“I am a sick man…. I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased. However, I know nothing at all about my disease, and do not know for certain what ails me. I don’t consult a doctor for it, and never have, though I have a respect for medicine and doctors... No, I refuse to consult a doctor from spite.”
Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
If you were sitting across from this person and heard him speak these words, what would you think? Would you want to something to him or would you remain silent? If you could speak to him, what would you say?
Notes from the Underground is one of my favorite books and I have read it several times. But every time I read it, I walk away disturbed in mind and in spirit. I think the reason for this reaction is because of the book’s first-person point of view.
Point of View (POV) is the perspective from which a story is told. In first-person POV, the story is narrated by one of the characters. It is a description of the character’s sensory perceptions and his or her thoughts, feelings, or actions from a particular reference in time. Katniss Everdeen relates her journey in The Hunger Games as it occurs in the present; Bella Swan relates her experiences in Twilight as past events.
Every first-person narrative is comprised of two parts: the actions, experiences, and observation of the narrator – the outer world; and the narrator’s thoughts and feelings – the inner world. How much of a story is given to the outer world compared to the inner world varies according to the taste and style of the writer.
Sometimes when I read a story told from the first-person POV, I feel like I am actually sitting with that person in the act of empathetic listening. I step into the narrator’s inner world and visit their holy places. It can be an amazing and enlightening experience. However, there are some places where the sacred has been desecrated and the altars have been torn down, leaving desolation and despair.
What disturbs me about first-person POV is not the state of their inner world – it’s the fact that I can only listen in silence.
The first-person POV is an intimate monologue, allowing no opportunity for personal interaction with the reader. Any empathy the reader feels is trapped on his or her side of the page. There is no flesh-and-blood person one is listening to so there are no comments or questions one can ask. One can only watch as the character goes through his or her private hell.
And yet, I still read Notes from the Underground for the profound lessons of life it teaches. It reminds me that there are living, breathing human beings experiencing the same inner worlds as characters in a book. And they need someone to listen to them, to hear their stories, and to reach out in love and compassion. There are infinite opportunities to engage in empathetic listening because each one of us tells our life story from first-person point of view.
What about you? What emotions do you experience reading a fictional character’s thoughts and/or feelings? I would love to read your point of view.