The Narrator of Stratis Myrivilis’ Vasilis Arvanitis

An Exploration into Emotional Response to the Reading of Fiction

by Pavlos Andronikos


This article appeared in The Text and Its Margins: Post-Structuralist Approaches to Twentieth Century Greek Literature, edited by Margaret Alexiou and Vassilis Lambropoulos (New York: Pella, 1985). I have included here only the first two sections. It has also been published in Greek: see Παύλος Ανδρόνικος, "Ο αφηγητής στο Βασίλη Αρβανίτη του Στράτη Μυριβήλη", μετάφραση Χρ. Φίφης, Νέα Εστία τ. 128 (1990), σελ.109-133.

Neither culture nor its destruction is erotic;
it is the seam between them, the fault, the
flaw, which becomes so...

The subversive edge (of a text) may seem
privileged because it is the edge of violence;
but it is not violence which affects pleasure,
nor is it destruction which interests it; what
pleasure wants is the site of a loss...

Roland Barthes (1976)

1. By Way of Introduction

The epigraph, a passage I have appropriated from Roland Barthes to introduce this essay, needs, perhaps, some clarification. Barthes is speaking about modern works, and of the subversiveness of modern works. Their appeal, he argues, lies not in their subversiveness alone but derives from the tension between their violence and their conformity with respect to culture, convention and language—a conformity from which they cannot escape without becoming unreadable. As a result, modern texts have two “edges”, between which lies “the site of a loss”.

Since, however, the forces of conformity, as well as the forces of subversion, exist primarily in the mind—whether of the writer or of the reader—we could say that texts appeal because they embody the consequences of two conflicting psychological forces. Barthes seems to equate these with Oedipal ambivalence. Culture represents the father; the father symbolizes culture. The text balances somewhere between the desire to kill him and love for him: “Death of the Father would deprive literature of many of its pleasures. If there is no longer a Father, why tell stories? Doesn’t every narrative lead back to Oedipus? Isn’t storytelling always a way of searching for one’s origin, speaking one’s conflicts with the law, entering into the dialectic of tenderness and hatred?” (Barthes, 1976:47).

The Oedipus complex provides a neat way of explaining the conflicting forces Barthes discerns, but, since I shall not be using Freud’s formulations, it is necessary to account for these forces in a manner that will bring them into harmony with the theory of psychology I shall be using: that of Arthur Janov. His work suggests that the opposing psychological forces that are given expression in the duality of modern texts (and of all texts) could usefully be seen as a will to health and full consciousness through the bringing of repressed material to consciousness and the will to avoid the pain this would entail.[1] As regards the Oedipus complex, Janov is sceptical of the validity of this or any other universally applicable, specific complex (Janov, 1977:104, 164).

Expressed briefly and simply, Janov’s view of neurosis is that as infants we are subjected to an accumulating series of traumas, some acute, some insidious and subtle, which we cannot allow ourselves to feel if we are to survive. Natural defence mechanisms prevent us, therefore, from feeling the pain of these traumas by repressing the pain, and anything that might directly evoke it, away from consciousness, thereby creating the subconscious, which in Janov’s theory is simply a part of the mind to which conscious awareness does not have direct access: “Freud’s great discovery was of the unconscious. If there were a single most significant discovery in Primal Theory it would be of the conscious; that is, that there is no unconscious—immutable, timeless, genetic and universal. There is only blocked consciousness...” (Janov and Holden, 1977: 45-46).

By being forced into subconsciousness the traumas implicit in the acculturation process of society as we know it and have known it do not simply cease to exist; they remain as a permanent subconscious content of the mind exerting constant pressure toward achieving consciousness (Janov, 1982: 17-23). They are prevented from doing so by the defence mechanisms, which allow only symbolic derivatives of the traumas into awareness in order to limit the amount of pain that can surface: “Symbolism gets its start with the repressed feeling. Suppose the feeling is a fear of the parents, which is repressed and so becomes constant residual fear. For the young child, the fear is transformed into dragons which come up at night when he is in the dark. The dragon is a symbol... The child isn’t fearful because of the dragon. The dragon exists because the child is fearful” (Janov, 1982: 29).

