Friday, August 19, 2011

Third-Person Limited Narrators

A well-known, widely read American novel, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, is an excellent example of today’s subject: third-person limited point-of-view. Nick Carraway, the narrator, knows little about the people with whom he interacts. He can only tell us what he is told by others, what he witnesses, and what he experiences.

Daisy Buchanan is a relative of Nick Carraway; her husband, Tom, a Yale classmate of Nick. Still, however friendly the three have been, no matter the number of times they have socialized, they remain distant, reserved. When the novel begins, Nick is unaware that Tom cheats on Daisy, that Tom is capable of striking a woman, or that Tom plays with a man’s hope for economic relief as easily as he plays a practice round of golf. Nick also does not know that Daisy was once courted by Jay Gatsby, the titular character, or that Gatsby attached himself to gangsters in order to acquire wealth sufficient to draw Daisy back to him. These facts unfold as the novel progresses, and we, the readers, learn them as Nick does. We bear witness to the choices and concessions that Nick’s new insights require him to make. We hope that he will not become jaded and unworthy, that he will stand for love and loyalty instead of becoming like the hideous Tom and Daisy.

The third-person limited POV, as suggested by the example of Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, pulls the reader in and along with the narrator. We discover and choose at the same time the narrator does.

But third person limited POV, like first person POV, also presents a narrator who may or may not be reliable. Films with great I-definitely-did-not-see-that-coming endings often tell their stories through the eyes of a third-person narrator with limited knowledge. Consider The Usual Suspects and The Sixth Sense.

In the first, Keyser Söse transforms himself and the truth, directing our attention to all the wrong interpretations so that he can get away with murder and money. In the second film, Dr. Malcolm Crowe has unfinished business that prevents him from seeing the truth about himself. We think we are participants in a ghost story, but until the final scene, we have no idea that the entire tale is being told by a ghost. The truth was unavailable to the narrator, the person whose eyes guide us, until the narrator finds the truth.

So readers and viewers should be wary of third-person limited narrators; they should remind themselves that they may not be getting the whole truth and nothin’ but the truth. This is part of the pleasure in reading such works and a legitimate choice for authors.

Reading Challenge:

Read The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway, any one or all of the Harry Potter books by J. K. Rowling, The Usual Suspects directed by Brian Singer, or The Sixth Sense directed by M. Night Shyamalan. These works will allow you to experience a third-person limited narrator.

Writing Challenge:

Using the first lines of Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby, rewrite them as if the narrator were omniscient, then again with a first-person POV.

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

He didn’t say any more, but we’ve always been unusually communicative in a reserved way, and I understood that he meant a great deal more than that. In consequence, I’m inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores. The abnormal mind is quick to detect and attach itself to this quality when it appears in a normal person, and so it came about that in college I was unjustly accused of being a politician, because I was privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men. Most of the confidences were unsought — frequently I have feigned sleep, preoccupation, or a hostile levity when I realized by some unmistakable sign that an intimate revelation was quivering on the horizon; for the intimate revelations of young men, or at least the terms in which they express them, are usually plagiaristic and marred by obvious suppressions. Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope. I am still a little afraid of missing something if I forget that, as my father snobbishly suggested, and I snobbishly repeat, a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth.

And, after boasting this way of my tolerance, I come to the admission that it has a limit. Conduct may be founded on the hard rock or the wet marshes, but after a certain point I don’t care what it’s founded on. When I came back from the East last autumn I felt that I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever; I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart. Only Gatsby, the man who gives his name to this book, was exempt from my reaction — Gatsby, who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn. If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away. This responsiveness had nothing to do with that flabby impressionability which is dignified under the name of the “creative temperament.”— it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again. No — Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM): A. M. or AM?

Once upon a time, periods followed the letters A, M, and P to designate abbreviations for ante meridiem(before midday) and post meridiem (after midday). Now the abbreviations are so common that we no longer think of them as representing something longer at all; we just think of them as designations for morning and evening.

In addition, in 1973, when the price of paper and ink followed higher oil prices into the mesosphere, printers and publishers looked for ways to economize by saving space. The old Oxford comma never died, but it faded from prominence as have the periods after the letters A, M, and P.

So you may boldly go to press without periods for AM and PM.