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Je est a third person

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A running thread in the Narrative List discusses third-person autodiegetic narratives, which wouldn't make any sense from a classical narratological viewopoint, but... Many people propose examples of problematic first person / third person relationships, or "first-person narratives told in the third person". This is my post:

I suppose in a technical narratological sense Julius Caesar is the author and the protagonist, but not the narrator, of The Gallic Wars. The same for Henry Adams. Therefore, can a first person narrator refer to him/herself as a third person narrator? In principle, no: if s/he refers to him/herself as a third person narrator, it is a third person narrator we have – with the author and the protagonist coinciding, which is not the same thing.

That said, of course there may be some cases (perhaps even those I have ruled out, one woud have to examine the text in detail) in which a narrator alternates between first and third person, with the first person establishing itself as a narratorial mode so that we can justify speaking both of a "first-person narrator" (and not just an autobiographical work - for autobiographies can be written in the first and in the third person), AND of "a first-person narrator referring to herself in the third person" in many, or most, sections of the text. This is the case, for instance, with Carol Shields's The Stone Diaries (1993).

Jose Angel Garci­a Landa

Review (in Spanish) of /The Stone Diaries:
http://garciala.blogia.com/2007/071705-the-stone-diaries.php


And I've got an interesting response from Brian Richardson (thanks!):

As always, José raises a number of important points and distinctions. I can add that many narratologists do not bother to distinguish between pronominal usages in a character's self narration: one may tell one's story using an I, a "royal" we, or a "he" (Caesar, Adams) without altering the speaking subject or, for the most part, its reception (ie, we may think the writer is affected but we all know his or her her identity: eg, that Adams is writing about himself in the third person); in each case we have what Genette calls an autodiegetic narration. For me, things get much more interesting when a first person narrator pretends to be a third person, usually onmiscient voice for most of the narrative. One of the classics is Borges' "The Shape of the Scar"; Woolf's Jacob's Room is another early example. Others can be found in Robbe-Grillet's In the Labyrinth, Beckett's Company and Calvino's The Nonexistent Knight. In this last one, gender changes as well as person. Some funny things happen in the narrator's self-referencing in Camus' The Plague as well. An especially interesting case is that of Iris Murdoch's The Philosopher's Pupil, where a naturalistic explanation is given by the for the forays into other person's minds during the course of the novel by the narrator who admits to merely being a mere homodiegetic character (I got this from Suzanne Keen's work). I briefly discuss these and some other specimens in the first chapter of my book, Unnatural Voices; in the fourth chapter, I talk about texts that oscillate between 1st and 3rd (and, at times --eg, Nuruddin Farah's Maps--) 2nd person narration.

Brian Richardson
University of Maryland


I was trying above to bring back to the discussion the basic distinction between real author, fictional author and narrator, which seemed to have gotten lost along the way. The question of the identity of the narrator, of course, cannot be reduced to a matter of narrative person— the use of first person or third person is in the last analysis a rhetorical move which can be modulated in an infinite number of ways, played off against other rhetorical strategies such as the use of a single or multiple focalizer, the ascription to the speaker of a definite identity, through explicit attribution or through the play of attitudes, judgments, opinions...

It is no doubt always significant that we should choose to speak about us in the third person, or for that matter in the first person plural. But the analysis of that significance must be always contextualized and related to the whole play of identity, agency and representation in the discourse in question.

Here's a paper I wrote back in 1991, on Beckett's use of narrative person and identity: "Personne: Aventuras de 'yo' en la trilogía de Beckett". One would have to coin a special vocabulary to deal with Beckett's personal paradoxes. Or with mine indeed, one is not so alien to them.


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