Second Person Narration!? The Peculiar Narrative You May Never Have Come Across

A terrific critic of the Latin writer, Ovid, Betty Rose Nagle, insists that the first thing we should ask in reading (or viewing?) a text is “Who is Telling?” followed by “Who is Listening?” Inside these deceptively simple questions are a mother-lode of philosophical problems that cover epistemology, power and authority, and communication theory to name only a few.  Just moments of reflection will yield further questions and the implicit recognition that narrators (identified and implied) and audiences (internal and external) act upon one another.

I have written before on narrative point of view–namely different kinds of first-person narration (https://pulpteacher.wordpress.com/2011/10/12/god-told-me-to-tell-you-this-and-other-ways-of-thinking-about-first-person-narration/).  Broadly speaking people most often think of narrative point of view as either first person or third person.  Narratologists make many distinctions such as first person narration where the narrator is the central character (Invisible Man, David Copperfield, Huck Finn, Catcher in the Rye) and first person narration where the narrator is more of an observer (Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories).  Epistolary novels–novels told in letters such as Choderlos de Laclos’ Liaisons Dangereuse or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein–a veritable Russian nesting doll novel of letters and stories!–provide interesting multiple first-person narration; while not epistolary, the great “In a Grove” by Ryunosuke Akutagawa–source story of Kurosawa’s Rashomon–uses multiple first person narrators.  The superb SF writer Ted Chiang has a novella called Liking What You See that is told as a documentary with nearly 20 first-person narrators and NO third person stitching it together–still the question hovers over us–who “edited” this all together?).  A curious hybrid of the main character/not main character dichotomy might be Dunstan Ramsay in Robertson Davies’ superior Fifth Business where Ramsay is both central character and an observer.  There are reliable and unreliable narrators (many of Poe’s narrators or Lemuel Gulliver in the eponymous Travels are regarded as unreliable and some critics claim that ALL first person narrators are unreliable) and all sort of implied readers. (I’ll do a later post on Wolfgang Iser and The Implied Reader and perhaps the “best” readers for certain texts.) 

Third person narrators can adopt a flat, camera-like, objectivity often seen in Naturalist writers such as Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, Emile Zola. Most readers will point out that even the camera cannot achieve objectivity because it must watch from a particular angle. Or, third person narration can be provided by the oxymoronically named “limited omniscience” which gives insight into only a single or few characters (Crane’s “The  Open Boat” is a wonderful example as is Orwell’s 1984 but Wharton and others have terrific ones).  Of course, there is third person omniscient (or fully omniscient) where the narrator is able to tell us motives and innermost thoughts of all characters, and simultaneous happenings.  Victorian writers such as George Eliot and Charles Dickens made great use of this strategy and I think the critic J. Hillis Miller identified this as the “voice of God” or the “eye of God” (but if you are writing a paper–DO NOT TAKE MY WORD FOR IT).

First person and third person can be combined in all sorts of interesting ways and many voice-over movies or tv shows (or first-person graphic novels) combine them by having a first person voice combined with a “camera” view–nearly always (except in some experimental films) third person. (There is probably interesting work to be done in “gaming narrative” as a combination of first person and third person narration–I’m not the one to do it.)

The observations above could carry you through most of the texts you might ever encounter; but there is a rare form of narration called “second person” narration.  I have seen it used in extremely limited fashion (a paragraph at a time–in the Prologue to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man there is a drop into second person narration), but I am only aware of two really strong literary performances where it is the sum of the narrative strategy. A central difficulty in sustaining second person narration is the overwhelming use of “You” to begin sentences (“You enter the house and talk to the lady there.  She tells you a story. You listen to it carefully, etc.”)

Stewart O’Nan’s fine novel, A Prayer for the Dying, is told entirely in second person narration and it is worth reading aside from its interesting narrative strategy.  Set right after the Civil War in Friendship, Wisconsin, the novel tells (or maybe “reveals”–which is an effect of second person narration–things are often being revealed or discovered) the story of Jacob Hansen who is the town Sheriff, the undertaker, and the preacher.  Hansen may find himself investigating a crime, taking care of the body, and performing the burial service.  Early in the novel the town doctor tells Hansen that he suspects typhus may be present (possibly brought by returning war vets whose heroism in defense of the Union deserves appreciation but whose carrying of the disease is now tearing the town apart) in the town necessitating a quarantine–interestingly the doctor doesn’t notify Hansen till his own family is safely away.  But then Hansen has to decide about his own family–can he, as Sheriff, enforce a quarantine and endanger his wife and child? Can he do so as a preacher? Will he have any moral authority?  Hansen’s discoveries and tribulations make up the bulk of the novel which contains a wonderful set piece where some villagers try to stop a train to get on and get out of Friendship.  The toll this takes on Hansen is beautifully drawn and the “reveal” about his family near the end is near-Sophoclean in its intensity. True to my habit of spoiling endings, here goes: we discover (another aspect of second person narration is that we “discover” lots of stuff as the character does) that Hansen’s wife and child have died and that he has embalmed them and left them sitting at the table while he engages them in conversation, etc.  It’s redolent of the discovery of “mother” in the root cellar in Psycho–perhaps more heart-breaking as it is almost impossible for us now to imagine that scene from Psycho as we might have encountered it in 1960.

