The Literary Apprentice
    Point of View
   

I really like the advice Janet Burroway gives in her book, Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, when she says you should first ignore the common sense of the phrase "point of view" to mean someone's opinion about something. That misleads us and takes us into the realm of thesis and exposition. Instead, keep in mind that in fiction, the term is a technical one which conveys a complicated set of relationships among the writer of a narrative, the reader/listener, and the material or story elements themselves. As Burroway points out, we should "begin with the more literal synonym of 'vantage point.' Who is standing where to watch the scene? Better, since we are dealing with a verbal medium, the questions might be translated: Who speaks? To whom? In what form? At what distance from the action? With what limitations?" (199).

She then provides a wonderful chart with concise explanations for these questions:

Point of View

The Author
In: Third Person

The Author
In: Second Person

A Character
In: First Person

The Reader

Characterized or Uncharacterized

Another Character or characters The Self
Written Story, Spoken Story, Reportage, Oratory, Monologue, Confessional, Journal, Diary, Interior Monologue, Stream of Consciousness.
Reader and Author<-->Narrator<-->Characters
Complete Identification<-->Complete Opposition
Temporal, Spatial, Moral, Intellectual, Aesthetic, Physical, Educational, Experiential
Reliable Narrator (or Author)<-->Unreliable Narrator (or Author) on any of values listed above.

Who Speaks?


The Author
In: Third Person
Editorial Omniscient
Limited Omniscient
Objective

What does it mean to speak in a "person" be it the first, second, or third? This indicates the pronoun the teller uses, "I" for the first person, "you" for the second, and "he, she, it" for the third. Omniscience refers to the knowledge the teller possesses and displays. If the point of view expresses omniscience, then it seems capable of knowing all things. Now, we can assume in some sense that the one who creates the fiction can in theory know all things since he or she is making it up.

But in Editorial Omniscience, the practice of the writer is to consistently choose to "editorialize" and display this power by going into the minds of characters, by telling us what things mean, by moving anywhere with any characters or things, through time and space, and, in addition, making all sorts of judgments along the way.

In Limited Omniscience the narration consistently "limits" the discourse to a focus in or around one or a few characters. We see only what they see; the language tends to be close to their language. While the voice remains the narrator's knowing voice, the words have the flavor or tone of the character's usage.

When Limited Omniscience focuses on the internal consciousness of a character, it is called by our book centered or central consciousness: "in which things, people, events are narrated as if perceived through the filter of an individual's consciousness." But you must be sure to grasp that this narration is still in the Third Person and the focal character is still referred to as "he/she/it."

The last type in this category, the Objective third person narration, according to Burroway, "is not omniscient, but impersonal" (203). The view of the characters and situation is exterior and limited to what, as in life, we usually can know about each other. The reader is invited to be observant and to infer from appearance and dialog what inner states or thoughts might be. In that sense the Objective third person often is described as being dramatic (such stories often even look like plays). A great example of the objective third person narrator is the Hemingway story, "A Clean Well-Lighted Place" (445) which you have read. Another would be one of his frequently anthologized stories, "Hills Like White Elephants." While this copyrighted story probably should not be on-line, it is at this site: VCCS: Litonline Introduction to Literature. It is a quick read if you can avoid the comments at this site. I think you will see the "objective" and dramatic quality of the narration in Hemingway's stories.

Return to Point of View Chart

The Author
In: Second Person

You as character
You as reader-turned-character

Burroway includes and explains this very unusual point of view because she says some contemporary authors have experimented with it. While our list of assigned readings does not include any of this type there is one in our text, Jamaica Kincaid's Girl (449). It also has been assigned. The "you as character" distinction seems to be that the narrator addresses the character, while in "you as reader-turned-character" the narrator starts out addressing and imagining the reader, much as one does naturally in giving directions but as the narrative flows, the imagined "you" becomes more elaborate and defined, (assuming the actual reader continues to go along with this.) In the case of Girl, the point of view entails "you as character." Note that the character addressed speaks twice in the story.

