Academic journal article Style

I Etcetera: On the Poetics and Ideology of Multipersoned Narratives

Academic journal article Style

I Etcetera: On the Poetics and Ideology of Multipersoned Narratives

Article excerpt

you have to say, It's I who am doing this to me, I who am talking about me to me. Then the breath fails, the end begins, you go silent, it's the end, short-lived, you begin again, you had forgotten, there's someone there, someone talking to you, about you, about him ... all I have to do is listen, then they depart, one by one, and the voice goes on, it's not theirs, they were never there, there was never anyone but you, talking to you about you, the breath fails (Beckett, The Unnamable 394)

One of the most significant omissions in contemporary narrative theory is the absence of sustained accounts of multiple narration. For the most part, narrative theory generally proceeds as if all novels were written entirely in the first person or third person, heterodiegetic or homodiegetic. One understands the desire for unambiguous foundations and paradigmatic examples, and naturally all theorists go on to identify more complex and ambiguous strategies of narration, but this situation leads to a conceptual framework in which the univocal practice is set forth as a (perhaps unintentional) norm while more heterodox experiments are consequently treated as secondary, peripheral, or even perverse literary gamesmanship. In this way, models of narrative ultimately derived from linguistics take precedence over Bakhtinian claims of the fundamentally polymorphous nature of the novel. Thus, while many typologies contain a space for both Bloom's subvocal speech and Molly's internal monologue, there is usually no place in such schemas for Ulysses as a whole as if the conjunction of different narrators and modes of narration were not itself of primary theoretical importance.(1) This gap is all the more unfortunate when one considers a work like The Sound and the Fury, in which the first-person "memory monologues," as Dorrit Cohn calls them (247-55), are starkly juxtaposed to the resolutely third-person segment that concludes the novel.

In what follows I will examine a number of different texts that employ multipersoned narration. Four major kinds of multipersoned texts may be identified at the outset: works that systematically oscillate between different narrative positions, those that collapse apparently different types of narration into a single voice, works whose narration remains fundamentally ambiguous, and texts that employ narrational stances that would be impossible in nonfictional discourse. Since many of the authors and critics of the works I will be discussing frequently invoke ideological reasons to explain their chosen narrative practice, a short excursus on the politics of narrative person will also be set forth. Throughout, I will pay particular attention to texts which employ second-person narration. It is no exaggeration to state that the emergence of second-person narration is precisely what makes speculation on multipersoned fiction inevitable. In a frequently quoted aside, Wayne Booth remarked in 1961 that perhaps the most overworked distinction in the theory of fiction is that of person (150). I believe we will find instead that person remains one of the most undertheorized distinctions in the field.

Alternating narration between different grammatical persons is not an exclusively modern phenomenon. As Stanzel has pointed out, Thackeray's narrator employs both "I" and "he" to describe his life in Henry Esmond. In Bleak House, an omniscient third-person narrative is juxtaposed to the first-person account of one of the characters. Stanzel explains that the "two narrative situations represent two different perspectives, namely, the panoramic one of the authorial narrator who is critical of the times and the naive but sympathetic viewpoint of the first-person narrator, Esther Summerson, circumscribed by her domestic horizons" (71). Even in this description, it might be noted, we get a sense of the ideological valences present in such a gendered division of knowledge and narration. As Susan Sniader Lanser points out, by "replicating the ideology of separate spheres," Bleak House sets "the omniscient and implicitly male voice of the authorial narrator next to the personal voice of the female character Esther Summerson without acknowledging this duality" (239-40). …

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