With Ms. Suarez’s permission, I post her excellent midquarter here for its intrinsic value, and as an instructive example of how to write the kind of essay we are aiming at in these exercises. Please take advantage of this opportunity, which is provided us through Ms. Suarez’s generosity. Thank you.
Narrative Discourse in Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me
With the birth of Humanism during the Renaissance, man became the
center of his world. This view informed the basis of the modern, autonomous
subject where the self is an effect of a pre-existing order (ideology) and a
site of discourse. Thus, written language, operating as a discourse, positions
and constructs subjectivity. This concept is carefully elucidated in the
theories of linguist Emile Benveniste which are further illustrated in Jim
Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me. The narrative peculiarities in the novel,
such as first person narration, the illusive split between story and narrative
(more specifically Benveniste’s histoire and discourse), and the
acknowledgement of the reader’s position, all reveal the relationship between
language and subjectivity. Through the novel’s textual language, the
subjectivity of the narrative is not only constructed but also complicated
into three distinct subjects.
First of all, let us identify the three existing subjectivities
- narrating Lou,
- narrated Lou
- And the self-reflexive, confessing Lou of
Each of these distinct figures define their particular subjectivity through language. The narrator Lou is actualized and defined through the first person narration and the word „I.“ The first word in the
novel (p.3), the pronoun „I“ points to the existence of a subject. Since the novel does not yet have a story or any characters, one can only discern that „I“ designates the speaker of the text. In addition, following Benveniste’s theory, „the reality to which it [„I“] refers is the reality of the
discourse÷“(Benveniste, p.226), the pronoun merely refers to a subject who is
able to posit himself as a first person narrator. Also, he constructs his own
identity, separate from his past self, through the present tense.
The narrated Lou exists in the past, and he is defined through the
actions and thoughts presented by the narrator Lou. Thus, going back to the
first sentence in the novel, „I’d finished my pie and was having a second cup
of coffee when I saw him“(Thompson, p.3), the narrated Lou is defined as the
subject who finished the pie and drank the coffee. This Lou does not have a
voice outside of the story but it is through his subjectivity, and mainly his
point of view, that the story takes place.
The Lou of enunciation is manifested through the confessing subject who
uses the word „you.“ This particular Lou has a subtle presence in the first
half of the novel but dominates the narrative towards the end. He declares
himself in the phrase, „I guess I’m not ready to tell about it yet“(Thompson,
p.171) and is more strongly present when he says:
I will tell you about it. I want to tell you, and I will, exactly how it
happened. I won’t leave you to figure things out for yourself. In lots of
books I read, the writer seems to go haywire every time he reaches a
highpoint÷But the way I see it, the writer is just too goddam lazy to do his
job. And I’m not lazy, whatever else I am. I’ll tell you everything. But I
want to get everything in the right order. I want you to understand how it
was. (Thompson, p.179-180)
This passage reveals the third subjectivity of Lou who acknowledges the
position of the reader as „you“ and thus, he forms his position of „I“ as the
writer, the confessor and the enunciator of the text. This is not to say that
every time the word „you“ appears in the text, it is Lou the enunciator
speaking. There is a difference between the colloquial use of the word and
using it to directly address the reader. The fact that „you“ is the reader is
made apparent when he relates himself as a writer. This signification of „I“
complicates the role of the author; for in fact, the writer of the novel is
Jim Thompson and not Lou.
Moreover, the enunciating Lou relates to the idea that one constructs one’s
subjectivity according to the other. Unlike the other two subjects, the
enunciator constitutes himself as subject in relation to the reader; he is the
subject who uses the language of the other to construct the other, and by
defining the other to exist, he thus creates his own existence. Benveniste
claims, „The subject addresses the other in order to constitute himself in his
own eyes“ (Benveniste 67). Furthermore, Foucault asserts that „the confession
is a ritual of discourse in which the speaking subject is also the subject of
the statement“(Foucault, p.61). Thus, the Lou of enunciation is trying to say
that he is talking about himself but there is not a coherent subject.
