The History of Narrative Styles


First Person Narration 


English novels started off with characters telling their own stories. In the first instances, the reader had no reason to doubt the character-narrator’s account or take on events. Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe gives a pretty straight account of his adventures on a deserted island. When the novel was published it was presented to the reader as the real first-hand account by Crusoe of his own experiences; Defoe actually made up this character, pretending to be him, whilst in reality writing a fictional account based on the experiences of one Alexander Selkirk. As Defoe had every reason to get his readers to accept the credibility of Crusoe, he gave the reader no reason to doubt his veracity, so he was accepted as a reliable, trustworthy and well placed narrator.

“I was born in the year 1632, in the city of York, of a good family, though not of that country, my father being a foreigner of Bremen, who settled first at Hull.  He got a good estate by merchandise, and leaving off his trade, lived afterwards at York, from whence he had married my mother, whose relations were named Robinson, a very good family in that country, and from whom I was called Robinson Kreutznaer; but, by the usual corruption of words in England, we are now called—nay we call ourselves and write our name—Crusoe; and so my companions always called me.”


With Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte wants the reader to closely identify with her heroine, so it is told in the First Person Narrative Mode – we are given the heroine’s story in her own words. There is hardly an instant throughout the novel where the reader second guesses what the this character narrator tells them; there is no reason to doubt Jane’s grasp of events, question the intrusion of her biases, or wonder about the limits on her point of view. Jane tells her story and we accept her account of it. Charlotte Bronte is using this narrative style to ensure the reader’s empathy with Jane as she meets the challenges life throws at her, from her orphan state as a child to her falling in love with the wrong man.

“There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mrs. Reed, when there was no company, dined early) the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so sombre, and a rain so penetrating, that further out-door exercise was now out of the question.

I was glad of it: I never liked long walks, especially on chilly afternoons: dreadful to me was the coming home in the raw twilight, with nipped fingers and toes, and a heart saddened by the chidings of Bessie, the nurse, and humbled by the consciousness of my physical inferiority to Eliza, John, and Georgiana Reed.”


In more modern times first person narration has been horribly abused by writers so that the reader’s empathy is stretched to the limit, the credibility of the character-narrator’s point of view is devastatingly undermined, and the reader can be at a loss as to what to think. But this is merely another tactic of the modern author – to show the flaws of a character in the manner of his or her narration, rather than put them under the magnifying glass themselves. So when Holden Caulfield in J D Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye starts telling his tale, an account of his own adventurers on being kicked out of yet another school, the reader is at first amused, but soon is disconcerted: can we really take what this person says for granted? When Caulfield starts to make questionable comments about particular people or life in general, the reader is again nudged by the author to consider the gaps in the narration, the biases twisting it, and how this young man’s perspective is necessarily flawed and limited. In the end, the novel is a study of how the narrator himself sees the world, and how his inability to grasp the true extent and meaning of his own story is the problem. The Twentieth Century novel in English is full of such narrators, variously pathetic, perverted, disturbed, insane, or just down right nasty.

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, an what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them. They’re quite touchy about anything like that, especially my father. They’re nice and all–I’m not saying that–but they’re also touchy as hell. Besides, I’m not going to tell you my whole goddam autobiography or anything. I’ll just tell you about this madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas just before I got pretty run-down and had to come out here and take it easy. I mean that’s all I told D.B. about, and he’s my brother and all. He’s in Hollywood. That isn’t too far from this crumby place, and he comes over and visits me practically every week end. He’s going to drive me home when I go home next month maybe. He just got a Jaguar. One of those little English jobs that can do around two hundred miles an hour. It cost him damn near four thousand bucks. He’s got a lot of dough, now. He didn’t use to. He used to be just a regular writer, when he was home. He wrote this terrific book of short stories, The Secret Goldfish, in case you never heard of him. The best one in it was “The Secret Goldfish.” It was about this little kid that wouldn’t let anybody look at his goldfish because he’d bought it with his own money. It killed me. Now he’s out in Hollywood, D.B., being a prostitute. If there’s one thing I hate, it’s the movies. Don’t even mention them to me.”

The reader asks themselves of Salinger’s character-narrator: are we to take this guy seriously? And, of course, we are not. However, we can’t but empathise with him as he tries come to terms with his place in an adult world.

