Unresolved Endings – Shutter Island Barney’s Version

Published: 2019/12/10 Number of words: 3077


In this essay, I will focus on the relationship between empathy and reader’s choice of ending. In order to do this I have chosen two narrative texts – Mordecai Richler’s Barney’s Version (1997) and Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island (2003), both of which have open endings. “The most commonly nominated feature of narrative fiction to be associated with empathy is character identification” (Keen 2006: 214) and so in this essay the word ‘empathy’ is used in the context of empathy for fictional characters within the text.

The two novels used in this case deal with Alzheimer’s disease and Schizophrenia as being central to the plot, thus introducing empathy for the character. Since these are disclosed only towards the end I will analyse whether empathy for the character undergoes any strong change and whether or not this affects the reader’s choice of ending.

Since empathy is an emotional process and has no linguistic marker, I have chosen extracts[1] that struck me as triggers for empathy and labelled them ‘implicit markers’. I have also mentioned how the film adaptations of these narrative texts influence the reader. Owing to the word limit I have included only what I have thought relevant and important to my analysis of empathy in resolving the ending.


Narrative theorists and critics have pointed out a set of narrative techniques like “first person narration and the interior representation of characters’ consciousness and emotional states – as devices supporting character identification” (Keen 2006:213). These narrative techniques are said to create empathetic responses and experiences. While Barney’s Version is a first person narrative dealing with the emotional states of characters and their consciousness, Shutter Island, though a third person narrative, also deals with emotional states and character consciousness. What brings the reader closer to both the narrative texts is that they are written in the form of an autobiography and a journal respectively. Lodge acknowledges the view that by modelling a narrative text on “the discourse of personal witness: the confession, the diary, the autobiography, the memoir, the disposition”, it creates “an illusion of reality” (Lodge 2002).

Character identification is seen as a form of empathy that occurs in the reader as a consequence of reading (Keen 2006). In the present case, the reader might begin to empathise further (or identify) with the character of Barney Panofsky only after he is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Keen suggests that this is likely because negative situations (death, pain, suffering, and illness) evoke empathy more readily in a reader as opposed to positive situations (achievement, success, joy) (Keen 2006).

Barney’s Version is Barney’s attempt to reflect on the various aspects of his way of life – his innermost insecurities, failures, the humiliations and also his vanities. As we enter Barney’s world, the reader very often encounters Barney’s creation of a “galaxy of ebullient, perverse, and obsessed characters, all of whom are portrayed as posing an imminent threat to his shady and irreverent personality” (Branko, 1999:149). The reader also learns the possibility that Barney drove his first wife to commit suicide. Up until the diagnosis in the novel, we feel no strong sense of empathy[2] towards Barney except of course when he talks of Miriam, his third wife and the only one he truly ever loved. “Miriam Miriam, my heart’s desire” (Barney’s Version 1997: 19), this sentence reoccurs in the novel every time Barney talks of his third wife. Barney seems indifferent to everyone in his life except to his children and his third wife, Miriam (Brzezinski, 1999: 105). The novel is divided into three parts – the three Panofsky wives. Miriam is his third wife and hence rightly belongs to the last part of the novel; nevertheless, she appears constantly throughout the novel. Despite how despicable Barney seems through most of the book, he can be hysterical, but the love he has for Miriam and his children breathes a little kindness into his character. Barney has only loved Miriam truly and this seems rather obvious to the reader because the reader is able to contrast his feelings for Miriam with that of his other wives.

The fictional autobiography ends on a cheerless note, where Barney picks up the phone to call Miriam but realises he can’t remember her number. Throughout the novel we see and feel Barney’s love for Miriam, and to a reader that empathises with those feelings, this can be quite anguishing. In the afterword written by his son, Mike, you learn more about Barney post diagnosis. Owing to the narrative situation, wherein Barney knows that the disease is going to eat him wholly very soon he decides to tie the loose ends of his life.

Twenty-five thousand dollars for Benoit O’Neil, who had been caretaker of the cottage in the Laurentians for years.

The estate was obliged to settle John Hughes-McNoughton’s monthly bar bill at Dink’s for as long as he lived.

There was also a surprise, considering how often our father joked about schvartzes, a two-hundred-thousand dollar trust fund was to be set up to establish a scholarship at McGill University for a black student who excelled in arts; the aforesaid scholarship in memory of Ismail Ben Yussef aka. Cedric Richardson, who had died of cancer on November 18, 1995.

