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“Hovering in the World of Twilight”: Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “A Wedding in Brownsville”

Ineke Bockting
p. 125-139


Cet article porte sur une nouvelle du XXe siècle dans laquelle le gothique joue un rôle prépondérant. “A Wedding in Brownsville”, écrite par le célèbre romancier Isaac Bashevis Singer, est un bon exemple de ces textes à la troisième personne dans lesquels un narrateur externe ou extra-diégétique est si proche du personnage que leurs « hantises » respectives en deviennent presque indissociables. Cette consonance est ici étudiée à partir des diverses techniques narratologiques utilisées pour représenter la conscience et l’inconscient que Dorrit Cohn analyse dans son ouvrage séminal Transparent Minds.

Entrées d’index

Studied authors :

Isaac Bashevis Singer

Texte intégral

1For those who do not know Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “A Wedding in Brownsville,” it is a story that is extremely easy to summarize. Indeed, a Jewish doctor, Dr Solomon Margolin, goes to a wedding party in a remote area of New York and meets a woman he thought had been killed by the Nazis years before. This could either be a story of misplaced identity or a “simple” ghost story, where a man meets the phantom of his former lover. Yet the story is at the same time more real and more unreal, as a close analysis of its diverse narrative situations will show. The ways in which an external narrator presents the consciousness of the protagonist can be said to stand for a larger historical context.

2As Valerie Shaw observes it in The Short Story: A Critical Introduction, even if he stays largely invisible,

a narrator must participate somehow in the story’s action, or in the unfolding of meaning; he cannot be a completely transparent lens, but must have a fictional identity of his own, even if what he is offering us is no more than sketches of other people in his story. In order to care about those other people at all, we must become involved with the person who is telling us about them. (115)

3This observation is especially true for the story “A Wedding in Brownsville” and becomes even more so if one focusses closely on how its narrator moves between—or into and out of—different narratological modes during different phases of the story. These techniques have been studied very closely and effectively by Dorrit Cohn, in Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness. Cohn, distinguishes as two different ways of narrating consciousness two different types of psycho-narration: one that is “dominated by a prominent narrator who, even as he focuses intently on an individual psyche, remains emphatically distanced from the consciousness he narrates,” which she calls dissonant, and one that is, on the other hand, “mediated by a narrator who remains effaced and who readily fuses with the consciousness he narrates,” which she calls consonant (26).

4The first type—dissonant psycho-narration—characterizes itself by the narrator’s explanatory comments, thus signaling his “superior knowledge of the character’s inner life” and his “superior ability to present it and assess it.” This “cognitive privilege,” as Cohn calls it, obviously enables a narrator to expose what the protagonist is “unwilling or unable to betray.” Two “dimensions of a fictional character” are, according to Cohn, especially important here: “psychic depth” and “ethical worth” (29). In the story “A Wedding in Brownsville,” one readily recognizes these dimensions in the form of the historical context imposing itself on the protagonist this particular day of the wedding in Brownsville, and from which he had tried in vain to take his distance:

Usually after breakfast on Sunday, he and his wife took a walk in Central Park, or, when the weather was mild, went to the Palisades. But today Solomon Margolin lingered in bed. During the years, he had stopped attending the functions of the Senciminer Society; meanwhile the town of Sencimin had been destroyed. His family there had been tortured, burned, gassed. (278)

