In Wildlife, Richard Ford employs Joe, a sixteen year old boy unsocialized and unfamiliar with the world around him, to tell the story of his parent's marriage. Having moved to Great Falls, Montana after living in four other towns, Joe is forced to navigate through a new town, as well as through the contours of his adolescence and the ostensibly childish behavior of his parents. He is, in fact, passive in how he relates to those around him: he does not ask questions, and he responds most often in accordance with what he believes others want to hear. However, during many of these moments, Joe often confesses his true feelings to the reader, admitting either what he wishes he could say or simply acknowledging his own confusion. In the first pages, he realizes, When you are sixteen, you do not know what your parents know, or much of what they understand, and less of what's in their hearts (18). Joe's insight here captures the essence of his narration; he is confused yet insightful and, somehow, strong but vulnerable.
[...] The power of Joe's narrative voice is perhaps most evident when his father returns, and Joe is faced with the decision of how much to tell his father about what occurred during his three day absence. Without being present, Joe narrates the initial interaction between Jerry and Jeanette, in which Jerry finally explains why he fought the fire. “Everything seems arbitrary,” he began. step outside your life and everything seems like something you choose” (138). Ford has Joe narrate this passage without being present to perhaps convey a sense of objectivity with which to view Jerry's search for perspective. [...]
[...] He explains the breakdown of a marriage, the stress of financial ruin, and finally in a desperate attempt to relieve his pain and seek revenge, he takes Joe to Warren Miller's house and sets in on fire in a pathetic display of childish and reckless behavior. Through Joe's eyes, the reader sees the contrast between the Jerry who began the evening by eloquently explaining his reasons for leaving with the Jerry who ended the evening sitting in the gutter beside Warren Miller's house. [...]
[...] Possibly it mattered less for them Whereas for me, because I had done nothing in the world to represent me, it mattered more” (62). This narration captures the essence of Joe's confusion and of his voice in general. He wants to understand, but his inability to comprehend the weight of the decisions of married adults allows a sort of distance where the reader is forced to step in and draw his or her own conclusions. Hours later, he accompanies his mother to Warren's house, which begins when Jeanette proudly tells Joe that she is wearing her “desperation dress” (68). [...]
[...] At dinner, Joe ends up in Warren's bedroom, nervous to be in the presence of his mother who is drunk and dancing with Warren. He witnesses Warren kiss his mother and then, once in the car, his mother returns into the house, and through the window Joe watches his mother consummate the beginning of her physical relationship with Warren. While he is watching, Joe expresses to the reader not just the chaos he feels, but his disgust with the entire night. [...]
[...] The lack of judgment Joe passes on his father intensifies this divergence and serves many functions: it provides further evidence of the love and admiration Joe has for his father, and it simultaneously indicates Ford's unique approach to first person narration in which Joe sometimes appears to be an outsider looking in. For example, upon Jerry's departure to fight raging, unpredictable fires amidst a physical and metaphorical drought, Joe confesses to the reader his acceptance of his father's decision. He says, I thought his judgment was good, and that going to fight the fire was a good idea even though he might go and get killed because he knew nothing about (29). [...]
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