Printer Friendly

Family stories: Gender and discourse in Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter.


While being deposed in a class-action suit instigated by townspeople who have lost their children in a tragic bus accident, Nicole Burnell, an adolescent girl who has survived the accident, constructs a lie about what happened in order to sabotage the prosecuting attorney's case. Mitchell Stephens, the lawyer who seeks someone to blame for the town's loss, is obsessed with creating a cause-effect narrative to explain the accident, largely because he, too, has "lost" a child and struggles to understand how and why: the class-action suit to which he is drawn becomes his vicarious means to compensate himself for the fact that his daughter abuses drugs and may die of AIDS. But Nicole is deeply suspicious of the narrative line which Stephens wants to impose on the accident. Not only is she aware that his story is a construct and that the accident was simply that--an accident, no one's fault--but her relationship to her own father, Sam Burnell, is troubled by the narrative that he has constructed for her. Sam promi ses to turn his daughter into a rock star, and Nicole, initially seduced by this dream, enters into a sexual relationship with her father. Thus Nicole is a survivor not only of the accident but of incest as well. These two plot lines merge in the film when Sam becomes involved in the lawsuit because he wants to further use Nicole, who has lost the use of her legs in the accident, for material compensation. Nicole, who comes to recognize herself as an object in both Stephens's and Sam's stories, sees a way to write herself out of both narratives: knowing that the town will drop the suit rather than prosecute one of its own community members, she falsely testifies that the bus driver was speeding at the time of the accident. With her lie, the suit ends.

Nicole's invented story at the film's climax invites analysis of the relationship between gender and narrative in The Sweet Hereafter. The differences between Nicole's acts of narration and Sam's and Stephens's stories can be illuminated from a theoretical perspective that explores the ways in which the film grants narrative power to a woman character with a feminist vision. In fact, director Atom Egoyan not only portrays Nicole as a storyteller within the film's diegesis, but he also blurs the bounds between Nicole as character and Nicole as heterodiegetic narrator and thus allows her desire, her subjectivity, to speak through the film itself rather than simply being narrated by it. (1)

This blurring is expressed cinematically through the relationship between Nicole's voice on the soundtrack and images of her body on the visual track. For the viewer of The Sweet Hereafter to understand this dynamic, the work of feminist film theorist Kaja Silverman becomes very useful, though the film also suggests important modifications to her theories. In The Acoustic Mirror: The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and Cinema, Silverman expresses some surprise at "the fetishistic value which a surprising number of film theoreticians have conferred upon the voice.... When the voice is identified in this way with presence, it is given the imaginary power to place not only sounds but meaning in the here and now. In other words, it is understood as closing the gap between the signifier and the signified" (43). Here, drawing on Lacan, she refers to the imaginary wholeness the child shares with the mother when it is enveloped in the female voice in the womb, and the lack associated with language when the child enter s the symbolic order. (2) But as Silverman points out, sound is really no more "present" in cinema than are images: "what is at stake within cinema's acoustic organization, as within its visual organization, is not the real, but 'an impression of reality"' (44; qtg. Comilli 132). In creating this impression of reality, numerous theorists have argued, film restores lost wholeness to the (male) viewing subject. Silverman then posits--and this point is central--that within the classical Hollywood tradition, this conception of sound as presence is "sexually differentiated" (45). The male viewing subject is "protected against the knowledge of his discursive insufficiency through the inscription into the diegesis of phallic characters with whom he is encouraged to identify--characters equipped with phallic attributes . . . (i.e., the capacity to look creatively, speak authoritatively, and capture and coerce the speech of others)" (30-31).

Moreover, in the classical cinema the male voice becomes allied with the cinematic apparatus itself, the point of textual origin or making of meaning, while women's voices are confined to the diegesis, to the storyworld, as bearers of the meaning made by men. The dynamic at work in the sound track thus is similar to the dynamic at work in the image track first articulated by Laura Mulvey: men possess the gaze, while women are its objects. In Silverman's terms, the authoritative male voice is often "disembodied," while the disempowered female voice is "corporealized"--that is, woman's voice is always tied synchronously to images of her body, resulting in "her exclusion from symbolic power and privilege" (31). Silverman further observes that these dynamics need not take place only at the level of the film's own diegesis, but that characters in a film may construct stories within the story, and that in these "inner" stories, even when male characters are "embodied," they are typically the authors and hence locat ed in the "outer space" or point of origin, while female characters are confined "within a hyperbolically diegetic context" (45;52-54).

When we apply these theories to The Sweet Hereafter, we see that like many of the experimental films that Silverman valorizes, Egoyan's film provides an alternative to and critique of the classical Hollywood model. It portrays Mitchell Stephens's and Sam Burnell's narratives much in the same way that a Hollywood film would: these male characters' alignment with the apparatus coincides with their participation in the ideology of patriarchy and their construction of narratives which serve male subjectivity, narratives of rescue and control which they assume to be natural, the truth. (3) Yet Egoyan's film opposes these stories by representing alternative, female narratives. Both the film's own narrative technique and Nicole's narrative techniques at the moment of her lie attain a degree of self-consciousness which unmasks the illusion of reality and works against both dominant cinema and dominant ideology, challenging its fictions and proposing alternative female subjectivities.

To account for the ways in which this particular film achieves its feminist vision, we need to revise or broaden Silverman's theories. Silverman is most interested in the film medium's implications for the relationship between the visual track and the image track. Yet we must consider as well that The Sweet Hereafter codes not only this relationship but also certain narrative forms as masculine or feminine: the narrative forms Nicole employs can be distinguished from the narrative forms that both her father and Mitchell Stephens employ. Here, the work of feminist literary theorists enhances our understanding of the film's narrative dynamics and the means by which it achieves its resistance to classical norms. As Margaret Homans points out in an article that reviews several theories about narrative's relationship to feminism, "in recent years, there has been an unusual consensus, among feminist critics who consider themselves to be doing narrative theory, about the problems posed by conventional sequential nar rative for representing women. Starting from psychoanalytic and/or structuralist premises, virtually all these critics take it as axiomatic that the structure of narrative itself is gendered and that narrative structure is cognate with social structure" ("Feminist Fictions" 5). Thus these psychoanalytic critics suggest that alternative, nonlinear narrative forms, even nonnarrative forms, "can have emancipatory effects for women" (5). Yet other critics do not view narrative as inherently phallic and hence value "the social uses that can be made of [narrative]"; they argue that narratives of the self are crucial for women who seek the ability to tell their own stories (7). In recognizing the important theoretical contributions made by both groups, Homans proposes a middle ground whereby the act of narration can lead to new narrative forms (9). The Sweet Hereafter valorizes not only Nicole's acts of narration, but also the alternative narrative forms that emerge from them as she lies at her deposition in order t o resist inscription or enclosure in both the story about the accident that Mitchell Stephens constructs and the story about incest that her father constructs. (4)

Nicole not only resists the stories within the story, but through her shift from character to heterodiegetic narrator, she finally exceeds the bounds of the male director's own diegesis. Yet she is not, in Kaja Silverman's terms, a disembodied voice. Indeed, the film explores the connection among Nicole's stories, her body, and her fantasies of motherhood, ultimately belying the need to cut loose woman's voice from visual representations of her body. In this respect, the film engages with psychoanalytic theories of language from which Silverman is at some pains to distance herself. Noting that woman is often most disempowered in film when her voice is most linked with her body, she seeks alternatives in experimental films which "free" the voice "from its claustral confinement within the female body" (186). Like many feminist critics, Silverman is troubled by the major problem of many psychoanalytic-based theories that link language with the body: women's exclusion from symbolic discourse, which Silverman desc ribes as "the fiction of the mother's troubled relationship to language" (140). (5) In some ways, Nicole's alternative narratives might be construed as semiotic, defined by the deconstructive, anti-logocentric qualities that disrupt masculine symbolic discourse. Yet in spite of the film's emphasis on Nicole's body, The Sweet Hereafter also addresses the very problem that Silverman notes by ultimately reminding us that bodies exist in history, in a complex web of cultural relations, and that motherhood is not simply a biological role but a social one. (6) Thus Nicole's recovery is not merely personal: it is bound up in the town's recovery from the accident, and it leads her to weave a story that redefines the nuclear family. Her voice thus has a decidedly symbolic register, but one which can be achieved only by Nicole's reclaiming her commodified body. Finally, because her voice merges with that of the film's heterodiegetic narrator, it might be said to feminize the film's omniscient narrating consciousness. A lternatively, one might say that rather than remaining external to the text of the film, this narrating consciousness bodies itself in Nicole. (7)


