Waiting for the Barbarians, J. M. Coetzee, uses a very different technique in which to further and shape the plot. While Coetzee uses a very straightforward approach to tell the story of the Magistrate through his eyes, he also uses techniques like dreams to foreshadow and insinuate things in the Magistrate’s life. The first dream that occurs is the dream that the Magistrate keeps having again and again. “In the dream I pass through the barracks gate, pass the bare flagpole. The square extends before me, blending at it’s edges into the luminous sky. Walls, trees, houses have dwindled, lost their solidity, retired over the rim of the world” (Coetzee 10). This dream reappears multiple times throughout the novel and it furthers the plot by changing a little each time it happens. This dream is also the first time where an image of the barbarian girl comes into play. “I am aware of my bulk, my shadowiness, therefore I am not surprised that the children melt away on either side as I approach. All but one. Older than the others, perhaps not even a child, she sites in the snow with her hooded back to me working at the door of the castle, her legs splayed, borrowing, patting, moulding. I stand behind her to watch. She does not turn. I try to imagine the face between the petals of her peaked hood but cannot” (Coetzee 11). The Magistrate is not aware that this image is a representation of the barbarian girl, nor is the reader, the first time she appears in the dream, but as the plot progresses, it becomes evident that the young girl in this dream is the barbarian girl who has made such an impact of the Magistrate’s life. The first time he encounters the barbarian girl he finds her kneeling in the snow. “She kneels in the shade of the barracks wall a few yards from the gate, muffled in a coat too large for her, a fur cap open before her on the ground” (Coetzee 29). This makes the reader wonder if the dreams he is having is a foreshadowing into the future of the Magistrate’s life and the future of the town. Coetzee uses this technique of dreams to make the reader see the full impact that this girl has had on the Magistrate even though he cannot see it himself.

Both Kazuo Ishiguro and J. M. Coetzee have written literary works of art using their unique story telling methods. Their use of plot structure furthers their stories and makes the reader tie events together in a way that is unique and imaginative. While Ishiguro uses things such as memories and the uncertainty of the past to tell his story in A Pale View of Hills, Coetzee uses a straight forward approach where the events come to the reader as the characters experience them in his novel Waiting for the Barbarians. Both uses of plot structure are alluring and lead to a captured attention from the reader and an interesting spin on the normal structure of time and space that many readers are used to.

Works Cited

•Coetzee, J. M. Waiting for the Barbarians. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1982. Print.

•Ishiguro, Kazuo. A Pale View of Hills. New York: Vintage, 1990. Print.

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