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 to it, a minor character in the main action.  Sometimes he or she is an important participant in that action, a major charcter in it.  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 naïve 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, in a detective story, "the action" with which we are concerned  is rarely just the crime scenario 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.  The reader's job is

  • to be alert to whether this is indeed a game that this particular author is playing in this particular story.
  • If it isn't, then
    • not to insist on finding some way in which the narrator has misinterpreted things.  After all, some narrators are so constructed as to pass the reader's savvy scrutiny.
      • Part of the essence of these stories is that we are expected to appreciate the narrator's reliability as an interpreter or evaluator of events.  It may be that this reliability is grounded in his or her soundness of character.  But we can hardly come to this appreciation unless we are in the habit of examining the narrator's reliability, as a matter of course!
      • In many stories we meet with a protagonist narrator who tells us an initiation story.  In some of these, the story ends with the narrator's epiphany, and we are to understand that the narrator has since profited from the insights it made available so such an extent that the person who has been telling the story ("on himself," as it were) is "not the same person" as the person he was when he underwent the experience narrated.  It can be, though, that the narrator forebears to spell out what the deeper insights may have been that have affected his identity.  In these stories, part of the game the author (behind the scenes) is offering is for us to ponder how the narrator must have been affected, and why.
  • If the reader senses that author is playing the game of offering us narrator whose take on events is off-the-mark, then his job is
    • to pick up on the clues and arrive at the real state of affairs the story implies, and
    • to appreciate the point of the disparity between this reality and the narrator's particular way of misconstruing it.
      • For example, it may be that we are being invited to figure out the reasons for the narrator's mistakes.  What assumptions is he or she acting from that are out of place here?  Where did they come from?  Why are they so tenacious?  What are the credentials, supposedly, of the appropriate assumptions?  These kinds of questions may well take us into the larger thematic concerns of the story as a whole.
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.

So far we've been talking about a particular kind of questioning on the part of the reader that is central to the conventions that have come to attach to first person narration.  But we should note similar games can be at work in third-person narration, and with selective ("limited") omniscient narration in particular.  If a narrator is articulating the experience of some particular character -- for example, the story's protagonist  -- the reader's window on events is in effect monopolized by this "central consciousness."  When this happens, essentially the same agenda of curiosity is in order.  Does the mentality into which we are projected get things right in the end?  Is the character through whose eyes and ears and mind we take things in a reliable interpreter and evaluator of what is going on?  Is her understanding limited in some ways that we are supposed to appreciate?  Does this compromise -- or even perhaps enhance -- the character's dignity, in our eyes?
A question that we should always ask with stories narrated from a selective omniscient point of view, is:  what are the various considerations that effectively ruled out first-person narration in this particular story?  (This may not be a question it is useful to be posing from the outset, but it is one that we should reflect on sooner or later.)  It's important that we expect that several considerations (not just a single one) are likely to be relevant here.  Appreciating them is one way of getting clearer about exactly what the story was that the author undertook (behind the scenes) to tell -- and why she or he would have been moved to pick that story as the one to tell.

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      Contents copyright 2001 by Lyman A. Baker

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  This page last updated 24 October 2000.