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Bewildering Stories

Challenge 496 Response

Meeting at the Villa Novesta

In Ron Van Sweringen’s “A Season at the Villa Novesta,” does the account of Matilda’s meeting Sebastian misdirect or mislead the reader?

The rule is: “Tell readers what they need to know in order to understand the story, but do not do the reading for them.” A corollary: a story may misdirect readers, as in mysteries or detective fiction; but an omniscient narrator must not mislead readers by misrepresenting the facts.

The case in point: The third-person narrator tells us that Matilda goes to the beach at the Villa Novesta and meets and converses with a young man, presumably Sebastian. He disappears unaccountably. Matilda is puzzled.

The narrative allows the readers to conclude only one of three things: Matilda really sees a young man, or she sees a ghost, or she has a hallucination. Her reaction leaves no other option open.

Granted, Matilda’s walk to the beach serves a dramatic purpose by depicting the beauty of the Villa and Sebastian’s youthful glory. But at the end we learn that Matilda has known all along what Sebastian once looked like.

Therefore Matilda did not meet a young man at the beach; nor did she see a ghost or have a hallucination. Since we know Matilda is lying to the Countess, she must have made up her story about meeting Sebastian. But then why does she act in private as though she really believes she has met Sebastian or his ghost?

In order to misdirect — rather than mislead — the readers, the narrative needs to leave open the real option. A number of variations are possible, for example:

In short, either Sebastian is a figment of Matilda’s imagination and she already has plans to ingratiate herself with the Countess, or Sebastian is a ghost and Matilda does not yet have any designs on the Countess’ Villa. But Sebastian can’t be both Matilda’s mental rehearsal and a ghost at the same time.

Copyright © 2012 by Don Webb

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