The divergent significance of the first and third person narrative perspectives is evident within a multitude of American literary works. The two works that will be used as an example of how these points-of-view have demonstrated each of their unique traits are An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge and The Jilting of Granny Weatherall.
Third person seems to correspond very well with An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. Similarly, first person perspective seems to have great correspondence with The Jilting of Granny Weatherall. Why might this be? Can the two perspectives be interchanged without any difference becoming apparent in each literary work? The answer is a definite no. The third and first person narrative are quite far from having any sort of connection. However, this does not take away, but contribute to the unique nature that sets these two points-of-view apart. Therefore, we can infer that the two literary works mentioned would in all likelihood not have the same effect on the reader if the original perspectives were to be interchanged. This ultimately brings us to the question, what would happen if these two works interchanged their perspectives?
First person is a perspective that is noticeably used with less frequently (Harper 1). Basically, the first person narrative perspective puts you in the mind of one narrator/character, who refers to them self using the words “I” or “ We”. This is possibly because this point-of-view forfeits omniscience and omnipresence in order to obtain a greater intimacy with one character. It is the “I” story and provides the ultimate reading experience in being submerged in the mind of the protagonist (Harper 1). According to Crawford Kilian, first person is usually subjective and allows us to learn of the narrator’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions to events. However, in first-person objective, the narrator will only let readers know what people said and did without any comments (Kilian 1). First person has a way of forcing writers to contrive trite and unbelievable situations so that the character overhears, sees, or somehow finds out about things that they want the readers to know. One might ponder why first person narration might impose such a pervasive requirement (Harper 1). Simple. This is because the main character in the “I” form cannot enter the minds of the surrounding characters in the story (Harper 1). Obviously, first person forbids the protagonist from hearing or seeing anything that the antagonist is doing unless they are there to witness the antagonist themselves (Harper 1) . This sets limitations on the way the antagonist and the other characters’ motivations are unfolded and impedes the development of the very plot itself (Harper 1). First person will not bring about the elimination of the other characters, it just means that the writer somehow must develop them all. This must be done with profundity, realism, and through the eyes of a single viewpoint (Harper 1). Of course, this is going to be more difficult. First person also is presented with the choice of making the narrator the principle character or the one who is a close observer of the principle character in the story. First person also has the tendency to intertwine with stream of consciousness writing.
As previously mentioned, The Jilting of Granny Weatherall is a work that uses first person. However, this work also implements the use of stream of consciousness writing. This literary technique attempts to provide a textual equivalent to the stream of a fictional character’s consciousness (John Mepham). It gives off the impression that the reader is eavesdropping on the flow of conscious experience in the character’s mind, achieving access to their private “thoughts” (Mepham 1). Something that is neither verbal nor textual must be presented in the form of written text when stream of consciousness writing is at hand (Mepham 1). Stream of consciousness writing comes in a range of stylistic forms, the most important ones being narrated stream of consciousness and quoted stream of consciousness (Mepham 1). Narrated stream of consciousness is frequently composed of a compilation of various sentence types such as psycho-narration and free-indirect (Mepham 1). Quoted stream of consciousness is the undeviating quotation of a character’s silent speech, though no speech is used (Mepham 1). This form is also constantly mistaken as a synonym for stream of consciousness writing (Mepham 1). This brings us to the appointed question: How are first person and stream of consciousness writing so fitting and relevant? In this story, the principle character is someone that is very close to granny Weatherall or more likely granny herself. Stream of consciousness writing was the building block upon which this story’s plot developed. In Katherine Ann Porter’s The Jilting of Granny Weatherall, Granny Weatherall’s mind was used to reflect and construct her bodily actions and served as an example of how the mind ultimately has control over the body. The Jilting of Granny Weatherall contains both of the most important forms of stream of consciousness writing. This quote serves as an example of quoted stream of consciousness/ interior monologue:
She flicked her wrist neatly out of Doctor’s Harry’s pudgy careful fingers and pulled the sheet up to her chin. The brat ought to be in knee breeches. Doctoring around the country with spectacles on the nose! “Get along now, take your schoolbooks and go. There’s nothing wrong with me.”
