"You Remember the Pin Mill" and the Second-Person Narrative
This essay was adapted and revised from one I originally wrote for an academic prompt, so it assumes you’ve read David Bradley’s “You Remember the Pin Mill.”
If you’re interested in reading it, you can find it on Narrative’s website here. (It requires that you complete the money-free/spam-free sign up process.)
Even in its title, David Bradley’s “You Remember the Pin Mill” reveals his clear and direct course toward a literal identification with his characters. It was written as a second-person narrative, in which the protagonist is referred to directly as “you,” effectively confining the entirety of the reader’s perception to the narrator’s five senses. A natural conversational tone allows for smooth transitions between a quasi-present and past tense (“You remember when…” and “You realize…,”) as if the story is a stream of consciousness produced within a singular point in time, with the narrator occasionally speaking in technically-present tense language when reliving a memory. The work’s assault on the barriers between the narrator and the reader forges an intimate connection, and clarifies his struggle to understand the motivations of the characters he interacts with.
The narrator recalls an early conversation with his grandfather that exemplifies the natural language Bradley incorporated: “And he was saying how, if you went left you’d be on Forbes Road…” Written in the first-person, the narrator would simply be telling a traditional “campfire” story, aware of an audience, with a filter placed between his true thoughts and perception and the reader. In the third-person, the filter would be nonexistent, along with any personal connection. As a second-person narrative, however, the narrator’s thoughts are accessed directly, but in a near-accusational tone.
Traditionally, a story told in the first-person by only one narrator is not the completely accurate “truth,” but rather the narrator’s own construction. Bradley’s second-person approach complicates the issue. The narrator’s bias is still a component, as he is the story’s only vessel, but our insight into his thoughts theoretically eliminates the possibility of deception for the purpose of vanity, and leaves in question only the reliability of his perception of the fictional reality, and the possibility (a remote one in this case) of his own self-deception.
Huckleberry Finn narrates The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from a very traditional first-person perspective. His consideration of his image and desire to appear as his ideal self to his audience are intentional and integral components to the novel; its exaggeration of the fictional truth filters it to a more idealized adventure, and allows for Mark Twain’s humor. Huck himself is inclined to believe only in the more interesting story for his own excitement. Had the novel been written like “You Remember the Pin Mill,” it would have retained the latter and eliminated the former.
In addressing the reader as “you,” Bradley gives us a sense of direct identity, resulting in a burden of responsibility for the narrator’s actions. It enhances and clarifies the conveyed emotion through the fortification of our connection to him.
The narrator’s misunderstanding with Joe Wisdom manifests into a personal defense: “…you weren’t sorry because you did not call him a name…” We are in his thoughts, acting as both participants in and witnesses to his attempts to understand the politics and traditions of the adults around him.
The simplicity of writing the story from only the protagonist’s perspective reduces clutter and compresses the amount of information the reader needs to assimilate, which places a greater emphasis on the individual interactions between only the protagonist and the other characters. The character’s age enhances the simplicity even further. As a child, he avoids complex drama because he perceives it as nuanced and pedestrian. From the mind of a child, he confronts the issue of his grandfather’s refusal to intervene in his father’s abuse of his mother. He sees the simple solution (direct physical intervention,) and concludes that his grandfather’s unwillingness to act is the product of cowardice.
Read in another perspective, “You Remember the Pin Mill” would lose the truth in its narrator’s simplified perception of the events and characters that surround him. In addressing us directly, Bradley burdens us with the responsibility for the narrator’s actions, and consequently, we gain a direct insight into his conflicts, thoughts, and resulting emotions.