Third Person Narration – Omniscient Narrator 

Third-person narration provides the greatest flexibility to the author and thus is the most commonly used narrative mode in literature. In the third-person narrative mode, each and every character is referred to by the narrator as “he”, “she”, “it”, or “they”, but never as “I” or “we” (first-person). In third-person narrative, it is obvious that the narrator is merely an unspecified entity or uninvolved person that conveys the story and is not a character of any kind within the story being told. Such a narrator is necessarily an omniscient (all-knowing) narrator has knowledge of all times, people, places, and events, including all characters’ thoughts. At least, they have the potential to be. If such a narrator says the day is overcast, that the noise is deafening or that a certain character is a bad loser then the reader cannot doubt them: the story is necessarily so.


In many of his novels, Charles Dickens adopts this narrative style in order to give as all-encompassing a picture of his time as possible. A novel concerning itself primarily with one central character can still therefore take in a much larger sweep of society, giving the reader a full picture of the world this character inhabits. The omniscient author can give the reader access to anything, adopting even a God like view of a scene, as Dickens often does, or give us the thoughts of a marginal character who is being callously disregarded by the protagonist. Dickens can give us the whole of London, every street, every drawing room, the thoughts of every poverty stricken member of the working classes; the only restriction is the size of the novel. Of course, the trick with Dickens writing in this style is appreciating what he doesn’t show us as much as what he does. Consider Dombey & Son:


“DOMBEY sat in the corner of the darkened room in the great arm-chair by the bedside, and Son lay tucked up warm in a little basket bedstead, carefully disposed on a low settee immediately in front of the fire and close to it, as if his constitution were analogous to that of a muffin, and it was essential to toast him brown while he was very new.

Dombey was about eight-and-forty years of age. Son about eight-and-forty minutes. Dombey was rather bald, rather red, and though a handsome well-made man, too stern and pompous in appearance, to be prepossessing. Son was very bald, and very red, and though (of course) an undeniably fine infant, somewhat crushed and spotty in his general effect, as yet. On the brow of Dombey, Time and his brother Care had set some marks, as on a tree that was to come down in good time–remorseless twins they are for striding through their human forests, notching as they go–while the countenance of Son was crossed and recrossed with a thousand little creases, which the same deceitful Time would take delight in smoothing out and wearing away with the flat part of his scythe, as a preparation of the surface for his deeper operations.”

Third Person Narration – Character Narrator – Unreliable


Another option for an author is to have a marginal character tell a story. Because the character is a the margins they may not be biased in any way; however they may well be, as in the case of Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. In this novel the majority of the story is told by the housekeeper Nelly Dean, who, the reader discovers, is biased in favour of Heathcliff, one of the novel’s central characters. There are many reasons why Bronte should chose to do this, foremost among them is to make the reader always feel uncertain as to what really happened, making them feel that it is impossible to know, and therefore deepening the mystery around the love affair between Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff. Omniscient narration might have given Bronte an approach that was at once too objective and too certain.

“So, from the very beginning, he bred bad feeling in the house; and at Mrs. Earnshaw’s death, which happened in less than two years after, the young master had learned to regard his father as an oppressor rather than a friend, and Heathcliff as a usurper of his parent’s affections and his privileges; and he grew bitter with brooding over these injuries. I sympathised a while; but when the children fell ill of the measles, and I had to tend them, and take on me the cares of a woman at once, I changed my idea. Heathcliff was dangerously sick; and while he lay at the worst he would have me constantly by his pillow: I suppose he felt I did a good deal for him, and he hadn’t wit to guess that I was compelled to do it. However, I will say this, he was the quietest child that ever nurse watched over. The difference between him and the others forced me to be less partial. Cathy and her brother harassed me terribly: he was as uncomplaining as a lamb; though hardness, not gentleness, made him give little trouble.”

In fact, Nelly’s narration is framed by that of another unreliable narrator, a Mr Lockwood, who is an outsider in the rather isolated community where the story takes place, so the reader, at times, doesn’t know what to make of what they are told, wondering if they’ll ever get to the truth of the story of Catherine and Heathcliff, and because of the mode of narration Bronte chooses, the reader will never be certain that they have. Would an omniscient narrator have spoiled the mystery?