Janov’s hypothetical child illustrates the paradox that is the end result of the neurosis-creating process: “the neurotic is constantly defending against feeling by recreating situations that contain it” (Janov, 1982: 38). In other words, the neurotic is driven to recreate and re-enact in symbolic forms the original traumas that created his condition; he is drawn always and inevitably to “the site of a loss”, his loss—the loss of the biological given of full consciousness—in the vain attempt to relive and hence resolve old wounds: “Symbols allow us to avoid the truth about our real selves. They preserve and perpetuate a powerful driving force hope. We automatically symbolize friends, lovers, employers, and even chance acquaintances into images of the people who caused us Pain when we were children, then hope that the outcome will change... A neurotic plays out his past, only in different scenarios with different locations and different actors. He rewrites the script constantly but the basic plot is always the same” (Janov, 1982: 33).

This has clear implications for our understanding of creativity and of the motivation of the writer, but it also has implications for our understanding of the reader. It would follow from the above that the extent to which an encounter with a text is successful in terms of pleasure and emotional response (the real criteria in our evaluation of texts) is closely related to the extent to which the symbolic form, which is the text, can be made by the reader into a symbolization of the content of his own subconscious preoccupations. As regards the pleasure of the text, the matter is always a personal one: “...the text... can wring from me only this judgement, in no way adjectival: that’s it! And further still: that’s it for me!” (Barthes, 1976: 13).

My thesis is not new. Norman Holland, for example, has been proposing a very similar thesis for a number of years now. However, the emphasis I have chosen in this essay, i.e., emotional response, is unusual, but I am led to it by my own curiosity as to why narrative fiction can evoke from the reader emotional states of extreme intensity. Janov (1982: 199) argues that the most important clue to the meaning of a dream is the feeling that accompanies it (and produces it). In this essay I propose to explore the meaning of the dream we call tragedy using Stratis Myrivilis’ Vasilis Arvanitis (henceforth Vasilis) as my model.


2. Why the narrator

To anyone familiar with Vasilis, the relevance to the work of the epigraph from Barthes should be immediately apparent. In Vasilis, subversiveness and conformity as opposing forces are abundantly in evidence, most obviously in the character and actions of the hero, who exemplifies both of these forces in that he is the bearer of his society’s ideals as well as their betrayer.[2] Less obviously, subversiveness and conformity are also evidenced in the work by the tension we feel between the conformity that dominates in the narrator and the subversiveness that dominates in his hero, Vasilis. Because the hero, at the fictional level, is the narrator’s creation and is also the object upon which the narrator’s projection of his own desire for such a hero is focused, this tension must be seen as existing in and emanating from the mind of the narrator. Between the “actual” Vasilis, whom we as readers must imagine to have existed prior to the telling of the story, and the Vasilis we are shown, is the mediation of the narrator. It is therefore in the mind of the narrator that we must look for the meaning of his hero and of his fiction: the story of Vasilis is a symbolic form constructed around the site of the narrator’s loss.

Narrators, being fictions themselves, do not of course have minds, whereas authors do. It might seem therefore that I am arguing that we need to delve into the mind of the author in order to come up with the meaning of Vasilis. I am not. Mario Vitti has already attempted to do this and has, as a result, failed to tell us much of direct relevance to the work itself (Vitti, 1972). It is not that delving into the psychology of the author is irrelevant. I do not believe that it is, but any such approach should always bear in mind the distinction between a narrator and an author—even in a work like Vasilis, where they seem to be one and the same—and this Vitti fails to do, no doubt because it is much easier to demonstrate a thesis about the author if one accepts a one-to-one relationship between author and narrator than if one tries to unravel the intricacies that that relationship might involve.[3]

