Monday, April 12, 2010

Third-First Narrative Style: Addendum

Herewith an e-mail exchange concerning an earlier post on this subject (which is here):

I am wondering if the story I read last night is, as I suspect, in what you call the Third-First narrative style? The story is called America First by Louis Auchincloss and appears in the newest edition of the American Conservative. I can not recommend the story, but just read the first paragraphs. Tell me, is this an example of that third-first style? —Monique

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The answer is Yes. There is a technical distinction between what is known as Third Person view point and what I call Third-First narrative. They are often difficult to distinguish. It is Third-First if you can easily change the case from third to first person narrative. For example, here is the first paragraph of America First shifted to first person:

Time had been heavy on my hands ever since I’d abandoned my lovely pink house on the Avenue Foch and scuttled back to New York before the Nazi hordes. I used the word “scuttle” only to myself, for only I was obliged to admit its appropriateness. I could never quite overcome the feeling that I should have stayed on and joined the resistance, though the resistance of a septuagenarian American widow would hardly have saved my beloved France. But wasn’t there always an element of scuttling in any self-removal in the face of danger, particularly when so many brave friends were left behind? I hardly relished seeing the Rolls-Royce of the Windsor’s on the road before me; it was hateful to be identified with the international trash rushing to safer harbors to pursue their dolce far niente. Privilege in defeat makes for unlovable bedfellows.

I have only changed the case here. Otherwise not a word is out of place. Everything we learn, and I mean everything, is coming from the thought of the character. Now this story is well told, hence it doesn’t have too bad a sound; but in the hands of many people, particularly where loose, disconnected interjections are strewn into the paragraphs, it gets bloody tedious or, more to the point, artificial. When the “I” says things like that, it is Okay. The “I” signals intentionality, so we accept it without a murmur.

Here is another opening paragraph from Donna Leon’s Through a Glass Darkly:

Brunetti stood at his window and flirted with springtime. It was there, just on the other side of the canal, evident in the shoots he saw popping up from the earth. Over the last few days, someone—in all these years, he had never seen a person working in the garden—had raked the earth, though he noticed it only now. Tiny white flowers were visible amidst the grass, and those fearless little ones that hugged themselves close to the ground, the names of which he could never remember—the little yellow and pink ones—sprouted from the freshly turned earth.

Here, too, you can simply switch the whole thing to first person and never lose a beat. So what’s the point of using the third person? The story is told by the character, so why not let him or her tell it straight?

Now I turn to the—for me—superior Third Person point of view used by an “omniscient” story teller. The first is from Dorothy Sayers’ Have his Carcase:

The best remedy for a bruised heart is not, as so many people seem to think, repose upon a manly bosom. Much more efficacious are honest work, physical activity, and the sudden acquisition of wealth. After being acquitted of murdering her lover, and, indeed, in consequence of that acquittal, Harriet Vane found all three specifics abundantly at her disposal; and although Lord Peter Wimsey, with a touching faith in tradition, persisted day in and day out in presenting the bosom for her approval, she showed no inclination to recline upon it.

Here we have the subtle but clear sound of a storytelling voice—and it is not, repeat not, Harriet Vane’s. This story may be about her experiences, but seen at a slight remove. We can see into her mind—as later we shall also see into Peter Wimsey’s, and indeed occasionally in the same chapter—and it will all sound just fine, quite smooth, because we are in the hands of a narrator. There is also the subtle feeling that we are distant, observing, and seeing the person—if, to be sure, much more intimately than is possible in real life. We may want to identify—we may do so spontaneously—but we’re not compelled to do so by the narrative style.

The last example is the leading paragraph of Paul Scott's magnificent The Raj Quartet, Part One, titled Miss Crane:

Imagine, then, a flat landscape, dark for the moment, but even so conveying to a girl running in the still deeper shadow cast by the wall of the Bibihar Gardens an idea of immensity, of distance, such as years before Miss Crane had been conscious of standing where a lane ended and cultivation began: a different landscape but also in the alluvial plain between the mountains of the north and the plateau of the south.


  1. The Raj Quartet continues to inebriate with only a dram of prose.

  2. The fitting epigram is the crown of comment.