Third Person Narration – Constrained (or focalised) Omniscient Narrator 

Knowing everything isn’t necessarily the defining condition of an omniscient narrator, because everything can’t possibly be told. There simply isn’t space. Therefore, what tends to be more definitive of an omniscient narrator is what the author chooses to have them relate to the reader. One way of constraining the attention of the omniscient narrator is to tie their point of view with that of a central character’s, as in the case of Jane Austen Novels, which are told by an omniscient narrator, who rarely, if ever, leaves the point of view of the novel’s protagonist. That said, in addition to having the advantage of a personal focus, as there is in any first person narration, the author can also move away from the character and make more general comments about the scene and what is going on, or about to, as evidenced by the opening of the Pride and Prejudice, where Lizzy, the protagonist, though present, isn’t even mentioned:


“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

“My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?”

Mr. Bennet replied that he had not.

“But it is,” returned she; “for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it.”

Mr. Bennet made no answer.

“Do you not want to know who has taken it?” cried his wife impatiently.

“You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it.”

This was invitation enough.”

Direct speech is always a useful way for an author to escape a narrator, however unreliable, however narrowly focused, and give the reader a bare account of what people really think, through what they say to each other, of each other, and behind each other’s backs.

But it is Lizzy who dominates Pride & Prejudice, and the narrator is never far from lapsing directly into her thoughts and reflections, as is not done for any other character, making this novel as close to that account Lizzy herself might give, without losing the ability to put Lizzy firmly in her place and parade her flaws for the reader to fully appreciate.

“Elizabeth listened in silence, but was not convinced; their behaviour at the assembly had not been calculated to please in general; and with more quickness of observation and less pliancy of temper than her sister, and with a judgement too unassailed by any attention to herself, she was very little disposed to approve them. They were in fact very fine ladies; not deficient in good humour when they were pleased, nor in the power of making themselves agreeable when they chose it, but proud and conceited. They were rather handsome, had been educated in one of the first private seminaries in town, had a fortune of twenty thousand pounds, were in the habit of spending more than they ought, and of associating with people of rank, and were therefore in every respect entitled to think well of themselves, and meanly of others. They were of a respectable family in the north of England; a circumstance more deeply impressed on their memories than that their brother’s fortune and their own had been acquired by trade.”

Third Person Narration – Free Indirect Style 

dubliners 3

This is where an ostensibly omniscient narrator is so tied to the character, whose point of view it follows, that the narration lapses into the manner of speech of that character, using his or her words or habitual expressions, seeing nothing but what they can see, reflecting no feelings other than what they can feel, and concerning itself solely with the petty concerns (or otherwise) of that character. For example in James Joyce’s story Clay, the narrator is absorbed by the petty concerns of Maria, as much as by her way of speaking and her view of the world:

“THE MATRON HAD given her leave to go out as soon as the women’s tea was over and Maria looked forward to her evening out. The kitchen was spick and span: the cook said you could see yourself in the big copper boilers. The fire was nice and bright and on one of the side-tables were four very big barmbracks. These barmbracks seemed uncut; but if you went closer you would see that they had been cut into long thick even slices and were ready to be handed round at tea. Maria had cut them herself.”

Free indirect style was perfected by writers such as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce in the early twentieth century. They had come upon a mode of narration which gave them the freedom of omniscient third person narration but also the immediacy of first person narration: now the distance between the reader and the character could be adeptly regulated. In Mrs Dalloway, the reader empathises intensely with the protagonist of the title, but also with several other characters throughout the short novel, a freedom that wouldn’t have been afforded by a first account of that one day in London.

mrs dalloway 6

 “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

For Lucy had her work cut out for her. The doors would be taken off their hinges; Rumpelmayer’s men were coming. And then, thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning — fresh as if issued to children on a beach.

What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her, when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air. How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and yet (for a girl of eighteen as she then was) solemn, feeling as she did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen; looking at the flowers, at the trees with the smoke winding off them and the rooks rising, falling; standing and looking until Peter Walsh said, “Musing among the vegetables?”— was that it? —“I prefer men to cauliflowers”— was that it? He must have said it at breakfast one morning when she had gone out on to the terrace — Peter Walsh. He would be back from India one of these days…”

When a character is so closely identified in the reader’s mind with the omniscient narrator, the reader will no longer suspend their disbelief, but begin to question what they are told by the narrator. Any hope of the narration appearing objective is lost, and we are back again struggling with the rather gross subjectivity of first person narrators, never knowing just what to think, what to believe, or what to credit. In A Little Cloud, Joyce presents us with Little Chandler who sits at his desk whiling away the time. Is the reader to fully accept his take on the day?

dubliners 2

“The glow of a late autumn sunset covered the grass plots and walks. It cast a shower of kindly golden dust on the untidy nurses and decrepit old men who drowsed on the benches; it flickered upon all the moving figures—on the children who ran screaming along the gravel paths and on everyone who passed through the gardens. He watched the scene and thought of life; and (as always happened when he thought of life) he became sad. A gentle melancholy took possession of him. He felt how useless it was to struggle against fortune, this being the burden of wisdom which the ages had bequeathed to him.”