[Barney’s Version 1997: 399]

He was to be buried, as he had already arranged, in the Protestant cemetery at the foot of Mont Groulx, but there should be a Star of David on his stone, and the adjoining plot had been reserved for Miriam.

[Barney’s Version 1997: 400]

These extracts that appear in the afterword written by Mike, paint a very different picture of Barney and strikes me as an implicit marker for empathy. “When you are facing the end, everything that’s not real is stripped away. You’re the most real you’ll ever be, more real than you have ever been before”. ( Schels and Lakotta 2007). This is a common belief and can be seen even in Barney’s Version. Barney’s dislike for Cedric Richardson and his mocking of schvartzesis very evident throughout the novel and yet he decides to set up a two-hundred-thousand dollar trust fund dedicated to Cedric.

His gestures, as seen in the above extracts, evoke a strong sense of empathy, especially character empathy. My hypothesis is that if the reader does not in fact empathise with Barney during the course of the story, he/she most certainly does when Barney is diagnosed and more so, when he/she learns about Barney in the afterword narrated by Mike.This kind of character empathy evokes a certain level of reader involvement.

Also crucial to the story is the disappearance of Barney’s friend Boogie. Barney’s second wife is caught having an affair with his friend, Boogie, at their cottage. The second Mrs Panofsky drives away in rage leaving Barney and Boogie arguing over the issue. In the course of this argument Barney threatens to kill Boogie with his gun. Boogie disregards the threat and insists on going for a swim over Barney’s warning that he is too drunk to swim. Boogie ignores Barney’s plea and proceeds towards the lake and never returns.

During his interrogation, when inspector O’Hearne asks him about Boogie, sarcastically, Barney tells him that he shot Boogie through the heart. This is used as Barney’s acceptance of murder and following this he is also arrested and convicted for murder but later acquitted as no body is found (though many people remain convinced of his guilt).

  1. “Did you really murder that guy all those years ago?

I think not, but some days I’m not so sure. No, I didn’t. I couldn’t have.”

[Barney’s Version 1997: 379]

As readers we are led to believe that Barney has murdered Boogie. Barney playfully fires a warning shot over Boogie’s head and the last we see of Boogie in the novel is him tumbling into the water. His explanation to O’Hearne coupled with the above example leaves the reader with little choice but to believe that Barney has murdered his friend. The murder has a motive – Barney’s second wife is having an affair with Boogie but what we also know is that Barney was never in love with the second Mrs Panofsky and that since the night of his wedding to her (the first time he met Miriam), he has been in love with Miriam and has been wanting to divorce his wife and marry Miriam. In his conversation with Boogie after the incident at the cottage he asks Boogie to be his co-respondent for the divorce. It can be gathered that though he had a motive, it did not mean much because he was never in love with the second Mrs Panofsky and in fact he was happy she was having an affair because that alluded to an effortless divorce. In spite of all this the narrator’s unreliability as seen in example 1 does not help the reader to make a decision.

The mystery behind Boogie’s death is given a plausible ending in the novel. Mike, in the final page, while in the porch of Barney’s cottage, sees a water bomber lowering on to the lake, scooping gallons of water and dumping it on the mountain. It is left to the readers to fill the gap and choose what we believe to be the cause of Boogie’s death (Gavins 2007; Emmott 1998; Ryan 1998; Gerrig and Rapp 2004).

Owing to the third person narration in Dennis Lehane’s novel, the reader is not invited to form a close relationship with the main character as in the case of Barney’s Version, which is a first person narrative but nonetheless it does not affect the empathetic experience because of the content and situation that the novel poses to the reader(Keen 2006).As the text progresses the reader empathises with the characters for several reasons. To begin with, his love for his wife, Dolores Chanal, who he believes died in a fire. He dreamed of her repeatedly and every little object would somehow trigger a memory of her.

“Dolores had been dead for two years, but she came to life at night in his dreams, and he sometimes went full minutes into a new morning thinking she was out in the kitchen or taking her coffee on the front stoop of their apartment on Buttonwood. This was a cruel trick of the mind, yes, but Teddy had long ago accepted the logic of it – waking after all was an almost natal state. You surfaced without a history, then spent the blinks and yawns reassembling the past, shuffling the shards into chronological order before fortifying yourself for the present.”

