Don’t Think Twice About Enjoying First-Person Novels

Today I’m going to talk about first-person books. Not novels starring Adam or Eve, but those with protagonists who tell their own stories.

Among the advantages of that approach? Emotions feel more intimate when viewed through the eyes of one character rather than an omniscient narrator, and a first-person novel reminds readers of how they see life. After all, everyone witnesses the world through their own eyes.

A couple of disadvantages? A first-person protagonist can’t be everywhere in a novel like an omniscient narrator can, so the story is told from only one perspective. And a book dominated by one character’s “voice” might have a little too much sameness after a while.

One important feature of first-person fiction is that the story-telling protagonist tends to be sympathetic. Readers obviously trust, believe in, and relate more to a likable/admirable character, and there can always be villains amid the rest of a novel’s cast.

There are some not-as-sympathetic exceptions — such as Holden Caulfield, who I found annoying in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Also, Leda in Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter is very unlikable (heck, she even steals a girl’s beloved doll) even as we sort of understand why Leda is the way she is and enjoy the exquisite writing in the book — which I read this past week.

Other appealing or mostly appealing protagonists who tell their own stories? The title character of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is my favorite, but there’s also Scout Finch of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (a child’s view of adult life can be quite interesting), Ishmael of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, Huck in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Nick Carraway of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Offred of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Dana Franklin of Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred, Katniss Everdeen of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy, Hazel Grace Lancaster of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, and Mark Watney of Andy Weir’s The Martian, to name just a few.

The above novels’ first-person approaches accentuate the fears, sorrows, happiness, growing awareness, and other feelings the protagonists experience.

Your favorite novels told in the first person? The pros and cons of that approach compared to the omniscient narrator?

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In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece, which slams football, is here.

94 thoughts on “Don’t Think Twice About Enjoying First-Person Novels

  1. Yes Dave ” To Kill a Mockingbird”, the first and only Novel written by Lee Harper until a couple of years ago Go Set a Watchman was published by her agent when Ms. Harper was frail and old.
    What a shock to visit Atticus more trump like a racist !
    But I am glad I read the book fits today`s world we are living in.
    Reading the second book it appears to me that Ms. Harper have gone through some rivisions , but except Atticus and grown up Scout the rest of our beloved characters were not there.

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  2. I like a first person narrator most of all when the narrator falls into the general category of ‘untrustworthy’, not because I prefer such fictional folk per se, but because in the unknowing depictions of events and conversations and scenes, there is room for the reader to see things that the narrator does not. As I suspect most of us–because I suspect it in myself– do not see things about ourselves and the significance of our actions that others sometimes easily discern, I find the point of view to be realistic.

    Robert Walser’s “The Assistant” is narrated by such a one- he is eager, yet incompetent, innocent yet occasionally guileful, who seems to note a great many things around him but not their import, and not the most obvious big thing, until much too late: his employer is addled and has squandered an inheritance on his baseless egotism, in the form of useless inventions he cannot get his assistant to sell or anyone to buy, due to their uselessness.

    I have recently read “The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr. Hoffmann” by Angela Carter, a truly fantastic tale in every sense, whose first person narrator may or may not know everything about his motivations– much depends on how much his version of events the reader can take at face value. Then again, as the events and scenes and characters are equally, even outrageously fantastic, the reliability of the narrator is mostly a non-issue as one gets through the book. It’s only later, while musing over the thing, that the possibility of an untrustworthy narrator comes to mind, and then what comes to mind is a sort of vague unease, a suspicion rather than anything approaching certainty. Or at least that’s how it happened to me— if I can be trusted.

    And if I can be trusted, I recommend both books to interested readers. (I know, you, Dave, have read The Assistant, and again, if I can be trusted, I recall you liked the book.)

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    • Interesting, jhNY — I hadn’t thought of that. An untrustworthy, unreliable, and/or partly clueless first-person narrator CAN be compelling as readers try to figure out what is not being told and so on. Another example of that — in addition to the protagonist in “The Assistant” I did indeed read and enjoy on your recommendation a while back — is Stevens the butler in Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Remains of the Day.”

