Jump to page content
The Pequod
Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

Recent Posts

Twitter @alibrown18

New Essay

Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

Does Candide Have a First or Third Person Narrator?

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

I've been thinking a bit about first and third person narrators recently. This comes on the back of a tutorial on narrative voice, in which we discussed Voltaire's Candide (see here for some of my earlier, very tangential, thoughts on this text). Because of the limited number of texts which my students have covered at an early stage of their course, for teaching purposes I was handling Candide as if it were an example of a classic, third person narrative account.

To many intents and purposes, the novel does function like this. The first chapter (from which all the below quotations are taken) epitomises how many of the features of a omniscient, third-person account are present. Here, for example, the narrator gives us specific details about the number of lashings Candide has received at the hands of a regiment that has press-ganged him:
He endured two runs. The regiment numbered two thousand men, which for Candide added up to four thousand strokes, which in turn laid bare the muscles and sinews from the nape of his neck to his buttocks. As they were lining up for the third run, Candide, who could take no more, politely asked if they would be so kind as to cave his head in.
We cannot imagine that Candide himself took note of the number in the midst of his pain, and it is unlikely that another witness present at the scene (a first person narrator, for example) would be able to count so accurately. The statement of global facts, which give us contextual information which a character in the novel's world cannot themselves be expected to have access to, is classic omniscience. So too is the definitive insight, or narrative telling, about a character's interior state of mind:
Candide, completely bewildered, had not yet figured out quite what was meant by being a hero.
Finally, although focalisation can occur in first person narratives, it is most commonly a feature of third person omniscient narratives. This is because focalisation in a first person account can only usually come about if the narrator's is representing the view of a character with whom they are (were) actually present; this means they cannot necessarily focalise every character of interest in a story, some of whom they may not have met but are reporting about at second hand. By contrast, because they are not a human actor in the novel's world but occupy a kind of bird's eye view on it, a third person narrator can focalise through whichever figure happens to capture their interest at any one time. After being evicted from the house of his lover, we are told that:
Thus expelled from the earthly paradise, Candide wandered for a long time, not knowing where he was going, weeping, raising his eyes to heaven, then turning them frequently in the direction of the most beautiful of castles, containing the most beautiful of the baron’s daughters; he fell asleep finally in the middle of a field, with no supper, between two furrows; the snow fell in large flakes.
Whose view is it that the castle is the most beautiful of all? Readers expect that aesthetic evaluations are subjective, so that it is unlikely that the third person narrator (who we instinctively if incorrectly assume as being more 'objective') would offer such an absolute statement. Rather, this passage is seen through Candide's eyes, looking back longingly to his childhood home, in which his beloved Cunegonde lives. Thus the judgement that this is the most beautiful castle is more likely to be a representation of Candide's own inner thoughts, but grammatically presented as if they are in the narrator's voice. It's a slippage with traits of free indirect speech.

All these examples seem fairly straightforward cases of third person narration that gives us insight into a character's mind and world events, while remaining detached from it. For the purposes of my tutorial, Candide provided a useful illustration, using these same quotes, of these various narrative techniques. There is just one problem: Candide does not have a true third person narrator at all. The narrator is, ostensibly, one Doctor Ralph, who is presented as the mediator and translator on the opening page:


Candide, or Optimism

Translated from the German of Doctor Ralph

With the additions found in the Doctor's pocket when he died at Minden in the year of grace 1759

This might, of course, seem like a simple case of a frame narrative, intended (ironically) to stress the realism of the text by presenting it as a worldly object, whose contents are relayed to us by a first person narrator/translator who tells us about events with which he was not directly involved, but which he has heard about from elsewhere. The first paragraph, for instance, tells us that:
Once upon a time in Westphalia, in the castle of Monsieur the Baron von Thunder-ten-tronckh, there lived a young boy on whom nature had bestowed the gentlest of dispositions. His countenance expressed his soul. He combined solid judgement with complete openness of mind; which is the reason, I believe, that he was called Candide. [italics mine]
This is different to other frame narratives like Wuthering Heights. In Bronte's novel, the first person narrator, Lockwood, tells us the story of Heathcliff and Kathy, as told to him by Nelly Dean, with the novel opening in the first person, albeit as we burrow into the narratives-within-narratives it becomes more like a third person text. However, because Lockwood is a first person telling us about events at second hand he does not use the same sort of omniscient insight or free indirect speech. Not having been present at the events himself, the ostensible narrator of Wuthering Heights can only tell us about directly observable things or historical facts which he or other characters in his world might naturally be expected to know.

