We’ve all had experience listening to older couples tell stories from their early days together. One might say to you, “Did we ever tell you about our first trip to New York? That was some trip.”
Then the other will add, “Oh! yes, that was a wonderful trip.”
“Wonderful?” the first will shout. “What trip were you on? It is a disaster. You were too cheap to check into a good hotel.”
The the second will respond, “Cheap? That hotel was fine. Right off Broadway! It was romantic.”
Then for twenty minutes we hear not one, but two stories about the trip. It was the same trip, but the couple tells the story as if it was two different trips. What we have experienced is the importance of point of view. In telling a story, who tells it is of paramount importance.
Choosing a narrative point of view is perhaps the most important and most difficult decision a writer of a story can make. Point of view–like plot, character, setting, and language–is a creative decision; however, it is also very much a technical decision. Someone has to tell the story. That someone is called the narrator. But the question is who will that narrator be and what does that narrator know.
One way to understand point of view is to think of movies. When making a movie, the director someone is telling story, someone is the narrator. But the director of the movie must think about where the camera stands and what the camera looks at in every scene in the movie. In a horror movie, sometimes the camera becomes the monster, stalking the prey. At other times in horror movies, the camera becomes the character, slowing moving forward into the dark unknown. In other scenes, the camera, in a distant panning shot like the one of the feather in Forest Gump, allows the viewer to see more than any character in the movie could see. Sometimes we hear a voice over, as if a character were telling the story. In the movie Annie Hall, Woody Allen shows us characters talking with each other and in subtitles lets us read what they are thinking, but not saying. All these methods in movies are in some form used in short stories and memoirs.
Another way to think about point of view is to imagine receiving a note that says simply “Party at 8, see you there.” Our decision to go to the party depends, in part, on whether we trust the person who gives this information. If we can trust the person, we can trust the information. If we can’t trust the person, we won’t trust the information. If we go to the party and it is not occurring, we can conclude our friend is mistaken or we have discovered our friend is a liar.
But this gets at only a portion of point of view. The writer’s choice of point of view essentially controls not only what we know but how we experience the events. If we trust the narrator, and the narrator is scared, you will probably be scared.
Critics and teachers fundamentally agree on the basic kinds of point of view used in narratives. The names used are related to the types of personal pronouns: first person (I, we), second person (you), and third person (he, she, it, they). A first person narrative is told by one of the characters in the story. It may be the main character (as in Leslie Marmon Silko’s “Yellow Woman”), a supporting character (as in Ring Lardner’s “Haircut”), a reliable narrator (as in Ida Fink’s ” A Scrap of Time), or an unreliable narrator (as in Charlotte Gilman Perkins’ “The Yellow Wallpaper”). A second person narrative makes “you” a character in the story. A third person narrative is told from outside the story. The narrator is omniscient (as in Jack London’s “To Build a fire”), partially omniscient (as in Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour”), or objective (as in Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”).
First-Person Point of View: Subjective Point of View.
In a story told from first-person point of view, the narrator is one of the characters and tell us what he or she experiences and thinks about those experiences. First person point of view is probably the most immediately obvious. All the actions are seen and reported by someone in the story. The implication of this technique is that the author has placed an interpreter of the events between the reader and events. If the narrator says, “Bill walked into the room looking around the room like a nervous criminal,” we must decide to trust the narrator’s assessment or not In other words, we have to ask ourselves if the narrator is trustworthy or not trustworthy.
Another aspect of first-person point of view is that we should look at the relationship between the main character and the narrator. Sometimes the narrator is the main character, as with Sammy in “A&P” or Estelle in “Rape Fantasies.” Sometimes the narrator is not the main character. In novels, The Great Gatsby is an excellent example. Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Purloined Letter” is this an example among short stories.
