Critical Concepts:

Point of View:  First-Person Narrator.


It will be clear pretty much at the outset if we are dealing with a "first-person" narrator:  the narrator refers to himself or herself as "I."  When this happens, we are on notice that the story is being told to us by a one of the characters in the story.  (There are exceptions:  sometimes the "I" is a pretended author, who intermittently talks about the invention of the story -- the process of thinking up the story she then drops back into telling.  This is what happens in Ursula K. LeGuin's "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas."  But even here, the voice we are hearing is not LeGuin, but a character, the "pretended author.")  Sometimes this character is fairly marginal to the main action of the story -- a kind of by-stander.  Sometimes he or she is an important participant in that action.  The narrator can even be the story's central character:  the protagonist can tell his or her own story.

Whenever this happens, there is one thing that we should never do -- take the voice of the narrator for that of the author.  The author is (or at one time was) a real person in the world.  Every narrator -- including every first-person narrator -- is a fictional creature of the author, a figment of the author's imagination presented for our inspection.  The narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart" is by no means Poe!  So if you say or write, "Poe explains why he hated the old man," you end up behaving as if you are more nave than [surely!] you are.  The question of what the author believes is definitely one that the reader can be legitimately interested in, but we can't answer it directly by quoting the views of his characters, even if the character in question happens to be the "I" of the story.  In all fiction (some would say even in autobiography, too), any narrator is a construct by the author, not a voice to be identified with the author.  A useful technical term for the implied character of the narrator (whether first-person or third-person) is persona.  It reminds us that the voice addressing us, at least in fiction, is not the author, but a "mask" the author assumes for the purposes of the particular work at hand.

A question that is always called for whenever we confront this kind of narrative "angle" on events, is:  is this narrator reliable?  And there are at least two distinct dimensions to this question: 

(1) Is the narrator a reliable reporter of the facts of the situation s/he presents for our inspection?

The answer can of course turn out to be "Yes."  But our experience of the story will be different if we have arrived at this judgment by way of an examination of the issues relevant to deciding it than it will be if we just take the speaker's/writer's representation of what happened at face value.

And of course, the answer can turn out to be "No."  This is a game with the reader that writers often play.  Note that a person (here, a fictional one) can fail as a reliable guide to the facts in, broadly speaking, two distinct ways, each of which can, according to circumstances, mean different things for our assessement of what the larger issues are with which the story might be concerned.

(2) Is the narrator reliable in his or her evaluation of the situations in which s/he is involved as a participant?

That is to say:  one can, for instance, have the facts right about what someone has done, but still fail to understand their further factual significance, or their moral meaning.  For example, one can take facts to be evidence for something that they do not indicate, about what else may have happened, or about how we are to judge the action of someone.

A by-stander narrator, for instance, may be set up by the author to have to figure out the agents of the main action, or even what some of the crucial events are of the action itself.  This is a staple situation in detective stories, whether those told us by the detective (a Sam Spade or a V.I. Warshinski) or by the detective's friend or sidekick (a Dr. Watson).  But this just reminds us that "the action" with which we are concerned in a detective story is rarely just that which is investigated by the detective; rather it is usually the process of investigation itself.  And this is a process in which the traits of the investigator or sidekick narrator are important elements in the solving of the mystery.  Even when we leave the story with the sense that the obscurities have been laid to rest, an important part of the story itself will usually have been the bafflement experienced (or even the postitive mistakes made) by the narrator along the way.

A central character may be set up by the author to end up with an understanding of what happens that the audience is supposed to appreciate as off the mark -- mistaken in some minor or major particular, even outright warped.  The author's job here is to convey, through the distorted lens of the narrator's consciousness enough clues for it to dawn on the readership that its job is to construct a different understanding of what has happened, or of its meaning, than the narrator himself or herself ever arrives at. 

This is a possibility we'll want to be alert to even when the narrator the author confronts us with is not a child or an obvious madman.  And it can be at work even with narrators whose shrewdness and common sense have been proven by events.  A classic case is Huck's decision at the end of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to free the runaway slave Jim from his captors, instead of writing Jim's rightful owner Miss Watson telling her where Jim is and that the captors will give him up for her advertised reward.  Huck agonizes over what to do, conscious of being watched by a wrathful Providence, and finally decides steal Jim back from slavery.  Thinking he is condeming himself to eternal damnation, Huck does what Twain regards as the right thing.  Huck mis-identifies his true voice of conscience as the promptings of temptation, but has the moral courage (which he mis-identifies as weakness) to follow it.  This is serious comic dramatic irony.  If we take Huck's understanding of the situation as Twain's, we are far astray:  the reader is expected both to endorse Huck's decision, and to reject his evaluation of it.