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  3. Dave, how you do so often come up with topics that so perfectly fit with what I’m reading?!

    I’ve just started Jodi Picoult’s “My Sister’s Keeper” after it being highly recommended by a work colleague, and of course lots of comments on this blog. Such an interesting story, and beautifully told. It reminds me a little of Lionel Shriver’s “We Need to Talk about Kevin”, though I think the latter is slightly better written. But the fun part of “My Sister’s Keeper” is that it’s told from multiple points of view, so you have the upside of the intimacy of a first person narrative, without the downside of only having one story teller. It’s the best of both worlds!

    I completely agree about Holden Caulfield. “Catcher” was one of the first American classic novels I’d read, and I was so disappointed. Such a phony phony phony character!

    “It is also well-known that Nabokov intensely objected to Dostoevsky and all his works.”
    “Well, Nabokov was wrong then.”

    Thanks, Dave, for putting this so succinctly 🙂

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    • Just a coincidence, Sue. 🙂 But thanks!

      Yes, a novel offering multiple first-person points of view (also the case with Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying”) is sort of the best of both worlds. You said it perfectly when you noted that “you have the upside of the intimacy of a first person narrative, without the downside of only having one story teller.”

      “My Sister’s Keeper” is a great book with what I and Kat Lib thought was a disappointing ending. But very well worth reading — don’t stop! 🙂

      I went into “The Catcher in the Rye” with high hopes, but, like you, was not super-impressed. I’ve also read some of J.D. Salinger’s other fiction — the Franny and Zooey stuff — and don’t quite get his appeal and almost cult-like status.

      Nabokov is not winning a popularity contest in this comments section, and I’m glad!

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  4. I really enjoyed the Martian. It reminded me how great first-person novels can be. I also always loved “All Quiet on the Western Front.” It’s one of my favorites. I have a lot of empathy so books in the first person can have a strong impact on me. In my own writing, I haven’t had the guts to tackle it yet because of the points you brought up- it limits the scope of the battlefield. I don’t know if I have the chops to capture the whole breadth of the history through just one person’s heart and mind. I usually focus on one central character, but it’s nice to have other perspectives as well, especially with something as complex as war (what I write about most of the time). Another great article! Got my wheels rolling too, as I hadn’t read first-person in awhile!

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    • Thank you, M.B.!

      “I have a lot of empathy so books in the first person can have a strong impact on me” — excellent line, and I know exactly what you mean! And, yes, a first-person novel has to be harder to write than an omniscient-narrator one if the author wants a lot of “sweep” to the story.

      I really enjoyed “The Martian,” too! Andy Weir is not the best writer in the world, but his storyline was great and his scientific knowledge is astounding. Definitely a page-turner.

      “All Quiet on the Western Front” is a tremendous novel, as are many of Erich Maria Remarque’s books (“Arch of Triumph,” “The Night in Lisbon,” “A Time to Love and a Time to Die,” etc.). One of the smoothest (in terms of prose) and most compelling novelists of the 20th century.

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  5. Two for me are “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the NIght-Time,” by Mark Haddon (narrated by an autistic teenager), and “The Adrian Mole Diaries,” by Sue Townsend (a complication of several titles in that series, and with another teenaged narrator). I think I’m drawn to these books because I fiercely cling to adolescence even though I retired this year.

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    • Thank you, John, for those two first-person examples!

      It’s not easy — and fascinating when done well — for a story to be told through the eyes of someone with mental challenges. That was also done expertly with the Charlie Gordon character in Daniel Keyes’ “Flowers for Algernon,” the novel that inspired the movie “Charly.”

      “I think I’m drawn to these books because I fiercely cling to adolescence even though I retired this year” — great line! 🙂

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    • Wow! I had no idea Zola was also a photographer, and an excellent one. Thanks for the link, jhNY!

