`TRUE!—nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses—not destroyed—not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily—how calmly I can tell you the whole story.
--Edgar Alan Poe, “The Tell-Tale Heart”
First person point-of-view is often taken for granted as the most simple, direct form of narration, a character in the story telling the story, but it is a multifarious point of view, often a sneaky one. One of Edgar Alan Poe’s major contributions to American fiction may be his extensive exercise of a first person point of view so unreliable as to be reliable. When it is absolutely clear at the outset his narrators are mad the narrative can hardly be called unreliable. We know perfectly well what to expect of them, particularly after all these years of having Poe to kick around. We can’t imagine what this voice looked like to readers before there was a Poe, before he sprang it on the world. We might want to call his narrative strategy an exercise in literary irony, since reader and writer know clearly the nature and degree of the narrator’s madness, but generally in irony the speaker does not share this knowledge.
Even Poe’s narrators seem to know they are mad, or that their actions at the very least have the appearance of madness. The speaker of “The Tell-Tale Heart” admits his mind is diseased, but he claims he is not actually mad because his senses are acute and he hasn’t lost his ability to spin the story. This much we can grant him. If he defines madness as the withering of the senses and a loss of the ability to tell a story, he is not mad, merely diseased. His murder and mutilation of his kindly employer does in fact have a motivation: he didn’t like the look of that eye. In fact, the eye became a fascination, an obsession that attracted him and repelled him at the same time. He had to see it every night and had to kill the old man to silence the obsession that threatened his sanity. Once he smothered the fellow, cut him up, and buried him beneath the floorboards, he certainly had no more problems with the obsession of the eye, but now he had the problem of his guilt for the murder, and this guilt he could not silence except through confession.
Since all of his actions grew from motivations we can trace to the end of his tale, he judges he is not mad, but understands that his mind is diseased. It is the disease that made him prone to obsession, and the intensity of the obsession led him to an extreme action to stop it. What could be more logical, and, therefore, not mad. His distinction is this: my mind is diseased but I am not mad, and I can prove this by the definition of terms and the clarity of my motivations. If this might qualify as an extreme Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, I think we can agree that he is saying true, for who would call OCD madness, though it may produce intense and distressing behavior? This narrator makes distinctions that prove he is not mad, by his own definition, and the degree of his unreliability is only that his argument does not convince the reader, who generally believes that though he can tell his story, though his senses are alert, and though he can explain his motivation for his acts, the whole picture we get is of a madman. We are not there to condemn the accused to a certain term in jail or to death; we are only present to hear his story.
The whole game is so transparent that our most honest response to the joke Poe is having with us would be laughter—and, of course, Poe does have quite a macabre sense of humor, as he demonstrates through all of his stories. He’d like to be terrifying at the same time, of course, and that for the groundlings, but prefers the exquisite game of first person narration that goes directly between writer and reader, even after he’s been long dead himself and speaking from the grave. We might be tempted to say Poe is speaking to us through the persona or mask of his narrator but the communication is more direct than that. We hear Poe, catch on to what I am calling his game, and hear the voice coming through the mouth of the narrator at the same time, but no single part of the experience is the whole, and the whole is what we have to understand to continue if we are to appreciate his artistry long after the childish weirdness of undead corpses has worn off.
The same game is played by Ring Lardner years later, but without the same effect because the images he draws for us are too much the subject—we are laughing at these American types he holds before us, but he doesn’t tease us with real sex, real death; we leave his stories with a happy sense of having understood all. Still, he and many others got this method from Edgar Alan Poe; he works it well, and for the humor of it, but without the highest reaches of art to which Poe aspires and occasionally reaches.
This is a beginning. Poe stands at the door of American literature, particularly of the American short story, and one of his foremost gifts was his first person narration—the heart and soul of his fiction. A much more practical, durable use of first person narration can be explored in Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” where extremes of character—even madness—are reserved for the subject of the narrator’s tale. Poe’s obsessive narrators always tell a story of something which has occurred to them fairly recently or as it is happening. At the end of “Ligeia,” for example, the narrator screams as the willful spirit his ideal woman takes possession of his dead wife’s body and rises before him at the vigil. At the close of “MS Found in a Bottle,” the writer/narrator shoves his manuscript in a bottle, corks it up and throws it overboard as the ship swirls into the vortex, a little like the flush of a toilet. We may imagine reading the manuscript on the beach where the bottle has washed up, or later, as we actually do, in the quiet of our homes, but the narrator—the one we believe has written these lines, died shortly, perhaps seconds, after he sent the bottle on its way.
Melville’s narrator has time to tell his story in reflection, like Wordsworth recollecting lines in tranquility. This structural variation is a form of first person used by many writers, perhaps most notably in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, where Nick Caraway tells the story of Jay Gatsby. In an interesting sidelight, the title of such a story or novel generally names or refers to the subject character, throwing narrative light on this other right from the start—though, of course, the story must finally be owned or at least contained by the narrator. The title of David Gutterson’s recent novel The Other refers to rather than names the subject character; this in a novel that poses as a biography of the other, the subject character, here an eccentric friend. Unlike Poe’s first person narratives, in this form the unusual or abnormal behavior is reserved for the subject rather than the narrator, who is usually closer in norms to the imagined reader.
