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The Point Of View In Narrative

( Originally Published 1918 )

The Importance of the Point of View—Two Classes, The Internal and the External—I. Subdivisions of the First Class: 1. The Point of View of the Leading Actor; 2. The Point of View of Some Subsidiary Actor; 3. The Points of View of Different Actors; 4. The Epistolary Point of View.—II. Subdivisions of the Second Class: -1. The Omniscient Point of View; 2. The Limited Point of View; 3. The Rigidly Restricted Point of View—Two Tones of Narrative, Impersonal and Personal: 1. The Impersonal Tone; 2. The Personal Tone—The Point of View as a Factor in Construction —The Point of View as the Hero of the Narrative.

The Importance of the Point of View.—We have now examined in detail the elements of narrative, and must next consider the various points of view from which they may be seen and, in consequence, be represented. Granted a given series of events to be set forth, the structure of the plot, the means of character delineation, the use of setting, the entire tone and tenor of the narrative, are all dependent directly on the answer to the question, Who shall tell the story?

For a given train of incidents is differently seen and judged, according to the standpoint from which it is observed. The evidence in most important murder trials consists mainly of successive narratives told by different witnesses; and it is very interesting to notice, in comparing them, how very different a tone and tenor is given to the same event by each of the observers who recounts it. It remains for the jury to determine, if possible, from a comparison of the various views of the various witnesses, what it was that actually happened. But this, in many eases, is extremely difficult. One witness saw the action in one way, another in another; one formed a certain judgment of the character of the accused, another formed a judgment diametrically different; each has his separate sense of the train of causation that culminated in the act; the accused himself would disagree with all the witnesses. if indeed he were capable of looking on the facts without conscious or unconscious self-deception; and we may be certain that an infallible omniscient mind, cognizant of all the hidden motives, would see the matter differently still. The task of the jury is, in the main, to induce from all these tragic inconsistencies an absolute outlook upon the real truth that underlies the facts so differently seen and co variously judged.

Such an absolute outlook is hardly possible to the finite mind of man; and though it is often assumed by the writer of fiction in the telling of his tale, it can seldom be consistently maintained. It is therefore safer to acknowledge that the absolute truth of a story, whether actual or fictitious, can never be entirely told; that the same train of incidents looks different from different points of view; and that therefore the various points of view from which any story may be looked upon should be studied carefully for the purpose of determining from which of them it is possible, in a given case, to approach most nearly a clear vision of the truth.

Two Classes, The Internal and the External.-The points of view from which a story may be seen and told are many and various; but they may all be grouped into two classes, the internal and the external. A story seen internally is narrated in the first person by one of its participants; a story seen externally is narrated in the third person by a mind aloof from the events depicted. There are, of course, many variations, both of the internal and of the external point of view. These in turn must be examined, for the purpose of determining the special advantages and disadvantages of each.

1. Subdivisions of the First Class : 1. The Point of View of the Leading Actor.—First of all, a story may be told by the leading actor in its series of events, the hero, as in "Henry Esmond," or the heroine, as in "Jane Eyre." This point of view is of especial value in narratives in which the element of action is predominant. The multifarious adventures of Gil Blas sound at once more vivid and more plausible narrated in the first person than they would sound narrated in the third. When what is done is either strange or striking, we prefer to be told about it by the very man who did it. "Treasure Island" is narrated by Jim Hawkins, "Kidnapped" by David Balfour; and much of the vividness of these exciting tales depends upon the fact that they are told in each case by a boy who stood ever in the forefront of the action. The plausibility of "Robinson Crusoe" is increased by the convention that the hero is narrating his own personal experience: in fact Defoe, in all his fictions, preferred to write in the first person, because what he sought primarily was plausibility of tone.

This point of view is also of supreme advantage in re-counting personal emotion. Consider for a moment the following paragraph from "Kidnapped" (Chapter X)

"I do not know if I was what you call afraid; but my heart beat like a bird's, both quick and little; and there was a dimness came before my eyes which I continually rubbed away, and which continually returned. As for hope, I had none; but only a darkness of despair and a sort of anger against all the world that made me long to sell my life as dear as I was able. I tried to pray, I re-member, but that same hurry of my mind, like a man running, would not suffer me to think upon the words; and my chief wish was to have the thing begin and be done with it."

