Critical Reading: Unit 4 Narrative and structure

4.3 Perspective

The narrative voice must have a perspective, a point of view, but this need not be fixed. The voice that tells the story may not be the same as the character through whose eyes we see events. The person whose perspective is given to the reader at any point in the narrative is the 'focaliser'. To avoid suggesting that there is always a 'real' or even fictional 'person' behind the narrative voice, critics sometimes refer to the 'subject position' to refer to the agency through which narration happens – the transmission of the events to the reader.

It is important to ask 'Who is telling this story?', 'To Whom?', 'Why?' and 'Do I believe him or her?' In a sense, of course, we don't 'believe' any of this but, within the contract of fiction, is the narrative voice 'reliable'? Think about whether the narrator is relating all the facts as she or he knows them. Are there inventions and suppositions to fill in gaps? Could there be deception? Is the 'voice' telling the story identified? Is the narrator of the story also a character who appears in the story, or an anonymous individual with apparently no identity or power? What would be the effect of either of these? Is the narrative told in the first person, that is, using 'I' and relating events that happen to that 'I', or is it told in the third person, that is, narrating events that happen to characters referred to by name or pronoun ('he', 'she', 'they'...)? What would be the effect of these? Does the narrator seem to be able to see into the minds of all the characters? Does he or she follow different characters through the story, apparently showing us events through many eyes, or does he or she 'see' through the eyes of one character?

When does the story happen? Is it happening 'now', that is, in the present tense? ('John gets up, he takes a shower, cleans his teeth, and dresses.') Is it happening in the past? ('John got up, he took a shower, cleaned his teeth, and dressed.') Why might it help or hinder a story to be written in the first person, present tense?

Here are some examples to help you organise your thoughts on these topics.

Jane Austen wrote her novels in the third person, retrospectively, using a narrative voice who is not one of the characters in the novel. Her narrative voice is anonymous yet has a personality; it comments on the actions and characters, sometimes ironically, but without disturbing our sense of the flow of events. Although the narrator can tell us about the thoughts and feelings of more than one character, it tends to follow (to see through the eyes of) one, usually the heroine.

Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre is written in the first person, as though narrated by the central protagonist, retrospectively, using the past tense. The perspective is limited to that of Jane Eyre, although, like anyone else, she can speculate about other characters' thoughts and feelings. The novel is presented as an autobiography, though there was no pretence that 'Currer Bell' (Charlotte Brontë) was 'really' 'Jane Eyre' or vice versa. During the early development of the novel as a genre, fictional narratives were often offered as 'true histories' or biographies or autobiographies, with introductory sections offering explanations about how the story came to the ears of or into the hands of the author. Such 'framing devices' could be quite simple ('someone told me') or quite elaborate ('I found an old chest with a clue that led me to an old journal, which led...')

Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights has two narrators, Lockwood and Nelly Dean, or, rather, Lockwood narrates to the reader, ostensibly in letters to a friend, Nelly's narration of the 'back-story' to him, so there is a 'story-within-a-story'. This means that sometimes we read a first- and sometimes a third-person narrative.

George Eliot's Middlemarch has a third-person narrative and is told in the past tense. Although it begins very much focused on the heroine, Dorothea Brooke, seeing events through her eyes, it includes events at which she is not present. The narrative voice sometimes takes on the perspective of other characters, such as Tertius Lydgate. Like Austen, Eliot makes no excuse and offers no reason for telling the story, but her narrative voice does discourse on matters outside of the events of the narrative, making opportunities for philosophical and moral reflections. The narrators of novelists such as Henry Fielding and Tobias Smollett are often intrusive; they 'break the frame' of the fiction, interrupting the flow of events to address the reader directly, often playfully.

For technical terms about narrative, perspective, and voice, see Glossary of the critical idiom.

Individual activity: Reading

Read the section on prose fiction in Goring, Hawthorn and Mitchell, pp. 25–36.

Individual activity: Responses

Goring, Hawthorn and Mitchell provide an extract from Charlotte Brontë's novel Jane Eyre and some questions to bear in mind while you read the extract. Using these questions as a starting-point, make some notes about your thoughts. Then read the authors' thoughts and compare them.

Further reading (optional)

Cobley, P. 2001 Narrative, The New Critical Idiom Series, London: Routledge.

Optional activity: Perspective

For an example of an interesting choice of perspective, read the beginning of section XI of Henry James, What Maisie Knew , at the Project Gutenberg website.