Thinking about who is telling the story in a novel, and what he or she might be leaving out, is crucial to understanding that novel. Learn about the various types of points of view in American novels, as well as a few specific, noteworthy narrators, in this lesson.
Role of the Narrator in American Novels
You may be familiar with the concepts of narration and narrators if you've ever had to write a narrative essay in which you talk about your own personal experiences. Simply stated, a narrator is the person who tells a story. When we read a novel, it's the narrator's point of view, or perspective, from which we see the events of the story - it's the narrator's perspective of the events that's our window into the story as readers.
This may seem pretty straightforward and even, perhaps, not particularly important. But when you think about the fact that just like in real life the person who tells us a tale may not know the full story or may not be completely trustworthy, it becomes clear that understanding the role played by a narrator in a novel can add an entirely new dimension of intrigue.
Point of View
You may have heard of the terms first person, second person, and third person when discussing points of view. The term first person applies to a story told from the 'I' point of view; the narrator him or herself is typically part of the story and relates events from his or her perspective in this type of novel.
An example of a first person narrator in an American novel is the narrator in Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. Notably, the reader is never told the name of the narrator in this novel; the lack of a name for our protagonist underscores Ellison's point about the loss of identity for African Americans in society. Not to be confused with H.G. Wells' sci-fi classic The Invisible Man, Ellison's Invisible Man involves a symbolic, rather than literal, invisibility.
Our narrator famously explains in the prologue to the novel, '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. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids - and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.'
Ellison's use of first person narration in Invisible Man very importantly allows us to see the events of the novel from the point of view of our protagonist, to understand intimately why he has literally been driven underground, and beyond that, to see how the actions of others in society directly affect his thinking and identity.
We don't tend to see many novels written from the second person perspective; that would entail telling a story from the 'you' point of view, as though you are a character in the story. It would be pretty awkward for an entire novel to be presented from this perspective (think of those Choose Your Own Adventure children's books, which address the reader directly as 'you,' when you think about second person).
Many American novels are told from the third person point of view, which means that the narrator is external to and apart from the actions of the story. The reader receives something of an outsider's perspective in this type of novel. One type of third person narrator is third person omniscient, in which the narrator is all-knowing and able to tell us about the actions and inner thoughts of all of the characters.
Remember that with this type of narration, there are no real limits on what the storyteller knows or what the reader can be told about. For example, in Joseph Heller's novel Catch-22, the reader is told that, 'After he made up his mind to spend the rest of the war in the hospital, Yossarian wrote letters to everyone he knew, saying that he was in the hospital but never mentioning why.'
Here, the audience is offered a look into both the internal thoughts and the actions of our protagonist, Yossarian. But we're also provided with the inner workings of other characters as well. We're told of another patient, 'The Texan turned out to be good-natured, generous and likable. In three days no one could stand him. He sent shudders of annoyance scampering up ticklish spines, and everybody fled from him…' The omniscient third person narrator in Catch-22 gives the reader glimpses of what a variety of characters are thinking, feeling, and doing. We're not limited to what one person thinks and observes.
The other type of third person narrator does involve that type of limitation - it's called the third person limited narrator. With this type of narration, the narrator shares only one character's thoughts and doesn't discuss the actions of other characters when they're not interacting with that one character. This type of narrator, as the name indicates, is limited in his or her perspective, somewhat like a first person narrator would be.
Multiple and Unreliable Narrators
Sometimes the identity or role of the narrator is crucial to the meaning of the novel itself. Take the example of The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner. That novel is famous for being written from four different points of view.
The book, which tells the story of the decline of the Compson family in Mississippi, is literally divided into four sections; the first three of which are told from the first person 'I' point of view by three different characters. Those first three sections are told from the first-person perspectives of brothers Benjy Compson (who is mentally challenged), Quentin Compson and Jason Compson, respectively, and the last section is told by a third-person narrator, though the focus is on the Compson family's servant, Dilsey.
Through the various perspectives offered in the novel, the reader can piece together the story of the Compson family. One notable aspect of this classic is that the perspective of the fourth Compson sibling, Caddy, isn't presented, even though many of the novel's plot points revolve around her. We're left instead with only others' perspectives of her as a kind of silent center of the novel.
In addition to offering readers varied, sometimes conflicting perspectives on a story, authors sometimes also present their audiences with storytellers who may not be entirely trustworthy. An unreliable narrator is one who may or may not be telling the reader the truth or the whole story. Often, the reader realizes gradually when reading a novel that he is dealing with an unreliable narrator. One example of a somewhat unreliable narrator from an American novel is Nick Carraway in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.
Nick, who goes on to befriend the extravagant but troubled Jay Gatsby, clues the reader in early on that his own ideas and status may cloud his view of others and, therefore, his interpretation of events. The wealthy Nick, who tells the story in the novel from the first person point of view, explains, on the subject of his attempts not to be quick to judge others, that 'Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope. I am still a little afraid of missing something if I forget that, as my father snobbishly suggested, and I snobbishly repeat, a sense of fundamental decencies is parceled out unequally at birth.'
The reader gets hints throughout the novel that the snobbish nature that Nick references at the start of his tale may in fact be influencing how he describes the other characters that he encounters. While we may not have a splashy reveal in The Great Gatsby that the narrator has been lying to us in a dramatic way, the audience is reminded by Nick's characterizations that everything we're seeing is very much colored by how he regards others.
We really should think of a narrator as more than just the person who tells a story in a novel. It is true that it's useful to identify the point of view, or perspective from which the story is told, whether it's from the first person, 'I,' point of view or the third person point of view. Remember that third-person perspectives can be omniscient, or all-knowing, or limited, in that they don't see beyond the thoughts or actions of one particular character. The second person, 'you,' point of view is rarely used in novels.
While you'll want to identify the point of view from which a novel is being told, you should do so to do more than just check off a box. Consider how the story is shaped given who's telling it. For example, if a novel has multiple narrators, what does the story gain from being told from multiple perspectives? Which characters were given a chance to share their points of view, and which ones weren't? Consider how that illuminates the story being told.
The outcomes of this lesson should include your ability to:
- Explain who the narrator is
- Demonstrate the different points of view
- Recognize how the identity of the narrator impacts the story
- Discuss multiple and unreliable narrators