In “Bartleby,” the lawyer-narrator lets us know from the outset that he is not even a terribly ambitious lawyer; he is responsible with money rather than adventurous, and he likes to make his dough the easiest way possible. He tries to be as accepting and decent as possible putting up with the eccentricities and foibles of his small labor pool, at the expense of some personal convenience or exasperation. The narrator here is not actor but receiver of action; he tells not his own but the story of the behavior of his strange new hire. After a short period of stellar work, Bartleby shuts down, unable or unwilling to undertake those tasks required to keep the office profitable. Yet the narrator’s compassion grows as he understands more of his plight or condition: Bartleby has no life outside the office. He lives and eats there, sustaining himself on ginger nuts.
His emptiness haunts the lawyer, who attempts to help Bartleby in as many ways as he can think of until, finally, in his impotence, he moves out of his office, thus abandoning the copyist to others who will find him haunting the stairwell. When Bartleby is at last removed to The Tombs, he dies refusing help, refusing food, and refusing hope. His story is over, but not the narrator’s. The lawyer still contains Bartleby and the lessons of his sad Scrivener. We see how his world has both contracted and expanded to include a conception of humanity that includes those of such limited personal resources that they cannot find within themselves an ability to compromise with the world enough to accept the limits, perhaps the confines of our existence, or even to scratch up a will to live. In the lawyer’s sadness, we hear that he is better for having loved Bartleby enough to accompany him to his grave, and, as the last man standing, it’s finally his story to tell and own even though it’s traveled under the flag of a story of Bartleby.
This form of first person narration is closely related to another. As the lawyer tells the story of his strange employee and reflects upon it, writers like Frank O’Connor—in his “My Oedipus Complex” or “First Confession” or a host of others—take the subject character to be the narrator’s younger or earlier self. The adult narrator looks back on an experience he once had as a child, mixing and alternating an adult voice with the voice of the child that was him or her. Generally we hear the adult voice at the beginning and ending of such a story, though somewhere in the middle it may be obligatory to remind the reader that the teller is essentially an adult looking back. But this form doesn’t have to reach all the way back to childhood, though this might well be the most common use. Normally, the time span between present telling and past events is wide enough for the narrator to have undergone personal changes since the original and remembered time period.
This form of first person can also cross a shorter span, so that we see what has happened in the recent past that has led to the narrator’s present condition. The essential property of this form of first person narration is that a narrator reflects on events of his or her past life, not necessarily events of childhood. In Eudora Welty’s “Why I Live at the P.O.,” the narrator tells the reader why she now lives at the Post Office, where she has worked since Papa-Daddy got her the job. In prose that emphasizes the sound of her voice, she tells the grievances against her sister which drove her out of the house:
I was getting along fine with Mama, Papa-Daddy and Uncle Rondo until my sister Stella-Rondo just separated from her husband and came back home again. Mr. Whitaker! Of course I went with Mr. Whitaker first, when he first appeared here in China Grove, taking "Pose Yourself" photos, and Stella-Rondo broke us up. Told him I was one-sided. Bigger on one side than the other, which is a deliberate, calculated falsehood: I'm the same. Stella-Rondo is exactly twelve months to the day younger than I am and for that reason she's spoiled.
At the conclusion, we learn that she now lives at the Post Office because her own home is not big enough for her and her sister. It’s a comic tale filled with details of Southern family life that are terribly funny, told as much to hear these details and this voice as to explain why the narrator now lives in the Post Office. Still, that’s the shape it takes. As she still lives there as she tells the story, we may assume the time span since her moving out of her family home has been brief enough that the resentments are fresh.
I mentioned Ring Lardner earlier, and this form is almost standard for him. The voices of his fiction may not be a rich as those of Welty, for he is principally a humorist, but they are pretty good for what he wants. In “The Golden Honeymoon,” the speaker’s voice is everything, and the details of the story only confirm what we have guessed about this little man and woman of Middle American life:
MOTHER says that when I start talking I never know when to stop. But I tell her the only time I get a chance is when she ain't around, so I have to make the most of it. I guess the fact is neither one of us would be welcome in a Quaker meeting, but as I tell Mother, what did God give us tongues for if He didn't want we should use them? Only she says He didn't give them to us to say the same thing over and over again, like I do, and repeat myself. But I say:
"Well, Mother," I say, "when people is like you and I and been married fifty years, do you expect everything I say will be something you ain't heard me say before? But it may be new to others, as they ain't nobody else lived with me as long as you have."
These passages—every one of them—underscore the most significant feature of any first person narration: what carries the day is the sound of the narrator’s voice, even if that voice comes in the guise of a madman or a child.