Still, for my money, the best second person narration story of all time (I know, small pool) is Carlos Fuentes’ Aura.  “You” are reading a newspaper in a dingy cafe when you read an advertisement that seems designed for only you.  It is a request for someone with particular knowledge of French and offers a handsome sum.  You ignore it but the ad is there the next day and so you answer it by going to the mysterious center-city of Mexico City to a house time seems to have forgotten.  There you encounter Senora Consuelo and her niece, the ravishing Aura.   “Your” name is Felipe Montero and you notice the decrepitude of the house–the growing of nightshade, belladonna and other shade plants, the peculiar black Christ that hangs in one room, the scores of votive candles, the pictures of martyred saints, the howling of cats being tortured (set on fire!) on a roof top patio, the peculiar rabbit that comes and goes, the rats gnawing at bound letters and papers.  Most of all you notice Aura whose green eyes are captivating and you agree to stay and put Senora Consuelo’s dead husband’s memoirs into publishable order. 

You work on General Llorente’s letters and find in them things that seem familiar.  When not working, you eat at the peculiarly set table–4 places, one each for you, Aura, Senora Consuelo and an unexplained extra. Aura comes to your room and seduces you–and then the next day tells you to come to her room.  You do and she no longer feels like the girl of 20 but like a mature woman of 40.  Meanwhile you continue your work on the memoirs finally discovering when the General met Consuelo–the vast difference in their ages (he was in his 60s and she was about 15 or so; she is now 109 and “you” are probably in your late 20s).  You read of their inability to have children, her penchant for torturing cats and (Faustian bargain!) her tempting the Angels and the General’s insistence that she accept the will of God.  An old picture causes you to go weak in the knees–General Llorente looks exactly like YOU and Consuelo like Aura.  Suddenly the belladonna, the nightshade and the other “witch’s” source materials, the tortured cats and the peculiar religiosity (black masses? black magic?) compel you to “rescue” Aura from the old woman.  Aura tells you that the old woman will be gone all day and to come to her at night in the old woman’s room.  You do so and you lie down next to her–you reach for her and she feels so frail, she winces at your touch.  You eventually see her when a  sliver of moon light enters the room and reveals that Aura and Consuelo are one and the same–and it seems that you and the General are one and the same (that fourth place at the dining table seems to have been for your doppelgänger)!  You stay with her as she tells you she’ll bring back Aura once she rests. Wow.

It is a great teaching story that I have gotten better at teaching each year.  The strengths of second person narration are in its implication of the reader in the story, the sense of discovery, revelation, surprise (and inevitability) that it induces.  The repetitious use of “you” can be off-putting to some readers and the forced adoption by the reader of the “you” character can cause readers without the imaginative chops to enter that character to feel hostility to the form and character. 

I’d love to hear of other good examples though I can’t promise to read them. Some thoughts about the moral problem(s) in Uwem Akpan’s “My Parent’s Bedroom” next week.

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13 Comments

Filed under A Prayer for the Dying, Aura, Car;os Fuentes, Second Person Narration, Stewart O'Nan, teaching, Uncategorized

13 responses to “Second Person Narration!? The Peculiar Narrative You May Never Have Come Across

  1. MARY KIM SCHRECK

    I’ve always been fascinated when I find a 2nd person short story…I used one by Joyce Carol Oates with kids…called THE JOURNEY….I went to find it on line and found a very different version of it she had written later: http://fictionsoutheast.com/home/?page_id=88 The first one was much more of a metaphoric journey with all the road and travel references with directions that end up a blank paper, etc. Having both side by side would really be a cool examination!

    • Hi Mary Kim,

      I was hoping I’d hear of a story from you. I’m going to look for the Oates’ story you mention. I am a bit embarrassed to say that the only Oates I have read is the short story “Where are you going? Where have you been?” (and some occasional pieces in the NYRB). I always think this is a deficiency I should remedy but when I look at her output I am overwhelmed and have no idea where to start.

