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March 25, 2012 / thiarayoanita69

A Friend Sealed in A Pen

“We read to know that we are not alone.”― C.S. Lewis. Storytelling has always been a tool in sharing knowledge; may it be for myth, education purpose, cultural context, or just socializing. I myself think reading a book is like going into an adventure with a company. The company is, of course, the characters itself. So, characterization, to me, holds an essential stance in all readings. Some authors, for example Caroline Allen, even begin developing a character, precursor to the plot. Here is an example of her writing – Gawande, on the other hand, has his own method in building a character, in his writing, “The Itch” (wk 5b Character development).

In “The Itch” , Gawande brings us to an emotional roller-coaster ride of M, the main character. Gawande does not elaborate M’s physical appearance, let alone her name. To me personally, his narrative account is like a background song, in a movie scene. She sets up the play, but she gives us the space to visualize M according to our own will; how M looks like, how does she appear in front of people, will she be heartwarming and charming, or tense and cold.

Gawande has been building up a dramatic tension about M straight from the beginning. I find the repetitive pronouns of “she”, and the short sentences intensified the situation. “She had graduated…. She and her family settled in…. She and her husband started fighting… her marriage disintegrated..”A sequence of events is presented in such a fast phased manner.  It portrays a chaotic troubled surrounding M, which immerses you in M’s world even deeper. And do you notice the verbs in the writing are “relatable”? They are common occurrences in our everyday life. But then, by the time Gawade reaches the main issue, the itch, Gawande presents something unusual. This illness that we have learnt M is suffering from, evokes our sympathy; as if M has shared with us, a lifetime’s secret. And just like that, M has become like a real, close friend.

Another noticeable thing about Gawande’s writing is his descriptive account of events. In the first four pages, we only get to see a minimum fair of M’s real feelings, all related to “the itch”. A significant association like this shifts our attention from M, the main character, to “the itch”.  I feel as if I am drawn back to the real world, and become an observer instead in M’s world. Gawande’s allows us to see the pain M has to suffer, and intrigues our conscience to know more about “the itch”, in order to help many other M’s.

Overall, in my opinion, Gawande has successfully developed a really engaging story, using the character “M”. What do you think? Has “M” become a “friend” of yours too? 🙂



Leave a Comment
  1. baileymoser / Mar 27 2012 3:58 am

    This is a really well-written blog post!

    Although I will agree that after reading that excerpt, I feel extreme sympathy for M, I can’t say that I feel as though M is a friend of mine. The information relayed about her life just wasn’t done so in the way friends typically do. I also felt as though M was left anonymous to make her more of a case study, to give the piece a haunting vibe.

    While some authors do aim to build characters as a means of creating company for you on your journey, that can’t always be the case. Gawande built an incredible character, but there must have been other motives.

  2. elenav90 / Mar 27 2012 7:01 am

    First of all, compliments for the choice of image. Not only was it very eye-catching and pleasant, but it almost suggests a Perth setting, perhaps Matilda bay, with the garden, river, and city sky-scrapers in the background.

    I enjoy repetition in writing. It puts such emphasis and can build on tension about the subject. Also, it centralizes all that is going on around the character, in your case, M. The lack of explicit characterization is really stimulating because it leaves it all up to you! It doesn’t feed you a “package” that you are to accept and absorb, but it pushes you to reflect about the character, judging her according to your own values/experiences.

    I think reading is a valuable way of learning and breaking away from normal life for a while. What I’ve recently found fascinating is knowing something about the era the author lived in, and noticing how the circumstantial setting affected the author’s choice of topics narrated, his point of view, the customs of and trends in society revealed. For example, why did Dickens talk about death so casually in his novels? Because during the Victorian era in England, death literally was everywhere, and a part of daily life. Why were lawyers so often the antagonistic characters in his works? Because he hated them!

  3. fullclever / Mar 27 2012 5:35 pm

    The post is attractive and good to read, so are the comments. I think elenav90 was specially successful in adding ideas to the current discussion. You were all effective in mastering the words to express your thoughts.
    Great work! However, if you were trying to clarify the highly rich Gawande work, I think you ended up being more rhetoric than the author and losing the focus of the conversation. Above all the precious explanations present, you should not forget the main questions: “In what ways is character development central to a story? What attributes are essential in developing a character in a story?”
    It is true that the main character is abstract and not explicit till the end of the text, but the present discussion is not about her feelings or what she makes us feel. Is about how can we effectively follow a narrative, even when some elements are lacking. We just need enough information to understand the main story and that is it.
    Surely, if we identify ourselves with some characters, we easily get involved. Nevertheless, it depends highly on the context and the objectives of the author. I think the characters must fit into the story and perform relevant actions, interacting with others or with the environment, participating somehow in the overall course of events (related in cause-effect).
    In conclusion, the characters are the gears of the story, making it happen. Without any of them and, consequently, their actions, the supposed narrative turns into an empty rhetorical text.
    Anyway, the contributions were precious.

