Narrative voice 1st and 2nd person

Let’s take a trip down memory lane. The 1st person narrative is considered a character written novel, such as “Robinson Crusoe” which is a memoir.

I WAS born in the year 1632, in the city of York, of a good family, though not of that country, my father being a foreigner of Bremen, who settled first at Hull. He got a good estate by merchandise, and leaving off his trade, lived afterwards at York, from whence he had married my mother, whose relations were named Robinson, a very good family in that country, and from whom I was called Robinson Kreutznaer; but, by the usual corruption of words in England, we are now called – nay we call ourselves and write our name – Crusoe; and so my companions always called me.

Today the Anglo-American novel has supposedly progressed so that the narrator is now invisible. The third person limited narrative voice is considered in literary circles to be more superior than the first person narrative.

The 1st person narrative is typically written in retrospect and often lacks drama. However there are exceptions to this as seen in Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”. In this amazing book the first person narrative draws attention to the fact that there is a narrator, her voice is clearly captured and this leads to a sense of intimacy and confession. What is also striking about this book is that the narrator is secretly telling her story on casette tapes for an unknown audience. So the sense of confession is heightened. She even at times addresses the unknown audience

“So I will go on. So I will myself to go on. I am coming to a part  you will not like at all, because in it I did not behave well, but I will try nonetheless to leave nothing out. After all you’ve been through, you deserve whatever I have left, which is not much but includes the truth.”

This paragraph drips with intimacy, the uncovering of facts too terrible for the narrator to narrate but she does so for the benefit of the reader.It gives a sense of the character, she confesses to doing things that the reader won’t like but because she is upfront about this the reader has sympathy for her. The difficulties, or interesting points, of this type of narrative hinge on such issues as authenticity. How much of this confession is true? Is it fabricated? Margaret Atwood address this in the final chapter, a historical meeting 150 years in the future discussing the taped confessions. Political questions are raised, what are the character’s motivations?

You can also write first person in the present tense so the action unfolds as the reader reads the text.

For the most part first person narratives are narrated by the central character. But this is not necessary. A peripheral narrator is also compelling an example of this is in Sherlock Holmes through his sidekick Watson. The peripheral narrator makes Holmes seem more mysterious and the reader can share in Watson’s admiration for him.

“He had never said as much before, and I must admit that his words gave me keen pleasure, for I had often been piqued by his indifference to my admiration and to the attempts which I had made to give publicity to his methods. I was proud, too, to think that I had so far mastered his system as to apply it in a way which earned his approval. “

Some authors use multiple first person narratives, an example is the Dracula correspondence, or in more modern fiction William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Brett Easton Ellis’ “Rules of Attraction”. The purpose is to capture conflicting points of view and opinions of relationships between the characters. You do have to be careful to catch the idiosyncratic speech patterns of each character. Different points of view can also be used to recount an event such as in John Fowle’s “The Collector”. Here the main character, Frederick, is proved to be an unreliable narrator.

So again the device of multiple characters establishes conflict. There is no point doing this is the recollections are all the same.

Let’s move on to second person narrative. This is rarely used and if it is it’s mostly in experimental texts. Unlike the first person narrative that says “I” the second person says “you”. This is a direct address to the reader which draws the reader into the character by addressing the reader as a character. An example of this is Frederick Bathelme’s Shopgirls

“You watch the pretty salesgirl slide a box of Halston soap onto a low shelf, watch her braid slip off her shoulder, watch like an adolescent as the vent as the neck of her blouse opens slightly – she is twenty, maybe twenty-two, tan and greatly freckled; she wears a dark-blue V-neck blouse without a collar, and her skirt is white cotton, calf length, split up the right side to a point just beneath her thigh…She catches you staring and gives you a perfunctory but knowing smile, and you turn quickly to study the purses on the chrome rack next to where you stand. You are embarrassed.”

Who is narrating? The second person narrative forces us to identify with the main character who is a voyeur. The use of the word “you” does not allow you to keep distance from the character.

Ok that’s it for now. Next time I’ll talk about description and narrative time.