A first-person narrative is a mode of storytelling in which a narrator relays events from their own point of view using the first person i.e. "I" or "we", etc. It may be narrated by a first person protagonist (or other focal character), first person re-teller, first person witness, or first person peripheral (also called a peripheral narrator). A classic example of a first person protagonist narrator is Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847), in which the title character is also the narrator telling her own story, "I could not unlove him now, merely because I found that he had ceased to notice me".
This device allows the audience to see the narrator's mind's eye view of the fictional universe, but it is limited to the narrator's experiences and awareness of the true state of affairs. In some stories, first-person narrators may relay dialogue with other characters or refer to information they heard from the other characters, in order to try to deliver a larger point of view. Other stories may switch the narrator to different characters to introduce a broader perspective. An unreliable narrator is one that has completely lost credibility due to ignorance, poor insight, personal biases, mistakes, dishonesty, etc., which challenges the reader's initial assumptions.
Point of view device
First-person narration often includes an embedded listener or reader, who serves as the audience for the tale. First-person narrations may be told by a person directly undergoing the events in the story without being aware of conveying that experience to readers; alternatively, the narrator may be conscious of telling the story to a given audience, perhaps at a given place and time, for a given reason.
A story written in the first person can be told by the main character, a less important character witnessing events, or a person retelling a story they were told by someone else. This point of view is often effective in giving a sense of closeness to the character.
First-person narration presents the narrative through the perspective of a particular character. The reader or audience becomes aware of the events and characters of the story through the narrator's views and knowledge. As a participant in events, the conscious narrator, is an imperfect witness by definition, unable to fully see and comprehend events in their entirety as they unfurl, not necessarily objective in their inner thoughts or sharing them fully, and furthermore may be pursuing some hidden agenda. In some cases, the narrator may give or withhold information based on his own experience.
Character weaknesses and faults, such as tardiness, cowardice, or vice, may leave the narrator unintentionally absent or unreliable for certain key events. Specific events may further be colored or obscured by a narrator's background, since non-omniscient characters must by definition be laypersons and foreigners to some circles, and limitations such as poor eyesight and illiteracy may also leave important blanks. Another consideration is how much time has elapsed between when the character experienced the events of the story and when they decided to tell them. If only a few days have passed, the story could be related very differently than if the character was reflecting on events of the distant past. The character's motivation is also relevant. Are they just trying to clear up events for their own peace of mind? Make a confession about a wrong they did? Or tell a good adventure tale to their beer-guzzling friends? The reason why a story is told will also affect how it is written. Why is this narrator telling the story in this way, why now, and is he to be trusted? Unstable or malevolent narrators can also lie to the reader. Unreliable narrators are not uncommon.
In the first-person-plural point of view, narrators tell the story using "we". That is, no individual speaker is identified; the narrator is a member of a group that acts as a unit. The first-person-plural point of view occurs rarely but can be used effectively, sometimes as a means to increase the concentration on the character or characters the story is about. Examples include:
- William Faulkner's short story "A Rose for Emily" (Faulkner was an avid experimenter in using unusual points of view; see also his Spotted Horses, told in third person plural).
- Frank B. Gilbreth and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey's memoir Cheaper by the Dozen.
- Theodore Sturgeon's short story "Crate."
- Frederik Pohl's Man Plus.
- Jeffrey Eugenides's The Virgin Suicides.
- Karen Joy Fowler's The Jane Austen Book Club.
- Joshua Ferris's Then We Came to the End.
- Heidi Vornbrock Roosa's short story "Our Mother Who Art."
Other examples include Twenty-Six Men and a Girl by Maxim Gorky, The Treatment of Bibi Haldar by Jhumpa Lahiri, During the Reign of the Queen of Persia by Joan Chase, Our Kind by Kate Walbert, I, Robot by Isaac Asimov, and We Didn't by Stuart Dybek.
First-person narrators can also be multiple, as in Ryūnosuke Akutagawa's In a Grove (the source for the movie Rashomon) and Faulkner's novel The Sound and the Fury. Each of these sources provides different accounts of the same event, from the point of view of various first-person narrators.
There can also be multiple co-principal characters as narrator, such as in Robert A. Heinlein's The Number of the Beast. The first chapter introduces four characters, including the initial narrator, who is named at the beginning of the chapter. The narrative continues in subsequent chapters with a different character explicitly identified as the narrator for that chapter. Other characters later introduced in the book also have their "own" chapters where they narrate the story for that chapter. The story proceeds in linear fashion, and no event occurs more than once, i.e. no two narrators speak "live" about the same event.
The first-person narrator may be the principal character or one who closely observes the principal character (see Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights or F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, each narrated by a minor character). These can be distinguished as "first person major" or "first person minor" points of view.