Now, for the sake of experiment, let us go through the passage, substituting the pronoun "he" for the pronoun "I." Thus:

"He was hardly what is called afraid; but his heart beat like a bird's, both quick and little; and there was a dimness came before his eyes which he continually rubbed away, and which continually returned. As for hope, he had none . . ." and so forth. Notice how much vividness is lost, how much immediacy of emotion. The zest and tang of the experience is sacrificed, because the reader is forced to stand aloof and observe it from afar.

The point of view of the leading actor makes for vividness in still another way. It necessitates an absolute concreteness and objectivity in the delineation of the subsidiary characters. On the other hand, it precludes analysis of their emotions and their thoughts. The hero can tell us only what they said and did, how they looked in action and in speech, and what they seemed to him to think and feel. But he cannot enter their minds and delve among their motives. Furthermore, he cannot, without sacrificing naturalness of mood, analyze to any great extent his own mental processes. Consequently it is almost impossible to tell from the hero's point of view a story in which the main events are mental or subjective. We can hardly imagine George Eliot writing in the first person: the " psychological novel" demands the third.

But the chief difficulty in telling a story from the leading actor's point of view is the difficulty of characterizing the narrator. All means of direct delineation are taken from him. He cannot write essays on his merits or his faults; he can neither describe nor analyze himself; he cannot see himself as others see him. We must derive our sense of who and what he is, solely from the things he does and says, and from his manner of telling us about them. And although it is not especially difficult, within a brief compass, to delineate a character through his way of telling things [Notice Laughton O. Zigler, in Mr. Kipling's "The Captive," whose speech has been examined in a former chapter], it is extremely difficult to maintain this expedient consistently throughout a lengthy novel.

Furthermore, an extended story can be told only by a person with a well-trained sense of narrative; and it is often hard to concede to the hero the narrative ability that he displays. How is it, we may ask, that Jim Hawkins is capable of such masterly description as that of "the brown old seaman, with the sabre cut," in the second paragraph of "Treasure Island"? How is it that David Balfour, an untutored boy, is capable of writing the rhythmic prose of Robert Louis Stevenson, master of style? And in many cases it is also difficult to concede to the hero an adequate motive for telling his own story. Why is it that, in the sequel to " Kidnapped," David Balfour should write out all the intimate details of his love for Catriona? And how is it conceivable that Jane Eyre should tell to any one, and least of all to the general public, the profound privacies of emotion evoked by her relation with Mr. Rochester?

The answer is, of course, that such violations of the hard terms of actuality are justified by literary convention; and that if the gain in vividness be great enough, the reader will be willing to concede, first, that the story shall be told by the leading actor, regardless of motive, and second, that he shall be granted the requisite mastery of narrative. But the fact remains that it is very hard for the hero to draw his own character except in outline; and therefore if the emphasis is to lie less on what he does than on the sort of person that he is, the expedient will be ineffectual.

The main structural advantage of telling the story through the person of the hero is that his presence as the central figure in every event narrated makes for coherence and gives the story unity. But attendant disadvantages are that it is often difficult to account for the hero's presence in every scene, that he cannot be an eye-witness to events happening at the same time in different places, and that it is hard to account for his possession of knowledge regarding those details of the plot which have no immediate bearing on himself. It seems always somewhat lame to state, as heroes telling their own stories are frequently obliged to do, "These things I did not know at the time, and found out only afterward; but I insert them here, because it is at this point in the plot that they belong."

2. The Point of View of Some Subsidiary Actor.—Many of these disadvantages may be overcome by telling the tale from the point of view, not of the leading actor, but of some minor personage in the story. In this case again, analysis of character is precluded; but the narrator may delineate the leading actor directly, through descriptive and expository comment. In stories where the hero is an extraordinary person, and could not with-out immodesty descant upon his own unusual capabilities, it is of obvious advantage to represent him from the point of view of an admiring friend. Thus when Poe invented the detective story, he wisely decided to exhibit the extraordinary analytic power of Dupin through a narrative told not by the detective himself but by a man who knew him well; and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, following in his footsteps, has invented Dr. Watson to tell the tales of Sherlock Holmes.