      Thanks again,

      d

      Daniel J. McMahon, Ph.D. Principal DeMatha Catholic High School 4313 Madison Street Hyattsville MD 20781 240-764-2202 240-764-2275 fax

  2. Matt Buckley

    Margaret Atwood’s “Happy Endings”, as well as Lorrie Moore’s collection of stories, “Self Help”, are also second person and fascinating reads. I’ve taught “Happy Endings” and “How to Be Writer” (from “Self Help”) in Creative Writing; the kids got a kick out of the change in storytelling.

    • Matt, Thanks for the heads up. I will look for the Atwood story. Is Lorrie Moore the one who wrote the play Topdog/Underdog? I’m trying to remember if I’ve heard of her. I was hoping I’d get a few suggestions that I could look through this summer to increase my repertoire. Pax, d

  3. Jim

    Dear Dan,

    It is interesting to consider how the questions that you initially posed – who is telling and who is listening – are answered for a second-person narration. Is the reader (or the reader’s concience?) inherently the narrator of the story, albeit one with no ability to change the story? Is the reader always the audience of the story; is it possible for the reader to not be the only audience of the story?

    As an aside, I suspect that many of us (of a certain generation) were first exposed to second-person narration via Choose Your Own Adventure books. While not in the same literary class of the aforementioned works, they provided exposure to the genre.

    It seems that one difficulty of the genre may be in the need of the reader to not only relate to the story (i.e., appreciate the situation in which the reader suddenly finds themself, let alone the actions taken) but also in the need to trust the narrator. Even moreso than in first- or third-person narration, it seems like in order to be successful the narrator in second-person narration would have to be reliable (or at least keep the reader believing so), does it not?

    • Jim, thanks for the comment. For many years I would reference “Choose your own story” books but in recent years have gotten more and more blank stares. I have begun using “gaming” examples which have all sorts of curious mixtures of first person, second person, and third person. I also agree wholeheartedly that the “who is telling? who is listening?” questions are notoriously vexed by the choice of second person narration. You must have had a good English teacher somewhere along the line 🙂 Dan

  4. Mark

    Thanks Dan – You’ve made Aura my spring break read. I’ve been looking for one, and just finished some Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Isabel Allende (both Mastrantuano’s suggestion), so this seems like the necessary follow up.

    Another story to check out is the memoir Pagan TIme, by Micah Perks. I read it at UIdaho two summers ago. The story begins with a 2nd person invitation into her life. The class was divided on its effect; I was hooked.

  5. Gavin Buckley

    Another novel to check out is Italo Calvino’s “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler”. It has 2nd person narration and is basically about a character (“you”) trying to read a book (and of course the title of the book is “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler”).

    Here are the the opening lines: “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, ‘No, I don’t want to watch TV!’ Raise your voice–they won’t hear you otherwise–‘I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed!’ Maybe they haven’t heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: ‘I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s new novel!’ Or if you prefer, don’t say anything; just hope they’ll leave you alone.”

    • Hi Gavin,

      I have read this book and completely forgot about it! Thanks for bringing it back to my attention. In my mind it always goes with Kikuchi Kan’s “On the Conduct of Lord Tadanao” thematically and so I completely forgot the second person narration. Excellent call. Dan

  6. Second person narration–Laura Wiess’ novels. Specifically, Leftovers. READ IT!

  7. Macs

    I’ve never read any second person narratives, however, I have heard two radio adaptations. Currently Paul Auster’s ‘Winter Journal’ is serialised on Radio 4 here in the UK. Whatever the claims for the form, I find it is utterly alienating. “You did this, you said that, you think thusly” leaves me screaming ‘No I didn’t, not me, and how could you know?!’

    I find it an incredibly unnatural voice for storytelling, it exacerbates disbelief instead of suspending it, and the effect of the ‘overwhelming you’ is – to me, at least – so intrusive as to totally obscure the merits of the actual story being told. The first time I encountered second person narration I inclined towards believing that particular author was not to my taste, and now I’m veering towards the device not being to my taste. I still can’t rule out the possibility that it ‘listens’ worse than it ‘reads’, so may well hunt down the Calvino novel recommended above, to give it a third attempt to convince me. But I suspect it will turn out like my reaction to watching the film ‘The Matrix’ – a potentially good story smothered at birth by special effects and gimmicks.

    Still, on the plus side it did prompt me to google ‘second person narration’ and discover a fascinating new blog 🙂

  8. Kate

    The rules must have changed because when I was in grade school, 40 years ago, the ” you” narrative was still considered to be a third person narrator who brings the reader into the story by using ” you.” Of course if the writer used ” you and I ” then it was a first person narrator.

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