Return to Point of View Chart

A Character
In: First Person

Central Narrator
Peripheral narrator

As you know, the third person category and the first person one are the most common points of view for fiction. Several of our stories are in the First Person: "Sonny's Blues," "A Cask of Amontillado," "A Conversation with My Father," and others. When we have a character in the story also telling the story, we need to determine if the character is a central one or a peripheral one. Usually this is obvious and has to do with the relationship of the narrator to the events (plot). Obviously, the narrator in "A Cask of Amontillado" is also a major character, in fact, the protagonist. But is that the case in "Sonny's Blues"? In this case, while he is certainly a central character, I think we might agree that Sonny is the protagonist. Most of the time the shortness of the short story does not allow for the First person narration to involve a character who is very distant from the action. We might look at "A Rose for Emily" in terms of the first person narration and ask how close is the narrator to the events of the plot. Most would say the narrator is peripheral.

Return to Point of View Chart

To Whom?

The Reader
Characterized or Uncharacterized

It would seem obvious that literature "speaks" to the reader. But this is tricky because sometimes the reader is addressed directly and sometimes simply presumed to be understanding and compliant with the story. Without getting into all the nuances of how works of literature address the reader, simply keep in mind that sometimes the narrative voice "characterizes" the reader in some manner. The narrator in a Third Person omniscient style can also speak to the reader directly, commenting on how the story is going or inviting patience from the reader. The writer in our text who comes to mind as addressing the reader is Margaret Atwood in "Happy Endings" where she characterizes us as needing her bracing bit of advice: "You'll have to face it, the endings are the same however you slice it. Don't be deluded by any other endings. . ." (28). Most modern short story fiction does not directly address the reader. And the characterization of the reader is very latent and is more in the realm of the "writer" imagining his or her audience.

Another Character

Here the narrator can be in a number of positions that allows him or her to be either speaking or writing literally to another person, an "auditor" as our text calls him or her. This auditor may be obvious; may be referred to; may even say a word or two, but many times he or she must be infered. To whom does Montressor speak in "The Cask of Amontillado," for example? Since he seeks to punish with "impunity," the issue of to whom he confesses is important.

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The Self

We all know what it is like to talk to yourself. Most of us do this quietly or even silently with an "interiorized" voice. Inner speech is complex. One can have a "conversation" with yourself in which you could even stage a debate, posing alternatives, even arguing with yourself. On the other hand, it can take the form of a dreamscape in which the voices or anything else might not follow the rules of speech. In the "stream of consciousness" technique, for a period of time the reader reads only the interiorized speech and thoughts of the character. Some of our stories come close to presenting the interior thoughts directly: "The Management of Grief" and "The Yellow Wallpaper" come to mind; however, neither is exactly stream of consciousness, which, as Virginia Woolf practiced it, for example, does not make concessions to "narration"--the voice does not address anyone or explain anything to him or her. Here is a link to a short story by Virginia Woolf, "The Mark on the Wall," which evidences a kind of stream of consciousness. Of course the most definitive stream of consciousness example in literature is the famous Penelope section of Joyce's Ulysses. See if you can follow Molly's mind as she thinks. Here we are touching on matters of form, for it makes a difference if the interiorized voice is taking on the form of a journal not meant to be read, such as in "The Yellow Wallpaper" or simply the inner voice of the character thinking.

We tend to equate "psychological realism" to the act of getting inside a character's head. As we hear or overhear the characters interiorized speech, we think we can understand what motivates the character. This sense of psychological involvement can be constructed in first person or in third person narration. Thus we "enter" the mind of Payton Farquar in the sense that we know what he feels and thinks. Even more directly we "know" what she, the lady with the pet dog, thinks, even in her most intimate moments, but all from the third person. The fictions that tend to report on a character's thought process frequently are in the third person since the first person point of view requires a form of self-awareness or "consciouness" which may prove too limiting.

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In What Form?

Written Story, Spoken Story, Reportage, Oratory, Monologue, Confessional, Journal, Diary, Interior Monologue, Stream of Consciousness.

These aspects of form are relevant to point of view. In general stories take a straight forward narrative story form, though some, like Poe's Cask of Amontillado, suggest monologue or even confessional, while Gillman's, The Yellow Wallpaper, suggests a diary or journal is being written (though not entirely taking its form).

At What Distance?

