Changes In Canon as Reflected Through the Concepts of “You” and “I”

When in doubt, go back to the canon

Change in literary canon is subsequent to change in the ideological paradigm of a certain period of time. Therefore, the diachronic study of the alterations that happen to certain aspects of literary canon yields invaluable insight into the shifting Weltanschauung of human society. Needless to say that the reverse is just as fruitful an endeavor; the study of the differences in dealing with particular concepts over the age most definitely shall help the man of letters better assimilate and interpret literature.

In 1992’s Constructing Postmodernism, Brian McHale notes some extremely important characteristics of the relationship between the pronouns “you” and “I” and their presence in the literary text. The most important of these being, on the one hand, that the direct address of “you” bring the presence of the reader into the text, and, on the other hand, that the two elements are symmetrical components in the construction of a communicative act.

In an analysis of fragments of English literature from 1726 to 2001, the careful reader observes the moving away from tradition regarding the relationship between the two pronouns and the nature of the act of communication which they imply or represent.

In 1726’s “Gulliver’s Travels”, there is an “although I think […]” present in a context that clearly indicates the narrator is a character as well. Although it would be a mistake to say that this represents a normative tradition, it does, nevertheless, point towards a very important tendency (which is indeed to be found later, but the nature of the communication with the reader is rather different). The “I” here comments on instances of the fictional reality and there is an implied “you” (which is to be identified with the reader) for whom the comment is made in the first place. McHale’s “circuit of communication joining and addressor to an addressee” is fulfilled.

Moving to 1848 and “Vanity Fair”, the first item to be presented is a second person pronoun, in “and crying “How are you?””. This “you” has no relevant role for the purpose under discussion because it stands between quotation marks, it is impersonal and it is part of a rather fixed, social syntagm. The reader is simply being presented with what the cry will be; however, there is no communicative act, since there is no addressee: the cry could have been anything else (such as an interjection, perhaps). There also exists a first person pronoun immediately following this in: “I have no other moral to tag to the present story of […]”. It can be seen, by reading further into the fragment, that the narrator is no character. He does indeed make comments, as it was the case with the first extract, but they are distant ones. He does not directly assess the fictional world of his story because he is not part of it, unlike the character-narrator scenario from above. The implied “you” is the same, but there occurs a noticeable change in the nature of the “I”.

The third excerpt considered is dated 1900, Conrad’s “Lord Jim”, which means highly experimental modernist techniques are to be expected. The modernist paradigm implies a change towards uncertainty of perspective. The pronouns “we” and “us”, which the reader stumbles upon in the fragment under clauses such as “But we can see him” , “We ought to know” and “He is one of us”, may refer either to the narrator (as character) and other characters, or it may imply a non-character narrator referring to himself and the reader(s). In the latter case, there naturally is a symmetrical “you”, helping to fulfill communication purposes. The problem of the following first person singular pronouns is difficult as well. The only clear background element is the immersion into the past: the fragment is written using past tenses, which leads to the idea of (recovering) memories. It is important to note that in Modernism, past memories are of questionable validity. So is the entire issue of identity, closely related to that of the “I” concept. What is not clear is the identity of the “I” in “Was I so very wrong after all?”. Is the reader to believe that they are dealing with a narrator commenting from a distance (as was the case with the second extract) or is the narrator a character as well (such as in the case of the 1726 extract).

However, the real issue with the third paragraph examined  is that the symmetry with “you” is partly shattered because “I” is reflective and self-reflective. The purpose of reflection is not communication with an outside entity. It is self-analysis, self-discovery or self-improvement. The “you” in this particular case assists, without the first person being directed towards it. There are indeed present both the pronouns McHale asks for an act of communication, but the symmetry is nothing like the above cases, since the addresor is also the addressee. Modernism begins the moving away from tradition.

The fourth excerpt, from 28 years later, is “Orlando” and is focused almost entirely on the concept of “you”. Most probably, the “us”, “you” and “yourself”, found in the beginning, are part of a line of dialogue. However, they do not necessarily point towards the other character, but are general in nature, due to the tackling of pseudo-philosophical issue. The nature of the discourse must also be taken into consideration at this point. They point not towards a particular “I” (i.e. a particular individual), but to the whole of humanity.

The only “I” directly present in that particular paragraph is a certain referent to the character. However, the immediately following “you” in “nobody’s asking you to be a […]” again has as its complement any “I”. So is the case with the one at the end as well.

Communication is symmetrically achieved, since the reader comes and supplies their own “I” as the opposite spectrum for each of these “you”s. The interesting change is that so can the characters.

In the fifth piece, “Atonement” (2001) the fictional voice uses several instances of “you” with impersonal reference. There is severe departure from the standard defined in Constructing Postmodernism. The “I” in “I’ll thank you keep your cultural-imperialist ideas off my […]” brings out the author fully, but the following “you” does not refer to the reader as it could have been expected. The communicational symmetry is broken. The first person pronoun pairs with an addressee that is a great deal larger than itself, hence the elements of the combination are no longer equal.

It would be also important to note that several instances of “you” (such as in “You were on time! No, you were late”) no longer imply an “I’.

The last paragraph examined is almost entirely the domain of the “I”. Much like the previous case of self-analysis, this first person pronoun has (or needs for that matter) no communicational counterpart. The reader is immersed into the realm of the author’s self. “I” in this particular case of subjective discourse does not feel like it expects a “you” with whom to share anything. The entire episode resembles a soliloquy. It is easy to imagine that either with or without a second person pronoun, the ‘self’ the reader is exposed to would still have existed and behaved the same.

One instance of “you” (and one of “yourself”) does appear, but again it is impersonal; it does not make reference to the reader, implying no communicative act.

Tracing everything back, the analysis started at a point of mixture between genuine subjectivity and communication with the reader in the direct, traditional, expected manner (made by a character narrator). More than 100 years later, it has moved to circumstances of non-character narrator making subjective comments for the reader on what he presented and still establishing a communicative act. In the third novel, the relationship between “you” and “I” as symmetric elements was difficult to establish due to ambiguity risen from the experimental techniques that characterised the early XXth century.

Important changes in literature become apparent with the study of the study of the paragraphs starting from the fourth novel onwards. There is a noticeable move away from “traditional” elements, made possible through elements such as “you” with impersonal reference, “I”s whose main purpose was to create self-reflection (not communication) and so on, to the point of subjectivity accompanied by no communicative act. That is not to say the reader cannot project themselves into the literary text. Most certainly they can, however, the author’s self will not talk for them, as happened in 1726. Improvement demands change.


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