Rodney is the Narrator is Rodney

In the Part 2 of “Leaving Atlanta” Jones writes us a second person narrator who is has intimate insight into Rodney’s interior thoughts and feelings. It would seem on face value that this is an omniscient narrator, but the narrator only knows Rodney. The narrator is centered around Rodney and never provides that kind of interior information for any of the other characters. I argue that the narrator is actually Rodney’s dissociated self. Jones presents us with an emotionally constricted character, and narrator serves to represent the way a stressed, dissociated mind partitions thoughts and emotions outside of the self.

Dissociation is a mental skill commonly developed by children who undergo sustained trauma, like living with the fear of eliciting corporal punishment, prolonged periods of food insecurity, or surviving sexual abuse. Dissociation is characterized by emotional detachment and by the feeling of exiting ones body, observing oneself (Truman show style), and narrating one’s existence.

Throughout Part 2, Rodney alludes to his fear of, and disdain for, his father. Notably, Rodney is invited to choose a candy, but is uncertain. He is motivated by making a choice that won’t earn him his father’s ire. He fails. It is on the night that Rodney turns in his report card that the reader witnesses that which Rodney fears. Jones clues us that Rodney is dissociating. First, he describes being beat as “dancing a humiliating jig”, to show that even the narrator struggles to approach the reality of a beating (128). Further, in the sentence that follows this veiled description of the beating, he switches to a memory of a “boy in the special ed class whose legs are immobilized” (p 128). Here, Rodney exits the present and exists in the past. The mind in a dissociative state struggles to remain in the present, especially when under stress. A dissociated mind often moves seamlessly through several time streams. Memory helps to soothe and store displaced emotions. Rodney, begins to cry and then escapes to another memory. This memory is of Octavia defending herself, which is significant and I could expound further in a long form assignment.

Rodney’s despondence and his inability to make close connections with his peers is further evidence of a dissociated self.

It is particularly jarring when Rodney is forced by his father to say I. This self-acknowledgement is a form of punishment and humiliation. His father beats him in front of his class and forces him to say, “I STOLE!” This too is significant? Is this symbolic of his father’s control? Only by force does Rodney acknowledge himself? After the event he can’t answer a question and when Octavia speaks for him, the narrator says “you are grateful but do not lift your head.” It is significant that Rodney again tries to return to a place in time where he doesn’t exist. Another form of dissociation is the loss of the will to live, which is different from suicidality. Loss of the will to live is an extreme form of despondence.

1 Comment

  1. You make a strong argument in regards to part two of Jones’ novel. Rodney comes across as a character who deflects, would rather draw attention to anyone else but himself. Because of his characteristics and personality, perhaps due to the instability of his relationship with his parents, his father in particular, Jones’ sets up Rodney’s section as though Rodney told her to not write about her. The narration is steady, and perhaps one could say consistent, but it is not personal and we don’t gain a sense of how Rodney is feeling, perhaps because he wouldn’t want us to know. Is it possible to understand his action of getting into the van as a sign of “giving up” and/or as emotional stress?

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