The role of second-person narration in Sylvia Plath’s Smith Journal

Demjen, Zsofia (2009). The role of second-person narration in Sylvia Plath’s Smith Journal. In: International Conference on Narrative, 4-6 Jun 2009, Birmingham, UK.


This paper looks at instances of second-person narration in ‘The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath’. Second-person narration is defined as “…a narrative mode in which the narrator tells a story to a (sometimes undefined, shifting, and/or hypothetical) narratee – delineated by you – who is also the (sometimes undefined, shifting, and/or hypothetical) principle actant in that story” (DelConte, 2003:207-8). Entries written in the second-person are examined in order to determine the role that a narrative shift (from first- to second-person narration) can have in terms of its potential implications as a linguistic representation of mental states. The contributions of different approaches (narratology, linguistics, psychology) to the study of second-person narration are considered and their findings are re-applied to a non-fictional text. The focus is on only one of Sylvia Plath’s Journals, the ‘Smith Journal’, as this is where the narrative shifts occur.

Second-person narration can have a variety of functions stemming from the inherent properties of the second-person pronoun and some of these properties combine, or even clash to produce a whole array of effects such as distancing, sense of an inner split, self-alienation, or similar. This paper proposes that any effects are not only brought about by a narrative shift, but are also dependent on temporal orientation. The effects identified in the text are then linked with research in psychology as well as Sylvia Plath’s known biography in order to comment on how various linguistic patterns can allude to states of mind.

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