A novel written exclusively in the first person plural is The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides. Here the narrators are a group of men who, as teenagers, were obsessed with the Lisbon sisters, all of whom committed suicide. Although several of the boys are mentioned by name, it’s never clear who is speaking, so that the narrative unfolds as if chanted by a Greek chorus. Given that adolescents, despite the undoubted self-obsession, are strongly under the sway of peer-group norms, this is the ideal form for this particular novel. Similarly, I used the first person plural in my short story, Kinky Norm, about a bunch of teenage girls rounding on a teacher. Although it starts with an adult ‘I’ looking back on her childhood, she soon takes refuge in the group ‘we’ where no individual is responsible for what occurs:
We didn’t sit down together and discuss what we were going to do. There was no plan. No ringleader. It just happened: one of those spontaneous eruptions of adolescent exuberance that our schoolmaster had dedicated his career to nurturing.
Even saying I. I still find it hard. It has always felt not like a thing in itself but something left after a We has been broken (p84).
In foregrounding the complexity of the use of personal pronouns, these novels highlight one of the dilemmas of the human condition: how to balance our individual needs with our social needs. And perhaps it’s no coincidence, given that so many writers are introverts, that there were three times as many second-person stories than third-person plural in this collection. I’ll be coming back to the ‘you’ stories in another post.
Finally, it’s interesting to note that, although unusual in literature, the first person plural is extremely common in song. Which suits me fine as, while I’m generally an individual on the page, when it comes to music-making I’m always a choral girl.
What about you?
And, incidentally, if you've been to the site before you'll have noticed the revamp from burgundy to grey. I'm hoping the wider screen layout is easier to read. Your feedback welcome.