The structure of the stories that Stephens tells to understand his daughter Zoe's drug addiction coincides with the structures that feminist theorists of narrative identify as masculinist patterns, most notably plots that are "mobilized by the desire for coherence or closure" (Robinson 17). Because Stephens's world has no room for contingency, his life's work is to fit various contingent circumstances into a tight cause-effect narrative pattern, to reign events in under his control. Zoe's state both challenges this world view and causes him to adopt it with a vengeance. She might, in fact, be construed in psychoanalytic terms as a "lack" which threatens Stephens's subjectivity but which also provides the means for him to obsessively reconstruct it through his narrative strategies. (8) As a lawyer who specializes in class-action suits, he convinces the victims in those suits that someone is to blame for whatever happened, and that those parties can be brought to justice through the narrative of the lawsuit. Th us when he reads about the bus accident around which The Sweet Hereafter centers, Stephens, in Russell Banks's novel, thinks to himself, "I knew instantly what the story was; I knew at once that it wasn't an 'accident' at all. There are no accidents" (91). In both film and novel, he then uses his strong, persuasive narrative voice to convince the residents of the town of this "truth" and to enlist them in his suit by swaying them to believe in the story he tells. One reviewer of the film observes that Mitchell Stephens makes his way into the households, "insisting to each set of characters, 'It's important that we talk.' How he talks varies from one listener to the next....Mitchell Stephens...continually alters the themes of his speech, his tone of voice--even his posture--as he goes to and fro, converting mourners into litigants" (Klawans 35). While Stephens may vary his means of speaking to best win people over to his suit, his own shifts in linguistic style are all in the service of what he perceives to be the singular, central Truth of the tragedy. We will see later that Nicole, in contrast, uses language to complicate this very premise, and to resist the manner in which Stephens has narrativized her. Because Nicole is his key witness, she becomes an object of exchange in his narrative as well as in her own father's insofar as a price can be placed upon her broken body which will vicariously compensate Stephens for the loss of his daughter. (9)

In order to fit what has happened to Zoe into the narrative pattern that structures his perception, Stephens focuses not only on the bus accident case, but also on a story about a moment in the past "when he had complete control over his daughter's life" (Egoyan 21). This second narrative to which Stephens obsessively returns deals with a time when Zoe was bitten by a black widow spider and he needed to save her life by rushing her to the hospital while being prepared at any moment to perform an emergency tracheotomy. The manner in which this scene is shot implies a critique of Stephens's story of rescue and control, a critique of his patriarchal assumptions about gender roles within the family. The flashback narrative to Zoe's childhood begins with an overhead shot of a family--mother, father, and infant--in bed together. In the only image from the flashback narrative in which Stephens appears in the picture, Zoe is positioned as if at her mother's breast, the two facing each other and sharing a close physic al (imaginary) bond, while a younger Mitchell Stephens lies on his stomach, facing away from mother and child as if excluded from this relationship. As the story unfolds, we see scattered images of Mitchell's flashbacks to the child playing with her mother, Klara, and being nursed by Klan, or Zoe framed by herself from Mitchell's viewpoint, with the tracheotomy knife poised next to her (only his hand is in the image). When Klara and Mitchell take Zoe to the hospital after discovering she has been bitten by a spider, we know that Mitchell is the one who actually carries Zoe on his lap, but the film elides any images of this physical bond because Egoyan shoots the scene about the ride to the hospital from Mitchell's optical point of view in the past, accompanied by his voice-over narration in the present. Thus, significantly, we hear the father's language but see no images of father and child. (10)

If we apply Silverman's argument to this particular scene, we see that Egoyan's choice to shoot the images in the past from Mitchell's point of view aligns Mitchell with the camera, a part of the cinematic apparatus, and hence privileges (ironically) the male voice as the source of meaning in the cinema, while emphasizing the female body (Zoe's and Klara's) as the object of the male gaze, subject to its control. Although Stephens is of course a diegetic narrator, the fact that these images are cut loose from his body as he recounts the story, the fact that be is placed in the position of the cinematic apparatus and hence speaks without being seen provides an example of the male voice's exteriority to images in the story. But the resulting discursive authority (Silverman 164) is quickly undermined. The representation of Mitchell's memory coincides with Lacanian ideas about the imaginary and symbolic realms, placing fathers in the world of discourse and mothers in the world of imaginary union. Egoyan's film cri tiques this construction of the family, suggesting that these are the very positions within the social structure that perpetuate a rigid division of family labor along gender lines and give rise to the undesirable incestuous relationship that emerges between Sam and Nicole Burnell.

While Stephens may be guilty of holding fairly traditional views of the nuclear family, and while the narrative that he imposes on the bus accident distorts the truth and ultimately divides the town, the film nonetheless portrays him far more sympathetically than it does his double, Sam Burnell. We understand Stephens's desire for a linear story of rescue and control, given Zoe's horrific state and the resulting strains on the father-daughter relationship. We understand that he wants to be a good father, but perhaps does not know how, in part because he seems to be conditioned by conventional social constructions of fatherhood, as his rendition of the spider story suggests. But the film's real patriarchal monstrosities come in its portrayal of Sam and Nicole's father-daughter relationship. Sam, who represents the extreme version of Stephens's views of the family structure under patriarchy, tells a narrative in which Nicole will become a beautiful rock star, a narrative he apparently uses in order to seduce hi s daughter into an incestuous relationship.11 When Nicole loses the use of her legs in the accident, Sam changes the terms of his story somewhat, while leaving the underlying principles intact: he enters Stephens's suit to be compensated for his daughter's injuries--her body is still a commodity to him. While Stephens desires a linear story surrounding the bus accident in part because of the absence of any such story to explain Zoe's fate, Sam's motivations are far more insidious. Although Stephens remains ignorant of the incest plot, he recognizes and is shocked by Sam's crass materialism in the lawsuit, a fact which viewers will connect with the incest plot as a commentary on Sam's claiming ownership of the daughter's body.

As in its portrayal of Stephens's spider story, the film exploits the relationship between sound and image to make its point about gender and narrative. (12) When Nicole is first introduced, she is very much like the female figure in the classical Hollywood cinema. Rehearsing for her musical performance at the upcoming Harvest Fair, she appears on stage, the object of both her father's and the viewer's gaze. Her "to be looked-at-ness" (Mulvey) is heightened by a series of eyeline-match shots of Sam regarding his daughter and by the fact that the mise en scene includes two huge photographs of Nicole as part of the stage's backdrop. (13) In this scene, Nicole is playing out a role in her father's fantasy for her, and hence becomes the bearer of his meaning. At this point, her voice, captured in the song she rehearses, is fully synchronous, tied to her body in her performing role, and is thus "diegeticized," in Silverman's terms, both within her father's narrative and the film's larger narrative. In contrast, Sa m is off-stage, viewer and listener, granting Nicole his approval of her performance. The tool belt that is a prominent feature of his costume calls attention to the fact that he has constructed the stage, and, by extension, has authored the narrative which places Nicole on that stage. As Silverman points out, the "identification of the female voice with an intractable materiality" gives rise to a "consequent alienation from meaning," while associating the male with the "production of meaning" (61-62). In the classical Hollywood cinema, the narrative authority that is granted to both Sam and Stephens would be supported and preserved by the film's structure. Yet in Egoyan's art cinema, both the film's own narrative structure and its representation of feminine discourse within the diegesis everywhere reveal the constructedness of this position and ultimately dismantle it.


