Definition of Point of View
Point of view is utilized as a literary device to indicate the angle or perspective from which a story is told. Essentially, point of view refers to the “eyes” of the narrative voice that determine the position or angle of vision from which the story is being relayed. Point of view is one of the most crucial choices made by fiction writers since it governs the reader’s access to the story and determines how much the reader is able to know at any given moment with regard to what is taking place in the narrative.
For example, Gregory Maguire is well-known for his novels that re-tell famous stories using a different point of view. In his work Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, the story of Cinderella is told by one of the “ugly stepsisters” herself, rather than a removed fairy tale narrator.
In the lives of children, pumpkins turn into coaches, mice and rats turn into men. When we grow up, we realize it is far more common for men to turn into rats.
By shifting the viewpoint of the narrative voice, the reader is given an entirely different perspective and version of the famous story. This not only makes for an engaging and innovative experience for the reader, but the change in point of view also changes the story itself by presenting otherwise “unseen” information and opinions.
Examples of Commonly Used Points of View
As a literary device, point of view is generally expressed through the use of pronouns. Each has its advantages and limitations. First and third person points of view are far more common than second person point of view in literature. First person narrative allows the writer to establish intimacy with the reader by allowing access to the narrator’s inner thoughts. Third person narrative is flexible in that the writer can focus on more than one character’s actions and thoughts.
Here are some examples of commonly used points of view:
In first person point of view, one of the story’s characters is narrating the literary work. This viewpoint is indicated by the use of first person pronouns, including “I,” and the reader assumes that the character is close to the story’s action. First person narrative voice provides the reader an intimate and close look into a character’s thoughts, but the perspective of the story is limited by what the character is able to see and know.
Here are some well-known examples of literary works with first person point of view:
With third person point of view, there is a narrative presence telling the story and referring to the characters in the third person, as “he” or “she.” Third person point of view can be omniscient, meaning the narrator can see and know everything within the story, or limited, meaning the narrator is restricted in what they see and know of the story.
Here are some well-known examples of literary works with third person point of view:
Second person point of view utilizes the pronoun “you” to address the reader and bring them into the action of the story. However, second person point of view is problematic in a couple of ways. First, it is a stylistic choice that is uncommon, especially in novel-length works. In addition, second person point of view can overwhelm the writer and confuse and/or alienate the reader. Most writers avoid constructing a narrative voice through second person point of view.
Difference Between Omniscient and Third Person Limited Point of View
Third person point of view is flexible as a literary device in that a writer can choose between omniscient or limited perspectives for the narrator. An omniscient narrator is aware of and knows everything about the story and its characters. There are no limitations for this narrator in terms of expressing any character’s thoughts, and this includes their own opinions and observations. An omniscient point of view features a narrator who knows more than the characters of a story.
A third person limited narrator utilizes third person storytelling, but is closely “assigned” to one character. Therefore, this limited narrator shares access with the reader to a character’s thoughts, feelings, experiences, etc., but is limited in doing so with other characters in the story. Writers choose third person limited point of view to create a deeper bond between a specific character and the reader.
Writing with Point of View
Writers decide who tells a story and the intended audience for it. When determining point of view as a literary device, the story can be told from the viewpoint of a character who is part of the story or from a narrative perspective that “sees” and knows the characters but is not one of them. It’s important for writers to consider benefits and limitations when deciding point of view, as it is essential for character development and the relationship between the narrative voice and the reader.
In addition, it’s important for writers to establish point of view as soon as possible for the reader so they are aware of whose perspective they are following. Though some writers choose to change point of view, done most often within a novel, the narrative voice should be consistent throughout a particular scene. Otherwise, disrupting the narrative perspective in the middle of a story’s action can be confusing and jarring for the reader. Changing the point of view for a subplot, alternate section, or different chapter of a literary work can be valuable; however, there should be continuity of narrative throughout the course of a story’s scene in consideration of the reader.
Examples of Point of View in Literature
Example 1: Invisible Man (Ralph Ellison)
I was never more hated than when I tried to be honest. Or when, even as just now I’ve tried to articulate exactly what I felt to be the truth. No one was satisfied.
In Ellison’s novel, the protagonist tells his own story from a first person point of view. This passage reflects both the power of this narrative perspective and its limitations. By telling his own story, the protagonist is able to have a close connection with the reader and directly express his true thoughts, feelings, and ideas. However, due to this restricted form of narration, the reader must rely solely on the viewpoint of the protagonist. This puts a level of responsibility on the reader to determine whether the protagonist is reliable in his narration and to fill in any gaps in the story that are ambiguous or unaddressed in a full manner by the narrator.
Example 2: The Story of an Hour (Kate Chopin)
She said it over and over under her breath: “free, free, free!” The vacant stare and the look of terror that had followed it went from her eyes. They stayed keen and bright. Her pulses beat fast, and the coursing blood warmed and relaxed every inch of her body.
Chopin’s short story is told through a third person limited point of view. The narrative perspective is that of Louise Mallard, the protagonist of the story, though she does not relay the narrative herself in the first person. Instead, the narrator relays to the reader Louise’s actions, thoughts, and feelings as she learns of her husband’s supposed death. This is a clever literary choice due to the fact that Louise spends much of her time in the story in a room alone, away from the other characters.
Chopin establishes a relationship between the third person narrator and the reader in terms of access to Louise’s mind. This is reflected in the passage as the narrator conveys to the reader that Louise feels “free” at the news of her husband’s death. This “freedom” is something that Louise would not have expressed to any character in the story, yet the narrative perspective allows the reader to know and understand her thoughts.
Example 3: The Death of Ivan Ilych (Leo Tolstoy)
In reality it was just what is usually seen in the houses of people of moderate means who want to appear rich, and therefore succeed only in resembling others like themselves: there are damasks, dark wood, plants, rugs, and dull and polished bronzes — all the things people of a certain class have in order to resemble other people of that class. His house was so like the others that it would never have been noticed, but to him it all seemed to be quite exceptional.
Tolstoy’s well-known story of Ivan Ilych is told through an omniscient point of view. This passage reflects that the omniscient narrator governs the telling of the story through the information that is presented to the reader and the manner in which that information is relayed. For example, the omniscient narrator describes for the reader the setting of the character’s home by describing the objects inside. This creates an image that allows the reader to picture the scene.
However, the omniscient narrator is also characterizing the setting of the home by inserting opinions about it with phrases such as “who want to appear rich.” This is important because the omniscient narrator’s description and the inserted characterization influences both the reader’s literal image of the scene and their perception of its meaning in terms of an emotional response. As a result, the omniscient narrator holds the power to influence all aspects of a story for a reader–not just the way things look or what events take place, but how the reader should feel about it, Therefore, in response to an omniscient narrator, the reader should be aware of this effect so as to approach this point of view with critical thinking.