Another facet of first person point of view to consider is what is the relationship between the narrator and the time the events occurred. The story is affected if the narrator tells us about the events relatively soon after the events take place, as does Sammy in John Updike’s “A&P.” Likewise, we should be aware if the narrator is relating events that occurred many treats earlier, as in the “half of a century” delay in Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.” This distinction cam be quite important. For instance, Sammy is speaking of incidents relatively soon after they occur. So when he says, “Now here comes the sad part of the story, at least my family says it’s sad, but I don’t think it’s so sad myself,” we cannot say that the teem of the story is that sometimes rash adolescent actions pay off later in life. In developing the theme of “The Cask of Amontillado,” we must tai into consideration why Montresor must tell his story fifty years after the fact. He had vowed revenge, a strictly defined revenge. Did he achieve it? If so, shy does he not go to his grave knowing he has achieved it?
Second Person Point of View: The Objective Subjective Point of View.
Second-person point of view permits us to experience a story as if we were a character in that story. A relatively recent development in fiction, i second person point of view turns the reader into a character, usually the main character. The technique is easy to recognize: “You walk into a room. You put down your brief case and open the refrigerator.” The effect of second-person point of view seems to be simultaneously to close the gap between character and reader and to objectify the character at the same time. On the one hand, the reader, by the act of reading, voluntarily accepts the manipulation of the narrator. On the other, at the same time recognizes it as manipulation. The reading experience differs, say, from reading a story in first-person point of view where we accept our identification as the I in a story and then forget that we are, in facts, reading not experiencing the actual experiences. A highly regard example of second-person point of view is the novel Bright Lights, Big City. Lorrie Moore and Dagoberto Gilb, among others, have published stories employing second-person point of view.
Third-Person Points of View: Objective Point of View.
Third-person points of view focus on what the characters experience, not what the narrator experiences. In a story told in third-person point of view, the narrator stands outside the events of the story and, usually, presents the readers with an objective presentation of those events. There are three kinds of third-person points of view: omniscient, limited omniscient, and dramatic-objective. The difference in these three is determined by the amount of information that occurs inside the heads of the characters and outside the frame of the story.
Omniscient. A narrator who is omniscient tells the reader what two or more of the characters knows and feels. What characters know or feel is, of course, secret unless they communicate it to others—that is, unless the narrator can enter the mind or heart of the characters. For instance, only an omniscient narrator could write, “Harold plopped into the easy chair and thought about how much brussels sprouts disgusted him. Brussels sprouts, he believed but did not say so his mom could hear, were vegetables for old people.
In the same way, unless information is communicated to a character in some direct manner—say, a messenger appearing–only an omniscient narrator can tell of events that occur outside the sight and experience of the characters. Such a phrase as “Little did Smith know that the ship had arrived at noon,” can only be delivered by an omniscient narrator. An omniscient narrator is more able to present a complete and unbiased story. We can learn not only what a character does, but also what other characters do when the main character is not present.
Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” employ the omniscient narrator in a unique way. Not only does the narrator tell us what the main character, the tenderfoot, thinks and feels, but also at important points in the story the narrator reports what the tenderfoot’s companion, his dog, thinks and feels.
Limited Omniscient. The narrator that is limited in omniscience presents the thoughts or feelings of only one of the characters, usually the main character. This method presents an appearance of objectivity. However, by focusing on only one character and on that character’s inner life, the narrator can make readers more sympathetic to that character, or if needed, more skeptical toward that character.
Katherine Ann Porter’s “The Grave” follows the afternoon adventures of a young girl named Miranda and her brother, Paul. At various points in the story, the narrator shows us what Miranda is thinking and how on that afternoon she begins to understand the questions of life and death, and perhaps a woman’s place in those questions. Then in a special twist in the story, the narrator shows us Miranda twenty years later remembering that day. The tension between those two instances of limited omniscient narration is important in formulating a theme for the story.
