The role of silence in literary fiction


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Silence is a tool that has been used in literature to heighten emotion, magnify suspense or drama, and let a character grow into their own being. In literary fiction, silence is often privileged over action. The private contemplation and deliberate voids left in the pages speak louder than a thousand words ever can.

At Jhumpa Lahiri’s Or is interspersed with long periods of silence. The middle-aged narrator leads a quiet life. The time she spends with herself is far more preferable to her than the physical presence of her friends. The silences here are not marked by loneliness. They rejuvenate and help the narrator live her own truth. She meets old lovers from time to time while shopping for groceries and she sometimes visits her mother who brings her no comfort. Unlike her mother, she is not chained by the chains of a joyless marriage but she probably inherits her loneliness and silence from her mother. She sleeps with her lights on, orders meals for one, and on some days struggles to get out of bed. Lahiri makes no effort to fill the silences as they represent the urban solitude our narrator inhabits. Here, the quietude of the narrator is a meditation on having and holding oneself as it is.

Waves by Virginia Woolf is a novel where silence weaves with the characterization of Bernard. The silence of the coffee cup and the table attracts him. He compares himself to a “lonely seabird that opens its wings on a stake”. He wishes to sit forever in silence with inanimate objects.

The cover of The Remains of the Day

In Leftovers of the day, Kazuo Ishiguro shines a light on the regrets of aging butler, Stevens, through all the things he doesn’t verbalize. His disillusionment and loss are best captured through whatever Stevens fails to put into words for readers. The silence weighs down his solitary existence as we see him consciously rejecting companionship and love. Everything that has not been said highlights the reality in which he lives. Using silence as a plot device, Ishiguro allows readers to reflect on the events of his novel.

At Arundhati Roy The God of Little Things allows readers to soak up the tension of all that unfolds through the silence. Short sentences like “silence crept in like a bolt” and “childhood on tiptoe” reveal more about the characters’ many lives and selves than long paragraphs. Through white space and its intentional economy with words, Roy urges readers to read the piece and come to their own conclusions. Silence does not put everything on the plate for the reader. Rather, readers must probe the silence, not only feel it, but also dissect it, to understand its implications. The silence in this novel not only adds more depth and definition to the characters, but also becomes a means by which Roy encourages the readers’ imaginations and actively engages them in his story.

the cover of Minor Detail

Adania Shibli Minor detail, translated by Elisabeth Jaquette, combines silence and movement. A novel with minimal dialogue, Shibli is about a silence that shapes the contours of the land and dictates the conditions of Israeli occupation in Palestine. Just as Scheherazade’s silence would have been disastrous for her in The thousand and One Nightsthe silence imposed on the citizens of Palestine is destructive and venomous.

Shibli captured the silence of history in the face of women’s oppression. She amplified the silence surrounding the crime of rape and murder of a young girl by Israeli soldiers by making no attempt to speak on her behalf or give her a voice. Instead, she writes another female character, who years later becomes obsessed with the girl’s death. The second part of this novel is a narration of a woman’s search for what exactly happened in the life of the murdered girl, which has not been documented by history. In the end, readers realize that true stories are never found in the story, but rather in the silence that the story tries to impose on us.

In literary fiction, the unsaid do not remain unsaid. They take shape and form in unconventional ways, manifesting in sighs, stares, and more. This gives us the full picture and helps readers transcend the limitations of a story. Language is often too flawed a medium to adequately describe the ridiculously messy but hugely spectacular human condition.


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