I have just suggested that in the scene where Nicole is introduced, the sound is synchronous with the images, and in large part this is true. But it should also be noted that the lines from the song that Nicole sings, "One More Colour," actually operate in an ironic fashion, perhaps undermining already this early in the film the one-to-one correspondence between the image track and the sound track. The song's refrain, "all we have here is sky I all the sky is, is blue," has a naive quality that will even at this point be clear to the viewer insofar as the viewer, still ignorant of the incest plot, is well aware of the bus accident that will wreak havoc in the town. Even though Nicole of course doesn't know about the impending accident and is not yet cognizant of the irony, the film's narrating consciousness has arranged the opening sequences of the plot so that we see the wrecked bus and Stephens arriving in the town in early 1995 to begin his lawsuit before we see Nicole at the Harvest Fair, in the autumn of 1994. The film also asks us to compare the father-daughter stories right from the start, since Stephens's conflict with Zoe is introduced when she phones him just as he arrives in the town, and we then immediately move backward in time to Sam watching Nicole's fairground rehearsal. The film's own structure is thus associative rather than teleological. Stephens's telling of the spider story is actually set in 1997, two years after the bus crash and lawsuit story. He narrates these events to a fellow passenger on a plane, and because this story about Zoe is linked in his mind to his attempt to rescue children during the bus accident lawsuit, the film shifts constantly back and forth between the 1995 and 1997 stories. (14) In fact during the opening credits, the plot presents the image of Mitchell, Klara, and infant Zoe in bed, though the viewer cannot place these images in time or space until much later in the film, when Stephens begins to narrate the spider story. The film's plot thus fractures the linear, ca use-effect logic that underlies the stories that Stephens tells within the story, just as it critiques the story Sam tells.

I include the film's narrator under the subheading of "feminine voice and narrative structures" because these narrative techniques are coded feminine and oppositional within the film. They are techniques that Nicole will eventually adopt. While Nicole originally participates in her father's story for her in the incest plot, and while she is initially unaware of the ironic way in which her discourse functions in the accident plot, we will see that Nicole's consciousness merges with the film's omniscient narrating consciousness when she gains greater discursive agency. (I use the term agency here rather than authority to distinguish the kinds of narratives Nicole tells from the kinds of narratives the male characters tell--hers are less authoritative.) Initially only a character in the film as well as in her father's and Stephens's narratives, Nicole gradually moves toward becoming a narrator in both the inner and the outer stories. (15)

While the first scene between Sam and Nicole introduces the way that Nicole's voice is commodified in Sam's narrative, it is not until about halfway through the film that the incestuous relationship between the two is revealed; and it is later still, near the end of the film, that the explicit link between Nicole's voice (her singing) and the incest with her father comes to light. In the middle of the film, on the night before the bus accident, Sam picks Nicole up from her babysitting job at the character Billy Ansel's house, drives her home, and then leads her into the barn where incest occurs. When Nicole follows her father into the barn, the scene is arranged with candles set on the bales of hay. Later in the film, during a conversation between Nicole and her father after the accident, we learn that this site where incest occurs is her father's rendition of a stage lit entirely by candles where his daughter whom he grooms for stardom will perform. On one level then, Nicole's voice, although she is not actu ally singing in this scene, reinforces her subordinate position in her father's narrative. Her father, who has staged this scene for the incestuous encounter just as he has staged her earlier rehearsal, is akin to a director or author, in charge of the mode of production and the meanings it makes.

But at this moment, the daughter also begins to challenge her inscription in her father's story. For at the same time that Egoyan suggests that Nicole's discursive power is limited, her subjectivity constituted by her father, he also suggests her emergence as a speaking subject through a device in the soundtrack, Nicole's reading of Robert Browning's The Pied Piper of Hamelin. The pied piper tale functions in a very complex way, shifting meaning each time it is heard in the film. Just prior to the incest scene, Nicole has read this story to Billy Ansel's children as she puts them to bed. At that point the tale is simply a part of the diegesis. However, the story provides another instance of dramatic irony: the viewer will already see a subtext in the story because of the film's temporal manipulations, which make us fully aware of Mitchell Stephens's suit and hence cause us to read the story metaphorically, as a commentary not only on how the town has lost its children but also on how Stephens has lured the pe ople of the town with his "tune" about the lawsuit. But when the lines about the piper accompany the visual images of Nicole following her father into the barn, Nicole's father is now the "piper," she one of the children following, seduced by his "tune," which capitalizes on her tunes.

We hear Nicole read lines from the end of Browning's story:

When, lo, as they reached the mountain-side,

A wondrous portal opened wide,

As if a cavern was suddenly hollowed;

And the piper advanced, and the children followed,

And when all were in to the very last,

The door in the mountain-side shut fast.

Did I say all? No! One was lame,

And could not dance the whole of the way;

And in after years, if you would blame

His sadness, he was used to say,--

"It's dull in our town since my playmates left!

I can't forget that I'm bereft

Of all the pleasant sights they see,

Which the piper also promised me.

For he led us, he said, to a joyous land,

Joining the town and just at hand,

Where waters gushed and fruit-trees grew

And flowers put forth a fairer hue,

And everything was strange and new[."] (11. 226-34)

In Browning's story, the left-out child is saddened because he misses the wondrous sights to be seen in the cavern. While the lines initially seem to express Nicole's wonders at the possibilities offered by the seduction, the fact that Egoyan has her read the lines about the one lame child changes the tenor of the metaphor. Nicole is not literally lame here as she is after the accident when she is confined to a wheel-chair; the lines imply instead that she is metaphorically lame for following the piper (her father) into the barn. Coupled with the visual images at this point in the film, the lines imply she is bereft not because she doesn't get to enter the cavern (barn) but precisely because she does follow her father, does engage in acts that strip her of her normal childhood. The proclamation at the end about "strange and new" has an eerie tone at this point in the film (heightened by the eerie musical accompaniment), as if the speaker doubts the veracity of the piper's words, a doubt underlined by the "he said" in the line "for he led us, he said, to a joyous land." In his own commentary on the pied piper motif, Egoyan notes of Nicole's reading during the incest scene, "While the image we see onscreen suggests Nicole's acquiescence--even complicity--in the incest, the reading of the poem, with its intimations of manipulation and annihilation, reveals her feelings of surrender and confusion" (20). (16) In this scene, then, the voice works in disjunction with the images that are still anchored to the stage where the corporeal Nicole is an object of exchange in another's narrative for her. The reading of Browning's poem begins to challenge this construction of Nicole's self, voicing doubt about the image track. Nicole's voice, speaking through Browning's text, is beginning to work against her father, outside her father's storyworld, even while the images onscreen are in compliance with that world.

Nicole's narrative resistance, developed in detail from this point and throughout the rest of the film, takes place in two narrative planes--both in the way that she constructs an alternative story within the story, and in the way that the soundtrack, with its ambiguous relationship to the images, grants her authorial agency by placing her outside the storyworld of the film itself, on a different ontological plane than the character Nicole. Before returning to the implications of The Pied Piper voice-over narration, I want to consider the first plane, the stories Nicole tells in the film's "inner space." When Nicole begins to realize that she is being used by Stephens and especially by her father, she recognizes the convergence of their narratives and devises a clever way to resolve both at once by transforming herself from the object of others' narratives to the author of her own.

