more on first person narratives

some interesting suggested reading came up (thanks, Sillybean) in the comments to yesterday’s post, and I began to think more about first person narrative. So I went and looked on my bookshelves and found a few first person novels that are (in my estimation) well written and good enough to re-read (which is my ultimate test).

Here they are: To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee),
Sophie’s Choice (William Styron),
Ethan Frome (Edith Wharton),
Animal Dreams (Barbara Kingsolver), Rebecca (Daphne du Maurier).

John Mullen wrote a thoughtful essay on first person narration for the Guardian as part of a larger analysis of Donna Tartt’s Secret History. That novel didn’t make it onto my list, because I have no urge to ever re-read it.

“The choice of a first-person narrator must have seemed natural for a novel whose central character helps commit a murder. From Moll Flanders to Lolita, the first-person narrative, where the voice of the novel belongs to one of its leading characters, has been the means of drawing a reader into disturbing sympathy with that character’s misdeeds. Confession has long been a form in which fiction is cast.”

This is interesting, but it doesn’t quite work for me. The classicly extreme unreliable narrator (which really is what Mullen is talking about here) has never held much attraction for me, though I admire the skill that can pull something like this off. It’s just that I don’t come across it very often.