Point of View (seemingly endless) notes for my students

This is a very long email I sent to my students last semester, when a few had questions about point-of-view.  There are occasional references to particular students and particular stories, but I thought the specific advice might mean something even to someone unfamiliar with the the work–so I left them.  If it’s baffling, ignore it, of course.  I also refer to a couple of my own stories, not because they’re the greatest examples but because I know so well how they work.  Here’s hoping the points make sense even if you don’t know the work.

As to POV, those of you who know it all can tune out here, as I fear I may go on for a while–and I’ll certainly tell you things you’ve already learned, though not all of you, and not all at once, which is why I might go on.

Jenna asked something like:  is there more than one kind of omniscient narrator (or POV), to which my answer is, well, yes and no.  There are, especially in novels before the modern era–think especially ofVictorian novels–narrators who are pretty clearly an author’s stand-in.  He’s (let’s just stick with “he” for the moment) the storyteller, knows everything that’s happening and what everyone thinks about it; but he usually narrates from the outside, as it were (I only say “as it were” in my pedagogical mode).  OK, let me go back even further to Jane Austen, in her famous line from Pride & Prejudice:  “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”  This is a judgment that is coming from outside of the story proper–it doesn’t represent the thinking or point-of-view of any of the characters.  And yet, it doesn’t necessarily represent Jane Austen either.  It is a fabrication, a voice she puts on to tell her story, a little arch but understanding, and ultimately sympathetic to her protagonists.

My point here is that every story–even those in third person, even those that purport to have an omniscient POV–has a sort of hypothetical narrator, a voice that has a character all its own.  As time progressed, the omniscient narrator got closer and often aligned him- or herself with a particular character, or different characters in turn.  Middlemarch, for instance, is very much Dorothea’s book, but the narrator also observes her, occasionally judges her, and now and then remarks on what another character, say her sister Celia, or her suitor Sir James, is thinking or feeling, though generally these things are filtered through Dorothea’s sensibility.

Now look ahead to Joyce’s great story “The Dead,” which opens, “Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet.”  Note the deliberate misuse of “literally” (i.e., Lily does not fall down).  Immediately the story–the voice of the story–takes on the air (and the POV) of a breathless gossip or social observer, and this goes on, the next paragraph beginning, “It was always a great affair, the Misses Morkan’s annual dance.”  The voice, and the POV, has the sense of “it is known” or “everybody knows.”  And as the story progresses, and we are introduced to the principals and some background, the POV slowly and subtly eases toward the real protagonist, the character who’s central to the story, Gabriel–and ultimately everything that happens until the end is filtered through his perspective; the POV, which started wide, omniscient, has finally appropriated and approximated Gabriel’s  way and rhythm of observing, feeling, and understanding–and it is the transformation in that understanding that the story is ultimately about.

Many modern and contemporary novels (and let me make an aside here–many authors don’t think twice about such things, or just write things as they occur to them, and some are even brilliant or intuitive enough to get these things right, by feel, though most are operating on a level a little below where I’d like to think we want to write; my feeling is:  do it, figure out what you did, do it better, get it right.), so, where was I?  Many contemporary novels steer away from omniscient narrators in the old sense, which just doesn’t suit the way we live and think in our day (though I think we’re moving toward a new sort of omnisient POV, a sort of crowd-sourced narrative voice, but that’s another conversation, involving gin).  What we have instead, often, is what we call limited third person or third person limited or, I think, at any rate, James Wood–one of our visiting writers this summer–calls free indirect discourse, which doesn’t have a ring to it.  This is a selective narrative voice and POV, one that is thoroughly vested in a particular character and approximates his or her perspective, which in turn determines what can be seen, described, or understood in that story.

I will shamelessly turn to a story of mine, “Her Book,” in my collection World Like a Knife (the title is from the John Berryman poem, Jenna), to explain.  This story is about a little girl whose mother disposes of her whenever she, the mother, snags a new man, which has given the child a somewhat distorted notion about the relations between men and women (and, of course, children).  The story begins from her point of view, thus:

Three times the child had come to the Home and each time, as far as she remembered, her mother had told her that someday she would understand–someday when you’re a woman, her mother said.  She said this in the office, quick before the sound of Mrs. Vincent coming cut her off, and Becca already understood.  Her mother, a woman, was good enough for men, but someone stiff and old like Mrs. Vincent, who was a widow and wouldn’t understand, was only good enough for children.  It was a secret between Becca and her mother.  “I do understand,” Becca said.

So, though this is framed in terms the child, Becca, could not come up with on her own, they nonetheless do frame and reflect her thoughts.  Clearly I, the author, am not saying. “Mrs. Vincent, who was a widow and wouldn’t understand, was only good enough for children.”  It’s the way Becca understands (and children are difficult, and even more difficult to explain when it comes to POV, because there is in fact an intuitive sense you’ve got to have about the right words and syntactical structures for conveying a child’s thoughts–some cases in which, for instance, “enormous” might sound right, but “huge” might not).

