The Narrator


A crucial element of any work of fiction is the NARRATOR, the person who is telling the story (note that this isn't the same as the AUTHOR, the person who actually wrote the story).

What types of narrators are there? The first major distinction critics make about narrators is by person:

a FIRST PERSON narrator is an "I" (occasionally a "we") who speaks from her/his subject position. That narrator is usually a character in the story, who interacts with other characters; we see those interactions through the narrator's eyes, and we can't know anything the narrator doesn't know.

a SECOND PERSON narrator speaks in "you." This is an extremely rare case in American literature, although we will read a few examples.

a THIRD PERSON narrator is not a figure in the story, but an "observer" who is outside the action being described. A third-person narrator might be omniscient (ie, able to tell what all the characters are thinking), but that is not always the case. Third-person narration may also be focalized through a particular character, meaning that the narrator tells us how that character sees the world, but can't, or at least doesn't, read the mind of all the characters this way.

There are other things we need to know about the narrator, especially since the narrator may be very different from the author, and because the more we know about the narrator the better situated we are to understand and analyze what s/he is telling us. When a narrator is one of the characters in the story, it's usually fairly easy to pin down some information about her/him, because you "see" the character. But you can also get to know third-person narrators.

When you read, think about what clues you're given about the identity of the narrator. You may be able to pin down specific aspects of the narrator's identity (age, region, religion, race, gender, etc.) even if they are NOT explicitly stated in the text. For example, if the narrator says "Ethel put the pop in a sack and handed it to the customer," that narrator is not from the same region of the country as a person or character who would say "Ethel put the soda in a bag and handed it to the customer." If the narrator addresses older characters as Mr. or Mrs. and younger characters by first name, you may be able to gauge how old the narrator is — who are her/his elders, contemporaries, etc.? Sometimes you can detect prejudices on the part of the narrator that will affect how reliable you think that narrator is. If a narrator says, "They passed a greasy kike on their way out," it's fair to assume the narrator is an anti-Semite, and that may well shape your reading.

Here is a rather lame way to think about it. After you read a story, try to write a personal ad for the narrator. What personal characteristics, likes, and dislikes of the narrator can you glean from the story?

Moving beyond the personal characteristics of the narrator, think about how to gauge her/his role as the teller of the tale. Is the narrator reliable or unreliable? Is the narrator telling you everything s/he knows? What limits does the narrator have, in terms of what s/he can perceive? We'll read some stories with crazy narrators, or stupid narrators, or narrators who just don't seem to know what they're talking about.

Think about how much AUTHORITY your narrator has to relate the events of the story, and what it means if that authority seems limited.

Once you've figured out who is telling the story, think about why s/he is telling it. Is this a confession? An act of bragging? A moralistic lesson? Remember, you're not focusing here on why the author wrote the story, but why this fictional narrator is choosing to tell it. It may help to consider the narratee as well.

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