5Naturally, this type of dissonant narration will often give way to an added truth judgment—or epistemic evaluation—by the narrator, and we therefore expect specific attributive clauses that convey this. In “A Wedding in Brownsville,” the doctor’s wife, Gretl, for instance, had warned her husband, as soon as they had received the invitation, not to go to the wedding, and she had refused to go with him so that he had finally decided he would have to go by himself. One finds here the sentence: “Dr. Margolin admitted to himself that his wife was right” (277). That the attributive verb admit includes a comment—in this case an implicit truth judgment by the third-person narrator—becomes clear if we make this judgment explicit. Of the following two sentences that can be used to do so, the first one sounds redundant and the second paradoxical, showing that the verb admit includes a positive truth judgment; indeed, “He admitted to himself that that his wife was right, and he was correct about it,” clearly sounds redundant and “He admitted to himself that that his wife was right, but he was wrong about it,” equally clearly sounds paradoxical. This shows that positive speaker judgment forms an integrate part of the meaning of the verb admit. Of course, the narrator might as well have wanted to include a negative truth judgment, such as in the following—hypothetical—sentence: “He fooled himself into thinking that his wife was right.” Again, by making the implicit truth judgment explicit, we can show that the attributive verb phrase used here, fool himself into, includes a negative truth judgment by the narrator; indeed, “He fooled himself into thinking that his wife was right, and he was wrong about her” is now clearly redundant and “He fooled himself into thinking that his wife was right, but he was right about her” is now clearly paradoxical. Truth judgment may, of course, also be avoided by the narrator. This happens a little bit further into the story, where the narrator reports that the doctor tries to get a taxi to take him to the wedding and we find the following sentence: “He was afraid [that] the driver might refuse to go as far as Brownsville” (281). Now the possibilities are: “He was afraid [that] the driver might refuse to go as far as Brownsville, and he was right to be” and “He was afraid [that] the driver might refuse to go as far as Brownsville, but he was wrong to be.” It is clear that neither one of these two sentences sound either redundant or paradoxical, showing that the verb be afraid (or fear), like other common mental activity verbs such as feel, believe and think, among others, is neutral as far as truth judgment is concerned. It can be concluded that we have, in these last sentences, come to a situation where the narrator, in Cohn’s words, remains rather “effaced,” more or less “readily fuse[d] with the consciousness he narrates” (26).

  • 1 The attributive clause, a clause with which a narrator attributes mental activity to a protagonist, (...)

6One should add, here, that in an attributive clause not only the attributive verb plays a role, but also the form of its complement.1 Indeed, in addition to the that-clauses we have been looking at—“he admitted to himself that”; “he was afraid [that]”—the third paragraph of “A Wedding in Brownsville” contains a combination of three parallel how-clauses—one explicit and two implicit ones—in which the doctor muses on the attitude he expects of his fellow guests at the wedding:

He knew how they would pester him, [how they would] reproach him for growing aloof, [how they would] drop hints that he was a snob. (278)

7The how-clause, half-way between cognition and perception signals that the protagonist bases himself not on more abstract, independently existing evidence—as the that-clause does—but on procedural evidence, that is to say, on concrete prior experience. In this case, the experience is, in addition, projected into the future as habitual, as the modal would shows, and thus involves both memory and anticipation of repeated affect. The verb know allows the narrator to add a truth judgment with which he vouches for the correctness of this memory (again, “He knew how they would pester him, and he was right” would be redundant and “He knew how they would pester him, but he was wrong” would be paradoxical). Indeed, the protagonist is not imagining this; he felt before, will feel again and even feels already, the spiritual and bodily effects of this pestering and these reproaches. This foregrounds once more the historical context of the story and the depth of the protagonist’s moral dilemma: how by having immigrated to the United States in time he had avoided the fate of his family and friends in Poland and how he had lost touch with those of their children who survived and had come as immigrants after the war. Even if, in Cohn’s scheme, the phrase “he knew how” has the attributive form of more dissonant psycho-narration, we feel how close the narrator moves to the protagonist, or to use Cohn’s terms, how consonant the psycho-narration has become.

