“God told me to tell you this” and Other Ways of thinking about First Person Narration

I like to think about the influence that narrators have on me.  This is related to the question of the influence that knowing who an author is has when we read a text.  For many years I would give my class a quotation–essentially a defense of Social Darwinism stating that life is a struggle or fight and that some times men have to kill to achieve their place and that the strongest survive.  Half of the class just got the quotation with no author given and half of the class got the quotation with the author’s name at the bottom–Adolf Hitler.  Responses to the quotation that was anonymous varied and usually just more than half the students would agree with the statement–they are all boys after all and the notion of competition runs deep–as does their sense that you get what you deserve.  I have NEVER had a student who knew Hitler was the author agree.  I call this exercise my Ethos control exercise and in a future blog I’ll give some examples of teaching the rhetorical strategies of Ethos, Logos, and Pathos to help develop better readers and writers.

There are usually two broad kinds of narration we run across: first-person (“I”) and third-person narration. Third person has numerous sub-sections (omniscient, limited-omniscient, “flat,” etc.) and there is such a thing as second-person narration which I’ll discuss in early January when I’ll give my recommendations for best second-person narration texts.  You can sometimes blur first and third person narration in cool ways such as a voice over in a movie (or graphic novel) which allows a first person narrator while the camera acts as a third person observer.

I have developed four loose categories for identifying first-person narrators and their appeals to us: 1) Vatic; 2) Experiential; 3) Intellectual; 4) Charismatic. None of these exist in utter isolation and in practice narrators flow between the appeals; still, one can usually identify a dominant mode.  When I teach I often pick extreme examples for clarity and then move to more subtle examples.

A first-person Vatic narrator is one who adopts the stance of prophet–this narrator (nearly always male) speaks for God.  It is, for those inside the group or organization, the ultimate form of authority.  The shorthand version of this is reducible to “God told me to tell you….” A famous example of this occurs in Milton’s Paradise Lost wherein Milton states that he is going to “justify the ways of God to men.” (I.26)  Milton takes up the mantle of prophet and for believers in his assertion becomes God’s mouthpiece.  This stance, the Vatic stance, probably strikes us as old-fashioned–it’s used in every epic invocation to the muse and shows up in Jonah’s hesitancy to be God’s surrogate and in numerous Biblical books.  But people still use this stance even now.  Pat Robertson does so regularly (and did when campaiging for president in 1988) and there are fringe political candidates–not to mention genuinely dangerous people like David Koresh and a host of extremist religious leaders of all stripes–who regularly expect audiences to take the claim that they are speaking for God seriously.  For people outside the belief system, this argument always seems quaint and the fact that you cannot rationally convince someone into a belief scarcely slows the believers down. It is the least popular stance in today’s world in large part because of its difficulty in proving that “God told me” and because of its use by numerous con artists.

Experiential narrators are those whose fundamental claim is: “I lived through this so you should listen to me.”  We all believe that experience is a great teacher and this can make for a compelling argument.  One of my favorite versions of this is the voice of Jack Crabb in Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man whose claim is “I was at the Battle of Little Big Horn (and numerous other places) and you weren’t so my version should be listened to.”  “Call me Ishmael,” Melville’s single survivor of the Pequod gets to tell his story–and make a claim on our attention–because of his remarkable experience.  Marlow’s brilliant ekphrases inside of Heart of Darkness makes its claim through the experience of the narrator (and on and on). Fictional diaries often take this route and occasionally peculiar attempts to gain credibility by PRETENDING to have had an experience back fire (one thinks of James Frey’s faux memoir A Million Little Pieces or recent revelations that certain on-line bloggers who have been posing as Muslims or gays are not, in fact, those people). Knowing that they didn’t HAVE the experience changes the way we view their writing.

The Intellectual stance of a first-person narrator can be simplified to say–“I am smart so you should listen to me.”  Ralph Ellison opens the majestic Invisible Man with “I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood movie ectoplasms….  Nor is my invisibility exactly a matter of a biochemical accident to my epidermis.” Among the first things the reader notes are the level of vocabulary, the references to high culture (Poe) and pop culture (Hollywood) balanced on either side of a semi-colon, the knowing ironic use of “spook,” and the consciousness that he has created a “horizon of expectation” heading towards Science Fiction by using the phrase “invisible man” and that he is immediately thwarting that expectation.  This is a smart narrator. Contrast this with the folksy narration of Huck Finn, or the tough guy dialect of Sam Spade or others.  It’s not that those narrators aren’t smart–they are–but their goal is to work an appeal to the “common” person through a notable experience.

I think there is a fourth category of narrator–what I call in a catch-all phrase, the Charismatic narrator.  This is a voice that we love to hear.  I am charmed by the voice of Dunstan Ramsay in Robertson Davies’ Fifth Business–though he is clearly smart and has had a lifetime of experiences he wants to share.  Robert Crais achieves this charisma with the character of Elvis Cole and Lee Child with that of Jack Reacher.  Lots of comedians are able to effect a charismatic voice that encourages us to continue listening–that’s always the goal isn’t it–to keep paying attention until they are finished.  I think some of Woody Allen’s short pieces achieve this charisma as does the reporting of Malcolm Gladwell, Dave Maraniss and many others. I think that some of Poe’s untrustworthy narrators are charismatic and we listen to them in a sort of trance that Conrad calls “the fascination of the abomination.”

None of these strategies operates entirely on their own (and third person narrators can make use of these strategies, too)–any reader of Paradise Lost will immediately be overwhelmed by Milton’s breadth of learning–he is seriously smart and educated (not the same things) and that intellectual intensity is part of his claim on us. Still, when working with students, it helps to ask them what the narrators of anything in their lives–teachers, coaches, parents–are using to appeal to them (“I was a great player so listen to the way I say to do it,” vs “I have spent my life studying this topic to present it to you” vs “It has been revealed to me to pass this on to you [“Because I said so [the voice of God}]”).  Of course no one states things as baldly as this–but if we listen carefully we’ll know which appeal is being made and which ones work best on us.  BTW, God told me to tell you all of this….



Filed under books and learning, first person narration, kinds of narration, popular culture, teaching, Uncategorized

3 responses to ““God told me to tell you this” and Other Ways of thinking about First Person Narration

  1. Love this post. I think it could be argued that all successful first-person narrators have some charisma. Think of Dante’s narrator. Though he’s respectful of Virgil and reproachful of the damned and obvious a bit sacred at finding himself in hell and yet terribly descriptive, I find myself rooting for him. My point is that successful first person narrators must have some charisma, a voice that readers “love to hear,” because it’s the only way to sustain attention.

    • Hi Fitz, I agree. Though I distinguish among 4 kinds of narrators here they all overlap in key areas. Havng that voice we want to hear is so important. Though I occasionally “admire” Cormac McCarthy I do NOT like the narrative voices (even third-person) that he consructs–so my appreciation always remains intellectual (a bit like eating brussel sprouts) and is never visceral. Thanks for the cool comment.

  2. Pingback: Second Person Narration!? The Peculiar Narrative You May Never Have Come Across | pulpteacher

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