      I guess early photographic “selfies,” as part of this article describes and shows, are “first person” in a way. So, not totally off-topic… 🙂

      (As I think I once mentioned, Zola’s great-granddaughter spoke at a 2007 conference in France at which my wife presented an academic paper and I tagged along.)

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  6. ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ seems to be told by an adult recreating what she felt as a child. Of course, the movie reinforced that impression for me as it had a woman’s voiceover narrator. In reality, if Scout=Harper Lee then it really was an adult recreating her state of mind as a child, very convincingly.

    Henry James, if he had ever been aware of ‘Moby-Dick’ during his lifetime and read it (most of his adult lifetime was the Dark Age of Melville, as he was almost completely forgotten during those years until the 1920’s revival years after James died), would have had a fit over Melville’s violation of James’ rules for first person narratives and 3rd person narratives using one character as the central intelligence as he did with ‘The Ambassadors’. Ishmael narrates ‘Moby-Dick’ but after a couple of hundred pages as I recall Ishmael is largely absent from his own story as it depicts conversations in Ahab’s cabin with Starbuck and probably many others that Ishmael could not have witnessed. Of course, toward the conclusion Ishmael returns to wrap everything up with an “And I alone am left to tell thee” ending line. This is also presuming that Ishmael is the whaling expert dispensing ‘everything you ever wanted to know about whales (and even some things you didn’t).

    The ‘Moby-Dick’ narration doesn’t bother me because you still feel that Ishmael is the gateway to this tale, even if he’s not physically present for all of it. So it’s really a combination of first person and omniscient narrator with the author, Melville, playing God and knowing everything about everything that happens on the Pequod, as well as everything you ever cared to know about whales.

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    • Two terrific analyses, bobess48!

      As is probably the case with “To Kill a Mockingbird” (it’s been about three years since I reread it, I think), first-person narration can be retrospective or “current” or some combination of the two. Sometimes this is done in a framing way, as in the “Titanic” movie with the 100-year-old Rose telling the story of her time on that ill-fated boat eight decades earlier.

      And, yes, “Moby-Dick” is indeed a combination of first-person and omniscient narrator — unless Ishmael had donned a Harry Potter-like invisibility cloak to witness various scenes he wasn’t present at. 🙂 Yet it works, as you note.

      Also, strange to think of some prominent 19th-century authors not being aware or very aware of their amazing peer Herman Melville, but Melville was indeed in deep obscurity from the late 1850s/early 1860s on — a time when Henry James was just entering adulthood.

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      • Another author that was strangely not lauded during much of Henry James’ lifetime was Dostoevsky. I don’t know if some of this may have been due to lack of English translations of his work for several years after his death or something else. I do know that Joseph Conrad hated Dostoevsky’s work (what is WRONG with you,Joe?) and his political anarchist novel, ‘The Secret Agent’ was in some respects a response to Dostoevsky’s ‘Demons’. Conrad was a native Polish speaker so perhaps he could also read Russian (?).

        I also know that James at least attempted to read Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’. He called it a loose, baggy monster. So I’m pretty sure an English translation had gotten to him. I also recall that he was a friend of Tolstoy’s contemporary Ivan Turgenev whose work, from what I’ve read, is probably closer to James’ anyway.

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        • Interesting. At least Dostoevsky, during his later years if not earlier, was considered a titan of literature in his native Russia. And I remembered Henry James’ famous “loose, baggy monster” quote, but had either forgotten or never knew he was speaking about “War and Peace” when he said it. Certainly a rather judgmental guy, that James. If I’m remembering correctly, I think he also had mixed feelings about George Eliot’s masterful “Middlemarch” when he reviewed it.

          As for Joseph Conrad not being a Dostoevsky fan — blech. 😦

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          • I don’t know what it was about James. He considered George Eliot a master and I think even visited her in her later years but his praise for many people always had qualifiers. Perhaps it had something to do with her being a woman. He also had a condescending attitude toward Edith Wharton’s work even though they were close friends. Maybe he had a double standard. He had many female friends but perhaps became a bit envious/jealous when they encroached on his territory? Who knows?

