What Is Point of View?: Point of view is an element of fiction that has long been manipulated in story as well as in other genres. Implicit in this element’s presence in literary theory is the fact that any event is experienced and narrated from a particular point of view. Point of view shapes the story, shapes the reader’s experience of the story, and, finally, resides in the reader, as the ultimate experiencer to determine meaning of the story. The mechanics of point of view is ultimately a process of self-referral.
Narrative Points of View
Classical View: The classic understanding of point of view is that this element defines the narrative stance operating within story. Point of view is generally distinguished by the first person or third person perspective though experimental techniques sometimes move the narration outside of this sphere. In first person, the narrator proceeds in a self-reflexive manner, describing the action as if witnessing it first hand (looking at their own experience of what is happening to them and their perception of what is happening around them).
Poe: Poe’s story “The Cask of Amontillado” establishes point of view with this bit of hyperbole (exageration) from the main character and narrator Montresor: “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could; but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge.” Montresor is speaking seriously to the reader, but the hyperbole creates a certain comic effect in the reader’s perception. The reader is going to view the story’s events through the deranged, albeit comic, perspective of Montresor, who apparently would rather be injured than insulted.
Third person narrative seemingly provides an outside observer, though another character in the story could also serve this function. Hawthorne begins “Young Goodman Brown with this observation: “Young Goodman Brown came forth at sunset into the street at Salem village; but put his head back, after crossing the threshold, to exchange a parting kiss with his young wife” (339). The narrator is apparently also in the village, observing the actions of the Browns. The reader can’t be sure if the narrator is a villager or some more omniscient form of narrator who can see into all the characters’ hearts as well as report on what they are doing.
Reader Response View: As reader response theory developed in the 1960s and 1970s, the old notion that a reader simply identified with the main character was challenged. The whole reading process (reader, reading process, response) began to be taken into account). Wolfgang Iser recognized the reader as the “co-creator of the work,” the one who “fills in the gaps” of what isn’t specified. Point of view now shifts more fully into the reader’s cognitive court.
Theorist Stanly Fish goes further to say that we shouldn’t talk about meaning in a story but rather about the experience of story, moving the discussion of point of view even more directly into the reader’s cognitive court. As readers, we are the determiners of the point of view of our experience of story. The writer may choose a narrative stance, but the reader, while acknowledging that stance, fills in the gaps that that stance creates. So, we must look within the reader’s own consciousness to understand the possibilities for points of view in experiencing story.
Self-Referral View: What do we mean by “self-referral” in this context? In the Science of Consciousness, transcending is described as a self-referral process. When practicing the Transcendental Meditation technique, an individual systematically experiences pure consciousness or Transcendental Consciousness by settling down to the source of thought. Pure consciousness, which is the basis of all experience, is itself conscious and being conscious, is aware of itself. The nature of consciousness is to be conscious, to be aware.
In Transcendental Consciousness, one experiences this pure state of awareness. Coming out of meditation, returning to the surface level of the mind, one experiences and observes more manifest levels of creation. What one experiences or observes depends on where one places one’s awareness, creating one’s point of view. The experience of the object viewed depends, then, on the clarity of one’s awareness.
Fiction: Here’s where fiction starts to play.
It’s true that the writer can shift the reader’s experience of objects and events in a story by shifting the point of view from which the story is told. Ultimately, the reader not only fathom the awareness of the narrator but also the awareness of all the characters and the explicit and implicit interactions among them. The reader does this by being conscious of his or her own awareness and experience of the story.
1. Tompkins, Jane P. Reader-Response Criticism from Formalism to Post-Structuralism. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980, p. xv.
2. Tompkins, Jane P. Reader-Response Criticism from Formalism to Post-Structuralism. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980, p. 98.