The narrator can be the protagonist (e.g., Gulliver in Gulliver's Travels), someone very close to him who is privy to his thoughts and actions (Dr. Watson in Sherlock Holmes stories), or an ancillary character who has little to do with the action of the story (such as Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby). Narrators can report others' narratives at one or more removes. These are called "frame narrators": examples are Mr. Lockwood, the narrator in Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë; and the unnamed narrator in Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. Skilled writers choose to skew narratives, in keeping with the narrator's character, to an arbitrary degree, from ever so slight to extreme. For example, the aforementioned Mr. Lockwood is quite naive, of which fact he appears unaware, simultaneously rather pompous, and recounting a combination of stories, experiences, and servants' gossip. As such, his character is an unintentionally very unreliable narrator, and serves mainly to mystify, confuse, and ultimately leave the events of Wuthering Heights open to a great range of interpretations.
A rare form of first person is the first person omniscient, in which the narrator is a character in the story, but also knows the thoughts and feelings of all the other characters. It can seem like third person omniscient at times. A reasonable explanation fitting the mechanics of the story's world is generally provided or inferred, unless its glaring absence is a major plot point. Two notable examples are The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, where the narrator is Death, and The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, where a young girl, having been killed, observes, from some post-mortem, extracorporeal viewpoint, her family struggling to cope with her disappearance. Typically, however, the narrator restricts the events relayed in the narrative to those that could reasonably be known. Novice writers may make the mistake of allowing elements of omniscience into a first-person narrative unintentionally and at random, forgetting the inherent human limitations of a witness or participant of the events.
In autobiographical fiction, the first person narrator is the character of the author (with varying degrees of historical accuracy). The narrator is still distinct from the author and must behave like any other character and any other first person narrator. Examples of this kind of narrator include Jim Carroll in The Basketball Diaries and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. in Timequake (in this case, the first-person narrator is also the author). In some cases, the narrator is writing a book—"the book in your hands"—and therefore he has most of the powers and knowledge of the author. Examples include The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. Another example is a fictional "Autobiography of James T. Kirk" which was "Edited" by David A. Goodman who was the actual writer of that book and playing the part of James Kirk (Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek) as he wrote the novel.
Since the narrator is within the story, he or she may not have knowledge of all the events. For this reason, first-person narrative is often used for detective fiction, so that the reader and narrator uncover the case together. One traditional approach in this form of fiction is for the main detective's principal assistant, the "Watson", to be the narrator: this derives from the character of Dr Watson in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories.
First-person narratives can appear in several forms; interior monologue, as in Fyodor Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground; dramatic monologue, also in Albert Camus' The Fall; or explicitly, as Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Other forms include temporary first-person narration as a story within a story, wherein a narrator or character observing the telling of a story by another is reproduced in full, temporarily and without interruption shifting narration to the speaker. The first-person narrator can also be the focal character.
With a first person narrative it is important to consider how the story is being told, i.e., is the character writing it down, telling it out loud, thinking it to themselves? And if they are writing it down, is it something meant to be read by the public, a private diary, or a story meant for one other person? The way the first person narrator is relating the story will affect the language used, the length of sentences, the tone of voice and many other things. A story presented as a secret diary could be interpreted much differently than a public statement.
First-person narratives can tend towards a stream of consciousness and Interior monologue, as in Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time. The whole of the narrative can itself be presented as a false document, such as a diary, in which the narrator makes explicit reference to the fact that he is writing or telling a story. This is the case in Bram Stoker's Dracula. As a story unfolds, narrators may be aware that they are telling a story and of their reasons for telling it. The audience that they believe they are addressing can vary. In some cases, a frame story presents the narrator as a character in an outside story who begins to tell his own story, as in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.
First-person narrators are often unreliable narrators since a narrator might be impaired (such as both Quentin and Benjy in Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury), lie (as in The Quiet American by Graham Greene, or The Book of the New Sun series by Gene Wolfe), or manipulate their own memories intentionally or not (as in The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, or in Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest). Henry James discusses his concerns about "the romantic privilege of the 'first person'" in his preface to The Ambassadors, calling it "the darkest abyss of romance."
One example of a multi-level narrative structure is Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness, which has a double framework: an unidentified "I" (first person singular) narrator relates a boating trip during which another character, Marlow, uses first person to tell a story that comprises the majority of the work. Within this nested story, it is mentioned that another character, Kurtz, told Marlow a lengthy story; however, its content is not revealed to readers. Thus, there is an "I" narrator introducing a storyteller as "he" (Marlow), who talks about himself as "I" and introduces another storyteller as "he" (Kurtz), who in turn presumably told his story from the perspective of "I".
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