Stuart Dybek’s “We Didn’t” – A Dramatic Monologue
The dramatic monologue is a term best known by poets and playwrights. It refers to a moment in a poem or a play where a character speaks directly to another character, uninterrupted. In some cases, an entire poem (or play) can employ this device: i.e. Robert Browning’s poem, My Last Duchess as an example. This “speech” usually offers insight into a character’s history and psychology. In this paper, I will look at what effect the dramatic monologue has on Stuart Dybek’s story, We Didn’t. The dramatic monologue not only invites the reader into a more intimate space, but it suggests a double voicedness–a refraction of the writer’s voice through the speaker’s.
In We Didn’t, Dybek uses the dramatic monologue format to relay an incident from the speaker’s past. The “addressed you” he speaks to is the character Gin, and old girlfriend. Dybek’s narrator reminisces with Gin (and thereby with the reader/audience) about a summer that almost culminated in copulation between Gin and the narrator. We, the reader, are asked to step into the shoes of Gin, to listen to the narrator’s retelling of the story. This places the reader in the role of active participant, much like the 2nd person point of view. However, in the dramatic monologue, the rules of engagement are more defined. We are not meant to join the narrator in the telling of his story, we are meant to join the listener, and thus become an outside witness to the events.
The narrator is clear in establishing this role for the reader from the start:
We didn’t in the light; we didn’t in darkness. We didn’t in the fresh-cut summer grass or in the mounds of autumn leaves or on the snow where the moonlight threw down our shadows. We didn’t in your room on the canopy bed you slept in (156).
The “we” present is not the narrator and the reader, (i.e. the collective “we” as found in Faulkner’s A Rose For Emily) but represents the narrator and Gin. While the reader joins Gin in terms of following the narrator’s story, we are also reminded that though we have stepped into the role of witnesses, we are outsiders nonetheless. It is because of this that Dybek’s story contains a double voicedness.
I believe that this dual voice can be discerned beginning on page 158. When a team searching for the body of a drowned woman interrupts the narrator and Gin’s near-lovemaking session, the narrator pulls back considerably. The voice moves from an obvious “addressed you” to a more objective point of view:
Swerving and fishtailing in the sand, police calls pouring from their radios, the squad cars were on us, and then they were by us while we struggled to pull on our clothes (158).
In the next paragraph:
They braked at the water’s edge, and cops slammed out, brandishing huge flashlights, their beams deflecting over the dark water. Beyond the darting of those beams, the far-of throbs of lightning seemed faint by comparison (158).
This objective narration continues through page 159 then returns to the “addressed you” in the paragraph that begins, “Without saying anything, we turned from the group . . .” (159).
Perhaps Dybek chose to move further away in psychic distance because of the content: the description of a drowned, pregnant woman. It is my belief, however, that through this change in distance, the narration experiences a separation of narrator and author. Dybek masters this form in We Didn’t and simultaneously possesses unrelenting authorial control. This effect can be disarming, considering the proposed intimacy of the “addressed you.” It is an effect that surprises the reader with a highly accessible voice, a voice we (as readers) might find familiar to our own. This further illustrates a duality in voice, or rather, a duality the reader confronts as impartial (yet momentary) observers.
In utilizing the dramatic monologue form, the narrator often reveals more than he/she intends. When Dybek’s narrator and Gin are kissing at the drive in, after the incident with the body, Gin pulls away and grows distant. The narrator would “kiss harder,” trying to lure Gin back from “wherever [she] had gone” (160). Here, the narrator shows an awareness of the rift that’s forming between he and Gin, though in his remembered dialogue, he goes through the motions of presenting the conversation to Gin (the recipient of this narrative) and the reader (as witness).
By the end of the story, Dybek’s speaker returns to a lyrical narrative that echoes the beginning lyricism: “we didn’t, not in the moonlight, or by the phosphorescent lanterns of the lightning bugs in your back yard, not beneath the constellations we couldn’t see . . .” (163). Dybek’s narrator is relentless in this sentiment, relentless in conveying to Gin (and thereby to the reader) exactly what did not occur between them. Because of the dramatic monologue form, we are invited to witness the unraveling of a relationship, and therefore, we are given permission to dwell on these events through the narrator’s eyes and through Gin’s silent yet undeniable presence.