“Because you can’t change who you are”

“Because you can’t change who you are”

Use of Second Person in Stewart O’Nan’s

A Prayer for the Dying

Marilynne Robinson’s

The second person is a challenging narrative voice, rarely found in a novel, difficult to pull off for the writer.

Jacob Hansen, the second person narrator of Stewart O’Nan’s A Prayer for the Dying, is an uncomfortable voice with which to spend time.  The reader is forced to discern just who is this “you” who observes “the bright, languid days” (4) of high summer in Friendship, WI.  Is he friend or foe, fair or foul?

The instant identification is that “you”, the reader, are Jacob.  You are implicated in all his decisions, his thoughts, his observations.  Gradually, it dawns on you, this is a man already lethally wounded by the Civil War, not long past; conflicted in his tripartite role as Friendship’s lawman, minister, and undertaker; and pushed to the limits of human endurance by the plague eating up the town from the inside and the fire threatening to consume it from the outside.

By the time you realize Jacob is a madman, you are mortally inflicted with curiosity:  this situation cannot end well.

There are only a handful of reasons for any author to use second person, among them:

  • in instructions, where the reader is told what to do, step by step.  Readers readily acquiesce to such commands because they want and need to know how to use their microwaves or set the time on their DVD players.
  • in letters, where the level of intimacy is such that the reader, addressed directly, enters a predetermined relationship.
  • in reflection, where the narrator, looking back, speaks of his own past in a kind of encompassing universal.
  • in mental illness, where the “you” is dissociative. The persona has separated from the “I” to achieve distance from his actions, thoughts, or memories.  Such second person narrative is risky. When asked to take a narrative journey with a dissociative personality, readers throw up barriers: they will not willingly perform acts outside their own codes of morality.

Embracing such risk, O’Nan draws the reader in gradually with descriptions of life in statis on a languid summer day.  Hansen’s observations are terse, spare, non-threatening.  Gradually, his self-reflection reveals a man who knows himself:

The undertaking’s easy; being a constable is hard.  When you put them together it can be too much, though that’s only happened once since you’ve been back (4).

The reader nods, accepts: yes, quite so.  Jacob is aware of how he must appear to other people:

“Friendship’s my town, you say, and they think you’re too serious, too sentimental, a fool.  They think the war did something to you.  Maybe so, but for the good, you think” (5)

–and the reader is willing to accept this judgment on Hansen’s say-so.  By the time of the inciting incident, only some 500 words into the slender volume, the reader’s doubts are shelved and he’s along for the ride to hell, on a handcart.

Whatever moral squeamishness the reader may feel later is filtered through the intensity of Hansen’s thoughts and actions: would we as readers, driven to such madness, choose otherwise?   In his exchange with Fenton over the fate of Sarah Ramsay (forcibly quarantined), Hansen asserts:

“Wasn’t much else we could do.”

“Don’t think I could do something like that.”

“You do when you have to,” you say.  “You’d have to be an awful hard man, I expect” (146).

A hard man, yes; but at what tensile strength does even the hardest man bend or break?

Yet, Hansen’s dissociative voice has its own rigid logic and authority:

“And so you roll over and whisper another prayer into your pillow.  Not because you’re too proud to admit you’re wrong.  Not because you’re afraid.  Because you can’t change who you are” (120).

Character and fate have combined inextricably to bring this one man to this place in his personal history:

“How cruel you’ve become, thinking it’s better than Paris green.  Then it’s true, you’ve gone absolutely mad, utterly indifferent to those you know.  Every day there’s less of you” (163)–

an unbearable situation for any human.

And yet, as difficult as readers may find the second person journey in Hansen’s mind, one wonders: how much more horrific would the tale have been in first person? filtered through a consciousness so psychotic it has not broken or dissociated from its intolerable reality.


In Gilead, Marilynne Robinson employs a different sort of second person narration in what is primarily a first person epistolary narrative:

“I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I’m old, and you said, I don’t think you’re old” (Gilead, 3).

Immediately, with this simple, loving tone, the reader knows he is in safe hands and nestles into the narrative as if being told one of his own tales from childhood.  Interestingly, the primary “you” is a child at the time the narrator, Rev. John Ames, undertakes his mission to write a testament of his life.  But Ames also thinks ahead to the adult who will read the extended letter:

“If you’re a grown man when you read this – it is my intention for this letter that you will read it then – I’ll have been gone a long time” (4).

Within several pages of the opening, Ames speaks of himself in second person too, reflecting on his own life:

“That’s the strangest thing about this life, about being in the ministry.  People change the subject when they see you coming.  And then sometimes those very same people come into your study and tell you the most remarkable things” (6).

One trap of the second person epistolary form is the temptation to destroy verisimilitude by telling the “you” things he would already know.  Sure, the reader of the book needs backstory and context, but the intended reader of the letter does not.  One uses shorthand with one’s correspondents; one rarely narrates the full story in which the reader has been a participant, unless perhaps one is explaining his or her side of the story.

But Robinson never falls into such a trap.  Her young/old “you” is a child at the time of Ames’s writing, who will be an adult when reading – a very different perspective.  Ames contextualizes the letter by reminding the adult what the child may have been doing at the time:

“I saw a bubble float past my window, fat and wobbly and ripening toward that dragonfly blue they turn just before they burst.  So I looked down at the yard and there you were, you and your mother, blowing bubbles at the cat…. Your mother is wearing her blue dress and you are wearing your red shirt and you were kneeling on the ground together with Soapy between and that effulgence of bubbles rising, and so much laughter.  Ah, this life, this world” (10).

In this manner, the persona Ames captures life in the moment.  Additionally, he looks ahead to a future tense in which he will not be present:

“I’m going to set aside that Feuerbach with the books I will ask your mother to be sure to save for you.  I hope you will read it sometime….There are some notes of mine in the margins of the book which I hope you may find useful (31).

Within the framing device of the extended letter, Ames tells the story of his own past.  At regular intervals, he is reflective in a way that invites confidence in the accuracy of his observations:

“Calvin says somewhere that each of us is an actor on a stage and God is the audience.  That metaphor has always interested me, because it makes us artists of our behavior, and the reaction of God to us might be thought of as aesthetic rather than morally judgmental in the ordinary sense.  How well do we understand our role?  With how much assurance do we perform it?” (142).

What might have been a simple tale of Ames’s “begats” (10) thus achieves a compelling depth: Robinson’s narrative is never just one thing at one time.

It is worth noting that, in both these novels, the extensive Christian themes are entirely character-driven.  Both Hansen and Ames are preachers, yet neither is ever “preachy,” even when Ames is quoting from his own collected sermons.  Their faith is consuming; they both quote scripture.  In the marketplace, both novels have been successful in a secular market – primarily because there is no author-driven agenda.  Each man is a devout Christian solely because “you can’t change who you are.”

Works Cited

O’Nan, Stewart.  A Prayer for the Dying.  New York:  Henry Holt, 1999.

Robinson, Marilynne.  Gilead.  London:  Virago Press, 2005.


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