(The Jilting of Granny Weatherall, 2003)
Interior monologue offers an easy entrance into Granny’s original thoughts and presents a better interpretation of their connotations (Xu 18).
The following quote serves as an example of the utilization of narrated stream of consciousness/indirect interior monologue in the story:
Well, and what if she was? She still had ears. It was like Cornelia to whisper around the doors. She always kept things secret in such a public way. She was always being tactful and kind. Cornelia was dutiful; that was the trouble with her. Dutiful and good: “So good and dutiful,” said Granny, “that I’d like to spank her.” She saw herself spanking Cornelia and making a fine job of it.
(The Jilting of Granny Weatherall, 2003)
Although the indirect interior monologue in this instance is more coherent and rational, it continues to serve as a convenient way of divulging the mental activities of Granny (Xu 19). Since the narrator shows partial involvement in indirect interior monologue, their discourse can be easily incorporated with, providing a convenient way for the author’s transition between the objective world and Granny’s subjective world (Xu 19). It can now be inferred that it is evident why first person works well with the story. Stream of consciousness writing seems to be a unique branch of first person and can only fulfill its rightful purpose through first person narration. Imagine for a second that this story was written in the third person narrative perspective. If their had to be a shift between the narrative discourse and Granny’s inner dialogue, it would be very awkward and obstructive to the innovative smoothness and flow (Xu 19). Also, the combined implementation of first person and stream of consciousness creates the ultimate intimacy with the main character. One can feel as if they are inside someone’s mind actually talking to the person. Alternately and equally, a reader of a first person literary work can get the impression that they are virtually at one with the narrator. We see what they see, feel what they feel, hear what they hear, and so on. For example, we can obviously make the assumption that the narrator in The Jilting of Granny Weatherall is very close to Granny. The narrator puts us right in the middle of the scenario, making it as if they were right in front of us talking about it. This is something that will most certainly be difficult to find in the third person perspective.
The third person narrative form consists of writing in more of an omniscient point-of-view (Harper 1). Mostly, the words “he” and “she” are used in this type of perspective. In contrast to first person, third person positions the narrator within the minds of all the characters (Harper 1). This permits the narrator to use a simple description or hint of expression, or perhaps even a scene on the side that is concealed from the knowledge of the main character, but made available to the reader so that they may have an easier way of following along in the story (Harper 1). Third person, being the more commonly used method, provides an easy way for a writer to develop their plot and give insight to the reader as well. Writing in the third person narrative perspective allows the writer to possess infinite awareness, perception, and insight, to see and comprehend all of the story’s constituent characters and elements, and to illustrate the story from more than one set of eyes (Harper 1). This could be as simple as comprising a couple lines regarding the remaining characters after the main character has left the scene (Tara Karper). In proportion, it may also be as in-depth as illustrating complete scenes and/or events for which the main character is absent (Harper 1). However, adopting an omniscient character doesn’t necessarily require the focal point of the story to be fragmented or scattered (Harper 1) . Writers commonly misunderstand third person as something that allows them to show the point-of-view that each individual character holds or uses somewhat equally (Harper 1). The reality of it is that they should be shown fairly, but not typically equally.
Third person also opens up opportunities for the use of innovative literary techniques such as dramatic irony. Dramatic irony is when the audience/reader knows about something that the character does not yet (http://merriamwebster.com/, 1). This is a perfect example of the enormous potential that third person possesses. Contrary to first person, third person tends to inform the reader ahead of time, allowing the reader to possibly make a near accurate prediction as to what the main character’s fate may be. An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, by Ambrose Bierce, is the designated literary work for the side of the third person narrative perspective and contains dramatic irony like most stories written in third person. The following passages from the story will serve as the first half of this story’s example of dramatic irony:
1) Midway of the slope between bridge and fort were the spectators—a single company of infantry in line, at “parade rest”, the butts of the rifles on the ground, the barrels inclining slightly backward against the right shoulder, the hands crossed upon the stock. A lieutenant stood at the right of the line, the point of his sword upon the ground, his left hand resting upon his right.
