There are a variety of ways to narrate a story, but essentially they can be broken down into two main groups: first person narrative, and third person narrative.
In the use of the first person narrator, the story is told through the eyes of the ‘I’ narrator. The first person narrator can only relate incidents that he or she has witnessed, and only he or she can interpreted the situation, therefore in this respect the first person narrative is limited.
We must remember that a first person narrator in a novel is not the novelist but a character who sees things only in the light of his or her own point of view and coloured by his or her personality, therefore events are biased to the narrator’s opinion.
This of course can be used to effect in books where the first person narrator is unreliable and therefore we are forced to see a false picture of events. For example in ‘The Beach’ by Alex Garland, events are told by Richard, a backpacker in Bangkok. In the extract I have chosen, Richard recounts an encounter with ‘Mister Duck’, who, at the beginning of he book, commits suicide. In the extract below, it is only the second time that Richard ‘meets’ ‘Mister Duck’, the first being when Richard was feverish. Therefore we can easily presume that Richard was hallucinating when he first ‘met’ ‘Mister Duck’ but in this extract, it is hard to tell, from the way Richard narrates it, that ‘Mister Duck’ is imaginary:
Mister Duck sat in his room on the Khao San Road. He’d pulled back one of the newspapers that covered the window and was peering down to the street. Behind him, strewn across his bed, were coloured pencils, obviously the ones he’d used to draw the map. The map was nowhere in sight so maybe he’d already tacked it to my door.
I saw that his shoulders were shaking.
‘Mister Duck?’ I said cautiously.
He turned, scanned the room with a puzzled frown and, then spotted me through the strip of mosquito netting.
Of course, through first person narrative, we develop a more intimate relationship with the narrator because we have their character and way of thinking forced upon us, which in cases can make you sympathise more with this character, as you know their private emotions that they would not show openly. For example in ‘The Remains of the Day’ the use of the first person narrator creates suspense and mystery over the intense relationship between Stevens and Miss Kenton. Also in this extract, we feel Steven’s character imposed on the story as his unquestioning faith and dedication to his job cost him dearly his personal life. And finally Stevens unwavering sense of duty and reserve at all times leading him to deny his emotions eventually drive away the woman he loved. As demonstrated in the extract I have chosen:
As I was bolting the door, I noticed Miss Kenton waiting for me, and said:
‘I trust you had a pleasant evening, Miss Kenton.’
She made no reply, so I said again, as we were making our way across the darkened expanse of the kitchen floor; ‘I trust you had a pleasant evening, Miss Kenton.’
‘I did, thank you, Mr Stevens.’
‘I’m pleased to hear that.’
Behind me, Miss Kenton’s footsteps came to a sudden stop and I heard her say:
‘Are you not in the least interested in what took place tonight between my acquaintance and I Mr Stevens?’
‘I do not mean to be rude, Miss Kenton, But I really must return upstairs without further delay. The fact is, events of a global significance are taking place in this house at this very moment.’
‘When are they not, Mr Stevens? Very well, if you must be rushing off, I shall just tell you that I accepted my acquaintance’s proposal.’
‘I beg your pardon, Miss Kenton?’
‘His proposal of marriage.’
‘Ah, is that so, Miss Kenton? Then may I offer you my congratulations.’
‘Thank you, Mr Stevens. Of course, I’ll be happy to serve out my notice. However, should it be that you are able to release me earlier, we would be very grateful. My acquaintance begins his new job in the West Country in two weeks’ time.’
‘I will do my best to secure a replacement at the earliest opportunity, Miss Kenton. Now if you will excuse me, I must return upstairs.’
I started to walk away again, but then when I had all but reached the doors out to the corridor, I heard Miss Kenton say: ‘Mr Stevens,’ and thus turned once more. She had not moved, and consequently she was obliged to raise her voice slightly in addressing me, so that it resonated rather oddly in the cavernous spaces of the dark and empty kitchen.
