Miss Saigon and the Unreliable Narrator

I’ve listened to and loved Miss Saigon for about twenty years. I know every word and I identify with the characters – well, as much as I can without actually being an American GI or a Vietnamese prostitute forty years ago – so much that my pulse still races building up to the finale or when Kim and Chris sing out all their hopes and fears in The Last Night of the World. 

Despite that, it still took me until only a couple of years ago to realise something quite important. Kim isn’t a reliable narrator. Actually, she doesn’t do most of the narrating. If you ask me, The Engineer keeps the story moving along and to be honest he’s far more reliable. If you overlook the fact that he’s a self-serving, greasy pimp. He is pretty much upfront with his motives and he gives us an eye into what’s happening both in Kim’s story and in the wider setting. Plus he has his own humour and charm which make him a likeable and sympathetic character without the tormented heroism of Chris or the tragedy of Kim.

Anyway, the narration. One of the most crucial parts of Kim’s story is what happens at the Fall of Saigon in 1975, and we get to see this in Act 2. The thing is, for years I listened to this and watched this as if it was a flashback. But it’s not – it’s a dream (and hey Sherlock, it’s there in the song title – Kim’s Nightmare. D’oh). That changes things – it’s not what actually happened, it’s what Kim remembers as happening. She was on the other side of the gates from Chris, and has had no contact with him for three years at this point; she has no way of knowing what he was thinking or doing and she fills in the gaps with her imagination in the guise of a nightmare.

The reason this is important is that it provides her whole motivation for getting through what happens to her after the American evacuation. She hides herself and her son, murders her cousin and flees from Vietnam because she’s clinging onto a certainty that Chris loves her, promised himself to her and will return for her as soon as he can. Now if you take her point of view, which for years I did, this makes more sense; a Love-in-Adversity sort of theme. And you are full of sympathy for her and less so for Chris, who went off and married someone else, the cad.

When the penny finally dropped with me and I realised how unreliable Kim is as a narrator – basically she is deluded for most of the story’s action – it changed my perspective on their characters. Kim is no less sympathetic but for different reasons, and I can no longer rely on her view of Chris. Instead of being a hero who changes into a cold-hearted scallywag who abandons Kim to her fate to go off and marry someone else, he’s a flawed man who had unexpectedly deep feelings for Kim but basically got on with his life. I’m not saying he wasn’t in love with her – he shows how much he was in love with her by the snatches that are revealed of him after he left Saigon, the way he had nightmares and what John says when he meets Kim (He [Chris] went crazy when he lost you, Spoke to no-one for a year) – but in the end He [Chris] finally said ‘I’m home now, My life has to go on here.’ For all we know, he regrets his impulsive offer to take her away to America and by the time the helicopters are leaving, maybe he’s ready to leave with them instead of the struggle that Kim imagines him having with John. And you couldn’t totally blame him. He’s obviously been messed up by the war, Why God Why reveals some of his struggles, but it does change how you view him.

Re-listening to Miss Saigon with this in mind adds a sense of tragedy to earlier scenes that wasn’t there before. When Kim explains her reasons for surviving before you realise how deluded she is, you have hope for her happy ending. Listening to her again knowing the truth adds poignancy (not to mention a certain amount of wanting to shake some sense into her). It also changes how rational her final choices are. If she’d not held this idealistic view of Chris fighting all odds to come back for her and play happy families, she might have been able to accept the provision for her and Tam that Chris and Ellen were offering. Instead, I think she loses what little reason she had left and it has devastating consequences.

All of these things are a great example of how the reliability of a story’s narrator can have  huge impact, both on how the story goes and how it affects the reader/audience.

5 thoughts on “Miss Saigon and the Unreliable Narrator”

  1. Wow! There’s an angle I’d never even considered. Of course I assume it’s not that the writers created poor narrators, it actually adds more layers to the writing.

    This is one of your best posts yet, for me!

  2. That’s a bloody good angle to come at it. I quite agree about wanting to shake some sense into Kim!

  3. I love, love, love Miss Saigon.

    And I love this blog post.

    That is all.

    One thing that has ALWAYS crossed my mind. If Chris could call John so easily to ask for his leave after his first night with Kim, why in the world couldn’t he call Kim when he was back in the States? Even if he called the bar?? This has always bothered me.

  4. That’s a really good point. I think that the bar would have been deserted after the Americans withdrew as the Engineer & bar girls went into hiding, but I don’t know.

    Thank you!

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