The actual instance of Boswell and Johnson substantiates the possibility of a minor actor's knowing intimately all phases of a hero's life and character. And since the point of view of the secondary personage is just as internal to the events themselves as that of the leading actor, the story may be told with an immediacy, a vividness, and a plausibility approximating closely the effect derived from a narrative told by the hero. And there is now less difficulty in accounting for the narrator's knowledge of all the details of the plot. He can witness minor necessary scenes at which the hero is not present; he can know things (and tell them to the reader) which at the time the hero did not know; and if his presence be withheld from an important incident, the hero can narrate it to him afterward.

Nevertheless, it is often very difficult to maintain throughout a long story the point of view of a minor actor in the plot. Thackeray breaks down completely in his attempt to tell "The Newcomes" from the point of view of Arthur Pendennis, the hero of a former novel. Steven-son assigns to Mackellar the task of narrating "The Master of Ballantrae" : but when the Master disappears and Mackellar remains at home with Mr. Henry, it is necessary for the author to invent a second personage, the Chevalier de Burke, to tell the story of the Master's wanderings.

3. The Points of View of Different Actors.—This last instance leads us to consider the possibility of telling different sections of the story from the points of view of different characters, assigning to each the particular phase of the narrative that he is especially fitted to recount. Three quarters of the "Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" is narrated in the third person, externally; but the final intimate vividness of horror is gained by shifting to an internal point of view for the two concluding chapters, the first written by Dr. Lanyon, and the last by Jekyll himself. Mr. Kipling has developed to very subtle uses the expedient of opening a story from the point of view of a narrator who is named simply "I" and who is not characterized in any way at all, and then letting the story proper be told to this impersonal narrator by several characters who are clearly delineated through their speech and through the parts that they have played in the tale that they are telling. This device is used in nearly all the stories of the "Soldiers Three." The narrator meets Mulvaney, Ortheris, and Learoyd under certain circumstances, and gathers from them bit by bit the various features of the story,—one detail being contributed by one of the actors, another by another, until out of the successive fragments the story is built up. It is in this way also, as we have already noted, that the tale of Mrs. Bathurst is set be-fore the reader.

4. The Epistolary Point of View.—A convenient means of shifting the burden of the narrative at any point to a certain special character is to introduce a letter written by that character to one of the other people in the plot. This expedient is employed with extraordinary cleverness by George Meredith in "Evan Harrington." Most of the tale is told externally; but every now and then the clever and witty Countess de Saldar writes a letter in which a leading incident is illuminated from her personal point of view.

Ever since the days of Richardson the device has frequently been used of telling an entire story through a series of letters exchanged among the characters. The main advantage of this method is the constant shifting of the point of view, which makes it possible for the reader to see every important incident through the eyes of each of the characters in turn. Furthermore, it is comparatively easy to characterize in the first person when the thing that is written is so intimate and personal as a letter. But the disadvantage of the device lies in the fact that it tends toward incoherence in the structure of the narrative. It is hard for the author to stick to the point at every moment without violating the casual and discursive tone that the epistolary style demands.

Of course a certain unity may be gained if the letters used are all written by a single character. The chief advantage of this method over a direct narrative written by one of the actors is the added motive for the revelation of intimate matters which is furnished by the fact that the narrator is writing, not for the public at large, but only for the friend, or friends, to whom the letters are ad-dressed. But a series of letters written by one person only is very likely to become monotonous; and more is usually gained than lost by assigning the epistolary rôle successively to different characters.

II. Subdivisions of the Second Class.—We have seen that, although the employment of an internal point of view gives a narrative vividness of action, objectivity of observation, immediacy of emotion, and plausibility of tone, it is attended by several difficulties in the delineation of the characters and the construction of the plot. It is therefore in many cases more advisable for the author to look upon the narrative externally and to write it in the third person. But there are several different ways of doing this; for though a story viewed externally is told in every case by a mind distinct from that of any of the characters, there are many different stations in which that mind may set itself, and many different moods in which it may recount the story.

1. The Omniscient Point of View.—First of all (to start with a phase that contrasts most widely with the internal point of view) the external mind may set itself equidistant from all the characters and may assume toward them an attitude of absolute omniscience. The story, in such a case, is told by a sort of god, who is cognizant of the past and future of the action while he is looking at the present, and who sees into the minds and arts of all the characters at once and understands them better than they do themselves.

