The Art of Narrative: First Person
Carrying on with our football analogy from earlier, we saw that what is called ‘stream of consciousness’ in fiction would be similar to taking the point of view of the ball in a match — the viewpoint would be thrown around, apparently at random, with an intimate knowledge only of its own experiences and not much idea of anything else.
If we step back from the ball and take on the viewpoint of an individual football player, we can compare that fruitfully to what is known as a first-person narrative in which a narrator relays events from his or her own point of view using ‘I’ or ‘we’ and so on. A story may be narrated by a first person protagonist (or sometimes another character such as Lockwood in Emily Brönte’s Wuthering Heights). The first person protagonist narrator from Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847) is Jane, telling her own story: ‘I could not unlove him now, merely because I found that he had ceased to notice me’.
First person narration tracks with one individual, like the football player in our imaginary game, permitting the audience to see the narrator's mind's eye view of the story universe, but not much else. The narrator’s experiences and awareness of the ‘game’ is all the reader can see. Some stories may switch the narrator to different characters to introduce a wider perspective, while an unreliable narrator is one that has loses credibility due to the reader perceiving that the character is ignorant, has poor judgement, is prejudiced, or is dishonest, leaving the reader to ‘fill in the gaps’, which challenges the reader's initial assumptions, as in Remains of the Day, the 1989 novel by the British author Kazuo Ishiguro in which the narrator, Stevens, a butler, recalls his life in the form of a diary. The reader sees Stevens' professional and personal relationships, but comes to realise that Stevens himself is flawed.
A conscious narrator is unable to present the ‘whole truth’ of a story by definition, as he or she is unable to fully see and comprehend events in their entirety as they occur, and is not necessarily objective; they may also have a hidden agenda. In some cases, the narrator may give or withhold information based on his or her own experience.
In Jeffrey Eugenides's The Virgin Suicides, a character communicates the following passage:
Words, words, word. Once, I had the gift. I could make love out of words as a potter makes cups of clay. Love that overthrows empire. Love that binds two hearts together, come hellfire & brimstone. For sixpence a line, I could cause a riot in a nunnery. But now -- I have lost my gift. It's as if my quill is broken, as if the organ of my imagination has dried up, as if the proud -illegible word- of my genius has collapsed.
The reader is left to determine how objectively true this poetic description is by placing it in the context of the whole story.
In Karen Joy Fowler's The Jane Austen Book Club a comic viewpoint is presented through the first person narration:
“What should we read next?” Bernadette asked. “Pride and Prejudice is my favorite.
“So let’s do that,” Sylvia said.
“Are you sure, dear?” Jocelyn asked,
“I am. It’s time. Anyway, Persuasion has the dead mother. I don’t want to subject Prudie to that now. The mother in Pride and Prejudice on the other hand…”
“Don’t give anything away,” Grigg said. “I haven’t read it yet.”
Grigg had never read Pride and Prejudice.
Grigg had never read Pride and Prejudice.
Grigg had read The Mysteries of Udolpho and God knows how much science fiction – there were books all over the cottage – but he’d never found the time or inclination to read Pride and Prejudice. We really didn’t know what to say.
The first person narrator can be the protagonist or, like Dr. Watson in Sherlock Holmes stories, someone close enough so that the reader gets glimpses of Holmes’ thinking. Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, on the other hand, participates little in the actions of the story but acts as a conduit for the reader.
Thus we see the ‘game’ of the story from the viewpoint of a single player, who relays to us as readers how things appear from one viewpoint, which may or may not be objectively accurate but which a clever writer uses to maximise the power of the tale.
To appreciate the game from a more comprehensive perspective, the author chooses third person narrative — and to continue our analogy, that would mean stepping off the football pitch and looking at things from the manager’s bench.