Existents In Alfian Sa'at's Umbrella
In the short story "Umbrella", the author Alfian Sa'at relates the tale of a young Malay Singaporean secondary school student, Hafiz. Alfian uses an older Hafiz as the narrator who recounts his experiences retaking his 'O' levels for the second time. Hafiz tells us about his relationship with Chris, a tuition teacher hired by his father to help him pass his examinations.
I feel that "Umbrella" is essentially a story about the imposition of certain norms and standards on members of society. It tells us how students are conscious of the need to fulfill society's notion of success. Through Hafiz's eyes, we are led to see how he is trapped in this system that forces certain standards upon him but yet does not give him the appropriate training and skills to reach the standards. Thus, Hafiz is unable to fit into the identity that he is pressured to accept. We also see how Hafiz himself desires to achieve success as society perceives it, but finally realizes his true identity and comes to terms with it, even though it may not be the norm. However, how does "Umbrella" cause such an effect on the reader? What tools are being utilized in the narrative that can invoke such feelings? I believe that the author uses what Seymour Chatman calls existents to bring out such an effect on readers. Thus, in this essay we will seek to discover how existents, namely character and setting, are employed to draw out such an effect.
Firstly, let us look at character. Tzvetan Torodov, a French structuralist, discusses two categories of narrative. He labels them as apsychological and psychological narratives. By apsychological, Torodov means narratives that are plot centered and by psychological, character centered (Chatman 113). Readers can discern that "Umbrella" is essentially psychological in nature. Most of the story takes place in Hafiz's room and is generally presented through the conversations between Hafiz and Chris and through Hafiz's thoughts. There are few characters in this story. We have the protagonist Hafiz and his tuition teacher Chris as the two main leads. Along with them are less important characters such as Hafiz's parents and a certain maths relief teacher. Chatman emphasizes that characters are important to a narrative and they should not be treated as "mere plot functions" (119). As such, these characters must play a crucial role in bringing out the effect of the narrative, and we will seek to decipher how this is done.