Wanda’s Absence: The Ultimate Gap
I thought Wanda was there. Having previously read The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes, I was surprised that Wanda was not actually present for the duration of the novel; she is absent from the first line: “Today, Monday, Wanda Petronski, was not in her seat.” We never meet Wanda’s character as a focalizer despite her identity as the protagonist of the story. As a reader I expect the protagonist to have a voice or to focalize the narration. Nearing the end of the novel, I anticipated meeting Wanda because my memory told me that I had met her before, that I had heard her voice and had participated in her interactions with the other characters. My expectation was unfounded—we never meet Wanda, nor do we hear her voice. Wolfgang Iser explains that “expectations are rarely ever filled in truly literary texts” (297), and indeed my expectation of Wanda’s presence in the story in never realized.
While Wanda does not serve as a voice or focalizer in The Hundred Dresses, her presence saturates the mind of the main focalizer, Maddie. My rereading shifts through several layers of memory starting with Maddie as a focalizer and how she remembers her interactions with Wanda, through my original reading of the novel, to my own current reflections upon my reading. Iser defines my reflective reading experience in that “memory evoked can never have its original shape…the new background brings to light new aspects of what we had committed to memory; conversely these, in turn, shed light on the new background, thus arousing more complex anticipations” (298). The commitment of Wanda’s presence to my memory in my first reading shaped my anticipations and expectations in my rereading. My expectation of interacting with Wanda was compounded through Maddie when “all she hoped was that they would find Wanda” (52). I hoped and expected Maddie to find Wanda for me.
The first time I read The Hundred Dresses, I entered the text pre-intending that Wanda had a mother as well as a father until we are told through Maddie’s focalization that “they knew she did not have a mother, but hadn’t thought about it” (66). During the first reading I did not think about it either. However, knowing that Wanda did not have a mother before rereading allowed me to sympathize more with Wanda’s absent character, allowing me to be aware of other gaps that I did not construct during my first reading, such as Wanda’s presence through Maddie, but her absence from the setting of the novel. Wanda’s mother is absent from Wanda’s life—my pre-intention and assumption is because she passed away—Wanda is an absent protagonist, and these absences allow for me, as the reader, to bridge gaps and construct my own inexhaustible story each time I revisit The Hundred Dresses.
Estes, Eleanor. The Hundred Dresses. New York: Harcourt, 1944.
Iser, Wolfgang. “The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach”. Modern Criticism and Theory, A Reader. Ed. David Lodge and Niel Wood. Edinburgh Gate, United Kingdom: Pearson, 2008. 294-310.