an essay on In Our Time by David Gagne
This is one of the worst things I’ve ever written. I was ashamed to hand it to my professor. It was for AML 3124 and it was completed on 12 / 08 / 95 …

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.

The sudden switch to first-person narration is startling to the reader.

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.” (Hemingway, p.227) 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.” (Anderson, p.2) At this point the story becomes more than just a static piece, for the reader is somehow now in it.

The reader does not know if the narrator is Anderson himself.

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.” (Anderson, p.68)

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 and Hemingway are both long dead now and all questions of intentionality are forever lost to readers of their works. Their 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.

Hemingway, Ernest. The Short Stories. Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, NY. 1986
Anderson, Sherwood. Winesburg, Ohio. Dover Publications, Inc. New York, NY. 1995

Sudden, Unexpected Interjection

This post is part of The Hemingway Collection, an archive of essays, images, and hyperlinks to interesting articles about the great American author.

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What Is This? is the personal weblog of me, David Vincent Gagne. I've been publishing here since 1999, which makes this one of the oldest continuously-updated websites on the Internet.

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You can read dozens of essays and articles and find hundreds of links to other sites with stories and information about Ernest Hemingway in The Hemingway Collection.