In Hanya Yanagihara’s “Little Life”, the narration toggles between the four protagonists. When it focuses on either of them, his name is usually mentioned once and then consecutively omitted and replaced by the pronouns “he”, “his”, and “him”, thus giving the impression that the person is (right next to) the narrator. It works wonderfully in this novel (even though sometimes these pronouns clash with pronouns referring to other male characters, but then they are sometimes disamibugated e.g. “his” is replaced with “his own”).

Is this convention common in English-language literature?


An excerpt:

Andy had been looking down at his ankle as he spoke, using tweezers to pick out shreds of dead flesh from a wound he’d developed, when he suddenly froze, and even without seeing Andy’s face, he could tell he was chagrined. “I’m sorry, Jude,” he said, looking up, still cupping his foot in his hand. “I’m sorry I can’t tell you differently.” And when he couldn’t answer, he sighed. “You’re upset.”

Logically I think the only “he” referring to Jude is the one in “when he couldn’t answer”. Technically his name is mentioned right before (though not by the narrator), but that is not always the case in this novel.

  • I think I understand what you mean, but is it possible for you to add a sample passage from that book, for clarity? – Gallifreyan Jan 8 at 1:56
  • From reading sample pages from Google Books, there is something unusual here that you have pointed out. The paragraphs have characters interacting in continuously changing pairs or in relation to the group (usually designated as they or them). It resembles a square dance. The word "he" switches who it refers to again and again. I find that if I read it quickly, my native feel for English lets it make sense, but if I stop to work out who each "he" is specifically referring to, it takes longer than I expected or than I think is usual. Ex: pages 11 and 14. – Mike Jan 8 at 7:26
  • I've seen this done in one English novel, but I thought it worked very badly there. – Rand al'Thor Jan 8 at 7:50
  • Also, I am having trouble thinking of third person novels with three or more roughly equal protagonists. It may be rare to have a similar set of characters. – Mike Jan 9 at 2:02
  • “Little Life” gradually focuses on one of the four (I think, I’m only half through the novel). – Adam Jagosz Jan 9 at 11:53

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