8This second type of narrative stance, Cohn’s “consonance,” indeed, seems to become increasingly important in the story. In it, one finds no implicit or explicit explanatory or judgmental comments. Cohn signals in such constructions “the absence of subordination of the ‘he thought (felt, knew) that’ variety,” showing “the discretion of the narrating voice, how it yields to the figural thoughts and feelings even as it reports them” (31). This, as we just saw, is not totally correct, because the that-clause with an epistemically neutral verb such as fear, see, feel, believe and others, as well as the how-clause, even with an epistemically loaded verb such as know, actually are (more) consonant, showing that in-between the two narrative stances—dissonance and consonance—there is a whole range of possibilities. Indeed, what one finds in psycho-narration is a scale of narrating going from totally dissonant—with attributive verbs such as know and a that-clause complement—to very consonant, a mode in which one may find attributive verbs such as feel, think and believe. Another example of this is formed by the sentence “But secretly Solomon Margolin had always felt that he was a failure” (279). This instance of relatively consonant psycho-narration occurs when the doctor is getting dressed for the wedding, and it indicates a clear step in the progressive giving up of the narrator’s critical stance. Interestingly, it is within this context—the doctor’s various memories of failure and the narrator’s abandonment of dissonance, or increasing consonance, in narrating them—that the name of the doctor’s former lover first appears: “Nor had he had any luck with his one great love, Raizel, the daughter of Melekh the watchmaker. Raizel had married someone else and later had been shot by the Nazis” (279). In the consonant psycho-narration that introduces this passage, the narrator clearly gives up Cohn’s “cognitive privilege,” showing what Leo Spitzer termed, in a different context, “stylistic contagion.” When such “stylistic contagion” is strongest, Cohn argues, psycho-narration “verges on the narrated monologue, marking a kind of midpoint between the two techniques where a reporting syntax is maintained, but where the idiom is strongly affected (or infected) with the mental idiom of the mind it renders” (33).

  • 2 The often-used terms for this narrative mode—free indirect discourse, style indirect libre (in Fren (...)

9Notwithstanding the interest of these different forms of psycho-narration for the story “A Wedding in Brownsville,” it is not its major narrative mode. A large part of the text is, in fact, taken up by narrated monologue. Cohn defines this form as: “a transformation of figural thought-language into the narrative language of third-person fiction,” in other words, as “the technique for rendering a character’s thought in his own idiom while maintaining the third-person reference and the basic tense of narration” (100).2 The stylist Michael Toolan, in The Stylistics of Fiction: a Literary-Linguistic Approach, speaks in this respect of “mind-and-soul portraits,” which, he argues, “are not removed, analytical descriptions of states, as if from the outside,” but rather “a vivid contrivance of entering into those minds and souls, so that the minds themselves appear to share to a substantial degree in the articulation of their own states and processes” (74). As Cohn explains, narrated monologue appears “as a kind of mask, from behind which sounds the voice of a figural mind,” meanwhile “cast[ing] a peculiarly penumbral light on the figural consciousness, suspending it on the threshold of verbalization in a manner that cannot be achieved by direct quotation” (103). It is interesting that Cohn chooses the liminal imagery of “penumbral light”shadowy and indefinite—to talk about one of the pervasive narrative modes in a story. Equally interesting is the image of the “threshold” that she uses here, as it is, in fact, the archetypal image of liminality—the Latin word for threshold being limenand the suspension on it, together with the penumbral light that characterizes the in-between of light and dark, of night and day, one of the typical tropes of the Gothic.

10Different forms of liminality can, in any case, be seen to play a large role in the story. Singer himself can be said to have been a liminal person, an immigrant forever suspended between love and hate of his adoptive country, as “his relationship with America was complex and contradictory.” Indeed, as the author of the introduction to the story in Becoming Americans: Four Centuries of Immigrant Writing puts it:

[Singer’s] views often shifted depending on the forum in which he expressed himself. In interviews and lectures he would adopt a persona of kindly Old World sage and praise the United States by comparing it with the barbarism that had given rise to the Nazi genocide in Europe, but in his fiction [...] he could be far more caustic. (276)