During her deposition, and then again in the film's closing scene, Nicole authors her own story whose form stands in contradistinction to the stories embraced by Sam and Stephens. When she is being deposed by the opposing counsel, Nicole in effect pretends to recover a memory of the accident, an event of which in fact she has no memory. The story she weaves here both partakes of Stephens's kind of narrative and departs from it. One might say she adopts a strategy that Luce Irigaray terms "mimicry": she deliberately positions herself within a framework that is socially constructed as the acceptable narrative framework, but in the very act of speaking from within that framework, she undermines it, exposes it (76-78). On the one hand, this story has clear cause-effect logic and achieves strong closure for the case. It mimics what Stephens wants: a clear-cut answer to the question "who is to blame for the tragedy?" On the other hand, Nicole's narrative form opposes the definitive story Stephens wants her to tell. Because it is based in memory (albeit a deliberately false memory), Nicole's story has an associative narrative structure. She begins by stating that she doesn't remember the accident at all. Then suddenly she says, "There was a brown dog that ran across the road," a detail that seems significant but has no actual bearing on what she says later--it is a kind of narrative red herring. The story unfolds gradually in this associative manner with unconnected bits of information coming to light, until Nicole concludes with a lie by stating that the driver was speeding when the bus crashed. Asked by the defense counsel if she really remembers these details, Nicole replies "Yes, I do now, now that I'm telling it," a statement that contrasts markedly with Stephens's tendency to start at the end-point of the narrative ("I knew instantly what the story was" [Banks 91]) and to work backward to make the details fit his desired conclusion. While Nicole overtly engages in blame (she blames the bus driver Dolores, knowing that the town will drop its suit rather than sue one of its own), in fact her testimony is covertly about contingency: she knows perfectly well it was just an accident, the very factor that Stephens cannot accept and that his narrativized account of human life will not allow. Her words effectively silence Stephens, whose power has been "giving voice" to the people's anger (a line he speaks to one grieving parent) and swaying people with his powerful voice. For the first time in the film, he is rendered speechless: following Nicole's testimony, he can only mutter brokenly and almost inaudibly, "I have . . . no . . . questions." The linguistic competence of the male subject has indeed been revealed as an elaborate fiction.

The final beauty of Nicole's story here is not only that it seemingly gives Stephens what he wants while actually sabotaging him, but also that beneath the surface of her testimony is a veiled subtext about incest which only the viewer and Sam Burnell are able to discern as part of her true meaning. In putting an end to the lawsuit, Nicole also puts an end to her father's attempts to capitalize from her body: she refuses to be commodified. Just as Stephens is effectively silenced, so too Sam simply stares in disbelief. When Nicole again reads in voice-over from Browning's The Pied Piper, Egoyan has Nicole further "use" Browning's text by adding a few lines to it: "And why I lied, he only knew / But from my lie this did come true: / Those lips from which he drew his tune / Were frozen as a winter moon," lines accompanied by shots not only of Stephens but also a close-up of Sam's mouth. Her resistance literally strips them both of their words.

In fact, The Pied Piper motif has entered the deposition scene earlier: just before Nicole constructs her lie, her voice-over narration repeats the lines from the barn scene, ending with "Did I say all? No, one was lame/And could not dance the whole of the way." Now, of course, Nicole is literally lame, confined to a wheelchair, but she nonetheless occupies a position of greater strength through her decision not to follow either her father's advances or Stephens's wishes. It is also possible that when Nicole speaks from Browning's text in voice-over narration, she occupies a position outside the storyworld of the film, or at the very least, bears an ambiguous relationship to it. Because the sound is neither an audio flashback (in the plot she never spoke these lines from the story to the children) nor a conventional internal monologue (if these are Nicole's thoughts at both the moment of incest and the moment of the deposition, the vehicle for conveying them is strange, since they are displaced onto and artic ulated through Browning's text), it is possible that these lines from Browning emanate not from the character Nicole in the time and space of the incest and deposition scenes, but from a narrating Nicole whose temporal/spatial relationship to the images is impossible to determine, a Nicole whose voice begins to be aligned with the film's omniscient narrating consciousness. This, then, is the second narrative plane on which Nicole achieves her narrative agency.

The Pied Piper motif in effect conjoins the two narrative planes on which Nicole's resistance takes place. First, it reflects the constructed nature of Nicole's stories within the story. That is, the various contexts in which Browning's poem is spoken portray a world where meanings continually shift and call into question the unitary meanings which the male characters take for granted. Egoyan's haunting and cryptic soundtrack, which destabilizes language, dovetails with other of the film's formal features--its multiple narrative perspectives, temporal manipulations, and constantly shifting camera--to complicate notions of truth and to highlight the ways in which language constructs, rather than reflects, reality. In its representation of Nicole's voice, and in particular her reading of Browning's children's story with the multifarious ways in which it relates to the film's text, the film attacks the idea of language as present. Nicole's shifting discourse and alternative storytelling modes reveal the fundamen tal lack which the "classical" stories of Sam and Stephens and their (illusionary) self-present linguistic practices attempt to mask. (17) A crucial difference between Nicole and these two fathers, then, is the degree to which she accepts narrative as a construct and manipulates it in a self-conscious way, with an awareness that the "truth" after which she strives is a provisional one. Second, the overarching consciousness of the film itself works with Nicole's consciousness in this matter through the elaborate flashforward, flashback plot structure. The dramatic irony that accompanied some of Nicole's first speech acts in the film disappears as the gap between character and narrator closes, so that by the film's close, the ambiguity surrounding Nicole's relationship to the diegesis is removed. Having earned the status of narrator within the film, she is also granted the status of narrator of the film. From this position, Nicole can not only rewrite her own personal story, but she can also, with the help of B illy Ansel, produce a story that challenges the social conventions on which Mitchell Stephens's and especially Sam's stories rest.


The film's ending has two parts, (18) each of which works in conjunction with the other to grant Nicole narrative power. As it does so, the film revalues the maternal body and challenges theories which posit that a woman's narrative agency or social discourse must be achieved at the expense of bodily connection. In the first part of this ending, Nicole gives her most extensive voice-over commentary from a position in time "two years later" than the accident and the aborted lawsuit, a moment in the 1997 narrative when Stephens, by coincidence, has spotted the bus driver Dolores at an airport: "As you see her, two years later, I wonder if you realize something. I wonder if you understand that all of us--Dolores, me, the children who survived, the children who didn't--that we're all citizens of a different town now, a town of people living in the sweet hereafter." What is crucial here is that the character Nicole cannot have witnessed this scene. Until this point in the film, Nicole has been confined to the 1995 plot. Even when she earlier speaks as a voice-over narrator, she is speaking of events that occurred in 1995 at which she was physically present. Thus when her voice suddenly comments upon images from 1997, the relationship between the soundtrack and the image track now unambiguously links her voice with that of the film's omniscient narrating consciousness and thus confers upon her some version of the discursive authority usually reserved for male characters. (19) Nicole's narration ends with her reading a few lines from The Pied Piper of Hamelin: "Where waters gushed and fruit trees grew / And flowers put forth a fairer hue / And everything was strange and new / And everything was strange and new." This is Nicole's civic voice, a commentary on the effects of her choice to end the lawsuit through her lie. The images that accompany this sound imply the beginning of the healing process for the town--the wrecked bus is taken away, while the Ferris wheel, possibly suggesting the passage of time and the cycle of life, provides an image of continuity for the community.

In all of her voice-over commentaries, Nicole's voice, in narrative theorist Susan Sniader Lanser's terms, moves beyond "engag[ing] exclusively in acts of representation" to "undertak[ing] 'extrarepresentational' acts: reflections, judgments, generalizations about the world 'beyond' the fiction, direct addresses to the narratee, comments on the narrative process" (16-17). As Lanser points out, "acts of representation make a more limited claim to discursive authority than extrarepresentational acts, which expand the sphere of fictional authority to 'nonfictional' referents and allow the writer to engage, from 'within' the fiction, in a culture's literary, social, and intellectual debates" (17). Lanser observes that when women authors employ such a narrative stance, often their extradiegetic narrators cannot be identified by sex and hence "the authorial mode [of narration] has allowed women access to 'male' authority by separating the narrating 'I' from the female body" (18). Lanser's observations about fiction al narrators coincide with Kaja Silverman's and other film theorists' comments on gendered uses of the soundtrack in film. For example, Mary Ann Doane describes the most authoritarian version of the voice-over, the completely disembodied male voice-over narrator of the documentary film, who has a "radical otherness with respect to the diegesis which endows this voice with a certain authority. ...It is precisely because the voice is not localizable, because it cannot be yoked to a body, that it is capable of interpreting the image, producing its truth" (341).