‘Am I to take it’ she said, ‘that after the many years of service I have given in this house, you have no more words to greet the news of my possible departure than those you have just uttered?’
‘Miss Kenton, you have my warmest congratulations. But I repeat, there are matters of global significance taking place upstairs and I must return to my post.’ Pages 218-219
In this extract we are frustrated by Stevens reserve and lack of emotion, and without the story being told form his side we might have felt Stevens to be cold hearted and distance and therefore dislike him. But in fact we pity his actions and feel moved.
An autobiographical persona such as Pip in Dickens ‘Great Expectations’, are not to be taken as complete or even accurate portraits of their authors – they are often no more than studies in self criticism:
I was quite as dejected on the first working-day of my apprenticeship as in that after-time; but I am glad to know that I never breathed a murmur to Joe while my indentures lasted. It is about the only thing I am glad to know of myself in that connexion.
For, though it includes what I proceed to add, all the merit of what I proceed to add was Joe’s. It was not because I was faithful, but because Joe was faithful, that I never ran away and went for a soldier or a sailor. It was not because I had a strong sense of the virtue of industry, but because Joe had a strong sense of the virtue of industry, that I worked with tolerable zeal against the grain. It is not possible to know how far the influence of any amiable honest-hearted duty-going man flies out into the world; but it is very possible to know how it has touched one’s self in going by, and I know right well that any good that intermixed itself with my apprenticeship came of plain contented Joe, and not of restless aspiring discontented me.
In the same way the innumerable portraits by artists of their friends, enemies or acquaintances are notoriously one sided, exaggerated and even on occasion, libellous.
In a first person narrative, the use of interior monologue can be used where the reader is allowed inside the mind of the narrator and so we can hear their inner thought. For example in Ernest Hemingway’s ‘A farewell to Arms’, when Henry hears that his wife is gravely ill we receive an interior monologue:
The nurse went into the room and shut the door. I sat outside in the hall. Everything was gone inside of me. I did not think. I could not think. I knew she was going to die and I prayed that she would not. Don’t let her die. Oh, God, please don’t let her die. I’ll do anything for you if you won’t let her die Please, please, please dear God, don’t let her die. Dear God, don’t let her die. Pleas, please, please don’t let her die, God, please make her not die. I’ll do anything you say if you don’t let her die. You took the baby but don’t let her die – that was all right but don’t let her die. Please, please, dear God, don’t let her die.
Here we feel that the character is deeply involved in his surroundings and what is happening, the events he is recounting are extremely emotional and moving, but this is not always the case. In ‘Nausea’ by Jean-Paul Satre, it is the story of an observer of life in a small cafï¿½, and here the narrator is totally withdrawn from his surrounding, as though watching it on television. The narrator is distanced from events and the book is almost like a third person narrative in the sense that he is telling the story of the lives of those sitting around him, but of course true to first person narration he is interpreting the situation into how he sees it:
It is half past one. I am at the Cafï¿½ Mably, eating a sandwich, and everything is more or less normal. In any case, everything is always normal in cafï¿½s and especially in Cafï¿½ Mably, because of the manager, Monsieur Fasquelle, who has a vulgar expression in his eyes which is very straightforward and reassuring. It will soon be time for his afternoon nap and his eyes are already pink, but his manner is still lively and decisive. He is walking among the tables and speaking confidentially to all the customers:
‘Is everything all right, Monsieur?’
I smile at seeing him so lively: when his establishment empties, his head empties too. Between two and four the cafï¿½ is deserted, and then Monsieur Fasquelle takes a few dazed steps, the waiter turn out the lights, and he slips into unconsciousness: when this man is alone, he falls asleep.