As we have seen, this is not the case with Candide. For the purposes of the tutorial, I acknowledged this but glossed over it. But it has left me somewhat troubled about how exactly we place first and third person narrators, and indeed about the usefulness of this distinction at all.

Taking this beyond the level at which I pitch to my students, one could invoke Genette's theory of narrative levels in order to clarify the position the narrator takes with respect to the narrative. In this case, we would say that he is an extradiegetic narrator, with his discourse operating at a different level to that of the characters; or, to put things more simply, whilst the narrator tells us about events he does not play any active role in them, and does not manipulate them in any way.

This contrasts with true first person narrators who are generally intradiegetic, playing a part in the events of the story they tell, whether that story is mainly about themselves or about other characters whom they encounter in passing.

To use an analogy, the typical extradiegetic narrator bakes the cake; the intradiegetic narrator bakes the cake and is himself one of its ingredients.

This relationship of narrator to characters and events is the more crucial feature that distinguishes between first and third person narrators, rather than whether they talk about themselves in the "I" form or talk about others using the "he said," "he did" etc. form. Less important than whether they use the grammatical third person is the question: are they third person with respect to the events they tell us about? If so, then even if they at times talk about themselves in the first person, they are nevertheless third person narrators from the point of view of the narrative.

However, this still does not satisfactorily place the role of the narrator in Candide. The whole point about the narrator is precisely that he seems to be omniscient, uses free indirect speech and so on throughout the main portion of the book (indeed, the "I" form never recurs after the first chapter). The frame narrative of Doctor Ralph is clearly intended to frame the novel as the satire that it is.

The fact that this is framed as a first person account nevertheless leads us to be suspicious about any claims to objectivity and insight into another character's mind such as those quoted above. We are not being told this story objectively, but in a way which is designed - by Doctor Ralph - to undermine the characters. Witness the ironic presentation of the "most beautiful of castles" focalised through Candide; we know, and Doctor Ralph the narrator knows that we know, that this statement is made not because it is definitively beautiful, but because Candide has an ulterior motive for thinking it to be so. The presentation of this insight in free indirect speech seems to stem not from Voltaire (the author's) desire to show us this, but rather from the narrator's, Doctor Ralph's, desire to get us on his side against the other characters, who are shown throughout the narrative to be naive, foolish and unselfconscious. We as readers are like the worldly Doctor Ralph, not like the philosophical but ignorant Pangloss, or his disciple Candide.

As a consequence, the narrator does participate in the narrative in terms of the way in which it is presented. Doctor Ralph exists as a narrative personality, even we never appear to see him directly. While both third and first person narrators can be unreliable, here the unreliability (passing a character's thoughts off as the narrator's own) makes Dr Ralph a manipulative presence in the text he tells us. Even if after the opening page he does not make an appearance in the first person, the irony of the novel does rely on our awareness of his knowing presence in relation to the other naive characters.

Is Candide, then, a third person narrative or a first person narrative? Ultimately, I think it has qualities of both. Certainly, in terms of the narrative effects represented here (such as omniscience and free indirect speech) it seems third person. However, the very presence of such effects is ironic given that they are actually presented by a first person frame narrator who, as a human, cannot possess omniscience but who can judge the other (similarly human) characters in irresistibly ironic ways.
Posted by Alistair at 2:55 pm


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home

The content of this website is Copyright © 2009 using a Creative Commons Licence. One term of this copyright policy is that Plagiarism is theft. If using information from this website in your own work, please ensure that you use the correct citation.

Valid XHTML 1.0. Level A conformance icon, W3C-WAI Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0. | Labelled with ICRA.