Because in the final voice-over Nicole's voice cannot be yoked to her body in the film's diegesis, it is momentarily "disembodied." Yet I want to maintain that Nicole's discourse here at the end is not really the same as the discourse of the transcendental disembodied male voice-over narrator of the classical cinema. One difference lies in the mysterious quality of the words and the images which underline the open-ended nature of the film's moment of closure and contrast starkly with the kinds of truths espoused by Sam and Mitchell and their masculinist narrative patterns. Moreover, Nicole is capable of interpreting the images in her own way, is granted narrative agency, not because her voice is "disembodied," but precisely the opposite. Nicole's narration represents a kind of compromise between the disembodied voice and the diegetic voice, since Nicole is, by the film's end, paradoxically both a character and a heterodiegetic narrator. The film in fact "rebodies" Nicole immediately following this last voice- over narration. Perhaps the implication is not that the female voice must divorce itself from the body and disguise itself as male to gain authority, but that the previously "disembodied" voice of the film's heterodiegetic narrator feminizes itself by localizing its body and its vision in Nicole.

Let me offer a provisional reading of some of these mysterious words and images that comprise the film's closing moments. When the film rebodies Nicole, it suggests important social changes for the maternal role. In the first part of the ending, when Nicole identifies "all of us" in the town, she names herself, "me," as separate, in a different category from "the children who survived." (She does not say "the other children who survived.") Nicole, by separating herself from all the other children, perhaps suggests a mothering role for herself--indeed, she is older than and has often performed "motherly" acts for many of the children on the bus. (20) Though she does not identify any parents specifically in the "all of us," there is at the time of her voice-over narration a visual image not only of herself, but also of the father Billy Ansel. I propose that Nicole is subtly suggesting a partnership between herself and Billy as alternative kinds of parents. The second part of the film's closing provides more evi dence for these speculations. As Nicole's voice-over concludes with the comment "everything was strange and new," we return in time visually to the moment of Nicole's reading Browning's story to Billy's children the night before the accident. The last images seem to be part memory, part reconstructive fantasy, of the night Nicole babysat Billy's children and then committed incest with her father. As the scene progresses, a slightly different version of what happened that night unfolds, a version of how she might relive that night on her own terms rather than in terms of her father's story for her. (21) In the earlier scene, in preparation for her encounter with her father, Nicole has changed clothes at Billy's house, putting on a tight minidress. But at the film's end, after we see Nicole close the book and kiss the children goodnight, she instead remains in her jeans, tee shirt, and sweater. As she walks toward a window in Billy Ansel's house, it becomes strangely illuminated. At first it almost appears as i f the light might come from a car's headlights (Billy returning home?), though by the time the shot ends it looks as if the room has been engulfed by daylight. In any case, the film closes with Nicole baffled in light, her back to us as she faces the window, an image which contrasts starkly with the earlier image of her entering the dark cavern/barn, illuminated only dimly by candles.

I want to suggest that Nicole might be read in this scene as an enlightened mother, one who values both her connection to her (figurative) children and her ability to enact social change, to make things, both for the town and for herself, "strange and new." The film leaves her in Billy Ansel's house rather than in her father's barn, with the fantasy of an implied partnership between Billy and herself replacing the beautiful rock star fantasy. Nicole moves from literally taking her own mother's place as her father's sexual partner to figuratively taking the place of Billy's deceased wife, Lydia Ansel, a transformation that is suggested in numerous ways: Nicole and Billy share music, and Lydia was likewise a singer; Nicole babysits for Billy's children, acting as their other care-giver; and Nicole is wearing Lydia's sweater when the bus crashes. It might be objected that in becoming Billy's partner, Nicole is simply enacting the traditional role of a woman in patriarchal society, moving from her father's house to a "husband's," moving from the position of daughter to the position of "wife." However, Billy is clearly not a substitute father in the sense that he simply replaces her father in the image of her father as a more acceptable partner. Indeed, because of their ideological differences, Sam would hardly consent to "give away" Nicole to Billy. Nicole's fantasy thus disrupts the female oedipal fantasy. (22)

The film presents in the character of Billy Ansel an alternative version of masculinity and an alternative relationship of a male character to discursive authority. Billy refuses to impose a narrative line on the events of the accident, insisting all along that it is simply a meaningless, random event--the very view of things that Stephens cannot abide. The film supports Billy's version of events surrounding the accident. Just as the film's omniscient narrating consciousness allies itself with Nicole, so too it confirms what Billy sees when he watches the bus crash, a scene shot from his point of view. Many other shots of the bus on its way to the school, clearly marked as stemming from the nondiegetic narrator's point of view, not only allow us to recognize that Nicole is inventing in her deposition testimony (there is no brown dog, no evidence of speeding), but also lend credence to what Billy says about the accident. He and Nicole both oppose Mitchell Stephens's narrativized account of the events, each in their own way.

In an argument with his lover Risa Walker over the account of the accident, Billy has broken off his relationship with her, preparing the way for the symbolic union between himself and Nicole at the film's end. He and Nicole thus unite also in the ways in which their stories oppose Sam's story and the incest plot, even though Billy remains unaware that incest has occurred. But because his wife Lydia has died, Billy is the sole care-giver for his children, and as such he represents an alternative kind of father to many of the other traditional fathers in the story, especially Sam, with his sexist assumptions about men's and women's respective roles. (23) The film's closing scene in Billy's house, then, examined in conjunction with the film's earlier portrayal of Billy's character, suggests a redefinition of traditional gender roles within the family, a change that discourages instances of incest.

Again, the concept of voice and gendered ways of speaking becomes crucial to this aspect of the film's vision. Billy wants the town to be able to heal, to recover from the accident, and in his view, the lawsuit is merely dragging out the pain, so he appeals to the Burnells to drop the suit. There follows from the exchange between Billy and the Burnells a reversal of traditional discursive practices along gender lines. Not only does he not embrace the linear narrative strategies of Sam and Stephens, but he also divests himself of one marker of masculinity: he offers to give the Burnells the money he received from insurance for the deaths of his twin children to help them pay Nicole's medical bills. Moreover, he refuses to speak publicly, in a court of law, adamant that he will not testify because he feels his testimony will only prolong his own and the town's misery. He thereby gives up another marker of masculinity--public language, the workings of the symbolic order. While Billy clearly has a social conscien ce and a moral vision, he is unable to effect change in the town because of his wish to remain silent. Yet even though his well-reasoned pleas fall on the deaf ears of Nicole's parents, Billy has unknowingly spoken to Nicole, who eavesdrops on the conversation (and who is thus invested, in Silverman's terms, with the ability to "listen authoritatively" [31]). Nicole, rather than refusing to speak, "translates" Billy's arguments into her lie, her way of derailing the suit by indirection. (24) The town's salvation, then, depends on an implicit act of cooperation between Billy and Nicole, with Nicole playing the speaking role in the civic realm, to ensure that the effect will be the same as if Billy had testified about the purely accidental nature of the crash.

In addition, when Nicole moves into the social space of the community center where the deposition takes place, and when she moves metaphorically into Lydia Ansel's place as Billy's, rather than her father's, partner, Nicole becomes an alternative mother to her own mother. Mary Burnell, in the scene in which Billy tries to convince her and her husband to drop the suit, is constructed as a wholly traditional female figure. Her primary role is to bring tea and cake to the men, and further, she either literally parrots Sam when she speaks or says nothing at all in response to Billy's appeals, thus enacting two of the roles afforded women in Lacanian accounts of women's speech: speaking like a man or remaining silent. But by linking Nicole's final voice-over narration with images of her acting as mother to Billy's children and thereby creating a different ending to the incest narrative, Egoyan invests the maternal voice with a symbolic role.

