Anderson and Hemingway’s use of
the First Person
“It is a tale told by an idiot, full of
sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
At one point in his short story, “Big Two-Hearted
River: Part II”, Hemingway’s character Nick speaks in the first person.
Why he adopts, for one line only, the first person voice is an interesting
question, without an easy answer. Sherwood Anderson does the same thing
in the introduction to his work, Winesburg, Ohio. The first piece, called
“The Book of the Grotesque”, is told from the first person point of view.
But after this introduction, Anderson chooses not to allow the first person
to narrate the work. Anderson and Hemingway both wrote collections of short
stories told in the third person, and the intrusion of the first person
narrator in these two pieces is unsettling. In both instances, though,
the reader is left with a much more absorbing story; one in which the reader
is, in fact, a main character.
With the exception of “My Old Man”, which
is entirely in the first person , and “On the Quai at Smyrna”, which is
only possibly in the first person, there is just one instance in In Our
Time in which a character speaks in the first person. It occurs in “Big
Two-Hearted River: Part II”, an intensely personal story which completely
immerses the reader in the actions and thoughts of Nick Adams. Hemingway’s
utilization of the omniscient third person narrator allows the reader to
visualize all of Nick’s actions and surroundings, which would have been
much more difficult to accomplish using first person narration.
Nick is seen setting up his camp in “Big
Two-Hearted River: Part I” in intimate detail, from choosing the perfect
place to set his tent to boiling a pot of coffee before going to sleep.
The story is completely written the in third person and is full of images,
sounds, and smells. In “Big Two-Hearted River: Part II” Hemingway exactly
describes Nick’s actions as he fishes for trout. Details of his fishing
trip are told so clearly that the reader is almost an active participant
in the expedition instead of someone reading a story. He carefully and
expertly finds grasshoppers for bait, goes about breakfast and lunch-making,
and sets off into the cold river. By being both inside and outside Nick’s
thoughts, the reader can sense precisely the drama that Hemingway wishes
to bring to trout fishing.
Nick catches one trout and throws it back
to the river because it is too small. When he hooks a second one, it is
an emotional battle between man and fish. Nick tries as hard as he can,
but the fish snaps the line and escapes. Then, as Nick thinks about the
fate of the trout which got away, Hemingway writes, “He felt like a rock,
too, before he started off. By God, he was a big one. By God, he was the
biggest one I ever heard of.” This sudden switch to first-person narration
is startling to the reader. Until this point Hemingway had solely used
third person narration, but he did it so well that the reader feels as
one with Nick. It is not definite whether this is Nick or Hemingway speaking.
It could easily be either of the two. Hemingway doesn’t include, “he thought,”
or, “he said to himself,” and so it is unclear.
The result is the same regardless. Using
first person narration at this point serves to make the story more alive,
more personal. It jolts the reader into realizing the humanity of Nick;
he is no longer the object of a story but a real person. If Nick is making
so much stir over it that he speaks directly to the reader, he must feel
passionately about it. Or if Hemingway is so moved by the size of the trout
that he exclaims at its size, I can only accept that Nick also feels this
excitement. The sudden intrusion of the first person narrator makes the
story more complete and its only character more life-like. It also brings
the reader into the story as a listener.
Sherwood Anderson’s collection of short
stories, Winesburg, Ohio, also has a moment of first person narration.
The introductory story, “The Book of the Grotesque”, is written in first
person. The story begins as a third person narration, a tale about an old
writer. Using a third person narration, Anderson writes about an old man
and his episode with a carpenter. Then the old man goes to bed and the
reader learns his thoughts. In the middle of describing what he is thinking,
Anderson switches to first person narration. Suddenly there is a narrator
speaking directly to the reader. The narrator says, “And then, of course,
he had known people, many people, known them in a peculiarly intimate way
that was different from the way in which you and I know people.” At this
point the story becomes more than just a static piece, for the reader is
somehow now in it.
There is an ambiguity, however, because
the reader does not know if the narrator is Anderson himself or another
completely distinct character. As when Hemingway used this ploy, the result
is the same regardless. The reader is no longer merely a reader, but has
unexpectedly been transformed into an active participant in the book. Throughout
the rest of “The Book of the Grotesque”, the narrator is speaking to the
reader. Not only that, but the narrator is telling the reader about a book
which was never published, but is almost surely the one the reader is in
fact reading. In case the reader should forget, there is one other instance,
several stories later, in which Anderson adopts first person narration.
In “Respectability” he writes, “I go to fast.” Like Hemingway would do
years later, Anderson was forcing the reader to become a part of the story.
The entire book is a dialogue between narrator and reader. The effect is
that the reader becomes even more involved in the stories. Both of these
works are unlike others from the same time period which are told completely
using first person narration. Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice
B. Toklas and Anita Loos’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes are both written wholly
in the first person. But both of these read like diaries, of which the
reader is just that – a reader. Neither one has a point at which the reader
is so definitely brought into the story consciously by the author. By jumping
abruptly into first person instead of using it all along, Hemingway and
Anderson more effectively do this.
Anderson’s and Hemingway’s sudden switches
to first person narration of course could not have been mere mistakes,
and their reasons may have been even more convoluted than imaginable to
late twentieth century readers. What is left are two collections of short
stories in which the reader plays an actual role. The intrusion of first
person narration makes these stories come alive in a way that a third person
narration cannot, a tribute to the skill of both of these authors.