The main practical advantage in assuming the god-like point of view is that the narrator is never obliged to ac-count for his possession of intimate information. He can observe events which happen at the same time in places widely separated. Darkness cannot dim his eyes; locked doors cannot shut him out. He can be with a character when that character is most alone. He can make clear to us the thoughts that do not tremble into speech, the emotions that falter and subside into inaction. He can know, and can convey to us, how much of a person's real thought is expressed, and how much is concealed, by the language that he uses. And the reader seeks no motive to account for the narrator's revelation of the personal secrets of the characters.

The omniscient point of view is the only one that permits upon a large scale the depiction of character through mental analysis. It is therefore usually used in the "psychological novel." It was employed always by George Eliot, and was selected almost always by George Meredith. It is, of course, invaluable for telling the sort of story whose main events are mental, or subjective. A spiritual experience which does not translate itself into concrete action can be viewed adequately only from the god-like point of view. But when it is employed in the narration of objective events, the writer runs the danger of undue abstractness. A certain vividness—a certain immediacy of observation—are likely to be lost, because of the aloofness from the characters of the mind that sees them.

This point of view is at once the most easy and the most difficult that the author my assume. Technically it is the easiest, because the writer is absolutely free in the selection and the patterning of his narrative materials; but humanly it is the most difficult, because it is hard for any man consistently to play the god, even toward his own fictitious creatures. Although George Eliot assumes omniscience of Daniel Deronda, the consensus of opinion among men of sound judgment is that she does not really know her hero. Deronda is in truth a lesser person than she thinks him; and her assumption of omniscience breaks down. In fact, unless an author is gifted with the god-like wisdom of George Meredith, he is almost sure to break down in the effort to sustain the omniscient attitude consistently throughout a complicated novel.

2. The Limited Point of View.—Therefore, in assuming a point of view external to the characters, it is usually wiser for the author to accept a compromise and to impose certain definite limits upon his own omniscience. Thus, while maintaining the prerogative to enter at any moment the minds of one or more of his characters, he may limit his observation of the others to what was actually seen and heard of them by those of whose minds he is omniscient. In such a case, although the author tells the story in the third person, he virtually sees the story from the point of view of a certain actor, or of certain actors, in it. The only phase of this device which we need to examine is that wherein the novelist's omniscience is limited to a single character.

This special point of view is employed with consummate art by Jane Austen. In "Emma," for example, she portrays every intimate detail of the heroine's thoughts and feelings, entering Emma's mind at will, or looking at her from the outside with omniscient eyes.

But in dealing with the other characters, the author limits her own knowledge to what Emma knew about them, and sees them consistently through the eyes of the heroine. Hence the story, although written by Jane Austen in the third person, is really seen by Emma Woodhouse and thought of in the first. Similarly, in "Pride and Prejudice," Elizabeth Bennet is the only character that the author permits herself to analyze at any length: the others are seen objectively, merely as Elizabeth saw them. The reader is made acquainted with every step in the heroine's gradual change of feeling toward Mr. Darcy; but of the change in Darcy's thoughts and feelings toward Elizabeth the reader is told nothing until she herself discovers it.

Of course, in applying this device, it is possible for the author, at certain points in the narrative, to shift his limited omniscience from one of the characters to an-other. In such a case, although the story is told through-out consistently in the third person, one scene may be viewed from the standpoint of one of the characters, an-other from that of another character, and so on.

Imagine for a moment two adjacent rooms with a single door between them which is locked; and suppose a character alone in each of the rooms,—each person thinking of the other. Now an author assuming absolute omniscience could tell us what each of them was thinking at the selfsame moment: the locked door would not be a bar to him. But an author telling the story from the attitude of limited omniscience could tell us only what one of them was thinking, and would not be able to see beyond the door. Whether or not he would find himself at liberty to choose which room he should be cognizant of, would depend of course on whether he was maintaining the same point of view throughout his story or was selecting it anew for every scene. In the first case, the one character whom he could see would be determined in advance: in the other, he should have to decide from the point of view of which of them that special scene could be the more effectively set forth.

