First-person Narration from the Literature Glossary website
When the story you’re reading is from the point-of-view of a character in the novel (often the protagonist), you’re reading first-person narration. First-person narrators make frequent use of the pronoun “I,” because, you know, they’re talking about themselves, or at the very least what’s going on around them. This style of narration gives us insight into a character’s thoughts and feelings. Lucky us.
If you’re looking for some of the more famous first-person narrators in all of literature, look no further than Scout in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, or that phony-calling phony, Holden Caulfield, in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.
First-person narration sounds nice and simple, right? You’ve got an “I” and he’s doing some talking. Moving on. But there are actually a ton of different ways that first-person narration can play out. Examples? Oh, we’ve got those in spades:
- There’s the interior monologue of the Underground Man in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground.
- There’s the dramatic monologue of Jean-Baptiste in Albert Camus’s The Fall.
- There’s even the strange, plural first-person narration in Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.”
- Oh, and speaking of Faulkner, he had three (count ’em!) first-person narrators in The Sound and the Fury, who trade off telling their stories. Then he even tosses a third-person narrator our way at the end, just for kicks.
Faulkner was a sneaky guy, and he found his way around the limitations of first-person narration. But there are other tricks authors use, too, like, say, a peripheral narrator.
A peripheral narrator is a first-person narrator who’s not the main character. She gets to give us the lowdown on the juicy dealings of the true protagonists and antagonists, all while watching from a safe distance. Think Nick Carraway in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
But we can get even further removed than Nick, if we really want to. The narrator of Joseph Conrad’s most famous novel, Heart of Darkness is telling us a story he heard from a guy named Marlow, who’s telling the story of yet another guy named Kurtz. You might have heard of him. He dead.
See, not so simple after all, huh? It’s important to remember that the first-person narrative style can open up a lot of doors for the author, but it slams some other doors right in his face. On the one hand, he can give the readers VIP access into his character’s thoughts and feelings, and that’s just what we hungry readers are craving, right? But on the other hand, he can’t just zoom out and suddenly see things going on in multiple places at once, like a third-person narrator can.
It’s also super important to remember that when a first-person is narrating the story, they’re somehow involved in the whole shebang. They’re part of the action. They’ve got something at stake. Unfortunately, this means that they’re not always the most trustworthy of folks. They’re not always interested in full disclosure.
When we can’t trust our narrator, we call them unreliable, and we don’t just mean that they bail on plans. Although frankly, if Nick Carraway didn’t show up to our Roaring ’20s party, we’d be pretty peeved. For a classic example of an unreliable narrator, take a look at our take on Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Or really any of Poe’s narrators for that matter. They were notoriously flaky.