Saturday, October 10, 2015

First-person Narration: You'd Better Have a Convincing Reason

Back in the day when written language was still a plaything of the wealthy or those in religious monastic orders, a storyteller would appear in the marketplace, then start right in with a story such as The Iliad, which had an intriguing hooker, all right.  "Achilles was pissed, and he wasn't going to take it any more."

Perhaps not in those words, but close enough.  And for a fact, Achilles had a perfectly good reason to be pissed, both facts you can check in most translations of The Iliad.  They often begin the phrase, "The wrath of Achilles," before going on to other stuff, such as how he was not only not going to fight any more, he was going to remove all his soldiers from the ongoing siege of Troy.

And the storyteller was not about to tell you up front why there was a siege of Troy in the first place, which had to do with that yutz of a prince of Troy, Paris, getting fucked over as a result of his being a judge in a beauty contest.  

The storyteller may have not been able to read, but he had enough smarts to memorize The Iliad, just as likely The Odyssey, and the gods only knew what other pot boilers and best sellers he had tucked away in hopes of passing the hat during a tense point in the narrative.

As storytelling grew in range and sophistication, the storyteller might well have learned to read, if only to keep up with the new stuff being turned out.  He might well have begun his approach with, "Once upon a time," or as a variation, "In the city of X, there lived a man named Y, well-known for his miserly traits."  

The storyteller would then proceed to narrate the story in the equivalent of the third person dramatic point of view.  A man who.  A woman named.  The storyteller might throw in an occasional comment, should he feel the necessity, but if he had a story that got the protagonist into enough trouble or mischief, authorial comments were unnecessary.

Most of us at the current stage of storytelling are used to attending, depending on our choice of church, a Friday, Saturday, or Sunday lecture, known as a sermon.  We are also used to being lectured by teachers, politicians, and historians.  This would tend to explain the first person, I narrator, but not entirely.  

Some early stories, Samuel Richardson's estimable Pamela among them, were written as a series of letters, which were believed to be actual letters, written by actual persons, not some enterprising printer named Richardson.

At a point when you've just begun to feel comfortable with your grasp of the eighteenth and nineteenth century novels, you experience the equivalent of the literary rug being pulled from under you when you realize you can;t answer your own question, which is:  When did the first person narrative first appear and when did it catch on as a popular medium.

More rug disappears when you ask the question, Why would a storyteller want to use the first person point of view?  A simple, obvious answer, particularly in reference to eighteenth and nineteenth century audiences would be that it seems authentic on its face.  

Who but a real person would write using the I approach to telling a story?  But the matter does not have to stop there.  In fact, when you are pontificating to students, you are not above asking them why they wish to use first person when the story is clearly a story?  

The smartasses among your students will remind you that Melville used the first person in Moby-Dick because Ishmael is the only survivor and Melville wanted a survivor of The Pequod as a reliable narrator to give credible weight to the many philosophical implications.  

You can reel off a number of first person novels you like, in particular because they force the novel to accomplish something more significant than amusement.  These observations, so far as you are concerned, are true enough, but they don't take away your curiosity about why a given writer would chose first person as a vehicle for a novel unless there were a purpose.

Well and good that one of your favored novels, The Postman Always Rings Twice, is rendered in first person, and its author was never less than shrewd in presenting his narratives.  But there is no real reason for the narrative filter to come through Frank Chambers in the first when the novel could have worked in the third.  Best you can come up with here is that first person makes it seem more like a confessional gone wrong.

Every time you see first person narrative, you begin to look for one or more reasons the author to use it.  Why is he or she so eager to tell you this story?  You can see a major reason for first person, which has the narrator wanting to set a record straight or to provide a revisionist history.  Beyond those reasons, your brow will continue to furrow whenever you see the opening sentence reveal the first person version.

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