Voice and Points of View
The first-person voice is one of the
most needlessly nettlesome of all the narrative voices
employed by writers, perhaps because "I" is
the most used word in the language.
are some observations about the most confusing aspects
of first-person voice and point of view.
Often overlooked is the
fact there are always two "I's" in first-person
narration, the "I" who narrates what happened,
and the "I" who performs as an actor in the
narration. Of course, they're actually the same, but
the first is telling the story, while the second is
performing in it. Using film terminology clarifies further:
If a film includes a voice-over that belongs to a protagonist,
we will be hearing him while seeing an actor performing
as the same character; e.g., Billy Wilder's "Sunset
Boulevard." A man's voice promises to tell us "the
truth" of how he died; then we see William Holden
enacting the fatal journey. Omitting attention to the
"performer" in a narrative results in vague
characterization of that protagonist.
There are two main approaches
to time in first-person narration: 1. The events are
all over, and now the narrator will tell them to us;
e.g., James Cain's "Double Indemnity." A murder
has been committed and a confession is what we will
be reading. 2. Certain events are about to occur, and
we enter the narration simultaneously with the first-person
narrator; e.g., Henry James's "The Turn of the
Screw." The reader enters the strange house of
Bly, at the very point the Governess enters.
1, it's all over; in 2, it's all about to happen, both
told from a first-person point of view.
Some adventurous uses
of the first-person voice include variations on reliability
and unreliability. Most first-person narrative leads
us to trust that what the narrator is informing us about
is true, as experienced by the narrator; e.g., the nameless
narrator in Rebecca du Maurier's "Rebecca."
But what if the narrator is lying, without even knowing
it himself? Gulliver in Jonathan Swift's "Gulliver's
Travels" ("Gullible's Travels") conveys
to the reader, with exact details, what he sees--therefore,
he is "truthful"--but he is incapable of interpreting
what he is seeing, which is what we, too, see. The reader
recognizes the Yahoos as human beings and the Hwynnms
as horses--from details the narrator misses--long before
gullible Gulliver does.
What if the narrator is
deliberately lying as in Swift's "A Modest Proposal"?
That is another form of unreliability; the deadly narrator
speaks in a seemingly civil voice that the reader recognizes
as a chilly camouflage of barbarity--the proposal to
eat Irish children to solve the problem of poverty in
England! His tone is reasonable as he presents his precise
deductions for the annihilation he proposes. The result
is both chilling and satirical, a startling feat given
A highly complex first-person
narration is one within which the narrator is not only
attempting to lie to the reader, but to deceive himself;
e.g., Paul Bowles's "Pages from Cold Point."
The narrator can't help but know (from what he tells
us he sees but doesn't interpret), that his son is using
him--seducing him. The reader sees through the doubled
unreliability, the rationalizations.
All these effects, of
course, are created through the expertise of a writer,
in language, highlighted details, hints, clues, tone
of delivery, subtle signals to the reader.
Though rarely used in
narrative, the first-person plural--"we"--approach
provides unique effects. A salient example of that is
William Faulkner's famous "A Rose for Emily."
The story is told by "our whole town," and
it retains that first-person plural point of view throughout
(with one startling exception that Mr. Faulkner must
have overlooked after too many bourbons).
effect is to keep the protagonist, Miss Emily, at a
mysterious distance, but it also allows the various
"I's" ("we") to witness different
events, not possible with only one narrator.
further effect is that the story assumes the overtones
of a gothic yarn, a mysterious folk tale--and, felicitously--whether
Faulkner intended this or not, the collective "we"
functions not unlike a Greek chorus. The "town"
expresses admiration, then hope for Miss Emily, and
ultimately predicts catastrophe for her, the "fallen
monument" she is referred to in the opening.
A nonsensical rule of
writing that joins the notorious three abominations
(i.e., the pernicious show-don't-tell, write-about-what-you-know,
nonsense) is this silly warning: Don't open more than
one point of view in a story; and even in a novel, stay
away from first-person narration. Granted that in a
short story it is difficult to mix voices simply because
of restricted length, still, it is possible. In a novel,
the result can be terrific; e.g, Emily Brontë's
"Wuthering Heights." That novel breaks every
so-called "rule" of POV, using various first-person
voices, narrators informing the reader about matters
they could not possibly have witnessed. The result is
one of the greatest "romantic" novels of all
time--"romantic," if, that is, romance may
be extended to incorporate two lovers who will pursue
each other even to the limits of hell; even if not "romantic,"
it remains, without label, unassailably great.
The good writer may employ
as many first-person voices, open as many points of
view, as he can get away with.
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