Episode 306: January 12, 2012
Today’s topic is grammatical person (as in first person, second person, and third person) because I just finished reading a book called The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, which uses all three types of grammatical person, which is very unusual to find in one book.
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What Is Grammatical Person?
I talked about first, second, and third person in episode 259, but before we get to the interesting stuff, let’s quickly make sure everyone is on the same page about grammatical person.
Grammatical person is about who is telling the story, who the story is directed to, and who the story refers to. Grammatical person determines which pronouns you use.
When writers are using the first person, they use the pronouns “I,” “my,” and “we,”and “our.” You’re being told the story by one person, and you’re in that person’s mind. For example, The Hunger Games uses first person. Katniss is narrating, and here’s the first line of the book:
When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress.
The Adventures of HuckleBerry Finn was also written using the first person. Huck is the narrator. Here’s an example:
Tom Sawyer he hunted me up and said he was going to start a band of robbers, and I might join if I would go back to the widow and be respectable.
When writers are using the second person, they use the pronouns “you” and “your.” Second person is the kind of voice that talks directly to you, the reader, and it’s more common in nonfiction than in fiction.
Finally, when writers are using the third person, they use the pronouns “he,” “she,” “it,” and “they.” In the third person, a narrator tells you what different people are doing or what is happening in different people’s thoughts. Third person is the most common approach used in fiction because it makes it easy for readers to follow a story with lots of characters. The Harry Potter books were written in third person. Here’s an example:
Perhaps it had something to do with living in a dark cupboard, but Harry had always been small and skinny for his age. He looked even smaller and skinnier than he really was because all he had to wear were old clothes of Dudley's, and Dudley was about four times bigger than he was.
First, Second, AND Third Person in One Book
So now let’s get to The Night Circus. Aside from the story, what made this book so interesting to me was that it used all three types of grammatical person--first, second, and third. The main part of the story uses third person, but it has a few quotations at the beginning of sections that are presented as first person quotations from one of the characters in the book who writes about the circus. For example, here’s part of the quotation that begins the last part of the book:
I find I think of myself not as a writer so much as someone who provides a gateway, a tangential route for readers to reach the circus.
Standard Second Person: Part of the Story
Morgenstern invokes the second person very early, on page two in my edition, and that’s when I knew I was in for something interesting. The idea is to pull you into the story, to make you feel as if you are visiting the circus. Here’s the first instance:
“What kind of circus is only open at night?” people ask. No one has a proper answer, yet as dusk approaches there is a substantial crowd of spectators gathering outside the gates.
You are amongst them, of course. Your curiosity got the better of you, as curiosity is wont to do. You stand in the fading light, the scarf around your neck pulled up against the chilly evening breeze, waiting to see for yourself exactly what kind of circus only opens once the sun sets.
Those types of short, second person passages are pretty evenly distributed through the book, always at the beginning of a chapter or section.
Second person is rare in fiction. One other commonly cited example is the novel Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney, and his narrative is a lot like the second person sections from The Night Circus. For example, in this passage the author is asking the readers to imagine themselves in the scene:
At the subway station you wait fifteen minutes on the platform for a train. Finally, a local, enervated by graffiti, shuffles into the station.You get a seat and hoist a copy of the New York Post.
Brian Richardson, the author of a book titled Unnatural Voices: Extreme narration in modern and contemporary fiction, calls this kind of approach “standard second person.”
Hypothetical Second Person: The “How To” Form
Second person can be used for other effects too. Richardson describes a style called the “hypothetical second person,” in which the author adopts a tone similar to a “how to” manual, using a lot of commands and instructions. Here’s an example from John Updike’s short story “How to Love America and Leave It at the Same Time”:
Wait until the kids get bored with yelling and splashing. Then, beside the pool, soak in the sun. Listen to the town. You have never heard of the town before: this is important. Otherwise, there are expectations and a plan.
Autotelic Second Person: Breaking the Fourth Wall
A different way of using the second person is when the author addresses the reader directly, breaking the fourth wall--what writers call the boundary between the characters and the reader.
The phrase “the fourth wall” refers to the imaginary wall that exists on a stage between the actors and the audience. These kinds of passages in fiction remind me of movies and TV shows in which an actor will suddenly face the camera and talk to the viewer. In the ‘80s, Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd did it in the popular TV series Moonlighting, and Matthew Broderick did it as Ferris Bueller in the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. An example from fiction comes from chapter 11 in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, which begins
A new chapter in a novel is something like a new scene in a play; and when I draw up the curtain this time, reader, you must fancy you see a room in the George Inn at Millcote...
Although the example from Jane Eyre is using first person ("when I draw up the curtain"), it's also using second person because the author uses "you" to address the readers when she breaks the fourth wall. Richardson calls this final kind of second person the “autotelic form.”
So now you know about first, second, and third person, and you can think a bit more about the different kinds of second person when you're reading or watching TV.