We are stuck in the mind of Little Chandler, much as we are stuck in the mind of Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye.

Yet a paragraph before this we are told:

“Little Chandler’s thoughts ever since lunch-time had been of his meeting with Gallaher, of Gallaher’s invitation and of the great city London where Gallaher lived. He was called Little Chandler because, though he was but slightly under the average stature, he gave one the idea of being a little man. His hands were white and small, his frame was fragile, his voice was quiet and his manners were refined. He took the greatest care of his fair silken hair and moustache and used perfume discreetly on his handkerchief. The half-moons of his nails were perfect and when he smiled you caught a glimpse of a row of childish white teeth.”

…where the objective and ironic take of an omniscient narrator places the character very neatly to us, before we get a bogged down in the finer details of the character’s point of view, much as he might have done. Before we know it we have left behind the objectivity of an omniscient narrator and seamlessly moved into the constrained and flawed point of view of the little man which our story concerns itself.

The word “free” comes from the writer dispensing with such tags as “he thought” or “she believed”, so just presenting the thoughts, feelings and beliefs of the characters as though they were the thoughts, feelings and beliefs of the narrator. Whilst this does compromise the narrator’s objectivity, it does bring the character closer to the reader, as can be seen here in Joyce’s A Painful Case:

“He went often to her little cottage outside Dublin; often they spent their evenings alone. Little by little, as their thoughts entangled, they spoke of subjects less remote. Her companionship was like a warm soil about an exotic. Many times she allowed the dark to fall upon them, refraining from lighting the lamp. The dark discreet room, their isolation, the music that still vibrated in their ears united them. This union exalted him, wore away the rough edges of his character, emotionalised his mental life.”

Here we can see how the narrator and character almost become one; where the woman Mr Duffy is seeing is described as “a warm soil about an exotic”, referring to himself as an exotic, the narrator doesn’t deign to comment on this or ascribe the thought to the character, but simply narrates it as though it were part and parcel of the objective omniscient narration we get throughout the story. But such an observation is clearly Mr Duffy’s own, and that she “exalted him, wore away the rough edges of his character, emotionalised his mental life” is also his own reflection on their relationship, but Joyce doesn’t mediate this through the tag “he thought” or “it was Mr Duffy’s opinion”, thus rendering it “free” and so “free indirect style.

Because it is in this story, as well as a few others, that Joyce most successfully mixes the objective stance of the omniscient narrator, which gives the reader a clear, detached and neutral picture of the central character, with the passages of free indirect style which bring the reader closer to the thoughts and feelings of Mr Duffy. The following is clearly distant fom Mr Duffy, objective and will not be second guessed by the reader. By using free indirect style, as opposed to first person narration, Joyce enables the narrator to do this whenever he chooses, so the reader gets a balanced view of the protagonist, as well as an intimate sketch of his mental processes.

“Mr. Duffy abhorred anything which betokened physical or mental disorder. A medieval doctor would have called him saturnine. His face, which carried the entire tale of his years, was of the brown tint of Dublin streets. On his long and rather large head grew dry black hair and a tawny moustache did not quite cover an unamiable mouth. His cheekbones also gave his face a harsh character; but there was no harshness in the eyes which, looking at the world from under their tawny eyebrows, gave the impression of a man ever alert to greet a redeeming instinct in others but often disappointed. He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glasses. He had an odd autobiographical habit which led him to compose in his mind from time to time a short sentence about himself containing a subject in the third person and a predicate in the past tense. He never gave alms to beggars and walked firmly, carrying a stout hazel.”

Joyce, in his stories, always keeps us on our toes, so that we never know which way a story might twist, and which character we might all of a sudden be stuck with. A Mother begins with a seemingly objective account of Mrs Mooney before we find ourselves inside the head of her pathetic victim, an accounts clerk who she so easily snares.