Even in a nonfictional work such as an autobiography there is a real difference between the narrator and the author, for in such a work the narrator is a literary role the author assumes for the particular purpose and audience he has in mind. In fiction the distinction becomes even greater, for the writer is free to choose any role he cares to imagine. As far as the identity of the narrator is concerned, that means that he has to be seen as a fictional character, a creation rather than a representation. The problem with Vasilis, however, is that it does seem to be a part of the fiction that the reader identify the narrator with the author. This does not change the fact that the narrator is not the author in any one-to-one sense, but it does mean that part of the effect of Vasilis relies on the reader making such an identification. Vasilis is a mimesis of the act of storytelling, and it is a consequence of that mimesis that the narrator, since he does not name himself, is identified as the bearer of the name to be found on the title page (which is itself a pseudonym). There is much in the work that points to the making of such an identification—so much so that George Valetas uses passages from Vasilis to fill out his biography of Myrivilis’ early life (Valetas, 1970:912, 915)—but there is also much that suggests the impossibility of making the identification stick outside the fictional level. For example, the child the narrator was remains approximately the same age throughout the fictional time of the story, from the first appearance of Vasilis to his death and burial, even though Vasilis himself grows in that same time span from a young lad into a tall and powerful young man. This is in contrast to the first published version of Vasilis, where the narrator grows up at the same pace as the hero.[4] The narrator, then, is not real, he is not the author but a fictional creation of the author’s and should be treated as such. The tendency of the reader to identify him with the author should be seen as a result of the work’s mimesis of the act of storytelling, which simply implies that the reader will construct the character of the narrator and then attribute that character to the bearer of the name Stratis Myrivilis. This is exactly what Vitti does, but it is a dangerous procedure when one is attempting to make a point about the author rather than the narrator, and there is much to be said in favor of discussing narrators first and then authors.

The psychology of the author, being real, has a complexity and a subtlety that no person save the author himself could ever hope to fathom completely. It is the product of a specific sequence of experience, in relation to which the information available to us must seem like a hopelessly condensed précis. We could never understand Myrivilis as he understood, or could have understood, himself, but, as readers, we do have the potential to understand the psychology of the narrator for the simple reason that, since it is not real, the information from which it can be deduced is limited in quantity and easily available to us in the text. It could be argued that since the narrator is not real, he does not have a psychology for us to analyze, but our answer to that objection must be that although he does not have a real psychology, we do as readers construct a fictional one for him. Moreover, we construct it, at the prompting of the text, from our own psyche, so that the psychology of the narrator is available to us in a way in which the psychology of the author is not. In the reading of fiction, the narrator is less a fictional persona of the author’s than a fictional persona of the reader’s—especially in a successful reading of the text where, we could argue, the reader becomes the narrator insofar as he thinks the text uncritically and so becomes the willing subject of the narrator’s thoughts.[5]

What is a successful reading of a work of prose fiction? Despite the variety of answers one might receive if one were to conduct a survey on the matter, the successful reading of fiction remains, I suspect, always and fundamentally the same kind of experience—even if some critics, for motives that seem to have little to do with the pleasure of a text and much to do with the politics of the discipline of criticism and of elitism, would call what I shall describe as successful reading “nonreading”.[6]

The defining characteristic of the successful reading of prose fiction is absorption in the experience of the work so that all that is outside of the work is excluded from perception to a remarkable degree. Even the book the reader has open before him could be excluded from perception in the sense that the book, or rather its pages full of strange signs, does not fill the center of the stage of consciousness. That is filled by a fluid sequence of thoughts and images constructed by the reader at the prompting of those signs but very different from them. As they exist in the text-in-the-book, they are simply marks against a light background, but the sequence of images and thoughts that is the text-in-the-reader is a world full of life and feeling. Looking at the reading process in this way makes it immediately apparent that the reader naakes the read text. We can, however, make texts into readings in a number of different ways, depending on our purpose and the nature of the text itself. I am arguing, on the basis of the experience of reading (rather than from any desire to dictate to readers how they should read), that the appropriate way for prose fiction is the one that takes place within the confines of the mental state we call “being absorbed in a book”. In that mental state, not only is our perception of the outside world pushed away from the center of consciousness but so too is our perception of ourselves reading. The successful reading of fiction is not a self-conscious activity because our critical faculties are no longer at the center of consciousness. What is at the center of consciousness is an externally prompted but self-created flow of thoughts and images that compel the reader’s attention to the exclusion of all else. That exclusion is a consequence of the reader’s emotional involvement with the illusionary world of the fiction, which is itself a consequence of the freedom the reader has to construct that world in accordance with his own experience of life. The prompting of the text, although never neutral, is always open to some degree of interpretation. In a successful reading, the text-in-the-book is such in relation to the particular reader involved that it allows him, from its prompting, to create an illusionary world in accordance with the way he sees the real world, and, specifically, the real world of human action and reaction.

