Thursday, August 15, 2013

Third-Person Narrators

First-person narrators, either one or several, and epistolary narratives have been the subject of the last three posts, but today, we turn attention to the most common point of view : third-person, someone with only limited knowledge or with omniscient powers to see and know all, even the minds, motives, and histories of the characters and places.

The Great Gatsby illustrates third-person limited narration.  Nick Carraway, the narrator, is new to Long Island, a recent college graduate, and a distant cousin of the Buchanans. He leases a home next door to Jay Gatsby’s nouveau riche palace, attends parties there, and becomes Gatsby’s confidante. From these vantage points as distant relative, party-goer, and confidante, Nick recounts the tale of Gatsby’s mystique, Tom’s callous disregard for the needs and feelings of others, and Daisy’s betrayal. But Nick does not know the minds or even the hearts of these people except as they show them through their actions; thus, Nick’s insights are limited, and he discovers the truth as we do. "Orchid"

The omniscient narrator, on the other hand, understands everything about everyone from the first page to the last. F. Scott Fitzgerald used such a narrator in a short story, “Winter Dreams,” one of my favorite Fitzgerald stories written while the author planned a third novel, The Great Gatsby (Bruccoli, Matthew J. "Winter Dreams." The Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald: A New Collection. New York: Scribner's, 1989. 217-36. Print.) According to the Bruccoli, Fitzgerald removed a section of the story and published it as part of Gatsby’s story (217). "Clouds and Rust"

Tell-tale signs of the omniscient narrator include the use of third-person pronouns such as he and she, him and her.  For example, as the story opens, we read:

…Dexter’s skis moved over the snow that hid the fairways of the golf course. At these times the country gave him a feeling of profound melancholy--it offended him that the links should lie in enforced fallowness, haunted by ragged sparrows for the long season (217).

Here, the narrator reveals another characteristic of the omniscient narrator: the ability to read the character’s mind. This narrator knows how the winter landscape affects Dexter Green; the narrator knows the exact emotions that Dexter experiences. 

Omniscient narrators also move back and forth in time as humans are unable to do. The narrator is aware of what will happen, what will matter. Although he does not necessarily share his prescience with readers, he remains able to organize events without relying exclusively upon chronology and to select significant people and events in order to advance the tale. Fitzgerald’s narrator does so with this brief statement:

As so frequently would be the case in the future, Dexter was unconsciously dictated to by his winter dreams (220).

Here the narrator underscores the story’s title and links it to the character as well as to his actions and motivations. Near the end of the story, the omniscient narrator’s talents to read minds and see the future are in evidence as the narrator informs us about Dexter Green’s losses and the fleeting nature of experience:

For the first time in years the tears were streaming down his face. But they were for himself now. He did not care about mouth and eyes and moving hands. He wanted to care, and he could not care. For he had gone away and he could never go back any more. The gates were closed, the sun was gone down, and there was no beauty but the gray beauty of steel that withstands all time. Even the grief he could have borne was left behind in the country of illusion, of youth, of the richness of life, where his winter dreams had flourished (236).

"Tree in Snow"

Reading Challenge:

Read “Winter Dreams” by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Writing Challenge:

From your own work, select a passage written in first person. Rewrite it using the third person, either limited or omniscient.