You, the Narrator - Self-Help

Flickr / Sophia Louise

Flickr / Sophia Louise

Lorrie Moore writes brilliantly in the second person in Self-Help, her first collection of short stories. Her style and tone differ markedly from Jay McInerny in Bright Lights, Big City, even though both use the second person, in large part because she uses the imperative mood.

Do Verbs Have Moods?

English verbs have four moods: indicative, imperative, subjunctive and infinitive. Mood is the form of the verb that shows the mode or manner in which a thought is regarded (assertion, denial, command, doubt and so on) .

Imperative expresses command, prohibition, entreaty, or advice [1.\]:

Don’t smoke in this building.

Be careful!

Don’t drown that puppy!

McInerny’s oft-quoted opening in Bright Lights, Big City is in the indicative mood. You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of morning. But here you are, and you cannot say the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, though the details are fuzzy.”

Moore’s How to Be an Other Woman

Compare Moore’s opening line in How to Be an Other Woman”: Meet in expensive beige raincoats, on a pea-soupy night. Like a detective movie. First, stand in front of Florsheim’s Fifty-seventh Street window, press your face close to the glass, watch the fake velvet Hummels inside revolving around the wing tips; some white shoes, like your father wears, are propped up with garlands on a small mound of chemical snow. All the stores have closed. You can see your breath on the glass. Draw a peace sign. You are waiting for a bus.”

Moore intermingles her use of the imperative with the indicative form to make assertions. The stores have closed. You can see your breath on the glass. You are waiting for a bus.

McInerny is telling us about You. Moore is telling You what to do.

From another scene in the story, where she advances the story using both the indicative and, imaginatively, the imperative.


Who is he?” says your mom, later, in the kitchen after you’ve washed the dishes.

He’s a systems analyst.”

What do they do?”

Oh … they get married a lot. They’re usually always married.”

Charlene, are you having an affair with a married man?”

Ma, do you have to put it that way?”

You are asking for big trouble,” she says, slowly, and resumes polishing silver with a vehement energy.

Wonder why she always polishes the silver after meals.

Lean against the refrigerator and play with the magnets.

Say, softly, carefully: I know, Mother, it’s not something you would do.”

She looks up at you, her mouth trembling, pieces of her brown-gray hair dangling in her salty eyes, pink silverware cream caking onto her hands, onto her wedding ring. She stops, puts a spoon down, looks away and then hopelessly back at you, like a very young girl, and, shaking her head, bursts into tears.

I missed you,” he practically shouts, ebullient and adolescent, pacing about the living room with a sort of bounce, like a child who is up way past his bedtime and wants to ask a question. What did you do at home?” He rubs your neck.

Both McInerny and Moore use the second person. Yet Moore’s decision to use the imperative changes the tenor of the story. Through it, Moore can play with the trope of the Other Woman and highlight the repetitive, habitual nature of a woman dating an adulterer. She uses the article an” in the title, not the.” This is a story for any woman who undervalues her self and her life. A how-to manual of sorts for every woman.

Do you think Moore’s use of the imperative works? How might you incorporate the imperative into your writing?