The second-person narration addresses the reader directly and provides the opportunity for the author to put the reader in the character’s shoes. Abrams (1999) suggests that the second-person narrator may be “a specific fictional character, or the reader of the story, or even the narrator himself or herself” (p. 234). In the following essay, the functions and the effects of the uncommon narrative technique will be analyzed using the examples from the stories by Jamaica Kincaid and Franz Kafka.
The second-person point of view in Girl by Jamaica Kincaid serves as the literary device conveying the meaning of the story and helping the reader identify himself/herself with the main character. Based on the quotation by Abrams (1999), the narrator functions as a combination of an unspecified fictional character and the reader. The girl and the reader are being told what to do and how to behave by their mother or teacher. In An Imperial Message, Franz Kafka also utilizes the second-person narration, but the function of the narrator is different from the one in Girl. In the case of Kafka’s parable, the second-person narrator functions as the reader, who is supposed to receive the message from the dying emperor. The narration stimulates the reader’s imagination by drawing the picture of the emperor on the deathbed and describing the journey of the struggling messenger who may never deliver the emperor’s words.
The unusual type of narration creates the effect that the reader takes the place of the fictional character. The instructions given to the protagonist of Girl are exhausting and humiliating, so they evoke the sense of empathy for the girl who is supposed to follow them. The second-person point of view produces the unique effect of duality, expressed through the narrator’s reception of motherly advice along with blame and insult. On the one hand, the phrases “this is how to sew on a button” and “this is how you sweep a yard” may teach the girl how to be a good housewife (Kincaid, 1978). On the other hand, the phrase “try to walk like a lady and not like the slut” sounds rude, so the reader might feel offended with such treatment (Kincaid, 1978). Thus, the benefit of the second-person narration in Girl is that it reflects the moral and the meaning of the story, while they remain open to the reader’s unique interpretation.
The effect of the second-person narration is similar in An Imperial Message, where Franz Kafka utilized it to create a sense of ambiguity and freedom of interpretation. The narration allows the author to be an invisible and impartial figure in the story, but nevertheless, a meaningful one. The narration implies that the author plays the role of the emperor, whose message should be delivered to the reader, but cannot reach the destination due to the challenges along the way. The example at the end of the story supports this assumption: “Nobody could fight his way through here even with the message form a dead man” (Kafka, 2012, “An Imperial Message”). The journey filled with challenges might serve as a metaphor for the author’s attempts to get the reader’s attention.
All in all, the second-person narration utilized by Jamaica Kincaid and Franz Kafka functions differently in the stories. The narrator might be a union of the reader and a fictional character, as seen in Girl or the reader alone in the case of An Imperial Message. However, both stories demonstrate that the freedom of interpretation, provided by the unique point of view, allows the reader to experience the characters’ feelings and understand the author’s message.
Abrams, M. H. (1999). A glossary of literary terms (7th ed.). Harcourt Brace College Publishers.
Kafka, F. (2012). The complete stories [eBook edition]. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.
Kincaid, J. (1978). Girl. The New Yorker. Web.