You, The Narrator and Participant – Sebastopol Sketches

A man's hands are on the handlebars of a bicycle. as we look down the street from his point-of-view
photo by Will White

Don’t believe anyone who thinks the second-person point-of-view began with Bright Lights, Big City. Well before McInerny was born, both Nathaniel Hawthorne and Leo Tolstoy used the second person.

Tolstoy used it in Sebastopol Sketches a series of lightly fictionalized vignettes from his time as an army officer in Sebastopol during the Crimean War. An Irish contemporary, William Howard Russell, covered both the Siege of Sebastopol and the Charge of the Light Brigade for the Irish Times. Russell’s articles covering the Crimean War were amongst the earliest journalistic writings about  the Crimean War in particular, and war in general.

In Sebastopol Sketches, Tolstoy seeks something different from Russell. He used his wartime experiences to write fictionalized accounts of the war.  By adopting fiction rather than nonfiction or a journalistic style Tolstoy could deploy a variety of tools not available to a journalist. “Sebastopol in September” I found particularly fascinating as Tolstoy used the second-person point of view to make the reader both the narrator of and participant in an officer’s experiences during the war. He took the facts of Russell’s war journalism and placed them firmly in the realm of emotions. In the following passage Tolstoy describes the sensations of being in in the path of mortar and cannonballs.

Once again the sentry will shout ‘Cannon!’, and you will hear the same shrieking sound, followed by the same slap and showering of earth; or he will shout ‘Mortar!’, and you will hear the even whistle of a mortar shell, a sound that is quite pleasant and not at all easy to associate with anything very dreadful; you will hear this whistling sound come nearer and nearer in an accelerating crescendo, and the you will see a black sphere and witness the shell’s impact against the earth, this palpable, ringing explosion. Then shell-splinters will fly whistling and whinging in all directions, stones will rustle through the air, and you will be spattered with mud. You will experience a sensation that is a strange blend of fear and enjoyment. [pg. 55]

Not content with making us the narrator, he occasionally uses the honorific “your honor” to describe both you as the participant in the scene as is it unfolds and you, the narrator. We become both the narrator and the participant of this sketch. Neither Bright Lights, Big City nor How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia have another character address the narrator by name or title, which makes Tolstoy’s effort more memorable for doing so.

‘To the Grafskaya, your honour? Step right this way, sir,’ come the voices of two or three retired seaman who are climbing out of their skiffs to offer your their services.

You choose the skiff nearest you, pick your way over the semi-decomposed carcass of a bay horse that is lying in the mud beside the vessel, and make your way to the tiller.

Tolstoy’s words are memorable even today. His skill at using the second person and the crafty way he slips in the occasional address to him/us make this sketch quite outstanding. By far it is the best of the three sketches. “Sebastopol in September” offers an excellent, concise use of the second person as both the narrator and participant and memorable original detail. This is an excellent text to study both for point of view and memorable detail.