A Supposedly Fun Blog

July 21, 2009

Third Person Plural

Filed under: Uncategorized — Julian Sanchez @ 3:16 pm

A quick one for a change of pace: It strikes me that my first post on the structure of IJ oversimplified a bit by lumping together all the sections in “third person” voice. But there’s clearly a bunch of different “third person” voices. At first, I assumed that all the third-person sections are written in what I think of as the “sobjective” voice. (I’m sure there’s some more precise literary term for this, but I abandoned English for philosophy, so I’m stealing a term from ethics.) That is, it’s an external narrator whose tone has somehow absorbed or been infected by the thought patterns of the central character in the scene. But the extent to which this is the case changes—sometimes the third-person voice seems more detached and conventionally neutral-narratorish, and other times it seems to be a distinctive voice that conspicuously isn’t that of any character in the scene. Sometimes they even use different typographic conventions. The narrator of the first scene between Mario and Gerhardt Schtitt, and of Pemulis’ November 4 scene, uses “w/” and “w/o” for “with” and “without.” The narrator of Orin Incandenza’s first scene spells those words out. (Amazon’s “search within this book,” incidentally, is incredibly useful for following up these hunches without wearing your thumbs out flipping around.)

Even some of the scenes without any apparent narrator are hinted to have an implicit one. Remember that first scene between Hal and James, where James poses as the “conversationalist”?  That’s pure dialogue, no external narrative voice at all. But the next section, I just noticed, begins: “Another way fathers impact their sons…” suggesting the narrator (who seems to be a very different third-person narrative voice than, say, the one who narrates the medical attaché’s scenes) is either continuing from his presentation in the previous section, or at least somehow “aware” of it, or of the place of his description in a larger narrative. And there’s no earthly reason for DFW to start the section in this conspicuous way except to establish this unexpected continuity across the shift in voices. So how many third-person narrators are there? And to the extent that they’re different, are some of them identifiable characters in the story? Are some just more abstractly distinguishable as “the detached narrator” and “the sobjective voice”?  Probably I’ll have a better idea of the answers if I stop blabbing prematurely and catch up on the damn reading already…


  1. Thanks for this analysis. I have also begun to suspect multiple narrators, even to the point that it may be possible that the sections written in cringe-worthy ebonics or street slang may also be narrated by some party other than the supposedly first person voice. Unless “map” is supposed to be a fairly widely used term in the time and space setting of the book, it does seem to be a vocabulatory tic of at least two distinct narrative voices. So it may not be wallace trying to pull off a certain subculture lingo, but one of the other third person narrators. Maybe a character in a film.

    Comment by john i — July 21, 2009 @ 5:44 pm | Reply

  2. Though I’m not a literary scholar or critic either, but rather a philosopher, perhaps I can chime in until someone corrects us. I am calling this a “floating 3rd person,” in the sense that in order to effectively capture the numerous characters, the 3rd person narration must float from one style to another. But I don’t, yet, have any reason to suppose that this represents one or another character in the novel. And I’m not sure that DFW is consistent in his usages (nor that he has to be) w/r/t ‘w/r/t’ (note use/mention distinction). A floating 3rd person is not bound to a specific character, and it can at times enter more deeply into the voice/psyche of one or another (e.g. the alternately acclaimed or despised yrstruly section).

    Comment by infinitetasks — July 21, 2009 @ 6:55 pm | Reply

  3. I think Hal is the floating narrator. It seems as if the bulk of the novel (set before Year of Glad) is an answer to the p17 question “So yo then man what’s your story?”. Hal’s predilection for grammatical tics and extensive vocabulary kind of flows in and out of each section.

    Perhaps the greatest hint, or treasure chest moment, for this explanation comes during this week’s reading (especially footnote 123).

    Comment by Sorrento — July 21, 2009 @ 7:27 pm | Reply

  4. The English term was “Free Indirect Discourse,” thank god the education I’m getting is useful for something.

    Comment by mpharris — July 21, 2009 @ 9:21 pm | Reply

  5. Yes, Sorrento, the Eschaton section as a whole does strongly imply a “third person subjective” or “free indirect discourse” (mpharris, you rock!) from the p.o.v. of Hal. But that need not the entire novel determine. There’s Gately, Joelle, yrstruly, Orin, etc., and they do have different (though sometime soverlapping) styles of narration, I think. And then, of course, there’s lots of play, such as lists, putative c.v.’s, etc. I am, nonetheless, of a mind that Hal can be seen as narrator for much of the novel thus far.

    Comment by infinitetasks — July 22, 2009 @ 1:00 am | Reply

  6. I just wrote about the same thing on my own blog just a couple days ago, in response to reading the long Eschaton chapter.

    I think mpharris pegged it; many of the third person chapters are pretty classic “free indirect discourse” (or written in “free indirect style” as it is also called). The difference worth noting between FID is that the narrative itself takes on the vocabulary (and other attributes) that we would normally associate with a character. I think the most useful examples come when a character (and I find this is especially the case with Gately) uses an ethnic slur or other such term. Even though no quotation marks are involved (the novel doesn’t say, Gately thought “…”) it is clear that the vocabulary is coming from Gately.

    Remember though that the book begins (and returns to) the first person.

    Comment by Chris Forster — July 22, 2009 @ 7:28 pm | Reply

  7. Right, I understand how the style works, but there are sections where I think the third person voice is clearly not that of any of the characters in the scene.

    Comment by Julian — July 23, 2009 @ 12:15 am | Reply

  8. I wrote about this on my site as well (http://thatsoundscool.blogspot.com/2009/07/infinite-jestation-blogthrough-pages_20.html), but I think a great example of the FID comes when Tavis’s whiny voice interrupts Orin’s backstory. Glad that I can find all of your sites through InfSum!

    Comment by Aaron — July 24, 2009 @ 3:08 am | Reply

  9. Not that it really affcts the FID/multiple narrator analysis, but the use of the term “map,” as in “eliminate his map” and “eliminate his own map,” is fairly common among characters and the narrator/s (at least those under-35) around both Ennet House and ETA (and if memory serves, it also pops up in other places). I am not sure when it is supposed to have come into usage in this way, but the etymology becomes fairly clear: recent (in the novel) North American geo-politics.

    Comment by Tom — July 31, 2009 @ 7:29 pm | Reply

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