Narrative Perspective

The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014

Narrative Perspective

Michael Bell

If narrative perspective, in its most general meaning, is the angle from which the subject is viewed, then it is clearly one of the most significant factors governing a novel's representation of its world. Indeed, it can on occasion virtually constitute the subject of the narrative. Henry James, for example, records that the “germ” of The Spoils of Poynton (1897) was given him as a reported situation in which a wealthy, cultured widow, with a much-loved only son and a house full of beautiful objects, faced the prospect of passing the inheritance to a pushy, philistine daughter-in-law. The situation only came alive for James's novelistic imagination, however, when he imagined it from the viewpoint of a new, invented character, a young woman of intelligent sensibility and deeply in love with the son, who, for those very reasons, is unable to use the sharp elbows of her rival. Through her consciousness, the very crudeness of the external situation as James first heard it is transmuted into an anguished internal drama.

In the case of James's novel, the initial process of creative exploration and the final dramatic realization of the narrative are at once highly self-conscious and consummately achieved, but precisely the success of such an achievement can disguise the difficulties and complexities that are involved in the notion of narrative perspective. For although “perspective” is in the first instance a visual term, it has metaphorical senses extending through several levels, from the dramatic to the moral and the philosophical. For that reason it is helpful first to distinguish the technical aspect of narrative perspective from these possibly more important, yet also more elusive, dimensions.

By the technical aspect here is meant the literal “point of view” of the narration, which can be to some extent concretely, even linguistically, defined: a story may be told, for example, in the first person, or the third person, or in “free indirect speech,” known in French as style indirect libre, and in German as Erlebte Rede (see DISCOURSE). “Point of view” in this sense has become an acknowledged term of art for literary critics and, while such narrative choices are clearly important for the writer and the critically reflective reader, they can be analytically misleading and critically distracting owing to the widespread impact of what might be called the “technical fallacy.” The modern literary academy was largely founded in the period of early twentieth-century modernism, and was decisively influenced by the self-conscious concern for technique in writers like Henry James and James Joyce; the generation of writers in whom the novel itself achieved a fully recognized status as an artistic genre. Explication of such technique became a central activity in the teaching of literature and, because it is technical and demonstrable, it is eminently teachable even where neither the teacher nor the students have a profound literary responsiveness or demanding critical sense. The outcome is a recurrent overinvestment in the notion of technique, as if the narrative technique as such could produce the moral intelligence of the work, or provide an adequate locus for a critical understanding of it. Mark Schorer's influential essay “Technique as Discovery” (1948) and Wayne Booth's much later The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961) variously exemplify this tendency. Both attempted a reading of D. H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers (1913), seeking to expose the weakness of the novel as a failure to maintain a consistent point of view with respect to the central character, Paul Morel. Many years later both revised their perception of the novel as they came to realize that, despite its possible faults in this regard, Lawrence was actually attempting a more subtle, and shifting, relation to his material and his characters. In other words, there is, indeed, a problem of moral perspective in Sons and Lovers, a certain parti pris for Paul Morel, but consideration of the novel's narrative technique, while a significant part of the necessary analysis, does not adequately catch the nature of Lawrence's struggle with his material. Of course, this remains a matter of judgment in any given instance, but the general point is that the technical point of view is not necessarily a complete index of the narrative's overall moral perspective, and on occasion these might even be at odds whether through artistic failure or through deliberate irony. What follows, therefore, are some classic but varied instances of the importance of narrative perspective.