Yet if you have ever heard the voice of pain and delusion that can come from the mouth of someone tormented by mental illness, or the halting, incomplete voice of a true child, you know that there is a certain amount of literary interpretation going on. The child must be more sophisticated than is usual to tell a lengthy story, particularly if the child tells the story of his or her own recent past, as does Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, at the end of which the young man may be said to have grown up. Perhaps it is not only the events of his narrative that make an adult of him at the end of the novel but the telling of his reflective tale as well, the ordering of the events of his life. One of the extreme pleasures of this novel for young readers is Salinger’s attempt to maintain and contain the voice of an American adolescent throughout the novel, only to emerge with the voice of an adult at the end.
In “A Long Day in November,” Ernest J. Gaines had a young schoolboy tell the story in first person, as if the story is occurring as we read it, though we know from the act of reading this cannot be so. Even if our willing suspension of disbelief allows us to accept that a child is actually telling this story, and that the day just falls into a natural order, we must take a leap of faith to accept that the story happens to him as we read it; still, that is exactly what the reader must do in order to appreciate the story. This is convention. The story the child tells is entertaining and well ordered not because the day just happens to fall that way, but because we know the story is really being told by Mr. Gaines masquerading as a child for our delight and to provide the meaning of the story which grows out of editorial order. But for my money, the story works and lives before us as if we were immersed in the eyes and ears of the boy narrator, with the scene happening all around us as we go, closing the gap of time in the traditional reflective first person to the immediate present.
We have not yet exhausted the possibilities of first person narration, not by a long shot. In both Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, we see yet another way in which first person can be used, particularly in longer work. Here, both Gulliver and Hank Morgan tell their own respective stories, bringing us up to their present conditions, but what strikes me as unusual is that at times the narrator’s seem to be different persons with different purposes. In both texts, the narrator at select moments becomes the spokesman for the author’s social, political views, while at others the narrator is just plain silly, breaking up the narrative with nonsense, jokes, and bawdy detail. These narrators have at least three identities: their own, their writers, and the buffoons who prance and preen before us to distract us from the seriousness of the tale.
At the same time, we see more purely literary forms of first person, as at the start of Edith Wharton’s short story “The Eyes,” which sounds in voice something like Henry James’s introduction to The Turn of the Screw, and in method much like Faulkner’s first person plural point-of-view in “A Rose for Emily.”
We had been put in the mood for ghosts, that evening, after an excellent dinner at our old friend Culwin's, by a tale of Fred Murchard's—the narrative of a strange personal visitation.
Seen through the haze of our cigars, and by the drowsy gleam of a coal fire, Culwin's library, with its oak walls and dark old bindings, made a good setting for such evocations; and ghostly experiences at first hand being, after Murchard's brilliant opening, the only kind acceptable to us, we proceeded to take stock of our group and tax each member for a contribution. There were eight of us, andseven contrived, in a manner more or less adequate, to fulfil the condition imposed. It surprised us all to find that we could muster such a show of supernatural impressions, for none of us, excepting Murchard himself and young.
And speaking of Henry James, that man could have the first person narrator fade out at periods in which he merely reports scenes: what he sees, what people say. The first person narrator virtually disappears into what I might call first person objective narration. Though the main character tells the story, all we experience for some rather extended passages may be objective in the way that a play can be said to be objective; we have no interpretive voice between us and the action. We see it nakedly, as we might in a dramatic, third person scene. That is one of the wonders of first person, that all of these perspectives can work individually, together, or side-by-side. I might even add here that in the stories in Dubliners, such as “Clay,” James Joyce may tell the story from a third person limited perspective, in which he has access to the senses and thoughts of a character the tale follows, but the nature of his stream-of-consciousness method is such that the narration leaves the control of the narrative voice and enters the mind of the focus character for extended periods before returning to third person limited, effectively interweaving third and first person points of view.
These are masters of first person narration, just as there are masters of detective fiction or lyric poetry—or third person narration. Charles Portis’ Dog of the South should be studied by anyone interested in what is possible with first person narration in a marvelous comic excursion. There are so many more I could mention, but let me end this excursion with a last look at the thoughtful, sensitive first person narrator of James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues.” Here we see a narrator caught up in a vision of leaps across the boundaries between him and his brother Sonny, who he has never completely understood all his life:
I read about it in the paper, in the subway, on my way to work. I read it, and I couldn't believe it, and I read it again. Then perhaps I just stared at it, at the newsprint spelling out his name, spelling out the story. I stared at it in the swinging lights of the subway car, and in the faces and bodies of the people, and in my own face, trapped in the darkness which roared outside.
It was not to be believed and I kept telling myself that, as I walked from the subway station to the high school. And at the same time I couldn't doubt it. I was scared, scared for Sonny. He became real to me again. A great block of ice got settled in my belly and kept melting there slowly all day long, while I taught my classes algebra. It was a special kind of ice. It kept melting, sending trickles of ice water all up and down my veins, but it never got less.
We hear in this passage a voice of meditation, hoping to contain and express a revelation that has changed his life, and end the story in an image in which the two brothers become one soul in the “very cup of trembling.” In all of these cases, we follow the voice of another human being through to its final understanding or revelations, not matter how high or low his or her mentality. We ride the voice the surfers ride the waves—except on the inside.