- The Multiply Framed Narratives of Ellen Douglas’s Can’t Quit You, Baby
It is accurate but perhaps a bit reductive to begin discussing Can’t Quit You, Baby (1988), the accomplished novel by Ellen Douglas (pen name of Josephine Haxton), by pointing out that at its center is the unusual bond between Cornelia, a white middle-class woman in Mississippi in the 1960s and 1970s, and Julia, her African-American working-class housekeeper, nicknamed Tweet. The inescapable inequality in their friendship makes their relationship a tumultuous one. Over the course of the novel, Cornelia deals with the untimely death of her husband and eventually becomes a caretaker for Tweet following the latter’s stroke. The novel is structured largely in flashback, as a self-aware narrator recounts Cornelia’s past directly to the reader and Tweet recounts her own past to Cornelia. This description is true enough, but it also elides much of the intricacy of the novel’s form as well as Douglas’s nuanced presentation of the difficulties, spoken and unspoken, of cross-racial interaction.
Douglas’s use of a highly intrusive narrator who sometimes calls the factuality of her own narration into doubt—and whom Douglas takes pains to indicate is not Douglas herself—transforms what could be a fairly straightforward realist novel of attempted racial reconciliation into a metatextual work about the nature of storytelling itself. This intrusive narrative voice describes the creation of the novel itself, tells us about Cornelia’s past and present, and gives us access to [End Page 61] Tweet’s life—if only when Cornelia is present with her. These moments highlight the artifice of storytelling, presenting the narrative itself in multiple frames. In what follows, I will demonstrate that this technique is a defining formal feature of Can’t Quit You, Baby. Douglas structures her novel as a series of thematically linked but narratively separate stories, all of which exist within a single overarching narrative created by the unnamed novelist who narrates the book. A diagram of the work’s structure might depict one large box—the book itself—with many smaller boxes inside, some of which contain still smaller boxes inside those, such that any individual incident within the book exists within multiple frames at the same time. The presence of multiple frames of narrative reminds readers that various narrative worlds are at play simultaneously between the covers of a single work of fiction. Epistemologically speaking, then, the clear boundaries that separate individual stories from each other within the novel’s main narrative frame serve to underscore how limited individual subjectivities are within the text of the novel. As such, the book emphasizes via its very structure how no single story and no single subjective viewpoint can claim primacy or full understanding of an event.
Most existing criticism of Douglas’s novel focuses on issues of race and gender, particularly the possibilities of racial reconciliation or cross-racial quasi-feminist solidarity implied with the text. I do not intend to deny the importance of questions of race or gender within Can’t Quit You, Baby or the usefulness of dealing with those questions in criticism of the novel. I want to suggest instead that beginning a discussion of this book with consideration of its unusual formal qualities reveals ways that metafictional technique, rather than being ultra-literary showiness, can lead to serious consideration of material realities. Douglas’s formal decisions are not distractions from the complexities of social interactions marked by racial and gender difference; instead, they mirror those complexities and emphasize to readers the limits of characters’, readers’, and authors’ knowledge. True, it is difficult to read Can’t Quit You, Baby and not leave the novel with a more complex sense of how multifaceted, intense, and emotionally fraught interracial relationships can be, even in the most seemingly benign and safe-looking atmospheres. However, Douglas reveals this complexity not through narrative content alone, but by creating narrative form as a primary conduit for racial thematics.
I will explain here that the fullest understanding of Can’t Quit You, Baby as a text about storytelling itself arises when we give critical attention to three as...