The Second Person Study, Part 14: Wrestling with Monika Fludernik

Why are You doing this to Yourself?

I have been tormenting myself by trying to understand “Second Person Fiction: Narrative You as addressee and/or protagonist” by Monika Fludernik, professor of English literature and culture at the Albert Ludwigs University of Freiburg, Germany (she is Austrian).

I can not make sense of huge passages in this paper! There is an entire vocabulary which sometimes has subtle gradations in meaning, and I am unable to decipher it: Histoirediscours – narrational enunciatory plane, – existential (not the philosophy) – actantial roles – metaleptic mode – covert narration – diectic center – phlogiston (no, I made that up, I actually know what phlogiston is, or rather what it is not but once was thought to be).

Is there a narratologist in the house? Hmmm… I did not think so.

So I will try anyway, and maybe along the way I will figure out some of these things.

In the three page introduction to the paper (which took me almost two hours to get through) Fludernik proposes she will do three things:

1. Outline the issues in fitting second person into narative paradigms, and setting up a typology. This is where I had the most trouble.

2. review the discourse types that generate or reflect models for writing or reading second peson texts. This was not so bad.

3. examine the short story “You” by Joyce Carol Oates (first published in Cosmopolitan in 1970 and included in her collection The Wheel of Love to examine the use of second person in fiction. I actually understand some of this! And it is a wonderful story!

First, Fludernik sets up her typology. They involve the function of address – and here I get confused because it seems to me “addressee” refers to the person doing the addressing, not the person being addressed, and that is where I get lost, I think! So I will not even try to parse it out. You can read it for yourself! If you understand it, please let me know! I seem to have particular trouble with who the “addressee” is – I am thinking the narrator is the “addressor” but maybe not! And I am having trouble with planes – narrational, existential, story, and enunciatory planes! I need to do more study!

Second, she lists natural discourse forms that allow for second person fiction to happen at all. One thing she talks about in the first section, that I find fascinating, is that it is very strange “the narrator to tell the addressee’s story” – and this would only happen in Real Life if the addressee had forgotten the events (“You let the dog out an hour ago), or if maybe the narrator wanted to relive them together (“Remember that time you went to the Cape for spring break? You thought it would be fun on the beach but you did not realize it would be so cold so you…).

But in the actual section where she discusses natural discourse, she gives four types of literary predecessors to second person fiction (all quotes):

Conversational storytelling: John Barth’s “Life Story,” B.S. Johnson’s “Aren’t You Rather Young To Be Writing Your Memoirs?”, Stephen Koch’s Night Watch, Hawthorne’s “Main Street.” Such a use of address does not intrinsically resemble second person fiction, but it helps to dangerously subvert the fiction/nonfiction boundary inducing the actual reader to, at least initially, feel addressed by the textual you.

Skaz narrative: A traditional mode of oral narrative in which a bard addresses the community…. Pseudo-oral literature such as Twain and Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegone Days; Gogol’s “Overcoat.” And: Second person fiction utilizes this subversive potential for creating an unsettling effect – that of involving the actual reader of fiction, not only in the tale, but additionally in the world of fiction itself, and eerie effect that can be put to very strategic political use. This technique has been widely applied, for instance, in recent black women’s writing where it allows the fictional narrator both to evoke the familiar setting for the community-internal reader and to draw readers from different cultural backgrounds into the fictional world of the black community, thereby increasing potential empathy values and forcing an in-group consciousness on the (factually) out-group reader. Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Sula, third person present tense sections of Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day.

Letter writing: In much second person fiction an address function is motivated realistically by an implicit or explicit letterwriting subtext. The reader, in her attempt to make sense of the situation of address, is led to interpret the address to an absent addressee in terms of an epistolary model. Alice Munro’s “Tell Me Yes Or No” is a good case in point.

Dramatic monologue: The dramatic monologue does not narrate, it is unmediated direct discourse. Yet the ‘point’ of dramatic monologue usually consists in the unwitting revelation of the speaker’s ignorance of (or worse, implication in) not entirely innocent fictional events. The raison d’etre of the dramatic monologue, lies precisely in the uncovering of a ‘story’ which the speaker does not tell but which her discourse reveals to the perceptive addressee. Browning’s “My Last Duchess” Hawkes’s novel Travesty – The text can be argued to be subversive both in terms of neat narratological distinctions and in terms of awarding the actual reader in her interpretive function a prime share in constituting narrative signification. [Note that Richardson specifically excludes Travesty from second-person status, which is why I use the term “person-and-a-half” and also another area of my confusion].