As the Sons and Lovers case suggests, the especially difficult instances for the control of narrative perspective are likely to be those in which a highly personal, individual emotional condition is of the essence. This was evident in one of the early, and formative, European novels, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774, The Sorrows of the Young Werther). Goethe's novel arose partly from his own experience of romantic attraction to a young woman betrothed to his friend, but it was also a critical reflection on the contemporary fashion of sensibility, the excessive value placed on feeling; a fashion which was associated especially with the influence of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The narrative is made up of a series of letters written by Werther up to the point of his suicide and, in contrast to other epistolary novels of the period, the reader sees no replies to Werther's letters so that the narrative reinforces his moral and emotional self-enclosure. The novel was a great popular success, but readers overwhelmingly identified with Werther and sympathized with his fate as a romantic tragedy rather than as the moral warning that Goethe intended. Indeed, this was the conventional, and approved, response to the literature of sensibility at the time. Readers were invited to identify with figures of virtue in distress. Accordingly, Goethe modified the text and gave weight to an editorial figure who not only assembles the letters but gives a third-person conclusion to the narrative. But Goethe's difficulty, apart from the possible seduction of his own autobiographical involvement in a similar situation (see LIFE WRITING), was that the intensity of Werther's emotional subjectivity is necessary to the story. Without that, the critical perception of him would have no point, or be merely banal. Goethe needed to be fully inside the contemporary man of feeling in order to subject him to an immanent critique. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Goethe's next novel, Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1796, Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship), is narrated in the third person and with an overt irony in the manner of Henry Fielding's Tom Jones (1749). Yet despite this radical change, the final balance of approval and critique in the story of Wilhelm's education also remains highly elusive, albeit now for quite different reasons. As the defining instance of the bildungsroman, the novel enacts a belief in fruitful, perhaps necessary, error on the part of the hero and, more importantly perhaps, it celebrates the elusiveness of authentic individual development to general moral judgment. Hence Goethe's ironic narrative perspective tends to suspend rather than enforce authorial judgment.

George Eliot admired Goethe's novel and defended its trusting naturalism against Victorian charges of amorality. She saw a deeper and more intrinsic morality at work in it and, although Eliot herself was more overtly moralistic than Goethe, she strove, within her own conception, to achieve something comparable by extending the moral sympathies of readers (see REALISM). Hence the dramatic highlights of her novels, and their overall narrative structures, often turn on sympathetic connections across widely different human types. The two parallel narratives of Daniel Deronda (1876), for example, are held together by the purely sympathetic connection between Gwendolen Harleth and Daniel Deronda; a connection that is the more pointed for their lacking a shared narrative or the motive of sexual attraction. Likewise, Dorothea Brooke's generous visit to Rosamund Vincy, while believing her to be the successful rival for Will Ladislaw's love, is one of the cardinal moments of Middlemarch (1871—72). Moreover, in one of her famous reflections, Eliot explicitly thematizes the narrative perspective of her novel as an extension of the reader's moral sympathy. Having drawn the reader into the process of Dorothea's idealistic and dutiful acceptance of the dreadful pedant Edward Casaubon as her husband, the narrator starts chapter 29 with an abrupt turn to ask, “why always Dorothea? Was her point of view the only possible one with regard to this marriage?” And Eliot goes on to show that the pitiful, insecure, repressed Casaubon has his own particular anguish. In another famous aside, in chapter 15, the narrator contrasts the narrative perspective of Middlemarch with that of Henry Fielding. Whereas Fielding is imaged as the theatrical spectator who sits in a fixed position in his armchair and yet can expose all of the action as a matter of leisured generalization, Eliot's narrative has to follow more minutely the hidden, “interwoven” connections of the action and characters. The moral or psychological correlative of this difference is that whereas Fielding, like many of his contemporaries, tended to contrast virtue with conscious villainy and hypocrisy, Eliot was concerned rather with the subtle forms of self-deception. Hence, while Eliot's moralism is very different from Goethe's naturalism, it has a comparable elusiveness of final judgment.

The great nineteenth-century novels, such as Eliot's, tend to be multi-perspectival. They show the lives of selected individuals, many of them perhaps unknown to each other, while also building up an image of the social and historical whole by which these lives are conditioned. This latter aspect involves a more elusive kind of narrative perspective understood now as the total worldview or social interpretation produced by the symbolic rhetoric of the work. Charles Dickens, for example, does this through powerful images such as the law in Bleak House (1853). Also, within his Shakespearean comic subplots, his minor characters act as expositions of themes left implicit in the major characters. The effect is like an engineer's exploded diagram revealing the internal relations of a complex system. By contrast, Honoré de Balzac typically gives a sense of underground connections which can never be brought fully to light but only glimpsed in characters such as Vautrin, the underworld villain who passes for an honest citizen. Leo Tolstoy, meanwhile, creates a sense of natural process to which the characters must intuitively attune themselves, as Konstantin Levin learns to do in Anna Karenina (1877), or else suffer the consequences essentially from the process itself. By the end of the century, however, writers were less confident in such overall models of the world or society and the increasingly deterministic, scientistic conception known as naturalism seemed too limited. Another important factor here is the growing awareness of class as a difference in moral understanding. The confident moral perspective of Fielding was a class confidence, so that although his narrative encompassed all levels of society, it did so from an essentially genteel perspective. By contrast, for a late nineteenth-century writer like George Gissing even the poetic wholeness of the Dickensian novel began to seem untenable.