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            • Plausible theories about Henry James’ attitudes toward George Eliot, Edith Wharton, and women writers in general, bobess48!

              While James was an astonishingly impressive writer, I’d have to rank Eliot ahead of him. Perhaps a reason for Henry’s possible jealousy…

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              • I would tend to agree with you, Dave, about George Eliot. It took many decades for me to get to her and appreciate her immense contribution to literature but there is a power that ranks alongside Dostoevsky for me.

                This does not lessen my admiration for James in the least. I will always give James credit for influencing me not only in my own literary attempts but the way I view much of my life. I guess the main feature that renders him slightly lesser is that he rarely tackled the ‘BIG’ themes of Life, such as Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, and a few others did. George Eliot had a gift for rendering the human consciousness and the ironies and unexpected twists of fate that make people what they are in such a skillful, evocative way. She elicits sympathy and identification in ways that James rarely does.

                Having said that, there’s room in the literary palace for all types and James is certainly deserving of his place just as
                much as Eliot and the other greats.

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                • bobess48, I agree with all your points, which couldn’t have been expressed more eloquently. I’ve read seven Henry James novels, and came away awed by his writing skill but only somewhat emotionally stirred. With Eliot, I was awed AND emotionally bowled over.

                  But, yes, very glad there are many and varied occupants of the literary palace — which undoubtedly is more tastefully decorated than any Trump residence.

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        • Conrad wrote another book involving anarchist bomb plots and betrayals, “Under Western Skies”, and there, the author’s sympathies are taken up with the mother and sister of a bomb-plotter, befriended by the bomber’s roommate, who, unknown to them, delivered the bomber into the hands of the police. As a sympathetic portrait of radicals and their ism, this book ain’t exactly one either, especially in its scenes of meetings and connivings among emigre anarchists plotting their plots in Switzerland….

          It is also well-known that Nabokov intensely objected to Dostoevsky and all his works.

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          • Well, Nabokov was wrong then. 🙂 Dostoevsky seems to me such a great author that it’s hard to imagine anyone not being a fan, or at least impressed on some level. But obviously no author is loved by everyone.

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            • My reaction to other writers’ negative attitudes toward Dostoevsky is similar to my reaction when people say they don’t like the Beatles or don’t see what was so great about them. I treat them like unfortunate people with severe mental illness and want to say to them, “Get thee to a psychiatrist!”

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            • Nabokov had few good words to say about a few good writers: “What right has he to prevent me from finding mediocre and overrated people like Balzac, Dostoevski, Sainte-Beuve, or Stendhal, that pet of all those who like their French plain?”

              There are oaks whose fallen leaves contain so much acid that not even a blade of grass can grow beneath their soaring branches. The present case seems more like a latecoming acorn from another tree altogether who would, if he only could, produce so much acid he would kill the mighty oaks he finds himself fretting ungenerously under.

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                • My suspicion: arrogant aristocratic leanings prevented him from seeing the writers as his equal socially, or in any other way.

                  I was reading William Hazlitt only yesterday, and in an essay titled “On the Feeling of Immortality in Youth”, devotes a copious footnote to such prejudices among the well-born.

                  “People of quality are not contented with carrying all the external advantages for their own share,but would persuade you that all the intellectual ones are packed up in the same bundle. Lord Byron was a later instance of this double and unwarrantable style of pretension…. He could not endure a lord who was not a wit, nor a poet who was not a lord. Nobody but himself answered to his own standard of perfection.”

                  Further along he mentions another noble writer, who “foretells a French or English revolution as the consequence of transferring the patronage of letters from the quality to the mob, and of supposing that ordinary writers or readers can have any notions in common with their superiors.”

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    • “‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ seems to be told by an adult recreating what she felt as a child. Of course, the movie reinforced that impression for me as it had a woman’s voiceover narrator. In reality, if Scout=Harper Lee then it really was an adult recreating her state of mind as a child, very convincingly.”

