Consider the “flâneur.”

Consider the “flâneur.”

This French word when it first came into use in the 16th and 17th century meant something like “stroller” but came to connote the idleness of a “loafer.” In the 1860s, poet Charles Baudelaire found a literary use for this expression.

The following quote is borrowed from Wikipedia (âneur):
 “To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world—impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define. The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito.”

Flaubert, author of Madame Bovary and a contemporary of Baudelaire, appropriated this idea of the flâneur to invent what became the modern way of telling a story.  Get rid of the omniscient, moralizing, pedantic voice that had heretofore narrated novels. Push instead an incognito loafer into the crowd of your story. Hidden from the scrutiny of other characters, not really a character himself (or herself) but more a “noticing” consciousness, this loafer looks left and looks right and reports on the doings of others, occasionally commenting.

How is this flâneur useful to writers today?

Distance. It gives us distance.

With a flâneur narrating, you can remove the noticing consciousness from your point of view character and push out into the world, noticing what’s there and reporting to the reader with occasional commentary. This can be done with a word, a well place adverb, maybe an adjectival phrase that belongs to an observer more artful and wised up than your pitifully limited character. It can also take the form of scoping out the panoramic view of the situation before retreating into the foxhole of the anxious character’s immediate needs and desires.   

Three examples:

Consider Joyce Carol Oates story, “ID”: “It made her feel stupid.  Not that she was stupid.  It was just that sometimes her thoughts were as snarled as her hair, her eyes leaking tears behind her dark-purple-tinted glasses—pre-scription lenses—so that she couldn’t see what the hell the teacher was scribbling on the board, not even the shape of it.”

At first glance, you would say this subjective third person narration comes straight from Lisette, a middle school girl from a dysfunctional family.  But look more closely. What is the likelihood that “her thoughts were as snarled as her hair” or “eyes leaking tears” are observations coming from Lisette? I would contend, there is a flâneur at work.  This flâneur walks into this classroom with Lisette, stands beside Lisette, and lends a more artful depth to observations than Lisette herself would believably make. This is what I call an imbedded flâneur.

Another example. Consider Willa Cather’s Death Comes For The Archbishop.  Describing the ”hostile” country between Albuquerque and Taos, Cather tells us: “A European could scarcely imagine such hardships. The old countries were worn to the shape of human life… But in the alkali deserts the water holes were poisonous, and the vegetation offered nothing to a starving man.  Everything was dry, prickly, sharp; Spanish bayonet, juniper, greasewood, cactus; the lizard, the rattlesnake,--and man made cruel by a cruel life. Those early missionaries threw themselves naked upon the hard heart of a country that was calculated to try the endurance of giants.”  Our French born protagonist, Father Latour, has lived in this country, survived its cruelty. But is this the voice of an aging priest? Or is it a loafer wrenched from the crowds of Europe to drift incognito through the American southwest landscape, commissioned by Cather to observe, report and comment?

Once I understood that a flâneur would give me the distance I needed to tell my story without being trapped in my character’s foxhole, I switched the POV in my novel, Better You Go Home, from third person to first person and never looked back. The flâneur allowed me to turn away from my character as needed. Consider: “When it comes to sorting out identity, it’s the memories we don’t have in common that define us.  One of my father’s persistent memories, one he told me about in any case, was of waking in the loft above the stalls at night filled with dread.  When the heavy duvet would slip off and he’d wake up to the freezing cold, the first thing he’d do would be to listen for the “angel” breathing of his little Magda.  If he heard that, he’d then listen for the familiar snorting of the mare in the stalls.  If he heard that he knew the world was in order...”

Adopt a flâneur.  It will set you free.  

Scott Driscoll, an award-winning instructor, holds an MFA from the University of Washington and has been teaching creative writing for the University of Washington Extension for seventeen years.  

About the book: 
Chico Lenoch wonders why his Czech father refuses to contact family left behind the Iron Curtain. After discovering letters revealing the existence of a half-sister, he travels to the Czech Republic to find his forgotten sister and unearth the secrets his father has buried all these years. Chico’s quest is complicated by his urgent need for a donor kidney. Might his sister be a candidate? 


  1. If I understand your definition correctly, Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby might be considered a flaneur too, although it then emerges he is not quite as detached and objective as he seems as first (or as he believes himself to be).
    Another excellent use of the flaneur narrator that comes to mind is Henry James's Daisy Miller.
    Very interesting idea, thank you for making me think about it.

  2. Thank you, Scott, for a very instructive and thoughtful article. And thank you, Jo, for having Scott Driscoll as your guest. But I wonder if this approach to writing would be accepted by the Ceberuses of the publishing world who foster "single" points of view and seem intent on banning anything that appears to be the omniscient narrator of yesterday's literature?


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