As Silverman points out, often in cinema when language is linked to the body (corporealized, synchronized) are women at their least powerful. At first, this dynamic seems to be at work in The Sweet Hereafter: Egoyan gradually disembodies Nicole's voice on the soundtrack as she gains more narrative agency. Precisely when Nicole's body is literally disabled, she is able to free herself from her attachment to her father and to use language in opposition to his plans to capitalize from her body. Indeed, Nicole's own relationship to her body, her sexuality, changes as a result of the accident: the night before the deposition, when her father comments to her that she is "distant" and "hard to talk to," she responds, "we didn't used to have to talk a lot, did we daddy? But I'm a wheelchair girl now, and it's hard to pretend that I'm a beautiful rock star." The loss of her use of her legs and her subsequent view of herself as desexualized enables a greater linguistic competence. That is, when Nicole no longer fits th e position of women in the classical cinema, an object to be looked at, she can, through narrative, put an end to the objectification of her body for damages.

However, such desexualization or "disembodiment" is hardly a desirable end. Thus Nicole recovers her body in the fantasy articulated at the film's close, so that one effect of her newly found discursive power is yet another, more empowering way of thinking about herself and her desires: The Sweet Hereafter restores body to the word. (25) Importantly, the final part of the ending is wholly imagistic--there is no sound at all accompanying the pictures. But given Nicole's newly acquired discursive agency, this is not simply a return to the disempowered, objectified female body, cut off from symbolic language. As we have seen, the final images of Nicole seem to stem from Nicole's own consciousness, so she is not pictured as the silent object in a male narrator's story. (In other words, one might think of Nicole as being aligned with the cinematic apparatus from which these images are generated, in spite of the fact that she is also pictured within them.) Because the ending is a reconstructive flashback to a point in time before the accident, the ending portrays Nicole as able-bodied rather than wheelchair-bound. Her fantasy of partnership with Billy resexualizes her. It is as if having achieved linguistic subjectivity and the agency of authorship, she now envisions herself and acts as a desiring subject in the material as well as narrative realms. Nicole, in the film's last images of her maternal role in Billy Ansel's house, is neither an incestuous body, the position she occupied as an object in her father's narrative, nor the disabled body of "a wheelchair girl," another marker in both her father's and Mitchell Stephens's narratives that is available for consumption and exchange. Rather, as she now weaves her own fantasy, she is again wholebodied and the desiring subject of her own family story. The ultimate suggestion of Nicole's new family story is that the sociocultural conditions that foster incest need to be changed.

The film's ending raises questions not only about Nicole's participation in the symbolic order, but also about the ending's status as fantasy, as symbolism. One reviewer is disturbed by Nicole's "dreams of marrying the town's most eligible widower and becoming a 'mother' (rather than just a babysitter) to his kids"; he interprets the ending darkly, as "Nicole's retreat into her memories of the days when she was Billy's babysitter, closing the film as [Egoyan] began it: with an image of domestic bliss which we know will very soon be shattered" (Rayns 61). How are viewers to understand the relationship between the fantasy/reconstructed memory at the film's close and the stark reality of the family stories we have encountered throughout? Unlike Rayns, I would suggest that viewers are invited to read the ending not ironically, not as Nicole's mere pipe dream of "domestic bliss," but as a vision fully endorsed by the film's implied author. The closing image, a utopian vision of a new family order, displaces rather than repeats the soon-to-be-shattered image with which the film opens.

The tension between the film's realism and its symbolic ending is illuminated by film theorist David Bordwell's argument that the art film in general is paradoxically characterized both by a heightened sense of realism in plot structure, which is often loose, associative, stressing accident and "broken teleology" over tight causal patterns (58), and by repeated markers of authorial commentary, formal violations of classical norms which call attention to the presence of a "shaping narrative intelligence" (59-60). Since these two modes, realism and intrusive authorial commentary, are "inconsistent," Bordwell suggests that when confronted with violations of classical storytelling, the art film viewer should seek first to explain the deviation as part of the film's realism ("in life things happen this way"), and then, if thwarted, as authorial commentary ("the ambiguity is symbolic") (60). At the end of The Sweet Hereafter, the latter mode triumphs.

The body of The Sweet Hereafter in fact foreshadows the symbolic ending in a variety of ways that seem to endorse the authority of that ending: across the entire film, a number of formal devices lend the work a dreamlike quality that anticipates the transition to the ending's highly symbolic mode. Predominant among them is Egoyan's repeated use of The Pied Piper of Hamelin, an unrealistic device which constitutes a running commentary on the film's story and which, by various means, calls attention to the presence of an omniscient narrator who undermines the authority of both main plot lines, incest and lawsuit. As we have seen, the film's narrative consciousness critiques the perspectives of Sam and Stephens while aligning itself with both Billy and Nicole; it thereby suggests the triumph of Nicole's final vision over the family stories portrayed in the rest of the film. By endorsing the authority of Nicole's narration generally, the film seems to exclude Nicole's closing narrative from the irony leveled at o ther characters' fantasies and dreams. In her last words, Nicole also invokes the authority of the film's title, which I would suggest that we read straightforwardly rather than ironically. The film's ending, then, articulated at the point where a female character's agency merges with that of the film's omniscient narrating consciousness, becomes a vision for ushering the nuclear family into a "sweet hereafter." (26)

Katherine Weese is Associate Professor of English and Director of Rhetoric at Hampden-Sydney College. She has published articles on Toni Morrison, Katherine Dunn, and Iris Murdoch in such journals as Critique and Modern Fiction Studies as part of her research on the intersection of feminist narrative theory and theories of the fantastic in contemporary women's fiction.


(1.) In "The Art Cinema as a Mode of Film Practice," David Bordwell observes that "the art cinema foregrounds the narrational act by posing enigmas. In the classic detective tale, however, the puzzle is one of story: who did it? How? Why? In the art cinema, the puzzle is one of plot: who is telling this story? How is this story being told? Why is this story being told this way?" (60). The Sweet Hereafter raises a number of puzzles regarding the plot, the way the information is distributed in the film. Through various formal devices that defy classical filmmaking norms, the art film's heterodiegetic narrating consciousness foregrounds itself, so that "[a]cross the entire film, we must recognize and engage with the shaping narrative intelligence" (Bordwell 59-60). In The Sweet Hereafter, this "shaping narrative intelligence" belongs not only to a nondiegetic narrator, but also, eventually, to Nicole.

(2.) Margaret Homans's explanation of Lacan's ideas about the imaginary and symbolic orders and the role language plays in male and female children's development is the clearest one I have encountered. See Bearing tire Word 1-18. See also Cora Kaplan, "Language and Gender' For further discussion of the "presence" of voice and its psychoanalytic dimensions, see Mary Ann Doane's essay 'The Voice in the Cinema' 342-44. For a fuller account of the way that film theorists draw on psychoanalytic theory, especially Lacan, in their accounting of the (male) subject's viewing experience, see Silverman's overview of psychoanalytic film theory in The Acoustic Mirror 1-32. See also two essays by Jean-Louis Baudry for an explanation of the cinematic apparatus: "Ideological Affects of the Basic Cinematic Apparatus" and "The Apparatus: Metapsychological Approaches to the Impression of Reality in Cinema."

(3.) Philip Rosen points out that when film theorists write of the "apparatus," they often "will have in mind not simply 'the cinema machine' in the literal sense (e.g., the basic camera-projector mechanism), but this literal machine in the context of a larger social and/or cultural and/or institutional 'machine,' for which the former is only a point of convergence of several lines of force of the latter" (282). In other words, just as dominant cinematic representation presents an onscreen illusion of a seamless reality, so too ideologies present themselves as "natural," as realities, rather than as constructs.

