Narrative Point of View

What Is Narrative Point of View?

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Authors don’t speak to us directly in literary works. They use an intermediary device called a narrator. Narrative point of view is the perspective of that narrator.

  • First person narrative point of view occurs when the narrator is telling the story. “Call me Ismael,” the first line of Melville’s novel, Moby Dick, reveals that the story will be in first person point of view. Occasionally, a literary work can have a first person plural narrative, as in William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” in which the entire town (“we”) narrates.
  • In third person limited point of view, the narrator is separate from the main character but sticks close to that character’s experience and actions. The reader doesn’t know anything that the character could not know, nor does the reader get to witness any plot events when the main character isn’t there.
  • Third person omniscient point of view, on the other hand, features a god-like narrator who is able to enter into the minds and action of all the characters. Some authors, like Jack London and Leo Tolstoy, even enter the minds of animals!

Generally speaking, the more distance the narrator has from the characters, the more reliable the point of view is to present the story truthfully. First person narratives, which filter all information through a character who might be insane or have limited intelligence, are notoriously unreliable.

How Do You Identify Point of View in Writing?

First person singular and plural points of view are easy to figure out; you simply look for the pronouns “I” or “we.” The tricky part is differentiating between limited and omniscient third person narrative point of view.

Questions to ask yourself: Does the narrative follow more than one character’s story? Do you learn what more than one character is thinking? Do several characters’ perspectives contribute to your understanding of themes and plot events?

If the answer to any of these questions is “yes,” the point of view is probably third person omniscient.

Examples of Narrative Point of View

1. “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge.” — first person point of view in Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.”

2. “The boy, crouched on his nail keg at the back of the crowded room, knew he smelled cheese, and more: from where he sat he could see the ranked shelves close-packed with the solid, squat, dynamic shapes of tin cans whose labels his stomach read, not from the lettering which meant nothing to his mind but from the scarlet devils and the silver curve of fish – this, the cheese which he knew he smelled and the hermetic meat which his intestines believed he smelled coming in intermittent gusts momentary and brief between the other constant one, the smell and sense just a little of fear because mostly of despair and grief, the old fierce pull of blood.”

This passage from William Faulkner’s story “Barn Burning” is a good example of third person limited point of view. The reader experiences the scene, in which the boy’s father is being tried for arson in a makeshift court, strictly through the child’s eyes. Notice that the boy is illiterate.

3. “Everyone else said of her: ‘She is such a good mother. She adores her children.’ Only she herself, and her children themselves, knew it was not so. They read it in each other eyes.”

This passage from D. H. Lawrence’s “The Rocking Horse Winner” is third person omniscient narration; the reader sees the thoughts of both the mother and her children.