The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018
Point of view
Point of view: The vantage point from which a narrative is told. A narrative is typically told from a first-person or third-person point of view; the second-person point of view is extremely rare. Novels sometimes, but infrequently, mix points of view.
In a narrative told from a first-person perspective, the author tells the story through a character who refers to himself or herself as “I.” Such a narrator is usually (but not always) a major participant in the action and recounts events as he or she experiences, remembers, or hears about them. While most first-person narrators are reliable, some are naive or otherwise unreliable, coloring or distorting matters — whether innocently or intentionally — in ways that the reader (at least eventually) detects. Huck, the young protagonist of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn (1884), is a classic example of a naive hero, whereas Verbal Kint of the movie The Usual Suspects (1995) is intentionally unreliable, aiming to mislead in order to conceal his true identity and role in a ruthless criminal scheme. Occasionally, works written from the first-person point of view contain multiple narrators, each of whom personally recounts his or her story. For example, in Amy Tan’s novel The Joy Luck Club (1989), several mothers and daughters convey varied perspectives on life in recounting their own histories.
Third-person narratives come in two types: omniscient and limited. In either case, the narrator is an observer who relates the story using third-person pronouns such as “he,” “she,” and “it.” An author taking an omniscient point of view assumes the vantage point of an all-knowing narrator able not only to recount the action thoroughly and reliably but also to enter the mind of any character at any time in order to reveal his or her thoughts, feelings, and beliefs directly to the reader. (Such a narrator, it should be pointed out, can conceal as well as reveal at will.) An author using the limited point of view recounts the story through the eyes of a single character (or occasionally more than one). The reader is thus usually privy to the inner thoughts and feelings of only one character and receives the story as that character understands and experiences it, although not in that character’s own voice. The narrator of Leo Tolstoi’s novel Anna Karenina (1866—67), for instance, is omniscient, observing from the outset that “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” whereas J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series (1997—2007) is told from the limited point of view, from the protagonist Harry’s perspective, but still in the third person.
In a narrative told from the second-person point of view, the narrator addresses a “you.” Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City (1984), which begins “You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time in the morning,” is an example of second-person narrative, as are the Choose Your Own Adventure books (1979—98).
FURTHER EXAMPLES: The concluding chapter of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847), a novel written from the first-person point of view, begins:
Reader, I married him. A quiet wedding we had: he and I, the parson and clerk, were alone present. When we got back from church, I went into the kitchen of the manor-house, where Mary was cooking the dinner, and John cleaning the knives, and I said —
“Mary, I have been married to Mr. Rochester this morning.”
Toni Morrison’s novel God Help the Child (2015) is written from both the first-person and the third-person limited points of view. Part I begins with the first-person narration of Sweetness, the mother of the protagonist (neé Lula Ann but later known as Bride):
It’s not my fault. So you can’t blame me. I didn’t do it and have no idea how it happened. It didn’t take more than an hour after they pulled her out from between my legs to realize that something was wrong. Really wrong. She was so black she scared me. Midnight black, Sudanese black. I’m light skinned, with good hair, what we call high yellow, and so is Lula Ann’s father.
The first chapter of Part II is written from the third-person limited perspective:
A taxi was preferable because parking a Jaguar in that neighborhood was as dim-witted as it was risky. That Booker frequented this part of the city startled Bride. Why here? she wondered. There were music shops in unthreatening neighborhoods, places where tattooed men and young women dressed like ghouls weren’t huddled on corners or squatting on curbs.
Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage (1895), by contrast, is narrated from the omniscient point of view:
The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting. As the landscape changed from brown to green, the army awakened, and began to tremble with eagerness at the noise of rumors. It cast its eyes upon the roads, which were growing from long troughs of liquid mud to proper thoroughfares. A river, amber-tinted in the shadow of its banks, purled at the army’s feet; and at night, when the stream had become of a sorrowful blackness, one could see across it the red, eyelike gleam of hostile camp fires set in the low brows of distant hills.
Nikki Gemmell’s The Bride Stripped Bare (2003) involves the second-person point of view:
On the day before you leave for Marrakech Mrs. Theodora White tells you she has no passion in her life, for anything. It’s such a shock to hear, but she dismisses your concern with a smile and a flick of her hand. She picks a sliver of tobacco off her tongue and throws back her head to gulp the last of her flat white wine. She was born thirty-five whereas you haven’t gained definition yet, haven’t hardened into adulthood. You’re also in your thirties but still stamp through puddles and sing off-key too much, as if tucked inside you is a little girl who refuses to die.