“MRS. MOONEY WAS a butcher’s daughter. She was a woman who was quite able to keep things to herself: a determined woman. She had married her father’s foreman and opened a butcher’s shop near Spring Gardens. But as soon as his father-in-law was dead Mr. Mooney began to go to the devil. He drank, plundered the till, ran headlong into debt. It was no use making him take the pledge: he was sure to break out again a few days after. By fighting his wife in the presence of customers and by buying bad meat he ruined his business. One night he went for his wife with the cleaver and she had to sleep at a neighbour’s house.”

Joyce is clearly manipulating the reader on a grand scale. Whoa re we to identify ourselves with? This is made clear at the opening of most novels or stories, but Joyce frequently keeps us guessing, to the point where, in his last story, The Dead, he makes us empathise with the poor wife of the character we had been tracking, of and on, throughout the story, rather than the protagonist himself. This flexibility is given to him by the newly invented (in the early twentieth century) free indirect style. It is the protagonist’s failure to appreciate alternative points of view that is the centre of this story; but through the immediacy of free-indirect style it is Gabriel who we most closely identify, as though we were reading a story told in the first person:


“The air of the room chilled his shoulders. He stretched himself cautiously along under the sheets and lay down beside his wife. One by one, they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.”

…whose thoughts are these, the narrator’s or Gabriel’s? If they’re Gabriel’s why are they not tagged with “he thought”?


So why then does Joyce revert to First Person Narrative in the opening three stories of Dubliners? Well, the opening stories are the stories of childhood, and so, are as much about the limited point of view of children as they are about anything else. By employing the necessarily limited point of view of a first person narrator, and also one who is handicapped the naiveté and lack of knowledge of childhood, Joyce can explore these issues in the way he writes as opposed to what he writes about. The reader, of course, is in a different position to the narrator. The reader sees more. So we are back in the territory of novels such as The Catcher in the Rye, where the reader can see beyond the flawed perspective of the narrator. And Joyce has a good deal of fun with this, as in the case of the encounter with the pervert at the end of An Encounter:

After an interval the man spoke to me. He said that my friend was a very rough boy and asked did he get whipped often at school. I was going to reply indignantly that we were not National School boys to be whipped, as he called it; but I remained silent. He began to speak on the subject of chastising boys. His mind, as if magnetised again by his speech, seemed to circle slowly round and round its new centre. He said that when boys were that kind they ought to be whipped and well whipped. When a boy was rough and unruly there was nothing would do him any good but a good sound whipping. A slap on the hand or a box on the ear was no good: what he wanted was to get a nice warm whipping. I was surprised at this sentiment and involuntarily glanced up at his face. As I did so I met the gaze of a pair of bottle-green eyes peering at me from under a twitching forehead. I turned my eyes away again.

The man continued his monologue. He seemed to have forgotten his recent liberalism. He said that if ever he found a boy talking to girls or having a girl for a sweetheart he would whip him and whip him; and that would teach him not to be talking to girls. And if a boy had a girl for a sweetheart and told lies about it then he would give him such a whipping as no boy ever got in this world. He said that there was nothing in this world he would like so well as that. He described to me how he would whip such a boy as if he were unfolding some elaborate mystery. He would love that, he said, better than anything in this world; and his voice, as he led me monotonously through the mystery, grew almost affectionate and seemed to plead with me that I should understand him.”

But more often than not, the reader does feel for the narrator, being themselves reminded of the difficulties which fraught their own childhood, and of how children too are victims of the same paralysis which holds down all of the characters in Joyce’s stories.

“Observing me the young lady came over and asked me did I wish to buy anything. The tone of her voice was not encouraging; she seemed to have spoken to me out of a sense of duty. I looked humbly at the great jars that stood like eastern guards at either side of the dark entrance to the stall and murmured:

“No, thank you.”

The young lady changed the position of one of the vases and went back to the two young men. They began to talk of the same subject. Once or twice the young lady glanced at me over her shoulder.

I lingered before her stall, though I knew my stay was useless, to make my interest in her wares seem the more real. Then I turned away slowly and walked down the middle of the bazaar. I allowed the two pennies to fall against the sixpence in my pocket. I heard a voice call from one end of the gallery that the light was out. The upper part of the hall was now completely dark.

Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.”

 james joyce

Dubliners is a show put on by a master of narrative styles.

check out an analysis of the narrative perspectives Joyce employs in The Dead …

(click on the link below, then click on another link to open the pdf)

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