The Advantages/Disadvantages of the Epistolary Novel

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The epistolary novel is an old form of novel that uses letters written by and between characters to tell the plot. In We Need to Talk About Kevin there is only one writer, the mother Eva Khatchadourian, who is writing to her separated husband, Franklin. The advantages of the epistolary novel are that the reader is privy to the private thoughts and feelings of the character-writer; everything – the plot, the setting, other characters and any theme that the author intends – is depicted from their perspective. This can also be a disadvantage in that omniscient or objective knowledge of the events cannot be derived, however, as long as the reader is encouraged to read on, it is an advantage and success.

The plot of a traditional epistolary novel unfolds throughout the course of the letters. The letters are usually updating the addressee on new, important events and thus the reader is encouraged to read on to find out what happens next. In We Need to Talk About Kevin, however, the present of the novel – the daily life of Eva – is very uneventful. She spends most of her time at home because she is too embarrassed to step outside. When she does tell us about things that have happened at that day, it is linked to the major event that happened in the past, which the novel is mostly concerned with revealing. Therefore, the key way the writer tells the story is through Eva’s memories. However, everything that happens is connected to the past and is only given to the reader in small fragments, which they have to piece together. For example, when she is in the supermarket, she describes in detail, a woman she saw and tells Franklin that he’d never recognise her from her description. It turns out that this woman is the mother of a girl Eva’s son has killed. However, we only know this by picking up the suggestion that “thanks to us” the woman has lost her reason to keep herself looking good. This is an advantage because it allows the narrator to tell the story of the past...
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