The attitude of limited omniscience is more easy to maintain than that of a godlike mind intimately cognizant of all the characters at once; and furthermore, the employment of the more restricted point of view is more likely to produce the illusion of life. In actual experience, we see only one mind internally,—our own; all other people we look upon externally: and a story, therefore, which lays bare to us one mind and only one is more in tune with life itself than a story in which many minds are searched by an all-seeing eye. Also, a story told in the third person from the point of view which has been illustrated from Jane Austen's novels enjoys nearly every advantage of a narrative told in the first person by the leading actor, without being encumbered by certain of the most noticeable disadvantages.

3. The Rigidly Restricted Point of View.—For the sake of concreteness, however, it is often advisable for the author writing in the third person to restrict his point of view still further, and, foregoing absolutely the prerogative of omniscience, to limit himself to an attitude merely observant and entirely external to all the characters. In such a case the author wears, as it were, an invisible cap like that of Fortunatus, which permits him to move unnoticed among his characters; and he reports to us externally their looks, their actions, and their speech, without ever assuming an ability to delve into their minds. This rigidly external point of view is employed frequently by Guy de Maupassant in his briefer fictions; but although it is especially valuable in the short-story, it is extremely difficult to maintain through the extensive compass of a novel. The main advantage of this point of view is that it necessitates upon the part of the author an attitude toward his story which is at all moments visual rather than intellectual. He does not give a ready-made interpretation of his incidents, but merely projects them before the eyes of his readers and allows to each the privilege of interpreting them for himself. But, on the other hand, the reader loses the advantage of the novelist's superior knowledge of his creatures: and, except in dramatic moments when the motives are self-evident from the action, may miss the human purport of the scene.

Two Tones of Narrative, Impersonal and Personal: 1. The Impersonal Tone.—In employing every phase of the external point of view except the one which has been last discussed, the author is free to choose between two very different tones of narrative; the impersonal and the personal. He may either obliterate or emphasize his own personality as a factor in the story. The great epics and folk-tales have all been told impersonally. Whatever sort of person Homer may have been, he never obtrudes himself into his narrative; and we may read both the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey" without deriving any more definite sense of his personality than may be drawn from the hints which are given us by the things he knows about. No one knows the author of "Beowulf" or of the "Nibelungen Lied." These stories seem to tell themselves. They are seen from nobody's point of view, or from anybody's—whichever way we choose to say it. Many modern authors, like Sir Walter Scott, instinctively assume the epic attitude toward their characters and incidents: they look upon them with a large unconsciousness of self and depict them just as any one would see them. Other authors, like Mr. William Dean Howells, strive deliberately to keep the personal note out of their stories: self-consciously they triumph over self in the endeavor to leave their characters alone.

2. The Personal Tone.-But novelists of another class prefer to admit frankly to the reader that the narrator who stands apart from all the characters and writes about them in the third person is the author himself. They give a personal tone to the narrative; they assert their own peculiarities of taste and judgment, and never let you forget that they, and they alone, are telling the story. The reader has to see it through their eyes. It is in this way, for example, that Thackeray displays his stories,—pitying his characters, admiring them, making fun of them, or loving them, and never letting slip an opportunity to chat about the matter with his readers.

Mr. Howells, in Section XV of his "Criticism and Fiction," comments adversely on Thackeray's tendency "to stand about in his scene, talking it over with his hands in his pockets, interrupting the action, and spoiling the illusion in which alone the truth of art resides"; and in a further sentence he condemns him as "a writer who had so little artistic sensibility, that he never hesitated on any occasion, great or small, to make a foray among his characters, and catch them up to show them to the reader and tell him how beautiful or ugly they were; and cry out over their amazing properties." This sweeping condemnation of the narrative attitude of one of the best-beloved of the great masters sounds just a little bigoted. It is true, of course, that the strictest artists in fiction, like Guy de Maupassant, prefer to tell their tales impersonally: they leave their characters rigidly alone, and allow the reader to see them without looking through the author's personality. But there is a type of literature wherein the chief charm for the reader lies in the fact that he is permitted to see things through the author's mind. When we read Charles Lamb's essay on "The South Sea House," we read it not so much to look at the deserted and memorable building as to look at Elia looking at it. Similarly many readers return again and again to "The New-comes" not so much for the pleasure of seeing London high society as for the pleasure of seeing Thackeray see it. The merit, or the defect, of the method in any case is a question not of rules and regulations but of the tone and quality of the author's mind. Whether or not he may safely obtrude himself into his fictions depends entirely on who he is. This is a matter more of personality than of art: and what might be insufferable with one author may stand as the main merit of another. For instance, the greatest charm of Sir James Barrie's novels emanates from the author's habit of emphasizing the personal relation between himself and his characters. The author's many-mooded attitude toward Sentimental Tommy is a matter of human interest just as much as anything that Tommy feels himself.