The second type of narrative is third person narration. The narrator is omniscient, that is, able to move between characters, situations, and locations at any point, and granted full access to characters’ thoughts, feelings, and motivation. This is the advantage that third person narration has over first person, yet a sense of intimacy with the characters is harder to achieve. Some narrators might comment on the events taking place in the novel as they unfold, and even interpose their own views; the Victorian novelists such as Charles Dickens were adept at this manner of intervention, for example in ‘A Christmas Carol’, Dickens talks directly to the reader to convey his thoughts and ideas:
Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change for anything he chose to put his hand to’.
Old Marley was dead as a door-nail.
Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of out ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.
Alternatively, the author might limit the narrator’s overt presence, and recount the narrative’s events as directly as possible. A third-person narrator might have a limited point of view, confined to only one or a few characters, as in much of Emily Brontï¿½’s ‘Wuthering Heights’, where the author is wholly absent and uses the characters to tell the story. Therefore she never directly interrupts the story to make a direct comment or moral judgement on the action of the characters.
We notice that Emily Brontï¿½ in ‘Wuthering Heights’ uses narrators that are involved in the proceedings and therefore these people try to inflict their point of view on the reader. In this case it is to emphasise the point that the relationship between Heathcliff and Cathy is unique and not something that Nelly, or Lockwood (Wuthering Height’s two main narrators) will never fully comprehend as only Heathcliff and Cathy can explain their love for each other.
She rung the bell till it broke with a twang: I entered leisurely. It was enough to try the temper of a saint, such senseless, wicked rages! There she lay dashing her head against the arm of the sofa, and grinding her teeth, so that you might fancy she would crash them to splinters!
Mr Linton stood looking at her in sudden compunction and fear. He told me to fetch some water. She had no breath for speaking.
I brought a glass full; and, as she would not drink, I sprinkled it on her face. In a few seconds she stretched herself out stiff, and turned up her eyes, while her cheeks, at once blanched and livid, assumed the aspect of death.
Linton looked terrified.
‘There is nothing in the world the matter,’ I whispered. I did not want him to yield, though I could not help being afraid in my heart.
‘She has blood on her lips!’ he said, shuddering.
‘Never mind!’ I answered tartly. And I told him how she had resolved previous to his coming, on exhibiting a fit of frenzy.
In some cases the events of the story are told through an impersonal narrative. This impersonal narrator then relates the story through the senses of different character, presenting the reader with a more rounded picture. For example in ‘The Tesseract’ by Alex Garland, the story is told from many points of view, quickly changing between one character’s perspective to another, each time the story being told from that characters sense and feeling. In the extract below we witness the situation from three of the character point of view
The telephone made for an indifferent witness. But Sean’s reflection in the bathroom mirror, making contact as he turned away from the vent, was less detached. Even under pressure, the sight was arresting.
His face seemed to be in a state of flux. Unable to resolve itself, like a cheap hologram or a bucket of snakes, the lips drew back while the jaw relaxed, the stare softened while the frown hardened. Fear, Sean thought distantly. Rare that one got to see what it actually looked like. Other people’s, sure, but not your own. Intrigued, he leaned close to the mirror, ignoring the footsteps that were already working their way up the stairs.
‘Aaaah, we’re going to be late,’ said Don Pepe, breaking the tense silence of the last five minutes.
Jojo nodded and nervously pushed his thumbs into the padding around the steering wheel. ‘Yes, sir, we are. I’m sorry.’
Jojo paused a moment before saying ‘Yes, sir’ again. He was leaving time for Teroy to add his own apology. After all, he’d been the one who had suggested Hotel Patay in the first place. But Teroy, sitting in the passenger seat, wasn’t saying a word. No sense diverting Don Pepe’s irritation on to him, when he could keep his head down and his mouth shut and let Jojo take all the abuse. Fair enough. Jojo would have been doing the same if their roles had been reversed.
The narrator is very important in a story as the narrator is responsible for the way a story is conveyed to its reader, or its point of view. The variety of ways that the author can manipulate the narrator and his or her point of view in order to gain maximum control over the work as a whole is often the essence of whether the reader gained the desired effect set by the author.