(Glencoe Literature; An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, 369)
2) The man who was engaged in being hanged was apparently about thirty-five years of age. He was a civilian, if one might judge from his habit, which was that of a planter.
(Glencoe Literature; An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, 370)
Now, this dialogue should also give somewhat of a contribution to the cause in relevance to the passage above:
“How far is it to the Owl Creek Bridge?”
“ About thirty miles.”
“ Is there no force on this side the creek?”
“Only a picket post half a mile out, on the railroad, and a single sentinel at this end of the bridge.”
“Suppose a man—a civilian and student of hanging—should elude the picket post and perhaps get the better of the sentinel,” said Farquhar smiling, “ what could he accomplish?”
(Glencoe Literature; An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, 371)
The first passage in the couple lets the reader in on what lies ahead at the bridge, which Farquhar as the main character doesn’t know just yet. The second passage can practically be labeled as a dead giveaway in that we later find out that this is the description of our protagonist, Farquhar. We are essentially informed of how he dies way before it even happens. All we are left to do after that is ponder how and/or allow this tragic event to unfold. In the dialogue just above, our main character would like to know what would happen if he were to travel to the Owl Creek Bridge. Don’t you just wish you could scream the truth out at him to prevent his death from happening? This only adds more to the dramatic irony. We have already figured out that he is going to be hung if he is to travel there. He doesn’t find out the consequences of his actions until the moment he is captured by the soldiers and hung to die. Dramatic irony has way of filling the audience/reader with suspense as an influential literary technique. However, like first person and stream of consciousness writing, dramatic irony will only perform its respective function in a story that uses the third person perspectives. This is because dramatic irony is demands an omniscient point-of-view. Without the omniscient and omnipresent nature of the third person narrative perspective, dramatic irony would not have risen to become such a common and influential literary technique, nor would it have any use in any form of literature. The one dimensional nature of first person is too limiting for dramatic irony to have any lasting presence or effect.
Finally, we arrive at the very question, what would happen if these two literary works were to interchange their points-of-view? If a switch were to occur between these two works, many symbols, motives, and plots of each story would likely be more difficult to spot and follow.
In The Jilting of Granny Weatherall, the change to third person would greatly obstruct the flow of Granny’s stream of conscious thoughts. Also, changing this perspective from first to third would mean sacrificing the intimacy and connection that the reader would have with the main character/narrator. Furthermore, as mentioned previously, a shift between the narrative discourse and Granny’s inner dialogue would be very awkward and would prove to be nothing but a hindrance to the innovative smoothness and coherence (Jiangqing Xu, 19).
In An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, a transition to first person would definitely give rise multiple questions and would completely change its original effect on the reader. If this story changed its point-of-view to first person, a man would essentially be telling his own death story as it happened word for word. This might cause readers to have a negative outlook on the narrator and label him as delusional. Moreover, switching to first person would mean the forfeiting of the infinite understanding, perception, and insight that third person has to offer.
Overall, we cannot really say which perspective is better because they are remarkably different from each other (Ross 69). However, we can say that third person is the more favored perspective. This difference has helped to give emphasis to the uniqueness of each of these perspectives and offer an illustration of each of their distinct contributions as a whole in literature. The first and third person points-of-view can ultimately be looked upon as rival narrative perspectives that can easily serve as the basis upon which American Literature (as well other worldly literature) laid its foundation ( van Dijk 106).
Bierce, Ambrose. An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. Chickamauga: 1891
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Jiangqing Xu, Hengyang Normal University. “The Uniqueness of the Stream of Consciousness Techniques in “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall.” May 2006. November 23,2007 <http://www.linguist.org.cn/doc/uc200605/uc20060504.pdf>
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