Reader and Author<-->Narrator<-->Characters
Complete Identification<-->Complete Opposition
Temporal, Spatial, Moral, Intellectual, Aesthetic, Physical, Educational, Experiential

The term, distance, is a metaphorical way to discuss psychological attitudes. As Burroway puts it, distance is "the degree to which we as readers feel on the one hand intimacy and identification with, or on the other hand detachment and alienation from, the characters in the story" (229). Keep in mind, the reader is only one locus of these feelings. We can also detect whether or not the Author appears to feel intimacy or alienation--and not simply from the the characters, but also in relationship to the narrator or even the reader. In other words this intimacy/alienation dimension can be traced through any of these relationships.

Moreover, the distance is described in different dimensions; for example, the reader can be made to feel very distant from the characters in time and space (Long ago, in a land far away . . .) or in moral terms. (This is a story of pure evil. . .). The writer can one the one hand present characters who do despicable things, yet at the same time seem intimate and, at times, approving of the character. (Emily in "A Rose for Emily"?)

Return to Point of View Chart

With What Limitations?

Reliable Narrator (or Author)<-->Unreliable Narrator (or Author) on any of values listed above.

Our Norton textbook refers to "limited," "unlimited" and "unreliable" as issues of the scope of possible knowledge of any character or narrator who is characterized within the story. As long as the voice of the character or narrator is presumed "real" on any dimension, the voice is situated in a point of view which has boundaries. Therefore, what the character says or what the narrator says, has to be taken with that in mind. The issue is the extent to which we trust the narrator or character to portray what we need to know to understand the work. Can we trust Montressor's explanations of his own actions? Is there a history there which we can intuit that Montressor is unable to see rationally? Does our sensitive grasp of the story involve going beyond Montressor's presentation to things he does not see? If so, he is limited.


Practice your knowledge gained above

Point of View Exercise for The Three Little Pigs

Try your hand at writing the same story from different points of view. To keep it simple, try writing a common nursery story such as Goldilocks and the Three Bears or Little Red Riding Hood from several points of view. To get you started, here are many versions of The Three Little Pigs. See if you can match the point of view to the story. (These were written by college students in small groups after they had been assigned both the story and the point of view from the chart above.)

Read the Stories


Point of View in An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

  • Click on the link above to go to an etext version of the story or locate another copy. Read the text first before you go on, unless you want the story ruined for your first reading.

We understand the idea that the limited (and editorial) omniscience of the narrator in An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge comes to focus on the consciousness of Peyton Farquar. We also learn when we finish that Peyton's consciousness has been an "unreliable" indicator of what has been going on. However, the narration itself has not been entirely "unreliable." When we reread a passage such as the one below we readers are forced to acknowledge the presence of many indications that the "occurrence" at Owl Creek Bridge is a hanging to death. How many of you knew what was coming or at least suspected? At what point did this suspicion make itself known? One could say, as one rereads this paragraph, surely we should have known. (I recall being vaguely uncomfortable through the last paragraphs, but not wanting to think the unthinkable on my first reading.)

    His neck was in pain, and lifting his hand to it, he found it horribly swollen. He knew that it ahd a circle of black where the rope had bruised it. His eyes felt congested; he could no longer close them. His tongue was swollen with thirst; he relieved its fever by thrusting it forward from between his teeth into the cool air. How softly the turf had carpeted the untraveled avenue! He could no longer feel the roadway beneath his feet! (86, par 35)

Can you reread to detect the moment in the text when the narrator first begins to provide "clues" to the "real" history of events, all the while also involving us in the dream work of Peyton's mind? How do you ultimately regard this narrative feat of keeping both possibilites going at the same time? Normally we might be peeved at a narrative technique that fools us or tricks us into being surprised. But if we were fooled is it not our own "fault" for overlooking all these clues? Is there any point to this story's elaborate narrative technique and, if so, what is it?

Analyze your reading and re-reading of this story in writing in a reader's journal. Pinpoint the "tricks" the narrator uses to both keep you believing that Peyton Farquar is alive and to inform you with subtle clues that he is not. Analyze several passages that show you this doubleness. You will understand this aspect of point of view in this story.

Glossaries online can help further with Key Terms.

  • focus
  • voice
  • centered or central consciousness
  • psychological realism
  • unreliable narrator
  • limited focus
  • narrator
  • persona
  • auditor
  • unlimited focus

 

 

   

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