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  • Second-Person Narration in Literary and Conversational Storytelling
  • Jarmila Mildorf (bio)

This article explores areas of intersection between sociolinguistic narrative analysis and literary narratology. Specifically, I focus on a phenomenon that has recently received some attention in narratology but hardly any in the study of narratives told in face-to-face interaction: namely, second-person narration. Manfred Jahn (2005) defines second-person narration as a "story in which the protagonist is referred to by the pronoun you. Second-person stories can be homodiegetic (protagonist and narrator being identical) or heterodiegetic (protagonist and narrator being different)" (522). This initial definition, though a useful starting point, requires further elaboration and specification—especially when it comes to literary you-narratives. In particular, studies have shown that in literary contexts the referential scope of you can be much wider than Jahn's definition indicates and may include real readers as well as larger audiences (Herman 1994; Phelan 1994). Indeed, my own research suggests that [End Page 75] even in conversational contexts the referent of the second-person pronoun is not always clearly defined and unambiguous.

In developing my analysis I have taken my cue from Monika Fludernik, who, at a conference on narrative and identity held in Berlin in 2009, asked why there were so few examples of we- and you-narratives in literature while they seemed to be quite common in everyday storytelling. The present article fleshes out my preliminary response to Fludernik's question at the conference: that you-narrative in a strict sense, as it is understood in narratology, is in fact rare in conversational storytelling. What we rather find, as I discuss in more detail in what follows, is that people co-construct stories (see Norrick 2000), parts of which can then take the shape of second-person narratives. When I started looking into this matter more closely, however, I was surprised to discover that the phenomenon of second-person narration has not been covered in its own right in sociolinguistic narrative analysis. The research hypothesis informing this article—namely, that you-narration occurs relatively infrequently in everyday storytelling—is itself a possible explanation for this lacuna in the sociolinguistic scholarship.1 In turn, the low frequency of you-narration in conversational contexts can be attributed to a certain "unnaturalness" of—or lack of motivation for—second-person narration. As Uri Margolin (2005) puts it succinctly: "Why tell someone his or her [own] life story?" (423).2 However, I show that even conversational storytelling can afford people opportunities for telling other people (parts of) their life stories—though one does not find instances of sustained second-person narration in the data I examined.

In the sections that follow, I first give a brief outline of research on literary second-person narration as well as on linguistic approaches to address forms. I then analyze and compare two examples of second-person narration—one from a literary text and the other from a conversational storytelling situation. My conversational data are taken from an oral history database entitled StoryCorps (, which collects people's stories concerning all aspects of life: friendship, love, loss, illness, death, and so on.3 An interesting aspect of these stories is that interviews are not conducted by professional interviewers; instead, participants—friends, colleagues, or family members—" interview" one another. I conclude my discussion by reflecting [End Page 76] on similarities and differences among literary and conversational second-person stories, highlighting the value of cross-disciplinary research on narrative at the boundary between literary studies and (socio) linguistics.

Approaches to Second-Person Narration

Literary Second-Person Narration

Literary you-narratives constitute a complex and multifaceted phenomenon that defies easy categorization. Unsurprisingly, therefore, scholars have developed various approaches to second-person narration in literary texts. The contributions to a special issue of the journal Style (Fludernik 1994a), some of which I outline briefly here, attest to this diversity of perspectives. For example, two contributors to the issue forge links between narratological approaches and classical rhetoric: namely, Irene Kacandes (1994; see also Kacandes 2001) and James Phelan (1994). Phelan juxtaposes the concept of "narratee," that is, the persona addressed by the narrator, with rhetorical theory's concept of...


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