      Not quite the same conclusion, but seemingly similar: “It’s interesting that all the folks that are buying it don’t know they are buying a children’s book.” — Flannery O’Conner

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      • jhNY, I sort of see what Flannery O’Connor is saying — though perhaps “To Kill a Mockingbird” is more a YA novel (or whatever the term was when O’Connor made that quote) than a children’s book. Still, I see “TKAM” as also very much an adult novel. Nothing wrong with being both — some classics, such as “Gulliver’s Travels,” “Anne of Green Gables,” etc., etc. — can be greatly enjoyed on different levels by different age groups.

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        • ‘Tom Sawyer’ and ‘Huckleberry Finn’ were also marketed as children’s books. ‘Tom Sawyer’ could definitely fall into that category much more easily than ‘Huck Finn’, although, as I’ve mentioned before, there’s that chilling passage describing the death of Injun Joe trapped in that cave, with the stalacmites and stalactites evolving over many centuries past the demise of this pathetic, forgotten soul. This passage could fit easily in one of Twain’s later cynical writings.

          ‘Huck Finn’ is very convincingly told from the point of view of a boy of 13. Like some of Henry James’ clueless narrators, Huck often hasn’t completely processed much of what he sees although his childlike innocence reveals perhaps more innate wisdom than many jaded adult perspectives so maybe it’s not such a bad thing to be childlike.

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          • Gave it to a English prof I’ve known for decades, but I came upon a calling card inviting an aspiring young author to a meeting of the Authors’ Club on the occasion of an appearance there by Andrew Carnegie, signed by Brander Matthews, president. Matthews taught at Columbia, and still has a collection of dramatic arts materials named after him in the library.
            But what thrilled me was knowing that Matthews had been present, toward the end Melville’s life, when Melville visited the Authors’ Club, where he met and mingled among fellow practitioners for the first time in years, and probably for the last time too.

            A bit of research later, it turns out that Melville was invited to take part on the founding of the club in 1882, but chose not to. He visited once soon after, where he was described as “the shy and elusive Herman Melville” by Matthews. “Apparently he did not greatly care for our society… I believe he was never with us again… I recall that someone said to me ‘There’s Herman Melville! The name meant little to me then, and I gave him only a casual glance. All that I can now recover is a faded impression of an unobtrusive personality with a vague air of being somewhat out of place…” (from “Melville and His Circle: The Final Years” by Wm. Dillingham). Melville was suggested for honorary membership in 1890 in a letter between two members, but I saw no indication an invitation was formally made.

            I think there’s at least a fair chance James read some Melville, if only because among authors, New York authors at least, Melville was still at least a little remembered and probably at least a little read.

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            • If James did read Melville, he obviously didn’t impress enough for James to write about him. James did, however, greatly admire Melville’s friend Nathaniel Hawthorne. At least he wrote an essay on him. Actually, I think his Hawthorne essay may have been his first published work of literary criticism, if I recall correctly.

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          • “In that day the wolf and the lamb will live together; the leopard will lie down with the baby goat. The calf and the yearling will be safe with the lion, and a little child will lead them all.” Isaiah, 11:6

            I think the childlike point-of-view in both “Huckleberry Finn” and “To Kill A Mockingbird” speaks volumes about the moral comfort of the readership. We like to see ourselves as innocents, seeing through innocent eyes, especially when it comes to race– whatever the realities.

            As an authorial strategy: brilliant, and knowing, though in each case, I also believe the authors, on the deep topic, were a bit unknowing themselves. But only a bit.

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            • GREAT conversation, bobess48 and jhNY!

              Definitely agree that “Tom Sawyer” is more “YA” than “Huckleberry Finn,” and that the Injun Joe scene is quite “mature.”

              A child or child-like narrator can indeed be comforting, and put into sharp relief how disgusting (racist or otherwise) some adult behavior can be.

              Fascinating info about the Authors’ Club and Melville! One of the great injustices in literary history that Melville was little read and mostly unappreciated the last three decades or so of his life. And amazing that he wrote a novel as good as “Billy Budd” near the end of his life so long after writing his previous one. Posthumously published, of course.