(4.) Because it is a film written and directed by a man, and based on a novel written by another man (Russell Banks), The Sweet Hereafter does not provide an example of a woman wrirer's narrative strategy or anti-patriarchal use of discourse. But it is nonetheless a feminist text that achieves its critique of patriarchy not only through its portrayal of Nicole within the text but also in its own self-conscious, nonlinear narrative strategy which comes to be coded "feminine." I refer to Homans's article here because her work very cogently and usefully condenses the work of numerous feminist narrative theorists. While her argument hinges ultimately upon narrative and race, her comments are nonetheless relevant to Egoyan's film which, like the fictions Humans focuses upon, treats a previously untold story, in this case that of an incest survivor.

(5.) For feminist film theorists, the problem of a woman's language being tied to her body is made thornier by the medium of film itself, where a woman's voice, at least in the classical narrative cinema, is nearly always accompanied by images of her body. Consequently, in "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema' Laura Mulvey calls for the end of the narrative cinema as we know it. Likewise Kaja Silverman finds her positive examples in avant-garde films. Yet her comments on the representation of the maternal voice in Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen's experimental film Riddles of the Sphinx actually apply well to The Sweet Hereafter: "[F]ar from foreclosing upon the social, the maternal voice now establishes motherhood as a point of crucial intersection between politics and subjectivity, economics and the family, personal history and a collective future. The questions it asks lead back into memory and 'Out into society'" (131-32). My point is two-fold: first, such a statement can be made about narrative, not just experimental, cinema. (Indeed, Teresa de Lauretis calls for more attention to the oppositional potential of narrative films, but her accounts of how narrative might function in this way remain somewhat unsatisfying.) Second, the female body becomes politicized and historicized in such a way that to corporealize voice is not necessarily to essentialize or objectify the body.

(6.) On this point see both Elalne Showalter's "Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness" and Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's "Sexual Linguistics: Gender, Language, Sexuality."

(7.) See the final chapter of The Acousric Mirror, where Silverman discusses "the author 'inside' the text" (212), illustrating the concept through a reading of Liliana Cavani's films. Interestingly, these films portray feminized males through whom the authorial voice creates a female subject position. But Egoyan's film feminizes the author/narrator by yoking it to a female body, and hence invests the female body as well as the female voice with narrative agency.

(8.) In one telling scene in Russell Banks's novel, Stephens's drive for closure and his need to reconstitute his threatened subjectivity become appallingly clear. Zoe plays what she thinks is a trump card, telling him that she has contracted AIDS, but rather than stunning her father with the news, Zoe has played into his hand because he can demand to see the results of the blood test and thereby learn the scientific truth: "Until this moment, I had for years been tied to the ground, helpless and enraged by my own inability to choose between belief and disbelief. That first task, to eliminate one or the other.., had until now been denied me; because I loved her.... And because I loved her, I could not know the truth and then act accordingly. Now, for the first time in all those years, I was in a position to know the truth--and then to act. Out of desperation, Zoe had freed me from love. Whether she had AIDS or was lying to me, I would soon know. Either way, I was free. She'd played her final card with me; she could no longer keep me from being who I am. Mitchell Stephens, Esquire" (Banks 157).

(9.) See Teresa DeLauretis's discussion of narrativization and woman as sign (140ff); see also Sally Robinson's discussion of the power of narrative to construe women thus (1-15), as well as Homans's comments on ideology and narrative form ("Feminist Fictions" 5-9).

(10.) See Egoyan's own commentary on this scene, in which he writes that "the passage alternates between Mitchell's detailed verbal recollection of the story and selected moments from his memory of watching it. These images...are among the most disturbing in the film" (21).

(11.) Those sociologists, psychologists, and anthropologists writing about incest offer convincing arguments for the way the family structure under patriarchy actually encourages father/daughter incest. Judith Herman's groundbreaking study finds that "in any culture, the greater the degree of male supremacy and the more rigid the sexual division of labor, the more frequently one might expect the taboo on father-daughter incest to be violated. Conversely, the more egalitarian the culture, the more the child rearing is shared by men and women, the less one might expect to find overt incest between father and daughter" (62). Similarly, feminist psychoanalytic critic Nancy Chodorow calls for greater involvement of fathers in child rearing to change the ways boys are socialized. Later in this essay I argue that the Ansel family provides an alternative model of the family, an example of the "more collective child-rearing arrangements" for which Chodorow calls (Reproduction 217; see also Feminism and Psychoanalytic Theory 65).

(12.) But as we will see later, Stephens is also portrayed less sympathetically than a third father, Billy Ansel, who not only understands that Stephens's narrative about the accident is a construct, but who also becomes a foil to Sam and symbolically replaces the bad father in the incest plot, thereby rewriting with Nicole the conventional story of the nuclear family. Thus the film's representation of discourse does not break down along strict gender lines, since Billy opposes the masculinist narratives of both Mitchell and Sam and is not aligned with the cinematic apparatus in the same ways that the other male figures are. Indeed, the central scene shot from Billy's point of view is the bus accident itself, a moment which stresses loss of control and his utter powerlessness in the face of disaster.

(13.) Laura Mulvey writes that "Woman then stands in patriarchal culture as signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his phantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of women still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning" (199). While Nicole is not silent in this scene, the language she speaks is in the service of her father's fantasy.

(14.) While the film's heterodiegetic narrator makes the viewer aware that memory drives narrative constructs, it seems to me that the narrator comments on the way memories create life stories and constructions of the self over the character Stephens's head. As we will see, Nicole too constructs narratives from memories, real and invented, but she and the film's omniscient narrator eventually share in the knowledge that these are constructs, not historical truths. A copanelist at a conference, John W. Moses, offered a different view and a much more generous reading of Stephens than I have offered here, proposing that Stephens might be the narrative consciousness behind much of the film.

(15.) A fuller consideration of the feminine voice in the film would also take into account the way that Zoe opposes her father's narrative. She often rings him on his cell phone when he is making a pitch to a prospective client, literally interrupting his narrative line. While it might be said that Zoe operates as a feminine force which disrupts masculine narratives, Nicole's voice is granted the power not merely to deconstruct but also to reconstruct family stories.

(16.) To some viewers, the sexual encounter appears disturbingly consensual because Nicole obviously anticipates it and even initiates a kiss. However, Judith Herman provides a clear account of why daughters might "willingly" engage in incest and why they should not be "blamed"--her argument hinges ultimately on the powerlessness of daughters in patriarchal societies and families (36 ff). In addition, Egoyan qualifies the moment visually as well as in the sound track: Nicole hesitates before she follows her father into the barn, and while she hesitates, she is filmed with a red blanket around her shoulders, perhaps an allusion to "Little Red Riding Hood and The Big Bad Wolf," a story in which a young girl is tricked by the wolf's appearance and manipulations.

(17.) Bert Cardullo observes that the poem works as a "gloss" on the film, hut only if one reads its events as "a reversal" of the film's events (112). The concept of reversal is a useful one; the Browning text also comments on Egoyan's text through displacement, condensation, and irony, all techniques which again suggest the slippery nature of the signifier. The film shows how women can use existing language, narrative structures, and social structures against themselves for the purpose of social change. Browning's text is transformed for Nicole's purposes as she becomes a speaking subject rather than someone merely reading another's text.

(18.) One might actually consider the ending to he composed of three parts, the third being the closing credits, which are accompanied by Nicole singing the song "Courage" on the soundtrack. This song, like Browning's story, is heard at several points in the film and changes meanings at each juncture. Another example of the shifting, slippery nature of language itself which undermines masculine efforts to fix language and truth, "Courage" becomes another element of the soundtrack through which Nicole articulates her new position and rewrites her story.

(19.) Compare Egoyan's comments in an interview: "[O]ur society is divided into people who make images and people who watch images. Authority is granted to people when they have the ability to turn themselves into producers. Nicole succeeds in producing her own history by the end of The Sweet Hereafter" (Porton 14).

