Hello everyone and welcome back to Theory Thursday. Last week I began to discuss the different types of narration that we can come across in literature. I focused on the third-person perspective last week, you should go and check that out if you haven’t already. Today I am concentrating on the first-person narrative so let’s dive into #theorythursday.
How do I recognise the first-person narrator in a story?
It is very easy to recognise when a story is being told in the first-person, because the narrator is either the protagonist telling their own story, or another character who is telling the protagonist’s story from their point of view.
I mentioned on my Instagram (@katelovesliterature), that today is a double post day because my #bookofthemonth discussion all about F.Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby will also be published today seeing as it is the last day of September. It just so happens that The Great Gatsby is a brilliant example of a story that is told from the first-person perspective. The character Nick Carraway is the narrator of Fitzgerald’s novel and he tells us the story of Jay Gatsby, the novel’s protagonist, and since the story is told from Nick’s point of view, we are seeing Jay through his eyes. The novel is an example of a first-person perspective in which another character telling the protagonist’s story – Nick tells Jay’s story. If Jay was telling his own story, he would also be a first-person narrator.
When a narrator is speaking in the first-person, they will use words such as “I”, and “we”, as they are telling readers about events that they experienced themselves, or witnessed themselves.
I mentioned last week that I tend to prefer stories are told in the third-person, and this is because I feel that the third-person perspective gives readers a broader story because the narrator is outside of the events looking in, and so the narrator is therefore more objective but a first-person narrator is speaking from their own experience, so their feelings will come into play, which means that the story we are told may be biased – this is where the concept of an “unreliable narrator” comes into play, and we must always be open to questioning how the story may be different if it was told by someone else.
If we think about The Great Gatsby for a moment, it is a good example of a novel that could be argued to have an unreliable narrator. I’ve already said that readers experience Jay Gatsby through the eyes of Nick Carraway and while at times he despises Gatsby, there are also times that he admires him. Nick has sympathy for Gatsby and so readers most likely will too, however Nick does not have sympathy for Daisy or Tom, and he judges them harshly for their actions despite claiming he’s not judgemental, and despite overlooking Gatsby’s similar behaviour which is hypocritical – but it’s easier to overlook behaviour from someone you sympathise with than someone you do not.
I would also argue that it is crucial that The Great Gatsby is told from Nick’s perspective. I don’t think this novel would work if it wasn’t. Nick is the mediator between the readers and Gatsby, and because Nick sees Gatsby as a layered and complex man, who he can both admire and despise, readers do too. I feel that it could be argued that Gatsby would not be as dynamic or sympathetic of a character if he was the narrator because if he was the one talking of his misdeeds and then of his better qualities, he could risk coming across to readers as an obnoxious man who is boastful and simply trying to justify his actions, but having Nick speak of Gatsby’s admirable qualities allows Gatsby to become layered, to become dynamic, and somewhat redeemable, having Nick tell his story means that he gets to be a mysterious entity rather than an absurdly rich man talking about himself. Nick telling Gatsby’s story of doomed romance makes him a tragically romantic character, but if Gatsby was speaking, would he simply be a rich man who is pining and whining? Maybe.
Why is it important to know about the first-person narrator?
Well, as always I think it’s important to understand how different types of narration can impact a story. Narration is a key aspect of fiction, and types of narration are key aspects of literary theory and understanding literary theory can only deepen one’s understanding and enjoyment of a text. I say this every week, and I will continue to do so because it is true.
If we think about the above example I gave, The Great Gatsby is a text that highlights how much of an impact the type of narration used can have because as I stated above, I think it can be argued that having Nick Carraway narrate that text is crucial to the text working, I don’t think it would be as dynamic, layered, and impactful of a text if it was wasn’t told from Nick’s first-person perspective, so even though I do generally prefer stories that are told in the third-person, I can recognise texts in which a first-person perspective would be the better choice, and in my opinion, The Great Gatsby is one of those texts – if you want to hear what else I have to say about this novel then check of September’s Book Of The Month discussion.
I hadn’t planned it in advance that this week’s Theory Thursday would align so perfectly with September’s Book Of The Month selection. It was a coincidence that both posts would be published today as this Thursday just happened to be the last day of September, and I like to post my #bookofthemonth discussions on the last day of every month. I also hadn’t planned for this week’s aspect of literary theory to be such a huge factor of the text I am discussing. It was another coincidence that last week I decided I would begin to explain the different types of narration and first-person narration just happened to be prominent in my Book Of The Month selected novel.
This has been Theory Thursday. This has been a breakdown of the first-person perspective. As always if anyone has any comments or questions, I’d love it if you’d drop them below.
Here’s to Friday Eve.