Course 7—Lecture

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How to Read: Point of View
Point of view refers to the perspective from which a story is told—who tells the story. And whoever tells the story shapes the story; it's one of the most important decisions an author makes. In LitCourse 7 we talk about how authors decide who does the telling.

Reading
Eudora Welty—"Why I Live at the P.O."


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The Power of Point of View

It happens all the time. Your friend or spouse is telling others about the vacation you took together. "But wait," you interrupt. "That's not the way it happened!

And the retort? "Hey! I'm telling the story." Oops.

The story belongs to the person who tells it—that's the power of point of view.

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The Power of Point of View

Or how about this? You and your siblings share childhood memories. But when you listen to them recall certain family events . . . well, it's not the way you remember things.

See where we're going with this?

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The Power of Point of View

As in life—whoever tells the story filters the information through his or her own . . .

View of reality
Bias or prejudice
Knowledge of events

Same experience. Different perspective.

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The Power of Point of View

Choosing a point of view is one of the most significant decisions an author makes.

The narrator—who tells the story—shapes how we see the story, how we understand its events and characters.

We know only as much as the narrator knows . . . or chooses to tell us.

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Choosing a narrator

What choices are available to an author when choosing a narrator? The author has two basic alternatives?

1st person
3rd person


But it's not so simple: within these two basic types of narrators are a number of variations.

Let's start with the 3rd-person narrator.


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Narrator—3rd person

This narrator is external to the story, standing outside of events and characters. All characters are referred to as "he," "she," or "they." There are 3 types:

Omniscient narrator—all knowing. This narrator reveals the actions and thoughts of all characters.
Limited omniscient narrator—limited knowledge. This narrator reveals the actions and thoughts of only primary characters.
Objective narrator—impersonal. This narrator reveals only the characters' actions and speech, not their inner thoughts.

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Narrator—3rd person

A 3rd-person narrator determines what we know  about events and characters. And how much we know determines which characters we identify with.

Omnisicient—we are privy to inner thoughts of all characters and identify with none in particular.
Limited Omniscient—we are privy to inner thoughts of primary characters, following them more closely and thus identifying with them over others.
Objective—we have no access to inner thoughts of any characters, identifying only with those whose behavior reflects our own values.

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Narrator—1st person

This narrator is the "I" of the story, a character in the story who recounts the events from his or her perspective. Because we see everything through her eyes, we tend to identify with her more than others, even if we don't like her.

But be careful —1st-person narrators can be unreliable, even manipulative (as we find out in the Eudora Welty's short story for LitCourse 7).
 


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Narrator—1st person

As characters in a story who talk directly to readers, 1st-person narrators may have a special interest in getting us to see events their way.

Can you depend on this character to tell the truth, or even know the truth? A 1st-person narrator . . .

may have a vested interest in presenting a particular version of the truth, or partial truth.
may be out of the loop, knowing only part of the truth. Readers can know only as much as the "I" in the story knows—or chooses to tell us.

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Point of view—an experiment

Authors choose narrators for specific purposes. Here's a great way to understand why they might make the decisions they do.

Let's take 4 stories (from previous LitCourses) and change the points of view. Then we can see how the stories change.

 Course 1—"The Story of an Hour"
 Course 4—"A & P"
 Course 5—"Babylon Revisited"
 Course 6—"A Rose for Emily"


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Point of view—experiment 1

"The Stor of an Hour"—as told in the 1st person by Josephine: "I lingered outside the bedroom door but heard no weeping. After nearly an hour, the door opened, and Louise stepped out. It was most strange, for about her face was a hard, flinty, almost triumphant look. Could my dear sister-in-law be so cold-hearted as to find joy in her husband's death?"

Result: without a limited omniscient narrator, who takes us inside Mrs. Mallard, we would condemn her as cold and uncaring. And we would miss the irony of her death.


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Point of view—experiment 2

"A Rose for Emily"—as told through a limited omniscient narrator: we would be privy to Emily's inner thoughts, her grief over her father's death; later, her feelings about homer and anger at his leaving. Emily would be humanized—lessening the richness and complexity of the story. Both the mystery and humor (the smell and men pouring lime around the house) would disappear.

Result: without the collective 1st person "we" of the community, we would be unable to detect the town's hypocrisy and pettiness—and its complicity in Emily's downfall.


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Point of view—experiment 3

"A & P"—with an objective narrator: Sammy would be nothing more than a smart-mouthed kid. His inner voice is what gives the story its humor and meaning: "sheep" combing the aisles, the "witch" at the register, the sexual excitement the girls provoke, and the class differences Sammy feels. Because Sammy speaks to us, we understand his frustration.

Result: absent Sammy's voice, we would miss the thematic last lines, his coming-of-age epiphany—that the world is a hard place for creative souls or for those who take a hard, fast stand on principle.


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Point of view—experiment 3

"Babylon Revisited" as narrated by Marion: "Oh my lord. What's he doing here? He's ruined so many lives, the bastard. Once a drunk, always a drunk. He thinks he can waltz in here and take Honoria away from us? He has no idea how to be a decent father...I've see his kind of "caring." He would endanger Honoria's life, like he did my sister's. For her sake, I can't let Charles take her daughter.

Result: we would miss the story's complexity—Marion's manipulative qualities, Honoria's revealing lunch with her father, and the possibility that Charles is worthy of reclaiming his honor and life.


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You've reached the end of the Lecture. To continue LitCourse 7, click "Reading" on the Course Tools menu to the right.

"Why I live at the P.O."
Eudora Welty

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