[Shutter Island 2003: 36]

This extract strikes me as an implicit marker for empathy not only because of the content but also because of the language that is used. There is a connection between language and emotions and as the story progresses you empathise more owing to the situation we believe Teddy is caught up in and the language that is used to explain it (Kovecses 1990). Readers identify with Teddy’s fear and wish for Teddy to escape from the island. When we reach the final chapter we encounter the plot twist that goes completely against reader expectation.

The reader feels as though he/she is caught in a web of deceit, not knowing whom to believe. If the reader empathises with the character of Teddy, he/she wishes that Teddy is not a patient and as per his claims in the narrative text, he is speaking the truth. The reader hopes that everyone else around Teddy is lying. Similar to the situation in Barney’s Version, our choice of reality depends on how much we empathise with the character of Teddy. As the novel moves ahead from this point, the reader is left with no choice but to believe that Teddy is indeed a patient at Shutter Island. At this moment the reader almost feels as though the rug has been pulled from under their feet. On my reading of the novel, I continued hoping that Teddy’s fictional reality was the true reality.

The narrative technique is such that throughout the novel, you proceed with the main character on his journey thus being persuaded to believe his thoughts and views only. Since the story world is that of mental illnesses, the reader not only revels in the horror but also empathises with the disturbed characters. When at the end of the novel, it is revealed that Teddy is himself a patient at Shutter Island, the reader empathises with him further. Alan Palmer’s “theory of mind” can be used to understand Teddy’s frame of mind (Palmer 2004). Rachael Solando, the missing patient according to Teddy is purely fictitious. What is really interesting here is how at the end of the novel we learn that Rachel Solando is in fact his wife Dolores Chanal. Through the novel we see how he feels about the patient Rachel Solando, which only goes to show us how he really feels about the his wife, Dolores Chanal. All these serve as implicit markers embedded within the text for character empathy – a reader is moved by Teddy’s present state of affairs, his love for his wife, the need to create a fictitious life in order to escape reality, and of course the recurrent dreams.

The novel after what is called its ‘plot twist’ further leaves the reader with an unresolved end. The reader is previously warned about Andrew/Teddy’s mental health and the doctors’ failed attempts to cure him.

“It’s been decided that if we can’t bring you back to sanity – now, right now – permanent measures will be taken to make sure you never hurt anyone again. Do you understand what I’m saying to you?”

[Shutter Island 2003: 371]

The readers’ expectation at this point is that Teddy is brought back to sanity for the reader is aware that if this is not the case, Teddy will have to undergo a lobotomy. It seems to the reader that Teddy has accepted the reality because when he is examined by Dr Cawley, Teddy accepts that he is in fact Andrew Laeddis and that he invented this story as way of escaping from reality (the truth).


In this essay I have tried to elucidate the fact that empathy plays a vital function in trying to reach a conclusive end. This essay is an analysis based on my experience of reading both, Mordecai Richler’s Barney’s Version and Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island. Based on their research, Gerrig and Rapp in their ‘Psychological processes underlying literary impact’ have mentioned that readers assimilate propositions in a way that it has an impact on their judgements and similar to how readers expect what happens, I am convinced that when there is an unresolved issue they tend to incline their belief to what they hope is the truth. This hope is largely governed by empathy.

An empirical study similar to that achieved by Gerrig and Rapp should be carried out to assess and record whether or not there is a pattern between empathy and readers’ expectation and whether or not this pattern influences the final choice of endings. The hypothesis is that it does and this can be further influenced by the film adaptations. Both the movie adaptations of these narrative texts seem to incline towards a definite ending.

Additionally an empirical study recording readers’ choice of endings can be studied and a pattern can be drawn between choice of endings and character empathy. Further, the extracts that I have labelled implicit markers of empathy can be excluded from the text and a different set of readers can be asked to read the edited narrative text and their results can be studied. If it is that the readers who have read the edited version are void of empathy towards the main character resulting in them choosing the alternate endings, it can be concluded that character empathy does play a key role in resolving endings.

Based on the film adaptations, a third empirical study can be effectuated where readers are divided into two groups – one group containing readers who have only read the book and the other containing readers who have read the book and watched the movie. Through this it seems likely that we can study whether or not film adaptations influence readers when deciding on a culmination.


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