11Perhaps it is useful, at this moment, to be reminded briefly of Arnold Van Gennep’s usage of the term liminal in his work Les rites de passage. He presents it in terms of the three phases of coming-of-age rituals: separation, liminal period proper and re-assimilation. This threefold conceptualization of liminality in its turn forms the basis of Victor Turner’s classic chapter “Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites de Passage,” which argues that this in-between period is one of uncertainty and fear but also of new possibilities. Becoming a novelist may just be one of these new possibilities. In any case, Singer’s story can, like the classical immigration novel, be seen as one long rite de passage, where the subject never really reaches the other side of the divide. Much of American literature places itself within this space of transition, in which the individual or group is suspended—hovers, as it were—on the threshold of a “new world,” alienated both from its original and from its adopted culture. American literature, then, can be seen as an evolving collection of immigrant literatures and the great American theme, as many critics have argued, is alienation. And “A Wedding in Brownsville” clearly places itself within this tradition.

12In fact, one finds this alienation as a characteristic the narrated monologue itself, in that it reveals, in Cohn’s words, the protagonist’s mind “suspended in an instant present, between a remembered past and an anticipated future” (126). This temporal suspension, or fluidity of consciousness, is another characteristic of the Gothic, and it is emphasized by adverbs of time as well as by tenses. While adverbs of time take on the “temporal orientation of the figurative consciousness,” Cohn argues, pluperfect and conditional tenses will render memory and anticipation respectively, and if the return to the past is extensive, the pluperfect will eventually be replaced by the simple past or the past progressive tense, without losing the character of the passage (127). A passage from “A Wedding in Brownsville” that shows this clearly is the following:

Dr. Margolin treated rabbis, refugees, and Jewish writers without charge, supplying them with medicines and, if necessary, a hospital bed. There had been a time when he had gone regularly to the meetings of the Senciminer Society, had accepted positions in their ranks, and had attended all the parties. Now Abraham Mekheles was marrying off his youngest daughter, Sylvia. (277)

13This passage, which is the end of the story’s opening paragraph, begins with simple narration in the narrative preterite, moving along to several cases of pluperfect—“there had been a time”; “he had gone”; “[he] had accepted”; “[he] had attended.” After these pluperfects, before they typically turn into simple past tenses, we find a case of an adverb used as temporal deictic, “now.”

  • 3 Other deictics include spatial ones and personal ones. Spatial deictics, such as the adverbs here ( (...)

14This adverb of time is a good example of a specific type of “stylistic contagion” known as “deictic projection” (Lyons 579). Deictics, as we know, normally point to things in the world from the position of the speaker, the narrator in this case. This position is called the “deictic center” (Levinson 664), the point to which all deictics are “anchored,” so that the deictic now indicates simultaneity of event and utterance, and the deictics earlier and later, for instance, signal anteriority and posteriority of the event respectively.3 So, if we say that language is egocentric in nature, it means that, normally speaking, all phenomena in the world are automatically related to the position of the language user, the deictic center. In the case of deictic projection, then, the narrative voice moves, or projects itself, into the deictic center of the protagonist, here more specifically, Dr. Margolin’s temporal space, his present moment. Only now does the text move to past tense, in this case the past continuous form “was marrying off.” It then continues with a simple past (“arrived”) and another pluperfect (“had announced”), followed again by simple past tenses (“was”; “wanted”; “was”):

The minute the invitation arrived, Gretl had announced her decision: she was not going to let herself be carted off to a wedding somewhere out in the wilds of Brownsville. If he, Solomon, wanted to go and gorge himself on all kinds of greasy food, coming home at three o’clock in the morning, that was his prerogative. (Singer 277)

15This time the pluperfects of the doctor’s memories do not turn into simple past—as Cohn shows it to happen often—but, rather, they move into the deictic space of the doctor’s estranged wife. Indeed, what we have here, with the simple past tenses at the end of the passage, is Gretl Margolin’s discourse—“I am not going to let myself be carted off to a wedding somewhere out in the wilds of Brownsville”; “if you want to go and gorge yourself on all kinds of greasy foods, coming home at three o’clock in the morning, that is your prerogative”—embedded in Dr. Margolin’s internal monologue, and narrated by the external narrator. This curious superposition of narrated monologues will later show itself to have been a prolepsis into a situation in which the narrator moves closer and closer to—and finally completely into—the protagonist’s consciousness.

