Sudden, Unexpected Interjection “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. 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.” 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.

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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.” At this point the story
becomes more than just a static piece, for the reader is
somehow now in it. 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.” 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’s and Hemingway’s 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

Category: Book Reports