In the truly successful reading, however, the illusionary world of the fiction is something more than just a secondary reality at which the reader looks on. The fact that it can engage the reader’s involvement and his emotions as well as evoke intense sensations of feeling suggests that it must have a symbolic value for the reader, and that the text-in-the-reader is a symbolic sequence that has a close correspondence to the symbolic forms in which the reader’s subconscious preoccupations manifest themselves. The reader is engaged emotionally because, through symbolism, his past, conscious through to subconscious, is also engaged.[7]

Putting it another way, when we read fiction there is nothing out there in objective reality except a sequence of marks on paper—in themselves nothing to laugh or cry about, to be exalted or depressed about. Even when the text “out there” has been constructed into a text-in-the-reader there is not necessarily anything in the fictional world so constructed that ought of itself to evoke emotion and involvement. It is only when the reader has invested the symbolism of the text with meaning, personal meaning, that the text-in-the-reader becomes the object of an absorbed reading (which implies emotional response). The meaning of the text is therefore the meaning the reader reads into it but, since it is more subconscious than conscious meaning, it is always hidden from the absorbed reader (just as with Janov’s hypothetical child the meaning of the dragon symbol was the repressed feeling of fear of the parents, which the child could not consciously know).

It was stated above that to discover the “meaning” of Vasilis we must look into the mind of the narrator, since Vasilis is his hero, and the story of Vasilis was described as a symbolic form constructed around the site of the narrator’s loss. It should be becoming clear now that what I am suggesting is that the narrator is to the story of Vasilis what the absorbed reader is to the fiction Vasilis, the difference being that the narrator sees from his own “consciousness” the world of Vasilis but that the reader sees that world through the “consciousness” of the narrator. Since, however, the reader constructs the consciousness of the narrator for himself at the prompting of the text, and since there is, by and large, only one stream of consciousness in the mind of the absorbed reader—the text—the difference is minimal. In such a reading the reader has assumed the role of the narrator; he has become the I from which the narrative emanates. This would be absolutely clear with a narrative using an omniscient and invisible third person narrator, but the visibility, indeed the prominence of the narrator in Vasilis, complicates the issue somewhat. It does, however, have the advantage of indicating clearly the psychological attitude involved in the role that the absorbed reader assumes.[8]

In a third person narrative using an omniscient and invisible narrator there is in a very real sense no narrator. We posit one because it is inconceivable that there should be narrative and no speaker. As we have seen, however, the narrative takes place in the mind of the reader, and, moreover, it is constructed by the reader. We must assume that the reader thinks the narrative and that therefore, in the act of reading, the reader becomes the center, the I, from which the narrative emanates. The invisible narrator of this type of narrative, perhaps the most common type in popular fiction, is, in the act of reading, the reader.

Pavlos Andronikos



  1. To my knowledge, Janov nowhere states this in exactly these terms, but it is a logical deduction to make from what he says on “the inner struggle” (Janov, 1982: 35-41). It seems that a similar deduction can be made from Freudian premises: “According to psychoanalytical theory, childhood bequeaths to mankind not only the project of transcending neurosis, but also the neurosis itself; not only the erotic possibilities of human nature, but also the self-defeating mechanisms which keep those erotic possibilities unfulfilled” (Brown, 1970:110).

  2. Vasilis’ killing of Sambris illustrates his ambivalent role in relation to his society. It seems to his fellow villagers that Vasilis killed the young Turk in order to avenge the murder of Zacharias on their behalf. Vasilis disclaims this motive (Vasilis, 2nd ed., ch. 6, p. 46) and explains that he killed Sambris because he himself had intended to kill Zacharias and Sambris had beaten him to it. The fact that Vasilis knifed Sambris four times to mark the points of a cross (ch. 6, p. 44), however, belies this explanation. It suggests that his motives were not as simple as he himself thinks they were—that he was acting both as his society’s representative and on his own account. At this stage it is not his action that betrays his society’s ideals but his professed motive. Later in the work his actions too become subversive but are also counterbalanced by conformist actions. Compare, for example, his dancing with the Lambrines and its reception with his jump over the cistern and its reception (ch. 10, pp. 70-6).