16The final category of techniques for narrating consciousness that Cohn mentions is that of the quoted monologue. Normally indicated as such by its attributive clause and its punctuation—comma, colon and quotation marks—it conveys the conscious thoughts of a character verbatim. But in “A Wedding in Brownsville,” transitions into and out of quoted monologue are difficult to isolate, as most of the time there is no attributive clause such as “he thought,” just as there are no conventional punctuation marks. Indeed, this is what happens when the doctor is in the taxi that will bring him to Brownsville: “After a while, Dr. Margolin leaned back, shut his eyes, and retreated into his own warmth. His destination was a wedding. Wasn’t the world, like this taxi, plunging away somewhere into the unknown towards a cosmic destination? Maybe a cosmic Brownsville, a cosmic wedding?” (281). In this passage, which retrospectively sounds like the doctor is getting closer to his destiny rather than to his destination, the narration moves smoothly from external description inward to narrated monologue and further inwards still to quoted monologue without quotation marks but with the characteristic question marks of the narrative mode.

17This sliding movement of the narration—from outer to inner—contradicts in a spectacular way the spatial movement from inner to outer, that is, from the intimate inner world of the taxi to the impersonal outer world, with its triple repetition of the word cosmic, an intimation, perhaps, of the dangers that warm intimacy may represent for someone with the doctor’s psychic preoccupations. And it brings the doctor to the hardest questions of all: “Yes. But why did God—or whatever anyone wanted to call Him—create a Hitler, a Stalin? Why did He need world wars? Why heart attacks, cancers?” (281). In the following passage we find a similar move towards and into the protagonist’s consciousness. Indeed, the narrator first seems to describe the route objectively: “The taxi turned onto the bridge across the East River…” Then, in the rest of the sentence, focalization shifts to the doctor: “and for the first time Dr. Margolin was able to see the sky.” After this, the passage continues with single focalization on the doctor’s sense perceptions, presented through vivid visual, tactile and olfactory imagery:

It sagged low, heavy, red as glowing metal. Higher up, a violet glare suffused the vault of the heavens. Snow was sifting down gently, bringing a winter peace to the world, just as it had in the past—forty years ago, a thousand years ago, and perhaps a million years ago. Fiery pillars appeared to glow beneath the East River; on its surface, through black waves jagged as rocks, a tugboat was hauling a string of barges loaded with cars. A front window in the cab was open and icy gusts of wind blew in, smelling of gasoline and the sea. (281)

18As Cohn argues, the transition between plain narrator’s text and quoted monologue often occurs right after a reference to the protagonist’s eyes—“the sensory borderline and link between outer and inner world” (72)—but this passage shows that other sense organs, or a combination of several, can have this function as well. Indeed, with these forceful, often threatening, visual, tactile and olfactory images—like Hell opening up or like the nightly glow and smell of the Nazi extermination camps that the doctor had been forced to imagine—quoted monologue takes over, and, again without attributive clauses or quotation marks, the narrator’s voice is fully incorporated into the character’s consciousness: “Suppose the weather never changed again? Who then would ever be able to imagine a summer day, a moonlit night, spring? But how much imagination—for what it’s worth—does a man actually have?” (Singer 281). The passage that follows shows a curious sort of pas de deux of narrator and protagonist, which rests on the continuity of tense:

On Eastern Parkway the taxi was jolted and screeched suddenly to a stop. Some traffic accident, apparently. The siren on a police car shrieked. A wailing ambulance drew nearer. Dr. Margolin grimaced. Another victim. Someone makes a false turn of the wheel and all a man’s plans in this world are reduced to nothing. A wounded man was carried to the ambulance on a stretcher. Above a dark suit and blood-splattered shirt and bow tie the face had a chalky pallor; one eye was closed, the other one partly open and glazed. Perhaps he, too, had been going to a wedding, Dr Margolin thought. He might even have been going to the same wedding as I. … (282)