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    • First-canine rather than first-person perspective — love it! Thank you, Almost Iowa!

      Rita Mae Brown has written a number of mysteries that include cat and dog detectives. Can’t quite remember if those animals go into first-person mode in parts of those books.

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  7. Howdy, Dave!

    — Your favorite novels told in the first person? —

    Besides a number of those already mentioned by either you or others among the DAOLiterati, Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita” comes to mind, most likely because of all the recent media reports about Pomaranczowa Panda’s favorite candidate in the U.S. Senate election to be conducted in Alabama next week.

    — The pros and cons of that approach compared to the omniscient narrator? —

    A master storyteller probably could make first-, second- or third-person narration work in almost any case, but the former appears uniquely well-suited to conveying a protagonist’s state of mind. For example, I cannot imagine Edgar Allan Poe employing any other approach in “The Tell-Tale Heart” that would have conveyed as effectively to the readers of this short story the very, very nervous condition of its main character.

    J.J. (Alias MugRuith1)

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    • “Lolita” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” — of course! Thank you, J.J., for mentioning those two GREAT examples of first-person works.

      Nabokov’s novel — which, as we’ve discussed, I have very mixed feelings about — is indeed timely in a way given repugnant Senate candidate Roy Moore’s perverse history. No surprise that Trump supports someone like that. 😦 😦

      That Poe story is amazing — so much tension and psychological fireworks in just a handful of pages.

      “A master storyteller probably could make first-, second- or third-person narration work in almost any case” — so true. Maybe even fourth- and fifth-person narration. 🙂

      Thanks for the video — will watch it in a few minutes!

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    • Thank you, Michele!

      You’re right — a REALLY effective/interesting/unusual first-person approach by Alice Sebold. Her novel would not have been quite as haunting and powerful if she used an omniscient narrator.

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  8. One of my favorite novels ever is “The Poisonwood Bible,” by Barbara Kingsolver, in which she alternates chapters by the women in Nathan Price’s family, his wife and four daughters, and as we’ve said before, her ability to give each of the five female characters their own unique voice was just masterful.

    There is also the case (no pun intended) of having almost all of Sherlock Holmes’ stories narrated by Dr. Watson, rather than first person, as it gives a unique perspective into the mind of Sherlock Holmes, but not too close, to lend an air of mystery about the great detective. Agatha Christie used this same technique somewhat, with having Hercule Poirot’s best friend and partner, Captain Hastings, narrate some of her Poirot novels starting with “The Mysterious Affair at Styles.” Of course, one of the most well-known of Christie’s novels is “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd,” which is probably loved and hated by many because of the use of narrator.

    I’m glad you mentioned Hazel Grace Lancaster in “The Fault in our Stars,” who is one of my favorite young characters to appear in a novel. John Green also used first person narrative for two other of his books, “Paper Towns” and “Looking for Alaska” for great effect as well. Another novel that affected me so much was “Sister,” by Rosamund Lupton, more than likely by having sisters myself, told in the first person and that felt so right, especially the last sentence of the book.

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    • Thank you, Kat Lib, for all that terrific discussion of first-person works!

      “The Poisonwood Bible” IS an incredible novel, and one of its many appeals is the way Barbara Kingsolver gives her five main women characters such distinctive voices, as you noted.

      Dr. Watson is a great example of an important but at least somewhat secondary first-person character who gives us a perspective on the main character(s). Also the case with Nelly Dean of “Wuthering Heights” and a couple of the novels (“Moby-Dick” and “The Great Gatsby”) I mentioned in my post.

      Hazel Grace Lancaster is indeed a wonderful character.

      “There is also the case (no pun intended)…” — ha! 🙂

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  9. One of my all time favorite books is To Kill a Mockingbird. Delores Claiborne, by Stephen King, was written in first person narrative, uncharacteristic of King for his novels. I remember sitting down to read this book, and hardly looking up until I finished it, the story was so engaging. And since no chapters, there were no built in spaces to stop and take a break.

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    • Thank you, Molly!

