I’ve been thinking a bit about first-person narration lately, particularly the sort that uses what I’ll call a reflective narrator. In this type of first-person narration, the narrator speaks at a remove in time and space from the events being narrated. “This is not a happy story,” the narrator of Richard Ford’s “Great Falls,” tells us in the story’s first line. “I warn you.” With that simple and direct start, the narrator attempts to establish his ability to faithfully recount the events of the story. “It is vital,” the natural historian David Attenborough says, “that there is a narrator figure whom people believe.”
Ford’s narrator in this story, and the narrators of other tales from his collection, Rock Springs, are upright tellers, who narrate their stories in an attempt to better understand them, the people involved in them, and the effect the central dramatic event had on their futures. These narrators create an experience for the readers similar to the one the narrators have as they tell their stories some time after the events have passed. In these types of first-person narratives, the narrator, from a position far in the future from the central dramatic episodes from the past, seeks a deeper understanding of what happened and what it meant to those involved.
In Ford’s story, “Optimists,” an adult narrator recalls an incident from his teenage years that changed him and his family forever. One night, in their home, the narrator’s father became so angry with a visitor that he punched him hard in the chest, so hard in fact that the visitor actually died. While the father is outside waiting for the police to come, the mother and her son (the boy our narrator was) wait inside the house. At this point in the story, our narrator, from the greater perspective time has given him, says,
I don’t know what my mother could have been thinking during that time, because she did not say. She did not ask about my father. She did not tell me to leave the room. Maybe she thought about the rest of her life then and what that might be like after tonight. Or maybe she thought this: that people can do the worst things they are capable of doing and in the end the world comes back to normal. Possibly, she was just waiting for something normal to begin to happen again. That would make sense, given her particular character.
This what I like to call a “thinking out loud” section. Here the adult narrator tries out various hypotheses to help him understand what must have been going through his mother’s mind that night. As the narrator thinks, he asks us to think along with him as he tries to make sense of the facts that his mother didn’t inquire about his father’s state of mind and didn’t ask the narrator to leave the room. From his greater distance, he speculates that she may have been thinking about how her life was going to change. Then he offers a counter narrative when he says maybe she was thinking about the fact that “people can do the worst things they are capable of doing and in the end the world comes back to normal.” That has a ring of truth to it. When I read those words, something clicks into place for me, and I say to myself, “Yes, that sounds right. That sounds like the truth.”
The reflective narrator has to be willing to interrogate and speculate. This narrator has to be capable of bringing us to a deeper level of understanding. This means the reflective narrator has to be willing to be our guide through a sequence of events, highlighting the telling moments—those puzzling moments, perhaps, upon which the rest of the characters’ lives depend. This type of narrator has to be capable of feeling the events of the narrative deeply—so deeply in fact that he or she can’t help but tell the story. But the reflective narrator also has to be capable of a nuanced intellectual response to the events of the story. To put it plainly, the reflective narrator is both a participant in the past events and also a spectator of those events. The reflective narrator is a meaning-making presence in the act of telling stories. To utilize this type of narrator, you have to have faith in your ability to see the greater truth in actions both large and small.