2.3 Narrative perspectives
Two of the most fundamental choices that face the author of a fictional narrative is to decide who is to be the narrator and how the story is to be narrated.
Click to read the attached extract from the opening of Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey (1818). Who is the narrator? How would you characterise the narrative ‘voice’?
This is what is known as third-person narration. The voice does not belong to a particular character in the novel, and in the extract it does not assume the perspective of any of the characters, merely describing their physical appearance, social status and relationships, and, in Catherine's case, her likes and dislikes, her accomplishments and pastimes. You will probably have noticed that this extract comprises a single, extremely long paragraph and is mostly concerned with describing the young Catherine Morland. This amount of detail at the start of the novel suggests to us that Catherine is likely to be the central character, and so it proves.
At first sight the narrative voice seems to be fairly neutral and undemonstrative, like that at the beginning of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four above. But a closer inspection reveals greater subtleties. Indeed, it appears that the narrative voice is doing everything in its power to undermine our possible interest, while also drawing our attention to the kinds of expectations and conventions that often attend the process of reading particular kinds of fiction. Everything about Catherine seems to militate against the possibility of her being an interesting central character. According to the narrator, she was no-one's idea of a heroine, and her social and family connections are of little assistance in this respect too. Austen is poking fun here at the idea of the tragic heroine. The narrator sounds almost disappointed at the fact that Catherine is not a motherless waif whose plight can tug at our heartstrings:
Her mother was a woman of useful plain sense, with a good temper, and, what is more remarkable, with a good constitution. She had three sons before Catherine was born; and instead of dying in bringing the latter into the world, as anybody might expect, she still lived on – lived to have six children more – to see them growing up around her, and to enjoy excellent health herself.
Neither does Catherine have the classical beauty of the novelistic heroine, her unprepossessing looks in themselves rendering her ‘unpropitious’ for such a role. Furthermore, she clearly lacks aptitude and enthusiasm for the kind of accomplishments which young girls of this time were expected to acquire.
The overriding tone of this extract could perhaps be best described as coolly detached and above all ironic. As you will discover from reading further in Austen, irony was invariably the main feature of her narrative voices. In the case of the opening to Northanger Abbey, would you agree that this ironic strategy of seeming to deflate our enthusiasm is in fact a subtle device to heighten the reader's interest? If Catherine is such unlikely heroine material, what kind of narrative will it be that can feature her as its central character?
This would perhaps be a good point at which to say a little more about third-person narrators. These are often known as an ‘omniscient’ narrators. An omniscient narrator is one that exhibits full knowledge of the actions, thoughts and feelings of each of the characters in the story. Austen invariably used this omniscient perspective, and it remains a popular means of narration amongst contemporary writers. Indeed, more recent authors have made great play of drawing attention to the narrator's role as an all-powerful figure, an embodiment of the author who has full control of the characters at his or her mercy. The beginning of Martin Amis' novel London Fields demonstrates this well:
This is a true story but I can't believe it's really happening.
It's a murder story, too. I can't believe my luck.
And a love story (I think), of all strange things, so late in the century, so late in the goddamned day.
This is the story of a murder. It hasn't happened yet. But it will. (It had better.) I know the murderer, I know the murderee. I know the time, I know the place. I know the motive (her motive) and I know the means. I know who will be the foil, the fool, the poor foal, also utterly destroyed. And I couldn't stop them, I don't think, even if I wanted to. The girl will die. It's what she always wanted. You can't stop people, once they start creating.
What a gift. This page is briefly stained by my tears of gratitude. Novelists don't usually have it so good, do they, when something real happens (something unified, dramatic and pretty saleable), and they just write it down?
(1989, p. 1)
We might be forgiven for thinking that this is the direct voice of Martin Amis himself. After all, he is the author of the novel, the manipulator of events and characters. But as we read on we realise that this narrator is another character, an American writer called Samson Young, who is living in London in the flat of yet another fictional writer, Mark Asprey (note the initials). To further confuse matters a writer called Martin Amis also makes a cameo appearance in the novel! London Fields uses a variety of narrative perspectives. When Samson Young is actually present at the events described first-person narration is used; when he is not we have something akin to the omniscient narrator of the Austen extract in Activity 2, but we also have the sense that that narrator has a name and a role in the novel. But, at this stage, let's not get too embroiled in such complex approaches to story-telling as those Amis habitually uses. We'll turn instead to the more conventional strategies of Charles Dickens.
How would you describe the narrative voice and perspective of this extract?
Clickto read the opening of Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.
This is an example of first-person narration. The story is told by a character who is also a protagonist in the narrative. In Great Expectations, as in most first person narratives, the narrator is also the central character. The opening paragraph, with its emphasis on the narrator's family background, and the repetitions of his name – ‘So I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip’ – are an immediate suggestion that the character telling us the story is likely to be at the heart of it. This is further reinforced as we are then given more information about his family and his circumstances.
The story begins, then, with the narrator giving us an introduction to his own childhood, moving rapidly from the general to the particular and his meeting with the ‘fearful man’ he met in the churchyard. Again, the relation of this incident at the start of the novel leads us to attach some significance to the episode and its participants, raising expectations that are not fulfilled until much later in the narrative.
Here, and throughout Great Expectations there is in a sense a dual narrative perspective, presenting events narrated by the adult Pip which are at times mediated through the perceptions of the child Pip. The opening encounter in the churchyard, for instance, is enacted with a vivid immediacy. Look again at the point at which the narrative shifts from description to direct speech. The rapidity of the exchanges, with further repetitions of the main character's name and the allusion to his feelings of terror engage us much more directly with the boy's feelings of horror and dismay.