(20.) In constructing her lie and in creating a mothering role for herself, it might be said that Nicole strips Dolores of that very role, since Dolores is clearly attached in a motherly way to the children who ride the bus and is reduced to driving an airport shuttle rather than a school bus by the film's end. Nicole's mentioning Dolores here and her earlier act of constructing a narrative of blame that indicts Dolores in the accident complicate my feminist reading of Nicole; a fuller consideration of gender roles in The Sweet Hereafter would have to deal in more detail with the figure of Dolores.

(21.) See feminist psychoanalyst Janice Haaken's work on the role of fantasy in incest cases: "a fundamental feature of human intelligence is the capacity to reconstruct events and to create new meanings and whole narratives out of memory fragments" (192-93).

(22.) See Herman, who writes that "even when the girl does give up her erotic attachment to her father, she is encouraged to persist in the fantasy that some other man, like her father, will someday take possession of her.... The successful attainment of conventional adult heterosexuality in fact requires an incomplete resolution of the female Oedipus complex and a channeling of female sexuality into submissive relationships with older, stronger, richer, and more powerful men" (57 my emphasis). Egoyan's work does not oppose heterosexual fantasy (contrast Homans, "Feminist Fictions" 14) but it does oppose conventional heterosexual fantasy. See also Jean Wyatt's Reconstructing Desire, in which the author speculates that "in families where maternal love and maternal work are respected equally with paternal authority and paternal work, there is in effect no oedipal turn and hence no residual oedipal fantasy" (214). Wyatt calls for "an enabling heterosexual fantasy" (213) that "affirms a woman's sense of agency an d competence, her ability to affect the world around her." (217).

(23.) Billy is portrayed as a "good father" along very different lines from previous good fathers in cinema, such as those in Ordinary People and Kramer vs. Kramer, In both these mainstream films about the problems of the nuclear family, the fathers were upheld at the expense of the mothers, who were ultimately written out of films that reacted negatively to the women's movement.

(24.) There are many other intriguing uses of gendered language in the film, beyond the scope of this essay. In addition to Nicole's and Billy's resistance to Stephens's discourse, there is also Dolores's husband Abbott, whose stroke prevents him from speaking normally. He seems to "speak in tongues," if you will, and like Nicole's, his nonnormative speech subverts the power of Stephens's language. Stephens is simply baffled by him and has no idea how to deal with him--in Banks's novel, he calls Abbot's discourse "mysterious miraculous pronouncements" (150) and says Abbott "gives [him] the creeps" (152). Dolores, in contrast, insists Abbott is "logical" (151), translating his nonsense into linear, logical statements about not getting involved in the suit. This situation is then reversed in the ease of Billy and Nicole, with Billy speaking logically and Nicole speaking by indirection. Nicole and Abbott are doubled through their confinement to wheelchairs, a doubling that is actually more evident in the novel t han in the film.

(25.) This phrase is a play on the title of Jean Wyatt's article "Giving Body to the Word: The Maternal Symbolic in Toni Morrison's Beloved." Wyatt's insights into the way Beloved values both the maternal/material and the symbolic are related to the manner in which Egoyan portrays gendered discourse in The Sweet Hereafter.

(26.) I am very grateful to Hampden-Sydney College's faculty development program for providing support during the two summers that I worked on this essay. I would also like to thank colleagues Jana DeJong, Sarah Hardy, and Susan Smith for their suggestions and comments on early drafts of the article. Without the benefit of their insights, this essay could not have progressed as it has.


Banks, Russell. The Sweet Hereafter. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.

Baudry, Jean-Louis. "The Apparatus: Metapsychological Approaches to the Impression of Reality in Cinema." In Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology: A Film Theory Reader, edited by Philip Rosen, 299-318. New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1986.

-----. "Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus." In Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology: A Film Theory Reader edited by Philip Rosen, 286-98. New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1986.

Bordwell, David. "The Art Cinema as a Mode of Film Practice." Film Criticism 4, no.1 (Fall 1979): 56-63.

Browning, Robert. "The Pied Piper of Hamelin: A Child's Story." In Robert Browning: The Poems, Vol. 1, edited by John Pettigrew, 383-91. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1981.

Cardullo, Bert. "Blood, Snow, and Tears." The Hudson Review 52, no. 1 (Spring 1999): 107-114.

Chodorow, Nancy. The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1978.

-----. Feminism and Psychoanalytic Theory. New Haven and London: Yale Univ. Press, 1989.

Comilli, Louis. "Machines of the Visible." In The Cinematic Apparatus, edited by Teresa de Lauretis and Stephen Heath, 121-42. New York: St. Martin's, 1980.

De Lauretis, Teresa. Alice Doesn't: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1984.

Doane, Mary Ann. "The Voice in the Cinema: The Articulation of Body and Space." In Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology: A Film Theory Reader, edited by Philip Rosen, 335-48. New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1986.

Egoyan, Atom. "Recovery." Sight and Sound 7, no. 10 (October 1997): 20-21.

-----. director. The Sweet Hereafter. Fine Line Features, 1997.

Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. "Sexual Linguistics: Gender, Language, Sexuality." New Literary History 16, no.3 (Spring 1985): 515-43.

Haaken, Janice. "The Debate Over Recovered Memory of Sexual Abuse: A Feminist-Psychoanalytic Perspective." Psychiatry: Interpersonal and Biological Processes 58, no.2 (May 1995): 189-98.

Herman, Judith Lewis. Father-Daughter incest. Cambridge and London: Harvard Univ. Press, 1981.

Homans, Margaret. Bearing the Word: Language and Female Experience in Nineteenth-Century Women's Writing. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1986.

-----. "Feminist Fictions and Feminist Theories of Narrative." Narrative 2, no.1 (January 1994): 3-16.

Irigaray, Luce. This Sex Which is Not One. Translated by Catherine Porter. Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1985.

Kaplan, Cora. "Language and Gender." In The Feminist Critique of Language: A Reader. 2d ed., edited by Deborah Cameron, 54-64. New York and London: Routledge, 1998.

Klawans, Stuart. Review of The Sweet Hereafter. The Nation 8 Dec. 1997: 35-36.

Lanser, Susan Sniader. Fictions of Authority: Women Writers and Narrative Voice. Ithaca and London: Cornell Univ. Press, 1992.

Moses, John W. "'And everything was strange and new': Cinematic Tense and Character Narration in Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter." Paper delivered at the Literature/Film Conference, Towson, MD, 6 November 1998.

Mulvey, Laura. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." In Narrative, Apparatus, ideology: A Film Theory Reader, edited by Philip Rosen, 198-209. New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1986.

Porton, Richard. "Family Romances: An Interview with Atom Egoyan." Cineaste 23, no.2 (Spring 1997): 8-15.

Rayns, Tony. Review of The Sweet Hereafter. Sight and Sound 7, no.10 (October 1997): 60-61.

Robinson, Sally. Engendering the Subject: Gender and Self-Representation in Contemporary Women's Fiction. Albany: State Univ. of New York Press, 1991.

Rosen, Phillip, ed. Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology: A Film Theory Reader New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1986.

Showalter, Elaine. "Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness." In The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature and Theory, edited by Elaine Showalter, 243-70. New York: Pantheon, 1985.

Silverman, Kaja. The Acoustic Mirror: The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and Cinema. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana Univ. Press, 1988.

Wyatt, Jean. "Giving Body to the Word: The Maternal Symbolic in Toni Morrison's Beloved." PMLA 108, no. 3 (May 1993): 474-88.

-----.Reconstructing Desire: The Role of the Unconscious in Women's Reading and Writing. Chapel Hill and London: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1990.
COPYRIGHT 2002 Ohio State University Press
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2002 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Weese, Katherine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2002
Previous Article:Reverie, sensation, effect: Novelistic attention and Stendhal's De l'amour.
Next Article:Passing as a man: Narratives of Jewish Gender performance (1).

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters