Why So Distant?
Octavian may be our main guy, but even he's kind of at a distance from the whole story. That's because he's narrating his childhood from the perspective of an older guy.
For this reason, we get a lot of philosophical breaks (or, depending on how fond of philosophical musings you are, you might also call them tangents) mixed in with his memories throughout the novel. It's kind of like listening to a really smart—but also really narcissistic and long-winded—uncle go on about why he became who he is. Take this early example of distant narration:
By such lessons did I become acclimated to scientific calculation in even the meanest function, so learning the secrets of tare and gross. When, at about that time, I perceived that others did not have their leavings weighed so, it made a great impression upon me; and I had an even greater sense of my mysterious importance in this murky scheme, the unaccountable preciousness of everything I did to those who strove to watch over me. (1.7.6)
If your attention totally faded out while reading that passage, don't blame yourself. The passage is a little dry and long—a.k.a. told in the narrator's preferred style.
Revenge of the Nerd
However, the long-winded, dry nature of the passage does accomplish one major thing: it sets the tone of the narrator's voice and character. Octavian the narrator, in other words, is clearly a really smart, totally rational guy.
And that is key to the novel. So much of Octavian's young life depends on how successful he is at being intelligent (as measured by white men who value the classics and a classical education) because by doing so he proves that any African person is a rational and intelligent human being, on par with white people. No pressure or anything, though (not).
So if you feel like Octavian kind of gets in the way of his own storytelling, that's purposeful. After all, there's no better proof of Octavian's mature, rational mind than an adult narrator, fully in control of expressing his character through unrelenting command over the narrative.
Wannabe Control Freak?
Here's a prime example of Octavian trying to assert his control over the narrative. When he describes how his mother snapped at him over his refusal to play music for Lord Cheldthorpe and her, he kind of tries to take back what he tells us by reimagining his mother in a better light. Check it out:
Recall instead how, on other evenings, she and you chased fireflies, Lord Cheldthorpe clapping.
Recall her decorating cakes near the refracting telescope, her dress in the wind.
Recall how she could draw the birds to her with butter and song. (1.23.1-3)
All of a sudden, Cassiopeia isn't the cold mother who shames him verbally—she's the caring, free-spirited, domestic mom of every kid's dreams. At the same time, since Octavian repeats recall so many times, the whole moment feels forced—because it is. Octavian is showing us the effort he is making to remember his mother in a different light, demonstrating the control he can take over his thoughts. It's a way of highlighting his wounded pride, his mother's brief moment of bad mothering, and his effort to forgive—as well as how in charge of himself he is.
Which is all to say that you can't completely trust Octavian's portrait of his youthful self. Octavian—as an adult narrator—is just too invested in showing off his brains, his devout, good-boy nature, and emotional complexity. He wants desperately to be right, which makes sense given his upbringing, and it's important to remember that this influences his storytelling.
More Than Words
The one place in the book where Octavian isn't totally trying to show off his intellect? Those scratched-out pages of his manuscript, the ones that come after he sees his mother lying, dissected on a table.
These passages—heavily crossed-out with angry black marks—are some of the most emotionally truthful and memorable moments in his story. After all, what would we expect anyone to write or say after witnessing his mother's dissection? There are no words for that kind of trauma. Which is why those scratched-out sections are so appropriate—they underscore his pain, and show his refusal to explain and give voice to a horror so fundamentally unspeakable.
All About Octavian
Even when Octavian's not narrating his story, he's still (mostly) the story.
That's because all the other first-person narration comes in the form of letters, mostly from Private Goring to his sister Fruition (yes, that's her name—no joke). Even if they include some info on the letter-writer, the letters generally describe the letter-writer's encounter(s) with Octavian, or at least give a status-update of sorts on our main man.
Why bother with all these peripheral narrators? For one thing, their letters tell us enough facts about Octavian's location and condition so that we can follow his plot line. No small thing since he really moves around after he escapes the Gitney house.
The letters also give us a view of Octavian through the perspectives of other characters. Now normally, we'd say that all these other perspectives on Octavian help balance out Octavian's self-portrayal, thereby painting a fuller—and potentially more accurate—portrait of him as a character. Instead though, most of the writers come off worse than Octavian. So their narration does two things: (1) It gives an idea of how white 18th-century Americans dealt with runaway slaves; and (2) it shows off Octavian's good sense and/or good-guy status.
We've got plenty more to say about these other dudes taking the storytelling reigns for a bit over in Octavian's analysis in the "Characters" section, so now might be a good time to hop on over there if you haven't already.