Blog Post

Narrators, Part 1 -- How can you know it's third person?

When I was a kid I hated what I called I-books, first person narratives.  It was not only that there was something unseemly about people telling the kinds of stories I liked (genre: heroic, adventurous, courageous) about themselves.  There was also something just a little bit viscerally off-putting about them.

  I wanted something more objectively cinematic, and didn't like the radically subjective camera position such narratives sucked me into.  Beckett has Watt thinking of himself in just this vertiginously unstable way:

Things and himself, they had gone with him now for so long, in the foul weather, and in the less foul. Things in the ordinary sense, and then the emptiness between them, and the light high up before it reached them, and then the other thing, the high heavy hollow jointed unstable thing, that trampled down the grasses, and scattered the sand, in its pursuits.

So I thought of the narrator, and was forced to think of myself, as being like that high heavy hollow jointed unstable thing in I-books.  It was as though my own hollowness was squeezed into the narrator's, like a ballooning phantom pillowcase into another phantom pillowcase.

Here's a visual analogue of that queasy point of view, a drawing made by Ernst Mach and printed in his book Analysis of Sensations.  It's a self-portrait through the left eye: his right eye is closed and you can see his body and his room and also, a little bit, the point that the early Wittgenstein insists on, that the visual field has no boundary.

 Self-portrait without a head by Ernst Mach

If you print this drawing out and hold it right up to your left eye (closing your right), the perspective becomes normalized.  You'll see "your" eyebrow and nose and moustache.  (Check out the far more beautiful, lightly chromatic version here, where the German edition of the book's been scanned by Google). Mach used the drawing to demonstrate first person experience of the body: "My body differs from other human the circumstance, that it is only seen piecemeal, and, especially, is seen without a head."

Eventually I got over this antipathy.  (Jack London can get you over anything. Once I was done with Buck and White Fang and the lepers, there was nothing for it but to read The Sea Wolf, first person narrative though it was.  And then Stevenson, and lo, Bob was my uncle!)

But that early experience left me with the residual question: When can we know that a narrative isn't first person?  We can often tell that it is first person pretty early: "Call me Ishmael" or "I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me."  But we may not be sure that a narrative is third person for a very long time.

Extreme examples prove the point: Robbe-Grillet's La Jalousie has a first person narrator who never refers to himself (we don't see his nose or moustache or supine body: only his glass and place-setting and the result of his violence); Beckett's Watt, it turns out in part III, more than half way through the book, is narrated by Sam; Flaubert's sublime Légende de Saint-Julien l'Hospitalier turns out only in its last sentence to be the ekphrastic report of a narrator who has seen the legend depicted in stained glass: "Et voilà l'histoire de saint Julien l'Hospitalier, telle à peu près qu'on la trouve, sur un vitrail d'église, dans mon pays."

Though these examples are extreme experiments, they're just different in kind from most first person narratives, and less extreme but still interesting examples could be multiplied (I'm always in the market for more: let me know if you think of any).  Probably more interesting are works which go the other way (and thus require a kind of cheating): apparently first person narratives which turn out not to be.  I don't mean works with arch narrators like Eliot's or Trollope's or Austen's (or Fielding's even); I mean works which promise a first person story and then give a third person story instead.  Again Flaubert provides a good example, in Madame Bovary, whose first word, like Tristram Shandy's, is a first person pronoun: "Nous étions à l'étude..."  At the other extreme is Susanna Moore's In the Cut which snaps from first to third person, mid-scene, mid-action, on its last page, for reasons that it -- or its narrator? -- explains there.  And there are novels which are ambiguous, like Vanity Fair or "The Sandman" or Un Amour de Swann as a stand-alone, where the narrator refers very occasionally to characters like "mon grand-pere" in recounting the story of Swann and Odette, which took place before his birth; but also refers omnisciently to a dream Swann forgot upon waking up. (Beckett also has first person narrators who disappear in Mercier and Camier, "a story I can tell, if I will, for I was with them all the way," and More Pricks than Kicks, and Roth sort of does in American Pastoral.)

A third category might be that of the notional first person witness, the kind of thing you get in Hawthorne --

Far from us be the indecorum of assisting, even in imagination, at a maiden lady's toilet! Our story must therefore await Miss Hepzibah at the threshold of her chamber; only presuming, meanwhile, to note some of the heavy sighs that labored from her bosom, with little restraint as to their lugubrious depth and volume of sound, inasmuch as they could be audible to nobody save a disembodied listener like ourself.

-- or James:

Adam Verver, at Fawns, that autumn Sunday, might have been observed to open the door of the billiard-room with a certain freedom—might have been observed, that is, had there been a spectator in the field. The justification of the push he had applied, however, and of the push, equally sharp, that, to shut himself in, he again applied—the ground of this energy was precisely that he might here, however briefly, find himself alone, alone with the handful of letters, newspapers and other unopened missives, to which, during and since breakfast, he had lacked opportunity to give an eye. The vast, square, clean apartment was empty, and its large clear windows looked out into spaces of terrace and garden, of park and woodland and shining artificial lake, of richly condensed horizon, all dark blue upland and church-towered village and strong cloud-shadow, which were, together, a thing to create the sense, with everyone else at church, of one's having the world to one's self. We share this world, none the less, for the hour, with Mr. Verver; the very fact of his striking, as he would have said, for solitude, the fact of his quiet flight, almost on tiptoe, through tortuous corridors, investing him with an interest that makes our attention—tender indeed almost to compassion—qualify his achieved isolation.

I think these narrative metamorphoses are hard to do well, but they say something about narrative authority, about who is telling the story to whom, and about whom, and therefore something about the way narrative works more generally.  I want to explore this issue a little more in a couple of subsequent posts, but here I'll note that the question of first vs. third person perspective is often a question of degrees of knowledge, approaches to omniscience.  What kind of omniscience can narrators have?  How do they attain to this omniscience?  How much omniscience can a narrative grant a narratee?  A reader?  How do narratees and readers attain to omniscience?  These are the big questions, but the pleasure (for me) is in the small examples.  It's one of the reasons, though not the only one, that I now like I-books.

William Flesch's picture
William Flesch is the author, most recently, of Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction (Harvard, 2008), and The Facts on File Companion to 19th Century British Literature.  He teaches the history of poetry as well as the theory of poetic and narrative form at Brandeis, and has been International Chair Professor at the National Taipei University of Technology (2012) and Old Dominion Fellow of the Humanities Council and Visiting Professor at Princeton (2014-15).