4.4. Narrative Person



We have already introduced the concept of narrative person.  Jakobson's definition of the grammatical category of person gave us a starting point:

First person signals the identity of one of the protagonists of the enunciated process with the agent of the enunciating process, and second person his identity with the actual or potential patient of the enunciating process.  ("Embrayeurs" 182)

It would be tempting to transpose these grammatical categories directly into the field of literary narrative.  But in fact it is impossible, since just as we saw there is no one-to-one connection between verbal tense and narrative temporality, there is no one-to-one connection between grammatical person and narrative person.  The most usual terminology opposes first-person narratives to third-person narratives, meaning presumably that the main character is referred to in the first or in the third person.  Genette introduces a distinction along different lines: homodiegetic narratives  are told by a narrator who is present (though not necessarily as a protagonist) in the story he relates; heterodiegetic narratives   are told by a narrator who is absent from that story.  The purest form of homodiegetic narrative is autodiegetic narrative  (what is normally understood by "first-person" narrative, where the narrator is also the protagonist. 


            It is to be noted that a heterodiegetic narrator need not be an authorial narrator--nor an "omniscient" one.  From Genette's definition, indeed, it is not ruled out that the narrator belongs to the same world (fictional or otherwise) as his characters; it is only required that he must not figure as a character in his narrative.  But, as Genette points out, these categories cannot be rigid, since the concept of identity itself is not rigid, but manipulable to some extent at least through discursive activity.      And in some kinds of narrative, the problematic borderline between different identities is already given from the start: in autodiegetic narrative, the same "person" is split into two completely different textual roles: hero and narrator.  The concepts of homodiegetic and heterodiegetic narration are nevertheless useful as ideal poles, as fixed reference points against which we can measure the ambiguities or displacements that will inevitably occur in most narrative texts.






The celebrated "disappearance of the author" in modernist narrative should rather be called a reduction of extradiegetic discursive elements.  Hemingway and Dos Passos advocated narrative minimalism in this sense, concentration on action, even external action, at the expense of commentary and interpretation on the part of the narrator.  A famous phrase by James Joyce describes the author standing apart from his story, like a god stands aloft from the universe he has created, no longer intervening in it, "paring his fingernails."