- Representing Social Minds:“We” and “They” Narratives, Natural and Unnatural
The representation of social minds can be done in many ways, including the familiar group perspective in nineteenth century fiction that Alan Palmer has documented so thoroughly. In many cases, however, authors feel a need to present collective experience in an unusual or innovative form. This has led to the rise of first-person plural or “we” narratives, prominent examples of which can be found throughout the twentieth century, as I have discussed at some length in Unnatural Voices (37–60). “We” narration easily slides into distortions of ordinary usage and readily becomes nonrealistic or what I have called “unnatural,” as we will see in the accounts below. “They” narration, by contrast, is much more rare; it is found in only a few works, such as the first three-quarters of D. H. Lawrence’s “Things” (1928); two chapters of Mary McCarthy’s The Group (1963, see Fludernik 224–25); Georges Perec’s Les Choses (1965), and two chapters of Maxine Swann’s Flower Children (2007). “They” narration rarely loses its basis in realism, though as such a narration continues it seems odder and odder that the narrator doesn’t refer to the characters individually; in the case of D. H. Lawrence, the shift from an insistent “they” reference to the more conventional [End Page 200] “Erasmus” and “Valerie” signals a growing fissure in the relationship of the couple. Most radical is the close juxtaposition of “we” and “they” kinds of narration; such a fusion, which necessarily unites internal and external narrative stances, is generally considered impossible.1
The first sustained example of both first- and third-person plural narration seems to be Joseph Conrad’s The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ (1899), a novel which represents what Conrad called “the collective psychology” of the crew of a merchant marine ship (ix). The work opens in the conventional manner of standard, omniscient third person narrative: “Mr. Baker, chief mate of the ship Narcissus, stepped in one stride out of his lighted cabin into the darkness of the quarter-deck” (3). The work’s collective subject is soon identified, as individual characteristics are subsumed within the roles and functions the men perform:
The men had shaken into their places, and the half-hourly voice of the bells ruled their life of unceasing care. Night and day the head and shoulders of a seaman could be seen aft by the wheel, outlined high against sunshine or starlight, very steady above the stir of revolving spokes. The faces changed, passing in rotation. Youthful faces, bearded faces, dark faces: faces serene, or faces moody, but all akin with the brotherhood of the sea; all with the same attentive expression of eyes, carefully watching the compass or the sails.(30)
Extended “they” narration starts early in chapter 2, once the ship is at sea: “They were forgetting their toil, they were forgetting themselves” (32). “We” narration does not appear until a common bond develops among the seamen; then “we” becomes the primary perspective: “We hesitated between pity and mistrust” (36). Conrad uses these two types of collective narration in counterpoint to the sensibility of the men he is depicting: the greater their cohesion, the more insistent the use of “we”; when the connection is lessened, “they” narration dominates. This general pattern is further varied in the text, as will be discussed subsequently.
“We” in this text is not universal but circumscribed; it refers to most of the crewmen, but not the officers; the resentful troublemaker, Donkin; the West Indian sailor, James Wait; or old Singleton, the boatswain, a seaman of an earlier period, “a lonely relic of a devoured and forgotten generation” (24). The men’s perceptions of Donkin are represented in terms that express difference: “Our sea-boots, our oilskin coats, our well-filled sea-chests, were to him so many causes for bitter meditation: he had none of these things, and he felt instinctively that no man, when the need arose, would offer to share them with him” (40). Intriguingly, in this passage the “we” narration is focalized unnaturally through the mind of Donkin, something of course a first person narrator...