But the POV in this story alternates between Becca and the damaged woman who adopts her, whose 1st section begins:

There was something old about the child, in her pinched little plain face a sober and attentive patience that Melissa had seen before in children who weren’t even old enough to know what was or wasn’t childlike.  The child’s history confirmed it:  Something that she wasn’t even old enough to know she’d missed had to be made up to her.

And the story, which goes back and forth between these 2 POVS, is, really, about the ultimate coinciding of them, when Becca and Melissa, each in her own strange terms, do understand the same thing.

I tell you this to show you that you can use POV not just as a critical part of your storytelling, but also as a critical part of your story itself.  I have another story in that collection, “Near November,” that also works with POV in its development, because the POV reflects that of the main character, Elizabeth, who after coming home for her sister’s funeral, realizes that her understanding of her sister’s situation–and her, Elizabeth’s, role in it–has been utterly wrong; and the story reflects Elizabeth’s POV even as it shows, through that perspective, a perhaps different (more objective?) reality.  I’ll give you a passage that demonstrates this (know that Rachel is Elizabeth’s more attractive (and sweeter) sister, and that Aaron has briefly been a love interest of Elizabeth’s):

It seemed that one day Aaron was answering Rachel politely, and the next he was inviting her to sit with him.  Elizabeth tired of their conversation.  His character was so changeable that, apparently unaware of contradiction, he revised the plans she had admired.  Within a month’s time, she had to admit to herself that there was nothing but talk in the resolve that had drawn her to him. When he began asking for Rachel, Elizabeth was relieved. She remembered how relieved she was.

You see how this works?  With the repetition (“She remembered how relieved she was.”) we understand that her insistence carries a charge of self-delusion (a matter of protesting too much).  So this whole development shows, first, how a man Elizabeth was attracted to was, typically, more attracted to her sister, and, second, how Elizabeth spun this in her mind, and in her memory.  And ultimately the story strips Elizabeth of her illusions and delusions–and her understanding and another, more “objective” one, which we’ve glimpsed through her POV, dovetail.

Here’s another use of POV as an aspect not just of storytelling but of the story itself.  In Rick Moody’s novel The Ice Storm, which tells of a group of people through one disastrous weekend in New England, we go from one POV to another, seeing various events through particular characters’ eyes, only to arrive, at the end, at the realization that all of these have been created–speculated–by one character in the story, in his attempt to make sense of the story we’ve just read.

So.  Beatrice’s work. Immediately, in her first submission, we think we’re with Vir (or I did, anyway), but then, when we come to, “his own eyes narrowing,” we have to wonder.  Is this something he’d observe–the narrowing of his own eyes?  Iffy.  And then we get to, “Desensitized to the perverse moods of their employers,” in re the maids, and again we have to wonder:  who’s telling us that?  Does Vir understand that about the maids?  Or is there a larger, overarching voice that is telling this story?  After all, soon enough, we have:  “No longer able to withstand hunger pangs, Vir slipped out for a meal.”  And that’s something only Vir could understand, right?  So maybe Beatrice is creating an omniscient narrator who’s going to observe from the outside–and, occasionally, from the inside?  What’s missing is control. Authority.  Consistency.

Let’s go on a bit.  On the next page, we have:  “Without realizing it, he reached the closet door.”  Where does this come from?  If he doesn’t realize it, then how are being told about it?  Unless it’s that omniscient narrator, observing from the outside–but we’ve, in a sense, been led to believe that we’re seeing things from Vir’s perspective (Faint sounds of paper falling against the sides reached his ears as he turned it over.  He ran his fingers against the cover, uncovering traces of a tiny keyhole.) (Note the “cover, uncovering”–good repetition?  I don’t think so.).

Through the first submission, Beatrice did seem to go back and forth between the perspectives, or points of view, of her character, with a few lapses–or points at which we couldn’t tell where the information might be coming from; but with this second, brief submission, I’m less certain that I read her right.  The narrator seems to know everything about everyone at once.  I’d say (as I have said to you, somewhere) that would be okay, if it were deliberate and consistent; but I think Beatrice wants to go back and forth between her main characters, variously adopting their POVs as they participate in the central action and understand important events differently (the difference between Vir’s and Uncle’s understanding, for instance, seems critical to the story).  So either I’m mistaken or Beatrice is, and that’s for her, the writer, to decide.

In the end, you know what you’re doing, and you do what you think works best–and then you can only hope someone reads it as you hoped and expected it to be read.  Managing this transaction is what determines the success, critical and commercial, of a writer.

Please forgive any typos I might have committed.  I spent my evening working on this instead of on my novel, so I deserve special dispensation.

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