      “To Kill a Mockingbird” IS a fantastic novel. I haven’t read “Dolores Claiborne,” but I imagine Stephen King handled the first-person approach well, as he handles almost everything well as a writer. Nearly all of his novels are absolute page-turners.

      And no chapter breaks in “DC”? Talk about making things even more intense!

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  10. I have a real fondness for first person narratives due to my love of detective novels like the Dick Francis books, Parker’s Spenser series, and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series. Although detective novels don’t have to be in first person, I think it works especially well for that genre because of the limited view point, which heightens the suspense. But in general I enjoy first person narratives.

    One that’s gotten a lot of criticism but I think is actually quite effective is the narrative voice of the 50 Shades books, which are in first person present tense. A daring choice that works very well for those books–there’s a reason why they’re bestsellers.

    Another daring but very effective use of the first person present tense is in Eric Fair’s memoir Consequence, about how he ended up as one of those private contractor interrogators working black sites in Iraq. Using the first person present tense takes the reader along on his journey as one seemingly reasonable decision after another leads him into a situation wh

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      • Thank you, Elena!

        Yes, some detective-fiction authors do the first-person approach very effectively. You’re absolutely right that it’s an approach that works well for that genre, for the reason you mentioned.

        I should have thought of Sue Grafton’s “Alphabet Mystery” novels — 🙂 — because I read the first four of them during the past year and I enjoyed them a lot. Kinsey Millhone is a very engaging narrator — smart, accomplished, brave when she needs to be, yet often insecure.

        I’ve never read the “Fifty Shades of Grey” books, but it sounds like the first-person approach does increase the attraction for some readers.

        Memoir — whether told in the past or present tense — is of course first person by its very nature. When done well, it’s like reading a great novel!

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      • Elena, I agree with you completely about modern detective novels and how satisfying they are when told in the first person. I’ve enjoyed both Dick Francis and Robert Parker books, when written by the original author, and I did like Sue Grafton a lot, but I gave up on the series at the M or N book.

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        • I have to admit I also gave up on the Sue Grafton series at around M. I really enjoyed the books, but it’s hard to carry a series for that long, which I think is a weakness of the first-person detective stories–they can only be sustained for so long. Dick Francis got around that by using the same formula with different characters, although even that did get kind of tired after a while I thought, and his son’s books, while not terrible in my opinion, are not as good at creating that sense of intimacy and tension that Francis Sr was able to create with his use of the first person.

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          • I agree completely with you, Elena, in that books about certain characters can become tired and unstainable after many years. I loved the Dick Francis books while he was still alive, but as you say, he had different main characters in every book. I know I started to drift away from Parker’s Spenser novels, mainly because I couldn’t stand his female love, Susan. I mean really, is there another female character who was so beautiful, so well-dressed and perfect in every way? I began to find it nauseating.

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          • I’ve read only the first four of Sue Grafton’s series, but I was also starting to feel things were getting a bit repetitive by then. Definitely not easy to sustain a series for multiple books. There are also other ways to keep things potentially interesting — an occasional prequel, having the protagonist deal with aging, and so on.

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  11. The three novels that come to mind for me are “Lady” by Thomas Tryon, “The Lovely Bones” by Alice Sebold and “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon. Woody’s first person perspective in “Lady” reminds me so much of Scout’s first person perspective in “To Kill A Mockingbird”. I know you can’t consider “Lady” a classic like TKAM but it’s a great read. “The Lovely Bones” is narrated by the spirit of a dead girl so she’s aware of everything everybody does as the journeys into the “afterlife”. Finally, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time” is told from the perspective of a teenager with Asperger’s Syndrome.

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    • Thank you, Mary! Those are three excellent first-person examples!

      “Lady” — which you of course recommended to me several years ago 🙂 — is a very underrated novel by a very underrated writer. It’s great, and it does share a similarity with “To Kill a Mockingbird” in terms of a kid narrating, maturing, and trying to make sense of an adult world.

      “The Lovely Bones” is one of the most haunting novels a person could read. So well written by Alice Sebold.

