June 28, 2011
When we look at narrators, we usually think of them in terms of first-person narrators and third-person narrators. However, these terms can sometimes be confusing or fail to give us a complete picture of who the narrator is. For example, in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Jane is a first-person narrator who also acts as the main character in the book. In Cervantes’s Don Quixote, however, the first-person narrator spends most of the book telling us the story of Don Quixote and Sancho, from which he is removed. Both are first-person narratives, but the two narrators are scarcely comparable.
The case is similar with third-person narrators. We can have a third-person narrator like those in Jane Austen’s novels, who inserts witticisms and judgments into the text (such as in the first line of Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”) or like that of the Harry Potter series, who does not. The need for more precise classifications for narrators is evident.
Professor Manfred Jahn supplies us with some such classifications. Jahn distinguishes between “overt” and “covert” narrators. An “overt narrator” gives us information about himself and projects a voice (Jahn N1.8- N1.9). A “covert narrator,” on the other hand, has “a largely indistinct or indeterminable voice” (Jahn N1.9). According to this definition a first-person narrator is always overt, because he always projects a voice of some sort. A third-person narrator, however, may be overt (like in Pride and Prejudice) or covert (like in Harry Potter).
It is important to recognize that this not merely an either/or distinction, but rather, a spectrum. Thus, you might have two narratives that are overt, but one might be more overt than the other. For example, the Jane Eyre is more overt than the narrator in Don Quixote.