In fiction, especially short fiction, determining the point-of-view of the narration is often key in analyzing the piece. From whose perspective do we experience the action? From godlike omniscience; a particular character; or an objective, camera-like recorder?
Take Hemingway’s often anthologized story “Hills Like White Elephants.” Hemingway presents the action from the objective point-of-view, showing an unmarried couple at a railroad station in Spain arguing about whether they should maintain or abort a pregnancy. The subject is never explicitly mentioned, nor do we enter either character’s mind. Essentially, the male is browbeating his lover into having the abortion, though she is hesitant. Because the presentation is objective, the reader doesn’t necessarily take sides, the way he or she would if the narration had been first person or limited objective from the man or woman’s point-of-view.
Take a peek at the painting above, Pieter Breughel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. Imagine it’s fiction, not a painting. What if the story were told from plower’s point-of-view or the shepherd’s? They may have heard the splash but would not have seen Icarus plummeting into the ocean, or to quote Auden, “the white legs disappearing into the green water.” I suggest to students that the omniscient point-of-view is the best mode to depict the action of the painting.
So what follows is an overview of the various points-of-view with an original narrative depicting the same scene from various perspectives.
Here are the basic points-of view:
Omniscient Point of View
The omniscient point of view provides the author with the most freedom because he is, as the word omniscient suggests, all-knowing. The narrator can see all, go anywhere, knows all, can read multiple minds. This point-of-view is excellent for wide ranging narratives like WW2 sagas and offers excellent economy but is somewhat distancing and demands the action to be rendered in rather straightforward prose.
Here’s the central narrative of this lesson told from the omniscient point of view.
Abby Huffington, an attractive young brunette in her early twenties, sat at her desk before a blank sheet of paper preparing to write a dear john letter to her boyfriend, Ashton Gray. In the distance a lawnmower sputtered its dull ceaseless hacking growl as an irritating accompaniment to the hangover that clouded her thoughts. Abby had met Ashton not long after her breakup with Bennington. She realized now that shouldn’t have jumped into a relationship so soon. She swung her head to the side, slinging her brown bangs out of her eyes and placed her pen into the corner of her mouth. Just at that moment a bluejay chased a wren from the bird feeder just outside her window. Taking the pen out of her mouth, she wrote “Dear Ashton,” thought better of it, then scratched through “Dear.”
Meanwhile, across town in his second story apartment, Ashton Gray with trembling fingers looped his madras tie in front of the mirror over his dresser. It had been a rough night last night. Something was bothering Abby. At Taco Boy she was slinging down Singapore Slings like a sailor. Now, at the last minute, she had decided that she wasn’t going to accompany him to church. He walked over to his bedside table and picked up her photograph. Putting it down gently, he turned to retrieve his blazer from his closet and caught sight of his roommate’s calico cat on the hood of his car. Opening the window, he shouted, “Hey, Jo-Jo, get off of there.”
Note that booth characters and their thoughts are presented in two different settings. This is impossible from the limited omniscient and first person points-of-view.
In limited omniscience, all of the action is experienced through one character’s perceptions but is expressed in the third person. The narrator intimately knows the character, can step outside of her for description’s sake, can read her thoughts but is tied to her perceptions; therefore, the character must appear in all scenes.
Abby Huffington, a young woman in her early twenties, sat at her desk before a blank sheet of paper preparing to write a dear john letter to her boyfriend, Ashton Gray. In the distance a lawnmower sputtered its dull ceaseless hacking growl. It wasn’t that Ashton was a bad guy; it was just that he was no Bennington. At the thought of Bennington’s name, she sighed. Why had she rushed into this relationship with Ashton? It’s not as if she hadn’t been warned. Her mother had warned her, Jaclyn had warned her, even her hairdresser had warned her. She jerked her head to the side, slinging her brown bangs out of her eyes, and placed her pen into the corner of her mouth just as a blue jay chased a wren from the bird feeder that hung just outside her window. Taking the pen out of her mouth, she wrote “Dear Ashton,” thought better of it, then scratched through “Dear.”
From this point-of-view we’re likely to take sides with Abby because she’s in the center of the action; we read her thoughts, not Ashton’s. It’s more intimate than the omniscient rendering.
Also, I point out to students the name symbolism, Huffy Abby, dull, gray ASH-ton, and how the bluejay chasing the wren off parallels her chasing Ashton off. I ask my students if they think the author consciously intended the symbolism, and if they say no, I remind them that I wrote it.
On the objective point-of-view, the narration is limited to camera-like observations in plain prose. It’s akin to a stage play or movie and has the advantage of immediacy and verisimilitude. Its major drawback is a lack of economy.
A slender young man in his mid-twenties loops the bottom of his madras tie into position with trembling fingers as he peers into a dresser mirror. Leaning into the mirror, he bares his teeth to inspect them, then turns and walks over to his bedside table and picks up a photograph of a smiling, fresh-faced brunette. He shakes his head as he gently places the picture back. Turning, he glances out of the window, suddenly rushes over to it, flings it open, and shouts, “Hey, Jo-Jo, get off of there.” A calico cat has left eight paw prints on a Dodge Neon sedan parked in front of the building.
Here we’re hardly aware of the central conflict, unlike the the omniscient version where we see both sides in very few words.
Obviously, in first person a character narrates using the pronoun I and speaks in his or her own voice. The limitations are the same as limited omniscient, and it’s important to realize that narrator might be unreliable, though readers tend to side with a first person narrator even if he’s a murderer.
I don’t know why I decided to dump Ashton that Sunday. My splitting headache might have had something to do with it. I guess I could have delivered the news when he called to see if I wanted to do breakfast before church, but I chickened out, told more or less the truth, that I felt like hell. His reaction was typical – quiet whining, I’d call it. Even though he didn’t say anything, even though I couldn’t see him – it’s hard to explain – it’s like I could feel him whining through my cell. I mean Ashton’s a nice guy and all, but he just didn’t do it for me. Let’s face it. I wasn’t over Bennington. Anyway, I was hungover, a lawnmower was roaring outside, birds squawking outside my window, so I got out a piece of stationary and had at it.
Note the prose can be as informal and as ungrammatical as you like.
In second person, an imaginary you narrates in second person, so essentially it’s just like first person. Ask students why an author might choose second person instead of first.
It’s Sunday morning, and you’re getting ready for church, trying to whip a half-Windsor into shape. The problem is you have an awful feeling. Your fiancée has been acting weird lately, really weird. Last night at Taco Boy she was so drunk she actually started smoking cigarettes. You ended up practically having to carry her into her apartment, rooting through her purse to get the keys. You really hope no one saw you, but you bet someone did. Of course, she’s backed out of going to church. Unlike you, the model of moderation, she’s party, party, party. You can even see it in her face in that photo you pick up from the end table. That little sly smile. You glance outside the window. Not that cat again. There he is tracking dirt on the hood of your car.
Stream of Consciousness
Here the narration consists of a person’s stream of disjointed thoughts. It’s poetic, can reveal deep psychological insight, but too challenging for most readers.
Round and round we go, where we stop is a half-windsor, a half-windsor, son, a half windsor is the most distinguished knot. Round here, we always stand up straight. Taco Boy, Salem Lites for petes’ sake.. Round here, something ain’t right. Look at her, look at her. What you smiling about, girl? Round here, we stay up very very very late. What the? “Hey, Jo-Jo, get off of there.”
So that’s it. Use the above with my blessing however you see fit. I have narrative essay assignments for each (except stream-of-consciousness). If you’d like to use them, let me know how to contact you in the comments.