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Second-Person Point of View: Definition, Examples & Quiz

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Richard Davis

Richard teaches college writing and has a master's degree in creative writing.

You've heard of first-person and third-person, but did you know that there's a point of view that exists between the two? In fact, you're experiencing that point of view right now. Come and learn the ins and outs of second-person point of view, reading examples from Italo Calvino and Richard Hugo.

What Is Second-Person Point of View?

When it comes to storytelling, you've probably heard the terms 'first-person' and 'third-person' tossed around. You've read first-person narratives that tell a story from inside a character's head (using 'I'), and you've encountered third-person narratives that describe a character's actions from the outside (such as, 'Mary walked to the park.'). Still, did you know that there's a point of view between first-person and third-person? Guess what? You're reading an example of it right now.

Whereas first-person uses 'I,' and third-person uses pronouns (like 'he' and 'she') and names (like 'Mary'), second-person point of view uses the word 'you' to describe the main character. In other words, you (the reader) are the central character in a piece of writing that uses second-person. However, in second-person, there is still an implied speaker telling the story, even though an 'I' might not appear at all. It may help to think of a second-person narrative as one person talking to a second person.

Uses in Fiction

Our first example of second-person point of view comes from Italo Calvino's 1979 novel If on a Winter's Night a Traveler. The first chapter (and every odd-numbered chapter after that) is told in second-person, addressing the reader's experience of reading the book. Because it draws the reader's attention to the fact that they are reading a work of fiction, this kind of storytelling is known as metafiction.

Reading a description of metafiction isn't as effective as experiencing it, however. To give you a better understanding of the term (and perhaps to inspire you to check out this strange, engaging novel), here are the first two paragraphs of If on a Winter's Night a Traveler:

'You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, 'No, I don't want to watch TV!' Raise your voice - they won't hear you otherwise - 'I'm reading! I don't want to be disturbed!' Maybe they haven't heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: 'I'm beginning to read Italo Calvino's new novel!' Or if you prefer, don't say anything; just hope they'll leave you alone.

Find the most comfortable position: seated, stretched out, curled up, or lying flat. Flat on your back, on your side, on your stomach. In an easy chair, on the sofa, in the rocker, the deck chair, on the hassock. In the hammock, if you have a hammock. On top of your bed, of course, or in the bed. You can even stand on your hands, head down, in the yoga position. With the book upside down, naturally.'

Uses in Poetry

For our second example of second-person point of view, let's turn our attention to poetry. Here is the first stanza of Richard Hugo's 'Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg:'

You might come here Sunday on a whim.
Say your life broke down. The last good kiss
you had was years ago. You walk these streets
laid out by the insane, past hotels
that didn't last, bars that did, the tortured try
of local drivers to accelerate their lives.
Only churches are kept up. The jail
turned 70 this year. The only prisoner
is always in, not knowing what he's done.

As you can see, Hugo's use of second-person narrative is very different from Calvino's. Hugo doesn't seem as interested in making the reader think about the act of reading. Rather, he invites the reader to enter the landscape he goes on to describe, even giving us a sense of the town's emotional climate.

Furthermore, the speaker of this poem is also addressing himself (in a later line, he claims 'You're talking to yourself'). By using second-person point of view, Hugo creates more rhetorical distance between himself and the reader. Rhetorical distance is a rather fancy-sounding term for the distance between us and the author's ideas, thoughts, and feelings. To give you a better sense of how this works, let's see what the first few lines would look like if Hugo had used first-person:

I came here one Sunday on a whim.
My life broke down. The last good kiss
I had was years ago. . .

I only changed the wording slightly, but the mood of these lines is very different, isn't it? Instead of inviting the reader to enter a certain frame of mind, these lines simply show the speaker complaining about his life. Because there isn't enough rhetorical distance between us and the speaker, we're a bit left out when we're presented with the private thoughts of the 'I.' Therefore, Hugo's use of second-person is especially effective, since it allows the speaker to talk about these emotions without making the reader feel excluded.

Lesson Summary

Now, let's wrap up our discussion of second-person point of view with a summary. Second-person is a point of view that uses 'you' as the main character. Still, there is an implied speaker telling the story. In the case of Italo Calvino's novel If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, the speaker uses second-person to draw the reader's attention to the act of reading (the defining characteristic of metafiction). In Richard Hugo's poem 'Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg,' however, the speaker uses second-person to create a greater rhetorical distance between himself and the audience.

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