Let us admit, then, in spite of Mr. Howells, that the author of fiction has a right to assert himself as the narra-tor, provided that he be a person of interest and charm. It remains for us to consider the various moods in which, in such a case, the writer may look upon his story. The self-obliterating author endeavors to hide his own opinion of the characters, in order not to interfere with the reader's independence of judgment concerning them; but the author who writes personally does not hesitate to reveal, nor even to express directly, his admiration of a character 's merits or his deprecation of a character's defects. You will seek in vain, in studying the ficittious people of Guy de Maupassant, for any indication of the author's approval or disapproval of them; and there is something very admirable in this absolute impassiveness of art. But on the other hand, there is a certain salutary humanness about an author who loves or hates his characters just as he would love or hate the same sort of people in actual life, and writes about them with the glow of personal emotion. Sir James Barrie often disapproves of Tommy; sometimes he feels forced to scold him; but he loves him for a' that: and we feel instinctively that the hero is the more truthfully delineated for being represented by a friend.

The Point of View as a Factor in Construction.—It will be gathered from the foregoing discussion of the various points of view in narrative that no one of them may be pronounced absolutely better than the others. But this much may be said dogmatically: there is always one best point of view from which to tell any given short-story; and although in planning a novel the author works with far less technical restriction, there is almost always one best point of view from which to tell a given novel. Therefore, it is advisable for the author to determine as early as possible, from a studious consideration of his materials, what is the best point of view from which to tell the story he is planning, and thereafter to contemplate his narrative from that stand., point and that only. Furthermore, the interest of art demands that the point of view selected shall, if possible be maintained consistently throughout the telling of the story. This, however, is a very difficult matter; and only in very recent years have even the best writers grown to master it. The novels which have been told without a single violation of this principle are very few in number. But the fact remains that any unwarrantable breakdown in the point of view selected diseconomizes the attention of the reader. It is unfortunate, for instance, that Thomas Bailey Aldrich, in "Marjorie Daw," should have found it necessary, after telling almost the entire tale in letters, to shift suddenly to the external point of view and end the story with a few pages of direct narrative. Such an unexpected variation of method startles and to some extent disrupts the attention of the reader, and thereby detracts from the effect of the thing to be conveyed.

Henry James and Mr. Kipling exhibit, in their several ways, extraordinary mastery of point of view; and their works may very profitably be studied for examples of this special phase of artistry in narrative. The very title of "What Maisie Knew", by Henry James, pro-claims the rigidly restricted standpoint from which the narrative material is seen. In Mr. Kipling's tale, "A Deal in Cotton," which is included in "Actions and Reactions," the interest is derived chiefly from the trick of telling the story twice,—first from the point of view of Adam Strickland, and the second time from the point of view of Adam's native body-servant, who knew many matters that were hidden from his master.

The Point of View as the Hero of the Narrative.—In certain special cases the point of view has been made, so to speak, the real hero of the story. Some years ago Mr. Brander Matthews, in collaboration with the late H. C. Bunner, devised a very clever narrative entitled "The Documents in the Case." It consisted merely of a series of numbered documents, widely different in nature, presented with neither introduction nor comment by the authors. The series contained clippings from various newspapers, personal letters, I. 0. U's, racetrack reports, pawn-tickets, letterheads, telegrams, theatre programmes, advertisements, receipted bills, envelopes, etc. In spite of the diversity of these materials, the authors succeeded in fabricating a narrative which was entirely coherent and at all points clear. The main interest, however, lay in the novelty and cleverness of the point of view; and though such an exaggerated technical expedient may be serviceable now and then for a special sort of story, it is not of any general value. A point of view that attracts attention to itself necessarily distracts attention from the story that is being represented; and in a narrative of serious import, the main emphasis should be thrown upon the thing that is told rather than upon the way of telling it.


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