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Since subjects are very often ommited, I find it hard to identify whether I'm reading a segment in the first person or the third person. What are the patterns to look for to identify one or the other? Is it common to jump between the two or are they generally the same throughout one book?

The question may seem broad, but this is a genuine question that learners will ask themselves when tackling their first books. With speech or manga, it's easy to know because people speak for themselves and use names or pronouns when speaking in the third person. For other books such as novels, how do you know if the text is the character speaking in first person or if it's the narrator speaking in the third person.

I'm basically in the middle of a book and I still have no clue if I should read "He attacked the merchant" or "I attacked the merchant".


I was asked to provide examples, here's the introduction of the novel:

記憶に鮮明なのは、紅蓮の炎にも似た紅い色――。 小振りの曲刀を横薙ぎに払うと、湿った布を裂くような音と共に鮮血が飛び散った。

My two translations:

  • There's something vivid in his memory, a red color also resembling crimson flames. With the horizontal sweeping of the smallish curved blade, there's a sound similar to a damp cloth tearing coupled with fresh blood splattered.

  • There's something vivid in my memory, a red color also resembling crimson flames. When I swept my smallish curved blade, there was a sound similar to a damp cloth tearing coupled with fresh blood splattered.

Up to that point, I still have no idea if it's someone talking about his memories or a narrator.


A bit later in the novel:

その隙に、イルーシュは尻餅をついた体勢を立て直そうとしたのだが。

Here there is no doubt it's the third person but I don't know if it changed, maybe because they're fighting and there's dialogue. I think it's one of the only parts where he used his name. This is why part of my question was "is it common to jump between the two?".


Let me rephrase the question to give another perspective: Should you consider the text just like speech, meaning it's always first person unless there is clear pronouns (this would mean it can change whenever), or do you assume a point of view during the novel like in French or English? How do you approach the point of view as a novel reader?

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    It might help to copy a paragraph or two from that book.
    – aguijonazo
    Jul 1 at 3:14
  • I agree. You're already in the middle of a book. Judging from your previous questions, I think a simple answer like "see the subject of the previous sentence" or "pay attention to keigo" is not going to help you. It's hard to give a useful advice without concrete sentences.
    – naruto
    Jul 1 at 3:22
  • @naruto If that's the only solution to identifying the point of view then that could be the answer, with examples. I would expect a comprehensive answer to show all or the most common patterns. The reason I didn't put a segment is because I would like the answer to be general, not simply for this book. In addition, I'm not sure if I can just copy paragraphs of the book for legal reasons and individual sentences won't really help.
    – Simon
    Jul 1 at 3:31
  • If the narrator is speaking in third person, don’t you see the characters’ names sooner or later, making the problem as easy to solve as in speech? As for the specific question of who attacked the merchant, you might have the same problem even in speech. If you don’t, that would be because you have enough context, and that’s what you would need in a written text, too. To understand what difference you are seeing in speech and writing, a few examples would still help.
    – aguijonazo
    Jul 1 at 3:41
  • Someone's going to have to provide examples to answer comprehensively, if I understand what you're looking for, so it might as well at least include the one that made you want to ask the question.
    – Leebo
    Jul 1 at 3:57
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I know this is not going to be a comprehensive answer, but it’s too long to fit in a comment anyway.

Specifically about your example, if the same person who swept the blade in the first sentence is later referenced by their name, I would assume the first sentence was also spoken from a third person’s perspective. (If イルーシュ is not the one who swept the blade, on the other hand, the later sentence doesn’t necessarily represent a switch of perspectives and both sentences could still be part of a first-person narrative.)

Generally, I wouldn’t say it’s common to switch perspectives in one novel. I would think a work that freely switches between first-person and third-person modes would be considered a poor piece of writing.

I agree with you when you say it’s a genuine question. It somehow reminded me of 雪国 by Kawabata Yasunari.

国境の長いトンネルを抜けると雪国であった。夜の底が白くなった。信号所に汽車が止まった。向側の座席から娘が立って来て、島村の前のガラス窓を落した。

「雪国」川端康成

You would need to wait till you come across 島村 to know the novel is probably not written from the first person’s perspective. Even then, it’s hard to tell unless you already know 島村 is the name of the protagonist. Only after you continue reading do you realize it’s indeed written from a third person’s perspective. The definite key is in the absence, rather than the presence, of something, namely the absence of a first-person pronoun.

Let’s look at another example.

親譲りの無鉄砲で小供の時から損ばかりしている。小学校に居る時分学校の二階から飛び降りて一週間ほど腰を抜かした事がある。なぜそんな無闇をしたと聞く人があるかも知れぬ。別段深い理由でもない。新築の二階から首を出していたら、同級生の一人が冗談に、いくら威張っても、そこから飛び降りる事は出来まい。弱虫やーい。と囃したからである。小使に負ぶさって帰って来た時、おやじが大きな眼をして二階ぐらいから飛び降りて腰を抜かす奴があるかと云ったから、この次は抜かさずに飛んで見せますと答えた。

「坊っちゃん」夏目漱石

Although a first-person pronoun (おれ to be precise) doesn’t appear till much later, you can still tell that this is a first-person narrative. One clear sign is the use of おやじ, which is normally used to refer to one’s own father. However, even before that, the absence of a name or a third-person pronoun to refer to the subject in the very first sentence, as well as in later sentences, makes you suspect that the person who is 無鉄砲 is the one talking. (In comparison, it should be much easier to tell 吾輩は猫である is a first-cat narrative…)

It’s hard to tell what exactly to look for, but how people are referenced will definitely provide hints.

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