19The first part of this central passage strikes one with its adjectives: screeched, shrieked and wailed, forming extremely forceful auditory imagery that supplements the hellish visual, tactile and olfactory extermination camp imagery of the previous passage. It, again, is the point where narrator and protagonist merge, on the threshold between inner and outer world. The narrator’s text that presents the doctor’s non-verbal reaction—“he grimaced”—introduces the next part of this passage, where narrator’s text and quoted monologue are indistinguishable, until finally the attributive clause “Dr. Margolin thought” appears—the attributive verb think, a neutral one, thus refraining from any narratorial truth judgment. Indeed, even if there is the graphological division of the comma between quotation and attributive clause, there still are no quotation marks, so that the deictics “he” and “I” seem to be suspended between two positions. This is made all the more forceful by the suspension points. The atmosphere, here, has become truly uncanny, an atmosphere that, as Valerie Shaw argues, “is made all the more chilling when it is shown emanating from purely physical sources, a principle which can be observed in many short stories which aim to unnerve the reader” (39).

20After this scene, the area that the doctor is driven through becomes more and more otherworldly, even if it remains somehow realistic, with “Negroes, strangely black” who stand about on the sidewalks, “staring ahead, their great dark eyes full of a gloomy hopelessness” and people at the bar of a tavern who seem “to have something unearthly about them, as if they were being punished here for sins committed in another incarnation” (282). In fact, the doctor had almost begun “to suspect that the driver, who had remained stubbornly silent the whole time, had gotten lost or else was deliberately taking him out of his way” (282). In accordance with the degree of effacement, or consonance, that the narrative voice has reached by now, the attributive verb used in the that-clause here—suspect—does not include an implicit truth-judgment: “He began to suspect and he was right” and “He began to suspect but he was wrong” are equally grammatical. Within the pervasive narrative consonance that the story has reached by now, the taxi driver’s silence, not only in the that-clause above but also in the pure description at the end of the passage—“Dr. Margolin gave the driver a dollar tip and the man took it without uttering a word”—the lack of sound, after the hellish screeching, shrieking and wailing encountered before, adds to the otherworldliness of the scene.

21Dr. Margolin's arrival at the wedding hall creates a forceful contrast with these images of silence and seems to confirm the fear of intimacy intimated before. Indeed, even if “the intimacy of the Senciminers” that he encounters as soon as he enters the lobby is described as “comfortable,” the doctor feels “engulfed” by it (282). The pure text of the narrator, here, presents a chaotic mixture of fragments of the other guests’ discourse, but no reaction of the doctor’s except for a nod of the head is recorded. And while the names of those that address him are “swallowed up in the tumult,” as the narrator reports it, the doctor keeps hearing “the same words over and over again: died, shot, burned” (284). After reluctantly joining in a dance, however, he sees a special woman and everything changes:

A man grabbed Margolin and for a while he danced in the frantic whirl. Then, tearing himself loose, he stood apart. Who was that woman? He found his eye caught by her familiar form. He knew her! She beckoned to him. He stood baffled. She looked neither young nor old. Where had he known her—that narrow face, those dark eyes, that girlish smile? (285)

22The pas de deux of narrator and protagonist takes over again here. Two sentences of simple narration from the point of view of the character, with their kinaesthetic imagery and sudden ending—dancing in a “frantic whirl,” then suddenly “tearing himself loose”—follow. These kinaesthetic images, once more, form a threshold between outer and inner world, the liminal space in which the protagonist unexpectedly finds himself. This, then, moves the text into narrated monologue, again with its characteristic question mark: “Who was that woman?”