What is complex about this novel is that these three subjectivities which
subtly arise as distinct, all use the same „I“ to refer to themselves. Also,
each level of narration integrates the subjectivity of the one before. Between
these three, the term „I“ is never complete, and it is all relative. As the
story progresses, the discourse in which „I“ is presented changes, and hence,
so does its signification. There is a fragmentation in the text and the
The narrator and narrated Lou are usually indistinguishable. It is
difficult to ascertain in whose point of view the story unfolds. Most of the
time, we only see through the limited viewpoint of the narrated Lou. This is
the normal presentation of a first person narrative. For example, the novel
reads, „I’d never hurt ‚em. I didn’t want to, and pretty soon I wouldn’t want
to hurt anyone. I’d get rid of her, and it would all be over for all
time“(Thompson, p.38). This is obviously in the point of view of the narrated
Lou at a specific time in the past. However, there are instances where the
present tense narrator comments on the events and causes a temporal and
spatial incongruity. For instance, talking about his home in his father’s
house, he says, „I wondered if that was why I stayed here÷“(Thompson, p.27).
The problematic word is „here“ because it denotes the house but it is said in
present tense. Hence, it seems that the narrator is speaking in the house, yet
in retrospect this would be impossible since the narrator, as Lou, is dead.
Such a phrase collapses the narrator and the narrated.
What is even more precarious is to distinguish the narrator from the
enunciator because the enunciator pretends to be the narrator and further
collapses the narrator with the narrated. The phrase, „I’m getting ahead of
myself again“(Thompson, p.173), is another impossible concept which is only
possible with the existence of three separate subjectivities. However, who is
getting ahead of who? What it means is that the narrated story of Lou is
getting ahead of the narrator. Yet this is not possible for the narrator
constructs the narrated, and without the latter, the former can not emerge.
Therefore, the phrase indicates that the narrative, which embodies both the
narrator and the narrated, is getting ahead of the enunciator. This too is a
ridiculous concept because the writer is the only one with control over the
story. Ultimately, this phrase only supports the idea that the enunciator, who
is in fact speaking the phrase, is completely separate from the narrator but
has the power to stop him.
The Lou of enunciation is trying to distance himself from the story
by exercising a masterful control over it. At the same time, he associates
himself with the other two by using their manner of speaking, with such
phrases as „the way I see it“ and „goddam“ and talking about himself in a
defensive tone, like the narrator, and alluding to a mental problem, „whatever
else I am.“ Nevertheless, the enunciator can not escape the text. He exists
precisely because he can acknowledge the reader. Even if the enunciating „I“
calls himself Jim Thompson, he still could not lie outside of the text.
„Existence and proof are inseparable. You have to have the second
to have the first“(Thompson, p.195). In The Killer Inside Me, language is the
proof of the existence of subjectivity. However, the enunciating Lou tries to
make a case that you need a subjectivity to utter the language. It is a
paradoxical argument of what came first, the utterer or the utterance, because
you can not have one without the other, especially in a written novel. With
the enunciator, the reader is supposed to believe there is a „true“ story, and
that the narrating Lou is separate from the writing Lou. The obvious presence
of the enunciating Lou complicates Benveniste’s theory that „in any subjective
utterance [there are] two subjects: the speaking subject, or the subject of
enunciation, and the subject of speech, or the subject of the
utterance“(Jackson, p.140). This theory may work when there is only a simple
utterance such as „I was sad.“ However, in a narrative, there can be three
subjectivities: the person speaking (or writing), the narrator and the
Definition of narration is something that takes these three possible forms, and once they surface, they can never be extinguished. As soon as any of them exists, they complicate and jeopardize the independence of the others. What this ultimately offers is an exploration of what can happen when you put the word „I“ on a page. It also offers a rhetorical sphere for discussing the issue of the immortality of the narrator as opposed to a philosophical or poetic one.
Benveniste, Emile. Problems in General Linguistics. Translated by Mary Elizabeth Meek. Coral Gables:
University of Miami Press, 1970.
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Translated by Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage
Jackson, Earl, Jr. Strategies of Deviance . Bloomington: Indiana UP. 1995
Silverman, Kaja. The Subject of Semiotics. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1983.
Thompson, Jim. The Killer Inside Me. New York: Vintage Books, 1980.
Nichole Kydreos on The Killer Inside Me
Luke Jackson on Pat Cadigan’s Fools
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