  3. According to Vitti: “Vasilis was an idol of Myrivilis’ childhood, a phantasm of heroism” (Vitti, 1972:xxiii). The confidence with which he makes this statement makes one wonder whether he has at his disposal information not generally available, indicating that Vasilis was a real person and that the work is not a fiction at all. If not, then he is taking what would be a valid assumption about the narrator of Vasilis, derived from the text (ch. 1, pp. 9-10), and applying it without qualification to the author in order, it seems, to account for the work’s genesis. He does not in fact possess any such information. Nor is he interested in what appears to be relevant information supplied by George Valetas: “… information supplied by Mr. G. Valetas about ‘The Prototype of Vasilis Arvanitis,’ Aiolika Grammata 2, 1972, pp. 300-306, which is concerned with the real person that Myrivilis had in mind while writing his narrative falls outside of my interests…” (Vitti, 1980:154). If Vitti were as interested in the workings of memory as the title of his essay would have us believe, he should certainly be interested in the information Valetas has to offer, which was not available in 1971, when Vitti’s essay was first published. The article by Valetas that Vitti cites attempts to show that the fictional character of Vasilis was based on a real person called Stratis Arvanitis. This contention was taken up by Panos Skoumpritzis, who argued for another person, Vasilis Karayiannis, as the prototype of Vasilis Arvanitis, but later came to the conclusion that Vasilis Arvanitis was a fictional character based on both Vasilis Karayiannis and Stratis Arvanitis (Skoumpritzis, 1975:164-6). Interesting as the material provided by Skoumpritzis and Valetas is, it does not alter the fact that Vasilis is a fiction and that Myrivilis was free to create the hero in any way he chose, just as he was free to create the narrator in any way he chose. This is an absolutely necessary fact of which few who have written on the work have had any real grasp. Just how free Myrivilis was is illustrated by the fact that he relocated the Karini spring, which is near Ayassos in the middle of Lesbos, close to the coastal village in which Vasilis is set and which seems itself to be based on Sykamnia, Myrivilis’ birthplace in the north of the island.

  4. In the first version of Vasilis (Myrivilis, 1934) it is made clear that the narrator grows up at the same pace as Vasilis in the following passage: “I too happened to be at such a glenti and I saw Arvanitis draw his pistol, aim at and cut one by one in a row the strings which held the framed pictures of the coffeehouse to the wall. Not one bullet missed its mark. And when all the picture frames had fallen to the floor, Arvanitis reloaded his pistol calmly and put it back in his belt” (June 17, p. 4). This paragraph is replaced in the final version by the episode with Resit-bey (ch. 12, pp. 89-90), but note how immediately preceding that episode the narrator speaks of himself as having been still a child (ch. 12, pp. 86-8).

  5. Georges Poulet puts it rather well: “I am someone who happens to have as objects of his own thought, thoughts which are part of a book I am reading, and which are therefore the cogitations of another. They are the thoughts of another, and yet it is I who am their subject . . . Because of the strange invasion of my person by the thoughts of another, I am a self who is granted the experience of thinking thoughts foreign to him. I am the subject of thoughts other than my own. My consciousness behaves as though it were the consciousness of another” (Poulet, 1980:44).

  6. Karlheinz Stierle, for example: “The popular novel is a form of fiction that presupposes a quasi-pragmatic reception. Here the act of reading is only a means to an end: illusion building. The reading of such literature . . . could legitimately be called an act of non-reading insofar as it is separated from higher forms of conscious reception . . . A competent reading of literature . . . can only be achieved if the act of reading is accompanied by theoretical reflection” (Stierle, 1980:87). This is rhetoric based on questionable value judgments and inspired by the desire to give to the reading of literature a morally acceptable purpose. Stierle sets out to discuss the act of reading but then wants to add to the act of reading, as her phrasing above indicates, something else—theoretical reflection!

  7. Like Janov, I use symbolism as a blanket term to include projection, displacement and sublimation. All involve, at some level of consciousness, the making of any one thing into something it is not.

  8. I seem here to be suggesting that it is only the absorbed reader who assumes the role of the narrator, but this is not the case. Any reader must assume that role at some level of consciousness, but with a reader who is not absorbed but reading critically, the level of consciousness at which the role is assumed will not be dominant. Should such a reader become, as he reads, emotionally involved in the illusion of the text then critical awareness will be cast to the winds and the “aesthetic” distance he tries to keep between “himself” and the “text” will disappear.