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Narrative 12.2 (2004) 133-150

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The Impersonal Voice in First-Person Narrative Fiction

Henrik Skov Nielsen

I. Introduction

The analyses and discussions in this article are all aimed at clarifying a question that most people don't even ask because the answer seems self-evident: "Who narrates in first-person (or what most narratologists call homodiegetic) narrative fiction?" My hypotheses, however, are (1) that in literary fiction, as opposed to oral narrative, one cannot be certain that it is the person referred to as "I" who speaks or narrates, and therefore that (2) we need to posit an impersonal voice of the narrative. We can observe this phenomenon whenever something is narrated that the "narrating-I" cannot possibly know, as happens in Moby Dick, The Great Gatsby, and other fictional narratives, some of which I'll examine later.

To develop my hypothesis and to establish the context for my proposal about the impersonal voice, I will begin with a brief review of some contemporary discussions of voice in literature. I will then proceed to use my proposal to examine passages of first-person fiction that seem difficult to explain without the concept of the impersonal voice. This examination, in turn, will lead me into a discussion of my proposal's consequences for interpretation and for our understanding of fictional worlds. Finally, I will compare my interpretations to some alternative proposals about similar textual phenomena. [End Page 133]

II. Voice

The question of voice in literature itself potentially has many dimensions—psychological as well as narratological, analytic, and literary-ontological; but the most fundamental issue is whether it makes any sense at all to speak of a voice in written literature, since voice, as Andrew Gibson among others claims (640), must necessarily be phonetic and hence make a sound. The majority of the contributors to a recent issue of New Literary History on voice in literature acknowledge that the concept must necessarily assume metaphorical signification in connection with literature, but that this metaphorical usage hardly makes it an invalid concept. I agree with this view and will build on it in what follows.

For fictional narrative, the next crucial question involves the relationship between voice and the narrator. In her article "New Wine in Old Bottles? Voice, Focalization, and New Writing," Monika Fludernik addresses this topic by way of a critical analysis of Genette's distinction between the question of "who sees" and that of "who speaks."1 Fludernik shows how this division is based on a doubtful a priori assumption that a narrator always exists (621-22). She also convincingly argues that when theorists operate with this assumption, they are falling victim to the illusion that the text causes the reader to produce: "In terms of readers' reactions to individual texts, the tendency to attribute stylistic features to a hypothetical narrator persona and/or a character is a simple fact. However, this fact (that readers are led by the illusionism of the narrative to impose a communicational framework on the text) does not necessitate the stipulation of a narrator persona on the theoretical level at all. After all, narratologists are then repeating readers' interpretative moves on a theoretical level, without due consideration of the illusionism involved" (622-23). In particular Fludernik contends that it is unnecessary to presuppose a narrator where nothing indicates such a narrator: "In texts that do not display linguistic markers signalling the presence of a speaker (I, deictic elements, expressive markers, stylistic foregrounding), the presence of a narrator is merely implicit, 'covert.' Here, according to my own proposals, the insistence on the presence of a speaker constitutes an interpretative move, in which the reader concludes from the presence of a narrative discourse that someone must be narrating the story and that therefore there must be a hidden narrator (or narrative voice) in the text" (622). This is the case "here," but the situation appears more uncertain in texts where various markers actually seem to indicate a speaker or narrator—that is, texts where "I, deictic elements, expressive markers, stylistic foregrounding" are actually used. Are there, then, narrators...


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