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      • How well put, Dave! “A kid trying to make sense of an adult world.” I’m still trying to do that every day! The adult world we’re living in right now is like a nightmare! I simply can’t understand how all of these people continue to support the orange chameleon!

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        • Thank you! And well said! Great “I’m still trying to do that every day” line. Aren’t we all trying to make sense of the world — especially during this time of Trump and the Republicans in Congress who tolerate him as they ram through their cruel, inhumane agenda. So demoralizing. 😦

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  12. First person novels provide a sense of intimacy. We know the reader is sharing his/her soul, even when the narrator is utterly clueless and STILL doesn’t understand the full ramifications of what he has done. The best example of this ‘unreliable narrator’ is the unnamed ‘publishing scoundrel’ that tells Henry James’ brilliant novella, ‘The Aspern Papers’.

    Octavia Butler’s ‘Kindred’ benefited immensely from first person narration. The modern black woman of 1970’s Caliifornia is immediately thrust into the slave-holding Maryland of the early 19th century. ‘Culture shock’ is a tremendous understatement for what she undergoes. She is also the surrogate for the modern reader. We are seeing this world from the perspective of an intelligent woman of the late 20th century so we can pretty easily get into her head so the tale she tells is completely convincing because we feel that we too are shocked as we are immersed in this codified, ‘savage’ earlier civilization.

    I also like the device of multiple first person narration, which provides the best of both the first and third person worlds. We’re in the minds of several characters, enabling us to see the same events from various perspectives, presenting a broader canvas than we would see if the entire story was told by just one of those characters. The prime example of this is Faulkner’s ‘As I Lay Dying’, in which various characters alternate chapters of the novel. This structure, with each chapter given as the title the name of the character telling the story in that chapter i.e. Darl, Cash, Jewel, Dewey Dell, Tull, etc. ‘As I Lay Dying’ is the most straightforward of Faulkner’s first person narrative novels. ‘The Sound and the Fury’, while presented in just four sections, told by three brothers of the Compson family Benjy, Quentin, and Jason, with the fourth narrated in third person but told primarily through the point of view of the Compson’s ‘Mammy’ figure, Dilsey. Each subsequent section becomes just a bit more easily comprehensible, like a camera gradually being shifted into focus from completely blurry (Benjy) to relatively clear (Dilsey). Faulkner’s ‘Absalom! Absalom!’ is not even presented in clearly divided sections. We have layers upon layers of narrative from multiple characters.

    A contemporary novel that follows the ‘As I Lay Dying’ mode of narration is Hillary Jordan’s ‘Mudbound’, which tells the story of two families, one white and one black, on a farm in Mississippi, Faulkner country, right after the end of World War II. Jordan very convincingly depicts first person perspectives from black and white, male and female characters so that we understand even the more prejudiced of the white characters. The most virulent racist of the whites, the patriarchal Pappy, does not get his own chapters. We’re not going there in this novel.

    In the realm of epic fantasy, George R.R. Martin’s ‘Song of Ice and Fire’ novels are all told in these alternating chapters although we generally avoid going into the minds of the most vile of the villains. Martin’s characters are surprisingly multi-dimensional in a genre that generally may not lend itself to fully fleshed out characters. In Martin’s world they are all distinctively different from each other and not just because they have unique names and distinctive physical characteristics.

    With most first person narratives we feel like priests and the stories we’re reading are the confessionals of presumably truthful (although definitely not always) characters.

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    • Wow — impressive comment, bobess48! Thank you!

      “Octavia Butler’s ‘Kindred’ benefited immensely from first person narration” — I couldn’t agree more!

      And I’m glad you brought up multiple first-person narratives, which I also found worked well in “As I Lay Dying” when I read it for the first time relatively recently. But, as we’ve discussed several times, I just couldn’t get past the first two- or three-dozen pages of “The Sound and the Fury” despite two attempts; I realize it would probably be worth the effort if I did.

      I think it’s time I finally read “The Aspern Papers”!

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