23Another reference to eyes now stretches this “hovering on the threshold” still further, this time into narrated monologue—“He knew her!”—its characteristic exclamation mark again signaling the emerging into consciousness of preconscious material. In the next sentence—“She beckoned to him”—narrator and protagonist are totally indistinguishable, after which three words of narrated text—“He stood baffled”—introduce a further stretch of narrated monologue: “Where had he known her—that narrow face, those dark eyes, that girlish smile?” (285). As the passage is totally without attributive clauses, the impression is created that the narrator is completely silenced, mesmerized, as it were, by what happens. The text then moves into a stretch of direct discourse—a rapid succession of questions and answers between the two speech partners in which it becomes clear that the woman is the long-dead Raizel—and from there into psycho-narration. Two attributive that-clauses are found in close proximity here: one with the attributive verb know, which thus includes narrator consent—“he knew [that] his love had returned with full force”—and one with the attributive verb think used as a passive form“The thought came to him that by Jewish law he was not married” (Singer 287), in which the narrator refrains from any epistemic evaluation and the protagonist is put in the role of helpless receiver. This helplessness, finally, leads to the climax of the story, which presents itself when the doctor reaches a point where he must find an explanation. Starting with the hesitation expressed in psycho-narration, in the form of the consonant that-clause “Suddenly it occurred to him that this could not be his Raizel” (288), the text deepens the trance by moving, after two sentences of narrated text, once more into narrated monologue:

Suddenly he remembered the traffic collision he had witnessed on Eastern Parkway. An eerie suspicion came over him: Perhaps he had been more than a witness? Perhaps he himself had been the victim of that accident! (Singer 288).

24Again, the question mark and the exclamation point signal the bubbling up into of consciousness of pre-conscious material. What happens after this is also typical: the voicing of this material in direct quotes, first softly and addressed to Dr. Margolin himself—“It can’t be, it can’t be, he murmured. Can one die without knowing it?” (288)—and subsequently loudly and addressed to Raizel—each existence seeking to prove the other unreal, while being, itself, the lack of the other.

You’re not the same Raizel.”
“No? Then who am I?”
“They shot Raizel.”
“Shot her. Who told you that?” (Singer 288)

25In a suddenly objective way, the narrator next presents the reaction of each of the speech partners: “She seemed both frightened and perplexed. Silently she lowered her head like someone receiving the shock of bad news. Dr Mangolin continued to ponder” (Singer 288). But in this last verb—ponder—narrator and protagonist just as suddenly join each other again and the text continues in narrated monologue:

Apparently Raizel didn’t realize her own condition. He had heard of such a state—what was it called? Hovering in the World of Twilight. The Astral Body wandering in semi-consciousness, detached from the flesh, without being able to reach its destination, clinging to the illusions and vanities of the past. But could there be any truth to all this superstition? No, as far as he was concerned, it was nothing but wishful thinking. Besides, this kind of survival would be less than oblivion; “I am most probably in a drunken stupor,” Dr. Margolin decided. “All this may be one long hallucination, perhaps a result of food poisoning.” (289)

26Interestingly, this passage terminates in two sentences of perfectly normal quoted monologue, complete with an attributive clause, comma and quotation marks, showing how narrated monologue—an ensemble of pre-conscious material, suspended, to use Cohn’s words, “on the threshold of verbalization” (103) and brought to light with the help of the narrator—can culminate in perfectly conscious material, in this case, a negation.

- - - - -

27As Freud said, it is in its negation that an unacceptable truth finds expression, or as Wilfried Ver Eecke expresses it in his book Denial, Negation and the Forces of the Negative, “a denial correctly labels the repressed phenomenon, even though a denial denies the correctness of the labeling” (10; italics in the text). Here there are suspension points at the end of the passage, which somehow seem to negate the negation. This impression is confirmed when the doctor tells Raizel: “What’s the difference? As long as we’re together” (289), and so the couple apparently stay to attend the wedding ceremony together. Thus we are left with the impression that Dr. Margolin finally joins the people he left behind when he came to America, that now he and his Raizel are both in a liminal world between life and death. And because the narrator will not, or cannot, escape his consonance, so is he. Indeed, the respective “hauntedness” of narrator and character turns out to be as good as indistinguishable at this crucial point, as before, in a liminal space, between life and death. And so it is that the story ends in terms of a gothic preoccupation with borderline states that these Jewish-American New Yorkers—character, narrator and writer—share, as well as the particular “condition” that haunts them, now making them all “hover” together “in the World of Twilight” (Singer 288).


