Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Function of Voice: Narrating in the Third Person

[By Kenton Rambsy]

My discussion of Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright and their use of African American Vernacular English in their short stories led me to think about other short story writers and how their use of third person narrative voice can possibly reveal insight into the relationship between black writers and their reading audiences. In addition to short stories by Hurston such as “Spunk” (1925) and “Sweat” (1926) and by Wright like “Big Boy Leaves Home” (1936) and “The Man Who Lived Underground” (1944), Charles Chesnutt’s “The Wife of His Youth” (1898) and Rudolph Fisher’s “The City of Refuge” (1925) also utilize the third person to relate information to their reading audiences. The frequent appearances of these stories in anthologies over the decades might mean that we should give more attention to the common narrative modes that the writers adopted. 

In some regards, the use of third person omniscient could suggest a level of disconnect between the characters and audience. For instance, Chesnutt’s and Fisher’s short stories first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly. The readership for this periodical during the late ninetieth and early twentieth centuries consisted of a primarily liberal, white audience. Chesnutt and Fisher and their African American subjects may have had some distance from that audience.  

The presence of a narrator who speaks Standard English in a story that includes characters who use African American Vernacular English assists readers who were likely less familiar with alternatives to the so-called standard. The combination of standard and vernacular English allows the writers to communicate with their majority audience while at the same time displaying distinct features of African American language practices. In retrospect, the different uses of English revealed the authors’ abilities to multi-task.      

My speculation about the use of the third person perspective in these short stories presents only one possibility to account for choice of narrative mode in black writing. Perhaps tracking a larger number of short stories, initial sites of publication, and dates of first publication can reveal literary preferences during particular periods as well as factors that led to some stories becoming more favored among anthologists.

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