    • thiarayoanita69 / Mar 31 2012 1:03 pm

      Thank you for your reflective comment here. and thank you for mentioning the great attributes to create a character 🙂 That said, what I am trying to say in the post is that using M as the main character, Gawande has successfully lead us to the main issue, “the itch”. I personally think M is used to emphasize how “the itch” could make someone suffer so bad – for example in this sentence on page four: “She had scratched through her skull during the night-and all the way into her brain”. On the first page, Gawande has shared with us some of M’s historical background; a graduate from Boston college, having a degree in psychology, married, divorced, suffering alcohol and drug abuse, etc, through all these facts, we started to get a rough picture of M. And when “the itch”, has almost killed her, to me personally, this creates an emotionally unpleasant image.

      I slightly disagree with you about the fact that you stated that it is not important in how M makes us feel. In my opinion, character M is used as a medium to visualize how horrifying “the itch” could be. This intrigues people to learn more about the itch. Thus, I think the fact that M has evoked our emotions in such a way, plays a significant role in creating an engaging story.

  4. ashfonty / Mar 28 2012 1:08 am

    I agree with Bailey in that I don’t really feel that ‘friendly’ with M. I think we were kept distant from her character – we never even got to know her full name! I spose I don’t really fancy seeing my ‘friends’ as drug users that contracted HIV and whose kids didn’t even want to know them. I do however have sympathy for her character.

    What works for me in this story is the narrative. I feel that actual story telling is what interested me the most. I think my jaw actually dropped when I read the bit about her scratching through to her brain! How vivid is it!

    I know Gawande’s done a good job writing this piece because I was disappointed when I realised I couldn’t keeping reading the excerpt after about the history of diagnosing and experimenting with ‘the itch’.

  5. djasudasen / Mar 28 2012 3:29 am

    Gawande gives us insight into M’s life but does not explicitly develop her character. You are left to draw your own conclusions about what sort of person she is.

    For me, that is part of the fun when reading and losing yourself in a book. There is nothing worse than when an author develops a character in a way that contradicts the personality you have already developed in your imagination.

    While I wouldn’t go so far as to say she was my friend, I did feel some sort of a connection with M because of how “real” she was right from the opening statement.

    “It was still shocking to M how much a few wrong turns could change your life”.

    I’m happy to say I haven’t taken quite as many wrong turns as M, but I can certainly pinpoint several incidents or conversations that have significantly changed the course of my life.

    I agree that Gawande successfully developed a really engaging story.

  6. Elizabeth / Mar 28 2012 3:47 am

    Gawande’s article is enganging though sad. Actually the shocking part of this story is scratching up to the brain level, but can this really happen or else the writer was trying to explain how bad the itching was.

    from the beggining, i had the impression of seing a happy ending for M, as she was successful in her education, having a family,but the turning around of her life after divorce, the sickness she went through, its what changed the original picture i had in the beginning.

    Despite the story being sad,the story was enganging and emotional.

  7. stinaboroe / Mar 28 2012 4:55 am

    Firstly, I love your title, it is engaging and curious yet well fitted with your content.
    Your blogpost is easy to read and flows well, and there is a nice dialogue happening in the comments you have received.

    I find it interesting how some express they feel friendly with ‘M’ and some don’t. It seems to me that your personality, and your personal view play a role as to what you take from a story and how you build (or don’t build) relationships with characters.

    • thiarayoanita69 / Mar 31 2012 12:36 pm

      Thank you (: and I guess you are right.. my interpretation of a story is strongly influenced by my personal experience. but maybe, that is why we all perceive “the itch” differently? 🙂

  8. MG / Mar 28 2012 2:48 pm

    Atul Gawande is actual a he – He is a surgeon, writer, and public health researcher. I wonder how much it helps to be a surgeon to write about such things…..

  9. gracerussell1 / Mar 30 2012 2:25 am

    After reading “The Itch” and going through this blog post as well as the comments, I completely understand how Gawande is evoking these feelings in his readers. However I have a slightly different view on the repetition of the pronouns. I find that the use of the word “she” puts a barrier between myself and the character. It intensify’s the meaning of the sentence, but it also creates a space, as if I didnt know the character, “M” is just a “she”. If Gawande had used M’s full name I would feel closer to the character. This might be his intension though.

    The blog post was written very well and very simply to make it easy for us to read and understand.

    Although I do feel sympathy towards M, she did not become my friend.

  10. chadabbot / Mar 30 2012 8:09 am

    I think because of the nature of M’s itch, that it wasn’t outwardly psychotic or neurotic, and that M “simply felt itchy” is what allows us to connect with her the greatest. Even after what M had been through, the nature of the itch allows us to relate to M and to sympathise. This is how I believe the reader may have seen M ‘as a friend’ as you put it.
    The use of storytelling worked in Gawande’s article because of the obscurity of the content. However, I believe this kind of storytelling is limited in science writing and would struggle to have the same impact in a more straight-edged area of research, where creating personable characters is just not feasible.

  11. thiarayoanita69 / Mar 31 2012 12:29 pm

    Thanks for all the thoughtful comments guys 🙂 It really fascinates me how each one of us has a different view about M. Although some of us feel distant towards M, but I think Gawande has successfully make almost all of us, as readers to feel a strong sympathy for M. Some of you mention that “the itch” is the main tension here, and Gawande has described it thoroughly, making it so real. I suppose the fact that Gawande is a surgeon (like what has been suggested by MG), plays a significant role in the way he is describing the illness.

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