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1 The attributive clause, a clause with which a narrator attributes mental activity to a protagonist, consists of an attributive verb (such as know, conclude, admit, think, believe, hope, regret, fear, feel etc.) and a complement. This complement can have different forms—that of a so-called that-clause, a how-clause, a to-infinitive clause or a small clause, which, in this order, change the attributive verb it occurs with from cognition verb to pure perception verb. Adapting a sentence from James Joyce’s “A Painful Case,” in Dubliners, this is shown by the following hypothetical sentences: “He felt that his moral nature was falling to pieces” (that-clause complement); “He felt how his moral nature was falling to pieces” (how-clause complement); “He felt his moral nature to be falling to pieces” (to-infinitive clause complement) and, finally, “He felt his moral nature falling to pieces” (small-clause complement: the form actually found in Joyce’s text p. 100). Indeed, as a result of the different forms of complement used in this series of sentences, the cognition aspect of the activity depicted gradually decreases in favor of its perception aspect, showing that between cognition and perception there exists a sliding scale of possibilities, and thus it would be a “futile exercise,” to use Cohn’s words, to “delimit psycho-narration sharply from the narration of sensations that impinge on a character’s mind, from within or from without” (49). See van der Leek and Bockting for a discussion of the different forms of attributive clauses.

2 The often-used terms for this narrative mode—free indirect discourse, style indirect libre (in French) and erlebte rede (in German)—are considered too broad by Cohn, who uses narrated monologue strictly as a term for rendering consciousness, figural thought—in French, pensée avec (111)—not the broader subject of discourse (109f.).

3 Other deictics include spatial ones and personal ones. Spatial deictics, such as the adverbs here (close to the deictic center) and there (further away from the deictic center), as well as the demonstratives this and that, and these and those (close to the deictic center versus further away from the deictic center). The spatial deictics may also indicate emotional stance. By using the deictic this, for instance, a speaker may not only evoke spatial proximity but also emotional nearness, which John Lyons calls “emphatic deixis” (677). Certain motion verbs, in addition, have built-in deictic aspects, such as come and go and bring and take, indicating directions or destinations towards and away from the deictic center. Personal deictics include, first of all, the first person pronouns I and we (and their derivatives me, us, mine and ours), which create and sustain the deictic center itself; the pronoun you (as well as your and yours), which relate the deictic center to a speech partner, or speech partners, and the pronouns he, she, it and they (and his, her, its, their and theirs), which posit a subject or subjects as outsider or outsiders with regard to the language event. For a more complete discussion of the various types of deictics and deictic projection, see Bockting.

Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Ineke Bockting, « “Hovering in the World of Twilight”: Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “A Wedding in Brownsville” », Journal of the Short Story in English, 70 | 2018, 125-139.

Référence électronique

Ineke Bockting, « “Hovering in the World of Twilight”: Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “A Wedding in Brownsville” », Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 70 | Spring 2018, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2020, consulté le 23 octobre 2020. URL :


Ineke Bockting

Ineke Bockting holds doctoral degrees from the Universities of Amsterdam, The Netherlands and Montpellier, France (“Habilitation à diriger des recherches”). She has taught at Universities in The Netherlands, Norway and France, and she is now Professor emerita at the Catholic University of Paris. Her publications include works on various aspects of the American South, William Faulkner, ethnic literatures, travel-narrative, autobiography, literary stylistics and pragmatics, and cognitive science and literature. She is a member of the Unité de Recherche “Religion, Culture et Société” of the Catholic University of Paris.

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