Novels are usually written either in the third person, or in the first person. Clearly, the choice of one or other of these stylistic forms is by no means arbitrary; each of them is used to express something quite distinct, and our situation as readers in relation to what is being told us is thereby transformed.
It is easy to show that, in the novel, the simplest, most basic narrative form is the third person, and that each time an author uses another he does so in a sense figuratively—inviting us not to take it literally but to superimpose it on the basic form which is always implied. Thus Proust’s hero, Marcel, narrates In Remembrance of Things Past in the first person, but Proust insists on the fact that this I is not himself, with the peremptory argument: ‘It’s a novel’.
In all narrative the three persons of the verb are automatically involved: two real persons—the author who tells the story, corresponding to the I of ordinary conversation, and the reader to whom it is told, the you—and one fictional person, the hero whose story is being told, the he.
In memoirs, autobiographies, personal anecdotes, the person whose story is being told is identical to the person telling the story. In panegyrics and indictments, the person to whom one speaks is also the person about whom one is speaking. But in the novel there can be no such literal identity, since the person who is being spoken about, having no real existence, is necessarily a third person in relation to those two beings of flesh and blood who are communicating by means of him.
However, the very fact that one is dealing with fiction, that one cannot experience the material existence of this third person, that one never comes into contact with him physically, as an other, shows us that, in the novel, this distinction between the three grammatical persons is not as sharp as it is in everyday life. There is communication.
Everyone knows that the novelist constructs his characters, whether he wishes to do so or not, out of the elements of his own life. His heroes (or objects, if he is very prudent) are masks by means of which he reveals his own history and his own dreams. The reader is far from playing a purely passive role; he reconstructs, from the signs assembled on the page, a vision or an adventure; and he too makes use of the material which he has at his disposal—that is to say, of his own memory. The dream which he creates in this way illuminates what he lacks.
Thus, in a novel, the story we are told is always, at one and the same time, someone telling his own story and telling ours. Awareness of this fact brings about a shifting of the narrative from the third to the first person.