“I must be taken as I have been made. The success is not mine, the failure is not mine, but the two together make me.”Great Expectations
The best books show us what it feels like to be human. No type of story does a better job of this (in my opinion) than a powerful first-person narrative. When a story is told in the first person, there’s no separation between the reader and the protagonist. We are in the character’s head, watching their inner life as they try to figure themselves out and navigate their world. Ideally, the reader will see themselves in the character and find validation or a new understanding of themselves and their life. These stories stay with us forever and invite us to return to their pages again and agian.
Here are four first-person narratives that give a close-up view of fascinating and relatable characters (with no to light spoilers):
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
Great Expectations is one of my favorite books and has been hailed by critics as Dickens’ best book. It tells the story of orphan boy Pip, who is living a hard knock life on the banks of the Thames with his abusive older sister and her kind but passive husband. Miss Havisham, the local rich lady, takes an interest in Pip and helps him get on as a blacksmith’s apprentice. While he works away at this, Pip receives the surprising news that a secret benefactor has bequeathed him a large fortune, and he must go to London and learn how to be a gentleman.
Pip’s story is narrated in the first person by the older Pip. This gives it a sense of nostalgia, regret, and wisdom that wouldn’t be possible if young Pip told it. As Pip navigates his unlooked-for new life, he goes through some relatable growing pains.
Movie adaptations have focused on the grim, dower qualities of the book, which is a shame because there are so many humorous and relatable moments in Pip’s story. Dickens’ does a great job of writing atmosphere in this book and that part does lean towards the Gothic. On the other side of things, there’s Pip’s friend, the lawyer who calls his old father the aged P (aged parent), and the relatable time when Pip spends way more money than he should on partying with his roommate.
This story has it all, romance, heartbreak, surprise twists, and beautiful prose. It’s also a comforting read when you feel that your life isn’t going according to “plan.”
Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis
I’ve always found Lewis’ work to be a bit hit or miss, but this book was definitely a hit. It was published in 1956 and was well received by critics as Lewis’ “most mature novel”. He wrote it with his wife, Joy, and it’s obvious that he got a woman’s input because his female protagonist is incredibly realistic and three-dimensional.
This book is a retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche. Lewis was bothered by the illogical actions of the characters in the myth and wanted to rewrite it. The result is a heart-wrenching first-person account by Psyche’s older sister Orual.
Orual is the “ugly” daughter of a despotic King, but after her sister Psyche is offered as a sacrifice to a monstrous creature, she can’t resist going to find her. What she discovers will change her life forever.
The beauty of this book is that it pulls you into Oruals mind as she makes decisions so you can see all the reasons behind them, including the lies she tells to herself. It’s an uncomfortably realistic view of human strength and frailty that stays with the reader long after turning the last page.
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
Ishiguro said that the inspiration behind Never Let Me Go was to explore what it’s like to live during a dystopian era, as opposed to other dystopian novels that focus on an uprising or overthrow of the dystopian system.
This is the story of Kathy H., who describes herself as a carer. Her job is to care for the cloned people whose only purpose in life is to be organ donors. Kathy herself is one of these clones, but she doesn’t have to be a donor while she works as a carer. She frequently reminisces about her time at Hailsham, a boarding school for cloned donors. The reader learns about Kathy’s growing-up experiences, her friends, her first love, her “first time,” and her growing understanding of what she and her friends are. Adult Kathy cares for some of these friends and lovers as they fulfill their purpose and donate organs until they die.
If you’re thinking, “God, that sounds depressing,” you’re right. It’s probably the most depressing book I’ve ever read. It’s a horror story more than anything and a well-done one. Imagine if one of the characters in the Hunger Games was narrating events as if that’s just how the world is and everything is fine. Kathy’s acceptance of the horrific system she’s living in makes the story far more disturbing than those where the character rails against the bad guys.
Yet, it does what the other novels I’ve listed here do– it makes you think about what it means to be human and explores mortality, morality, and how it feels to be part of the means that justify someone else’s ends.
Circe by Madeline Miller
Circe was one of those super hyped books that actually lived up to my expectations. Some of the best stories happen when someone asks, “What would that story look like from a different perspective?” That’s the case here, as Circe narrates her story, including the time she spent with Odysseus.
Of course, this is a very different story when Odysseus isn’t the narrator. Far from being a conniving witch who turns men into pigs for the fun of it, Circe is a woman forced to survive on her own after she’s exiled to a remote island. Yes, she has magic, but she only turns men into pigs out of self-defense. Understandable for a woman alone who might be visited by rapacious sailors at any moment.
Odysseus is a small part of Circe’s story that begins with her time as a child in the halls of her divine parents and ends after Odysseus’s death. During her exile, she creates a home, becomes a green witch extraordinaire, raises a child, and ultimately risks her life to right the wrongs of her youth.
I enjoyed seeing this humanizing portrait of a female character from mythology. So often, women in Greek and Roman myths are either faceless victims or villains who punish each other for the wrongs of the men in their lives. Miller’s Circe is able to overcome these roles and be a hero in her own right.
Have you read any fiction or nonfiction first-person narratives that you loved? Let me know in the comments.