Why You Can't Speak: Second-Person Narration, Voice, and a New Model for Understanding Narrative

By DelConte, Matt | Style, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Why You Can't Speak: Second-Person Narration, Voice, and a New Model for Understanding Narrative


DelConte, Matt, Style


Exactly how does second-person narration relate to the more commonly employed and more frequently discussed modes of first- and third-person narrations? The very term second-person suggests a distinct and exclusive narrative category from both first- and third-person narrations. Yet even a cursory analysis of second-person narration exposes a very different relationship between it and the traditional modes of first- and third-person: we encounter an inevitable overlap of second-person with either first- or third-person because second-person is always also either first- or third-person. This overlap occurs because these modes are defined along different axes: whereas first- and third-person narrations (as well as Genette's categories of homo- and heterodiegesis) are defined along the axis of narrator, second-person narration is defined along the axis of narratee--more precisely, by the coincidence of narratee and protagonist. However, second-person narration deserves its own place in typologies of narration because of its particular rhetorical effects. This problem of categorization is actually a problem with reigning models of narration, which are based solely on the status of voice. (1) Second-person narration, which is defined not by who is speaking but by who is listening (the narratee), does not adequately fit into a model of narration that centers on voice or narrator. In the present essay, I use an analysis of second-person narration to expose the inadequacy of voice-based models of narration, and then I propose a new model that utilizes multiple variables of narrative transmission--namely, the relationships formed by the triad of narrator, protagonist, and narratee. Not only does this new model account for second-person narration, it also enhances our understanding of texts currently defined as first- and third-person (as well as homo- and heterodiegetic).

Before I go into detail of the problem, I want to suggest why this problem exists. Despite Booth's historically-dated claims in The Rhetoric of Fiction that "efforts to use the second person have never been very successful [... and that] it is astonishing how little real difference even this choice makes" (150n3), (2) second-person narration produces very distinctive rhetorical effects. Even with its limitations, Bruce Morrissette's early analysis of second-person ("Narrative 'You' in Contemporary Literature") distinguishes the potential effects of second-person from those available to first- and third-person:

   Far from constituting a technical "trick" (though it may denigrate
   into exactly that, as certain recent examples would indicate),
   narrative "you," although of comparatively late development, appears
   as a mode of curiously varied psychological resonances, capable,
   in the proper hands, of producing effects in the fictional field
   that are unobtainable by other modes of persons. (2)

Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City, for instance, uses second-person narration to underscore thematic concerns. McInerney's story of a man jaded from his job, failed marriage, and life in general uses the you address to its protagonist to emphasize an existence dictated from the outside, an appropriate and effective narrative mode considering the novel's critique of the consumer culture of the 1980s. At one point, the narrator (in voice) and protagonist (in focalization) recognize the extent to which the protagonist (and, more generally, all who inhabit this society) is a product of his culture: "[Y]ou are the stuff of which consumer profiles--the American Dream: Educated Middle-Class Model--are made. When you're staying at the Plaza with your beautiful wife, doesn't it make sense to order the best Scotch that money can buy before you go to the theatre in your private limousine?" (151, italics original). For inhabitants of the "educated middle-class," the experience of the 80s is one imposed from the outside, an ambiguous presence of media/culture prescribing your desires and expectations; the novel exposes that in the 80s free choice was illusory. …

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