Then she gives four “non-literary antecedants” (again, all quotes)

The Instructions and Guide Book You: we all know this one! (this is not a quote!)

The Courthouse You: The rendering of the defendant’s or witnesses actions and thoughts in a reconstructed narration addressed to the defendant/witness with the aim of eliciting a confession (“you took her home…. You walked her to the door…. And then you killed her”)

The Generalizing You The most common departure point for second person fiction is the linguistic device of generalizing You: “when you have a cold, you feel really lousy”.

The Self-Address You When people in their private thoughts argue with themselves, assuming a dialogue between their egos and superegos…. one novel that makes more than a cursory use of self-address you, Lillian Smith’s Strange Fruit: ” Sometimes he felt what he believed the white folks were feeling. Or most of them. Something, you felt against your mind, against all you knew. Against all you believed. Yet, there it was… you’d always wanted to know a white girl. You knew their brothers, you’d played with them as kids, sometimes gone fishing. But you never knew a white girl.”

So from these roots come second person literature!

Third, she discusses the story “You” by Joyce Carol Oates. That deserves a post of its own! But some terminology became evident (I am writing like her!) in the first few paragraphs and I think this is it:

When Monika (after all she has put me through, I think we should be on a first-name basis!) refers to “reflectoral mode” I think that is the “You get up. You feel the need to hurry so you skip breakfast and run for the train” type of thing, such as in “Scordatura.” This means a pretty much invisible narrator, one who does not exist – let me see, this narrator is not in the existential plane, but is in the narrative plane. And the narrator can not be an actant in the story since he does not exist in the story! I hope I am using these terms right. I understand what I mean, but I would just say “invisible narrator” instead of planes! Or call it “standard second person” like Richardson does! I think Monika is a troublemaker. I think the “instruction manual” form of second person would be included here, since there is an “invisible narrator” who is not in the story. I would consider it a separate form – but I am not a narratologist!

Then there is “homocommunicative address mode”, which is what I have been calling “person-and-a-half” – the type of thing in “We Didn’t” or “Once in a Lifetime.” I do not think Richardson considers this an actual second person at all, but I could be wrong about that. It is in fact more of a blend of first and second person – “I held the door and you smiled as you walked past me” type thing. The you is an object as often as a subject! And the narrator/addressor, who is probably a protagonist – to use Mean Monika’s terms – shares the existential and narrative plane of the story with the addressee, who might also be a protagonist! The addressor/narrator is probably an actant in the story, or at least is a person with whom the addressee/protagonist is aquainted. I am not sure if they both must be protagonists, but they are in the two examples! I am not sure how they could not be – I suppose one could be a minor character, but that seems like a silly distinction.

And she also talks about the intimacy and distancing aspects of second person! Wow, I thought I was making that up, I am so happy to find it is real!

First she says: “…excellent suitability of second person fiction for the expression and description of intimacy. This is true especially of the reflectoral mode where the second person creates an even greater empathy than first or third person variants (implicitly, even if only intially, seeming to involve the actual reader in her role as a possible addressee…” So as we read “you” we automatically think, “Who, me?” and are feeling talked about, resulting in more of a relationship with the narrator – an intimacy between the narrator and the reader. At the same time: “Since address combines a distancing factor (foregrounding the non-identity of the I and the you) with the presuppostition of an acquaintance with the person thus addressed, it proves to be a fictional mode adaptible to detailing the jig-saw structure of the mother-daughter relationship.” So it can work both ways! I will go into this more in a future post (it is not that simple, of course) but I was glad to see these concepts are recognized by someone who actually knows what she is doing!

I think I am beginning – just beginning – to understand Monika! This frightens me!

The Joyce Carol Oates story “You” will be next. It is full of interesting second person tricks!

4 responses to “The Second Person Study, Part 14: Wrestling with Monika Fludernik

  1. Pingback: The Second Person Study, Part 16: Three Stories from Wild Life by Kathy Fish « A Just Recompense

  2. Pingback: The Second Person Study, Part 17: “Apostrophe” by Randall Brown « A Just Recompense

  3. Pingback: Sunday With Zin – and Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the New Millenium, Part 1 « A Just Recompense

  4. Pingback: Junot Diaz: “Miss Lora” from The New Yorker, 4/23/12 « A Just Recompense

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