Accordingly, the modernist generation sought different modes of imaginative wholeness and some of them produced remarkable fictions based on a double narrative perspective (see MODERNIS). On the one hand, the fiction of Joyce, Lawrence, Marcel Proust, or Virginia Woolf was highly subjective in its representation of the world through the processes of individual consciousness. Yet at the same time the very elements that pass apparently randomly through this consciousness are constructing, for the reader, an aesthetic or mythic whole which provides the ultimate narrative perspective of the book. In this line of modernist fiction, the world is typically not so much an external given to be mimetically represented, as a construction of the human mind for which the construction of the book is a direct analogue or working example. The human mind, that is to say, does not create material existence, but it transposes it into what Ranier Maria Rilke called the bedeutende Welt, the interpreted or meaningful world. Hence, the dual narrative perspective of these modernist works respects both the immediate randomness of experience for the character and the secret, world-creating order of the whole.

The ambition for a novel to create a narrative perspective out of its own substance rather than by reflecting an independently given worldview had its first powerful articulation in the proto-modernist Gustave Flaubert. In a famous letter, he spoke of the desire, albeit an impossible one, to write a book about nothing, a work suspended purely by its own style. Of course, as T. S. Eliot (1888—1965) pointed out, the nineteenth-century notion of “art for art's sake” was, if taken literally, either banal or incoherent. Otherwise, it is the image of a moral attitude to life, as Flaubert evidently understood, and for him it represented a famous ideal of impersonality vis-à-vis the subject matter of the work. Flaubert's posture of narrative indifference is both genuine and a feint: in its refusal of a conventionally sentimental response it invites a reflective compassion from the reader, and a major element in that reflection is an atheistical awareness of the indifferent universe which this narrative posture represents. Flaubert drew especially on premodern literary models, models predating the eighteenth-century's sentimental turn which so strongly governed the formation of the European novel, and he would have appreciated one of world literature's most startling uses of narrative perspective. Toward the end of Geoffrey Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde (ca. 1385), the departing spirit of the dead Troilus pauses at the outermost sphere of the medieval cosmos and looks back, with a new detachment, on the world it has just left behind. This is a Flaubertian moment avant la lettre.

It is evident, then, in all these novels that narrative perspective is not a readily isolable aspect but a subtly total outcome of the work's subject, structure, and style. For that reason, the question of narrative perspective throws some light on a radical problem posed by Henry James. Much as he admired their achievement, James deprecated what he saw as a lack of artistry in the “loose, baggy monsters” of his nineteenth-century predecessors such as George Eliot. He spoke of the novelist's need to draw a bounding line, which must not seem merely arbitrary, around the potential infinity of relations that extend outward from any novelistic subject. Laurence Sterne's roman-fleuve, Tristram Shandy (1759—67, is the classic comic enactment of this difficulty. Where does the story of a life start, where does it finish, and what does it include? Where the understanding, or the meaning, of a life are in question, even birth and death are conventional rather than intrinsic limits. But that is to conceive the question too externally, perhaps, as one of imposing limits. The image of perspective as the ordering of visual representation developed in the European Renaissance has a different implication. Perspective is an internally intrinsic way of organizing not just what we see but what we infer without seeing. The perspectival standpoint determines the limits of the vision or of what needs to be represented. Of all novelists, James had perhaps the most conscious sense of how narrative perspective governs by an internal, organic logic the process of shaping and selection by which the work is created.

SEE ALSO: Adaptation/Appropriation, Closure, Cognitive Theory, Frame, Story/Discourse.


1. Booth, W.C. (1991), Rhetoric of Fiction, 2nd ed.

2. Chamberlain, D.F. (1990), Narrative Perspective in Fiction.

3. Cohn, D. (1978), Transparent Minds.

4. Hühn, P., W. Schmid, and J. Schonert, eds. (2009), Point of View, Perspective and Focalization.

5. James, H. (1978), Art of the Novel.

6. Scholes, R. and R. Kellogg (1996), Nature of Narrative.