In reading a first-person narration we encounter a potential problem that we do not have when we encounter an omniscient third-person narrative such as Austen's Northanger Abbey. Can you think what that might be?
The factor I was hoping you would identify is that of the degree of reliability we can attach to a first-person narrative. As we read and discover more about a narrator we receive more and more indications that determine the extent to which we can trust the voice telling us the story. Kazuo Ishiguro's novel The Remains of the Day (1989) is narrated by its central character, an English butler called Stevens, who recalls various events and incidents from the past in such a way as to constantly cast doubt on the dependability of his narration. At one point we are presented with a prolonged and heated argument between Stevens and the housekeeper Miss Kenton about the butler's ailing father, also a member of the staff of the same country house. The argument is narrated in direct speech, suggesting an authentic recreation of the actual incident, but is followed by a piece of narration by Stevens that immediately undermines our trust in his version of events:
But now that I think further about it, I am not sure Miss Kenton spoke quite so boldly that day. We did, of course, over the years of working closely together come to have some very frank exchanges, but the afternoon I am recalling was still early in our relationship and I cannot see even Miss Kenton having been so forward. I am not sure she could actually have gone so far as to say things like: ‘these errors may be trivial in themselves, but you must yourself realise their larger significance’. In fact, now that I come to think of it, I have a feeling it may have been Lord Darlington himself who made that particular remark to me that time he called me into his study some two months after that exchange with Miss Kenton outside the billiard room. By that time, the situation as regards my father had changed significantly following his fall.
There are numerous such examples of Stevens' ‘unreliability’ throughout the novel. These become more significant when placed against the wider historical and political backdrop of the story. Stevens had been butler to Lord Darlington, devoting his life to the service of someone he saw as a ‘great man’. However, as the narrative unfolds, and in spite of Stevens' selective and constantly revised memory, Darlington is revealed as an unwitting pawn of Nazism. The unreliability of Stevens' narration draws an implicit parallel between memory and history and shows both to be liable to distortion and manipulation, whether consciously or unconsciously.
We can see, then, that even when the identity of the narrator of a prose fiction is made clear to us, there are possibilities for uncertainty and ambiguity. So what are we to make of the next extract?.
Please read the extract from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce nowand consider what the narrative is describing, and try to characterise the narrative voice and perspective.
This is not at all an easy narrative voice to characterise. Indeed, it is difficult to define who is narrating at various points in the opening section of this novel. However, I hope you realised at least that, as with the other two extracts, this is an account of childhood experience. It even begins with the time-honoured phrase used for telling stories to children – ‘Once upon a time’. The diction of the remainder of the opening sentence seems very childlike, an excited-sounding unpunctuated flow with repetitions of childish terms such as ‘moocow’ and nonsense words like ‘nicens’. We are a long way from narrative ‘realism’ here. As the novelist Anthony Burgess has implied, a more conventional representation of the child's impressions – ‘My first memories are of my father, a monocled hirsute man who told me stories’ – would have a very different effect on us as readers. Burgess described the beginning of Portrait as ‘the first big technical breakthrough of twentieth-century prose-writing’ (1965, p. 50) and I hope you were able to identify aspects of the extract that might warrant such a description.
The narrative seems to be made up of fragmented, unrelated associations; the father's ‘hairy face’; the mysterious Betty Byrne and her even more mysterious ‘lemon platt’; the random and sometimes distorted snatches of song and the sinister nursery-rhyme-like refrain ‘Pull out his eyes /Apologise’; and the unexpected reference to Michael Davitt and Parnell, which we need some knowledge of Irish politics to understand fully.
But can we detect some sort of order or pattern here? I think we can, though it is by no means obvious. The passage gives me the impression of an attempt to replicate a child's growing awareness of his world, the relationships between those who populate it, and the development of his facility for language. The novel begins with an episode of storytelling as we have seen, though we can't be sure whether the child or the father is the actual speaker at that point. The child's stumbling attempts at language are suggested by the nonsensical line of song – ’O, the green wothe botheth’ – which seems to be a corruption of the two lines quoted prior to that. A world of sensations, sight, sound, touch, smell, movement is invoked and gradually the wider world begins to impinge and we can see the child beginning to categorise and impose order on his growing knowledge; recognising different smells and the ages of the adults around him. The family unit is then transcended as mention is made of the Vances and the ‘different father and mother’, again implying a developing awareness on the part of the child-narrator. The sense of fragmentation remains strong, however, with the unexplained incident of the child hiding under the table (we are not told why he is there or why he must apologise). The critic Hugh Kenner has described the opening of Portrait as ‘contrapuntal’, and there are certainly at least two contrasting perspectives revealed in this extract; what Kenner calls ‘an Aristotelian catalogue of senses, faculties, and mental activities’ combined with ‘the unfolding of the infant conscience’ (quoted in Beja, 1973, p. 126).
The three ‘beginnings’ we have looked at here, by Austen, Dickens and Joyce represent a diverse range of approaches to storytelling. There are, of course, many other narrative methods open to novelists. For example, a novel might be written in the form of a diary, or be cast as a series of letters, or any one of a number of such devices. But as I hope you have discovered, the ‘voice’ which is used to tell a story and the perspective, or perspectives, from which it is told affect the way we respond to the events and characters described. But these events and characters are usually placed in specific locations and it is to the question of the ‘setting’ of fictional narratives that I now want to turn.