The We’s Have It

An interesting article about the use of the first person plural point of view in A Reunion of Ghosts and elsewhere at BookBrowse:

Beyond the Book:
The First Person Plural – Why We Use It

Greek Chorus

As noted in my review, one unique aspect of Judith Claire Mitchell’s A Reunion of Ghosts is her use of the first person plural literary voice. According to most sources, this point of view dates back to ancient Greece and its famous Greek choruses, which spoke in unison as a group. With such a rich history, you might think more authors would be writing using this perspective. However, Laura Miller in her 2004 article in the New York Times, notes that it is difficult to pull off and has many drawbacks: “You could say that the history of Western literature so far has been a journey from the first-person plural to the first-person singular, the signature voice of our time.” Still, this isn’t stopping writers from employing it, and recently they’ve been on the rise.

The Virgin Suicides

Of the many articles I read about first person plural, many called it a gimmick; only used by authors so publishers will see their books as something exceptional, not only worthy of publication, but also high-profile promotion. One said that this perspective creates an “emotional distance” from the readers, which prevents empathizing with the characters. But several people pointed out that this lack of empathy might be a deliberate choice with this point of view; that these choruses aren’t the focus of the novels themselves, but rather observers to something outside their collective which is the actual focus. For example, in The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides, the men speak in the first person plural recalling their neighbors, the Lisbon sisters.

When I asked a literary friend about this, she had some interesting insights. She pointed out that, like most people, she’s always searched for something to belong to, a “we” that she could be part of and identify with. On the other hand, she also said that we “live in a society that’s obsessed with the lone individual, while at the same time setting very narrow boundaries for difference.” This made me think about the advent of social networking and how the Internet is bringing so many people together. We join and like pages and groups, in order to become part of “something.” However, without our individuality, we have nothing to offer that would motivate others to become our friends and “like” our posts. When we apply this to the first person plural literary voice, we can see how it can both personalize and sterilize the narration.

The Wives of Los AlamosTaraShea Nesbit, author of The Wives of Los Alamos, (written in this POV) touches on just this point in her recent Guardian Books blog post, “We Can Do a Lot: The Rise of First-Person Plural Narration.” She asks, “How does one create one’s self in relation to the groups we are a part of? Where do our loyalties lie? What gets lost, and what is gained by group membership? This sense of social responsibility and selfhood, as well as uncertainty about how to act on such feelings, describes, in part, our contemporary moment.” These, of course, are the same questions that we ask of the group narrator in this novel.

Even so, what Mitchell’s three sisters give us in A Reunion of Ghosts is somewhat different. As we read the stories of these three very different individuals, we feel that the collective voice is actually a mechanic preventing these women from sounding, as Miller puts it, “confessional, idiosyncratic, often unreliable.” Only together, can they give accurate testimony to the other’s stories; their truth lies in their unity and harmony. Furthermore, they believe that their deaths benefit society as a whole, because they see it as righting four generations of wrongs. As selfish as suicide may seem to outsiders, in this case, their doing it together is the only way to give meaning to each of the separate three. Because of all this, I believe Mitchell rightfully chose this point of view, and I’m certain her story wouldn’t have been half as effective if she had written it in first person singular.

Article by Davida Chazen

 

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