For some additional observations about the way in which ignorance can be connected to or disconnected from culpability, see the discussion of dramatic irony.


Another question that is always on the table whenever we are confronted with a first-person narrator is:  what is to be imagined as the narrator's situation?  What is the speaker's (or pretended writer's) predicament?  Who is the audience being addressed?  (That is:  what role is the author assigning to the "you" of the story -- i.e., to us, the reader.)  And what does the speaker want from that addressee?

What is the speaker's (or the pretended writer's) situation or predicament, at the moment we are to imagine him telling us the story?  In other words, what is the setting not of the events narrated, but of the event of narrating itself?

In Browning's poem "My Last Duchess", the speaker is the Duke of Ferrara, who is entertaining an ambassador from another Italian nobleman who wants to negotiate a marriage for his daughter to the duke.  As the duke is accompanying his guest down the stairs and stops to point out a portrait of his former wife, now dead, and then invites him to continue descending, pointing out in passing another prized work of art in his collection.  In Hardy's poem "The Man He Killed", the speaker is a war veteran (probably of the Boer War which England conducted in South Africa at the beginning of the 20th Century).  He himself may be taking a pint at an old tavern (like the one to which he imagines under other circumstances he might have invited the enemy soldier he killed), reminiscing about his experience in battle, how it came about that he ended up there, and on how odd a role circumstances can play in a person's life.

Whom is he supposedly addressing?

It may be that the speaker is addressing himself or herself.  This is the special case of soliloquy.  We need to know what motivates this self-address:

Is the speaker trying to figure out what has happened?  to reach a decision?  to respond to an accusation?  to allay his conscience?  to vent an emotion impossible (why?) to express publically?

And what mental moves do we see the person making in carrying through this self-discourse?  What are the particular twists and turns we see this mind-in-action making, and what motivates each of these?

Even if the narrator is a by-stander to the main action, we will want to know what motivates his/her telling of the story to us, whoever we are supposed to be.  But this question is likely to be especially urgent if the speaker/writer is the central character of the piece.

What drives the speaker to talk to "us," or the writer to write to "us"?  What does s/he want from us?  (The answer may be more than one thing.)

It may be that the speaker is not so much (or not merely) telling a story, but behaving with the audience.  In such cases we are confronted with a dramatic monologue.  We want to notice -- just as in a play -- what the speaker is doing in saying (even in reporting) this or that.  What "transactions" are being undertaken, or attempted?  And we want to get clear on the motivation, conscious or unconscious, for the speaker's behaving this way.

In Browning's poem "My Last Duchess," for example, the duke's aim is to put possible future father-in-law on notice (through the ambassador) that he'd better make sure his daughter is clear the duke is a possessive husband who will not tolerate her holding friendly conversations with other men.  He hints that he may even have had his last wife assassinated for merely being kind and informal with the painter he commissioned to do her portrait.

Sometimes of course the speaker's situation is not all that definite, and it is open to the reader to imagine ourselves overhearing a soliloquy or witnessing a dramatic monologue.

Hardy's "The Man He Killed" works this way.  I can imagine the speaker silently talking to himself, trying to figure out what to make of his having killed a person whom he probably had more in common with than his officers.  Or I can imagine him doing this aloud, in the company of a current acquaintance, someone, "me" in fact, whom he's invited for a beer.  The import of the little story he then tells, in the course of our sharing a couple of brews, is that either one of us could have just as well ended up shooting the other, if circumstances had turned out as they did in that case, just as the person killed then could just as well have been the survivor, or me, sitting here having a beer with an interesting fellow -- if larger forces outside of our control, and sheer accident, had not been what they were in our case.

So:  as soon as we realize that in this story we have to do with a first-person narrator, these issues of the speaker's reliability, situation, and motivation are on the table.  They will be central to the savvy and engaged reader's agenda of curiosity.


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