Catcher in the Rye (37745)When a novel has a third-person omniscient narrator, the reader is unlikely to question the legitimacy of anything she reads. It’s taken for granted that the narrator is unbiased and telling the truth. Reading novels can be hard enough as it is: the reader has to keep all the characters straight, remember crucial plot points, look for themes and motifs (at least she does if she is studying for the PSAT or a similar exam) and try to understand any literary or historical allusions she may find within.

But if a novel has a first-person narrator, the reader has to ask herself “how much can I trust the person telling this story?” Not to do so is being an irresponsible reader, as it’s almost a guarantee that having a first-person narrator was a very intentional choice on the part of the author. Think about how different J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye would be if it had a third-person, omniscient narrator instead of Holden Caulfield. How would it begin?

“Holden Caulfield was a well-meaning, if confused and misguided, young man who was never able to fully get over the untimely death of his brother Allie.” This may be a reasonable introduction to the character of Holden Caulfield, but it also essentially reveals everything the reader learns about Holden by reading his story. When Holden tells his story himself, the reader is allowed to find him first annoying, then frustrating, then curious, and finally pitiable. This is a young man who was exposed to the cruelty of the world too soon and, as such, is unable to have a functional relationship with just about anyone.

If the reader is unable to go on this journey with Holden, hearing his account of everything he experiences and seeing the world and other people through his eyes, it’s unlikely that she’ll be able to be as sympathetic towards him as she’ll likely end up being by the end of the novel. A third-person narration would not allow the reader to see the world through Holden’s eyes, and even though it would allow the reader to see all of the events in Holden’s life exactly as they occur, it’s unlikely that the Catcher in the Rye would be as powerful and enduring a novel if it were told from anyone else’s perspective.

The same goes for Huckleberry Finn. Mark Twain may be one of the greatest American writers of all time, but would he have been able to tell that story in a voice other than Huck’s? It’s hard to imagine. Obviously, Huck and Jim’s story is a great one, but it could easily be argued that the strength of the story lies just in much in Huck’s voice as it does in the plot itself.

What would Huckleberry Finn quotes sound like in a voice other than Huck’s? “ I didn't do him no more mean tricks, and I wouldn't done that one if I'd a knowed it would make him feel that way” might sound like, “It was never my intention to be so deceptive, and I never would have acted in such way had I known it would cause my dear friend such pain.” Because what Huck’s language lacks in sophistication, it makes up for in personality. The reader learns so much about who Huck is simply from the way he speaks. That would all be lost if Twain had chosen a different kind of narrator.