Dramatic-Objective. The narrator of a story with dramatic-objective point of view communicates only what someone outside the story could know by looking and listening. The inner lives of the characters are closed off, secreted. We readers know only what characters do and say. Unless a character says why he or she did a particular act, we must hypothesize for ourselves, looking for clues and consistency. We can think of a story that uses dramatic objective as being a play, a play in which no character ever speaks directly to the audience in asides or monologues. This method is the closest to experiencing a story as one experiences life, for in life we know only what we see and hear and what other people tell us.
Several well-know examples of dramatic-objective point of view are Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” and John Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums.” In “The Lottery,” the effect of the ending is build upon the fact that the reader doesn’t know what is about to happen on this summer morning. All the town’s people know, for they participate in the lottery every year. One glimpse into one character’s mind would have altered our reaction to the events. and thus would have changed the theme of the story.
After we have identified the kind of point of view a writer employs, we are ready to examine how a story’s point if view also opens avenues for understanding the story. For example, point of view raises the question of narrative trust. As we know from real-life experiences, there are some people that we simply cannot trust. They tells one thing and very often the opposite is true. Writers, see in new possibilities for the effects their stories can have, will sometimes created a narrator who is crazy, psychotic, or just plain manipulative. The narrator in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” presents readers with an interesting dilemma. On the one hand, we recognize that the narrator is certainly emotionally unstable; on the other, we suspect that others around her have contributed to her desperate situation.
The writer’s choice of point of view controls not only what we know but also how we experience the events in the story. If we trust the narrator, and the narrator is scared, we will probably be scared. But if we don;t trust the narrator and the narrator is scared, the writer has but the reader in a tough, but perhaps very rewarding, situation of reading the story on two levels. We experience the story as the narrator does, and we experience the story as a skeptical observer of the story.
Point of view thus raises questions about the narrator’s purpose. Why does the narrator want us to know certain information as certain moments? Point of View is the major method the writer has in manipulating us. For instance, in the story, “The Man Who Was Also a Man,” the first few paragraphs are a masterful use of point of view as Richard Wright’s narrator takes us in and out of the mind of the young man. In the example below, notice how Wright shifts from Standard English to African-American English as used by some in the South at this time. Why does Wright do this? Is it merely to show us that the character has not been educated in Anglo schools? Probably not. He could have done that simply by showing us the young man talking. Instead, here and later he shows us the immaturity and sloppy thinking of the young man. But that is not all. Wright also allows us, no…, he forces us to experience the young man’s life. But because Wright maintains an objective limited omniscient point of view, he makes us to see that even though Dave is indeed immature, he is manipulated, perhaps even enslaved by Southern society. Wright helps us develop the sympathy for the young man, so that when he hops the train, we can feel, first how hard it will be for him up North. We realize that Dave had almost no other choices, that he lived in an area of the country that, no matter what his age or education, would not allow him to be a man.
Dave struck out across the fields, looking homeward through paling light (1). Whut’s the use talkin wid em niggers in the field? (2) Anyhow, his mother was putting supper on the table. Them niggers can’t understand nothing (3). One of these days he was going to get a gun and practice shooting, then they couldn’t talk to him as though he was a little boy( 4) . He slowed, looking at the ground. Shucks, Ah ain scarda them even ef they are biggern me! Aw, Ah know whut Amha do. Ahm going by ol Joe’s stor n get that Sears Roebuck catlog n look at them guns. Mebbe Ma will lemme buy one when she gits may pay form ol man Hawkins (5). Ahma beg her t gimme some money. Ahm ol ernough to hava gun. Ahm seventeen. Almost a man (6). He strode, feeling his long loose-jointed limbs. Shucks, a man oughta hava little gun aftah he done worked hard all day (7).
(1) The narrator shows us Dave from a distance across the field.
(2) Suddenly we know what Dave is thinking.
(3) Shift back, outside of Dave’s mind to mother putting supper on table.
(4) An interesting choice here to give this information in narrator’s voice. This is not Dave’s thoughts, but a statement about what, indeed, will happen
(5) Notice what is communicated about Dave’s character and situation in community
(6) What is the narrator saying here?
(7) Wright shows us Dave’s immaturity.