The following is excerpted with permission from Form and Meaning in Fiction by Norman Friedman, copyright 1982, published by the University of Georgia Press. I present it as a resource for writers whose interest in process leans toward the analytical, and as a reference for my blog entries on point of view.
Before you tackle this excerpt, please read my blog entry The Point of View Perplex, which attempts to frame Friedman’s material for the writer.
Be forewarned that Friedman is writing for the academic crowd, and as such his writing is largely descriptive, not prescriptive. I have highlighted passages that I see as pertinent to the concerns of writers.
Part 1 is dry and rather wandering. Go to Part 2, which contains Friedman's breakdown of the various point-of-view modes, for the juicy stuff.
Form and Meaning in Fiction by Norman Friedman
Chapter 8 - Point of View (part 1)
Chapter 8 - Point of View (part 1)
It is no longer necessary to show that point of view has become one of the main concerns of those who want to fashion an aesthetics of fiction comparable to that aesthetics of poetry which marked the early development of the New Criticism. Even Wayne Booth, whose Rhetoric of Fiction appeared over a decade ago, while conducting an extended attack on the principle dogmas of this new poetics of fiction, and arguing for a more pluralistic approach to the question, served primarily to confirm contemporary interest in the technique of point of view. Although I hope that one of the thrusts of the present book will be to return technical questions to their proper perspective in the range of formal questions as a whole, there is no doubt, as I have already suggested, that point of view is first among problems of fictional technique.
The main issue seems to be whether the authorial presence should make itself known directly or not—plus the related question of whether the scale should be expanded or condensed—and the answers have been varied indeed, with the New Critics following the lead of Henry James in preferring an objective method of presentation, where subjectivity refers to the interfering and summarizing authorial narrator and objectivity means the disappearance of the author.
Perhaps the objective-subjective problem can be profitably framed in terms of the general criteria of intelligibility, vividness, and economy already established in the preceding chapter. The art of literature, as opposed to the other arts, is by virtue of its verbal medium both cursed and blessed with a fatal capacity for talk. Its vices are the defects of its virtues; on the one hand, its range and depth of significance far exceed the scope of painting, music, or sculpture; on the other, its ability to project the sensory qualities of person, place, and event is correspondingly less. While it can express more ideas and attitudes, it presents qualitatively weaker images. It is enough for the painter to attend to his palette, to get the proper shade in the proper place; but the writer is torn continually between the difficulty of showing what a thing is and the ease of telling what he thinks and how he feels about it. The sculptor can only show; the musician, program music notwithstanding, can rarely tell. But literature derives its very life from this conflict—which is basic to all its forms—and the history of its aesthetic could in part be written in terms of this fundamental tension, to which the particular problem of point of view in fiction is related as part to whole. For the general distinction was being made, from Plato and Aristotle to James Joyce and T.S. Eliot, in order that the specific one could take shape. From the ancient rhetorician’s directions regarding vividness (enargia) to the modern aesthetician’s study of projection (empathy), the relationship between the author’s values and attitudes, their embodiment in his work, and their effect upon the reader, has been and continues to be of crucial concern.
For our purpose it will suffice to fix the two opposite points in time between which the history of this concept may be plotted. Plato to begin with made a distinction, when discussing the style of epic poetry, between simple narration on the one hand and imitation on the other (The Republic, book 3). When the poet speaks in the person of another we may say that he assimilates his style to that person’s manner of talking; this assimilation of himself to another, either by the use of voice or gesture, is an imitation of the person whose character he assumes. But if the poet everywhere appears and never conceals himself, then the imitation is dropped and his poetry becomes simple narration. Plato then illustrates this difference by translating a passage from the beginning of The Iliad out of the direct form of discourse into the indirect-chiefly by substituting “he said that” or “he bade him to” for quoted dialogue—thus changing an imitative passage to simple narrative. He goes on to note that the opposite extreme, dialogue only, approaches the style of the drama, which is wholly imitative (with the exception, we might add, of choral comment and messenger narration). Homer of course mixes the two, as do most of his successors. We have, on the other hand, that form which uses the poet’s voice only: for example, the dithyramb (lyric). As we shall see below, however, dialogue is not the only factor which distinguishes imitation from narration.
Coming now to the opposite end of the curve of history, we recall a similar distinction developed by Joyce in the person of Stephen between the lyric and the dramatic forms, with the epic as intermediary (Portrait of the Artist, chapter 5, which in no way differs in its essential outlines from that of Plato. He is speaking here of the evolution of literature from the lyric cry to the impersonalized dramatic projection: “The narrative is no longer purely personal. The personality of the artist passes into the narration itself, flowing round and round the persons and the actions like a vital sea…. The dramatic form is reached when the vitality which has flowed and eddied round each person fills every person with such vital force that he or she assumes a proper and intangible esthetic life.” There follows the by now famous passage about the disappearance of the author: “The personality of the artist, at first a cry or a cadence or a mood (lyric) and then a fluid and lambent narrative (epic), finally refines itself out of existence (drama), impersonalizes itself, so to speak.”
Let us now consider briefly the emergence of the specific application of this basic distinction to the analysis of point of view in fiction, for point of view provides a modus operandi for distinguishing the possible degrees of authorial extinction in the narrative art.
Regarding the particular problem of the relation between the author, the narrator, and the story subject, Edith Wharton complained in 1925, “It seems as though such a question must precede any study of the subject chosen, since the subject is conditioned by the answer; but no critic appears to have propounded it, and it was left to Henry James to do so in one of those entangled prefaces to the definitive edition from which the technical axioms ought some day to be piously detached.”1 As it turns out, she was more nearly correct than she knew, for not only have James’s prefaces become the source and fount of critical theory in this matter, but also no fewer than two full-length interpretations of them had already appeared before she wrote these words—that of Joseph Warren Beach in 1918 and that of Percy Lubbock in 1921. But first let us examine some of the pronouncements of the master himself.
Jams in his prefaces (1907–09) tells us he was obsessed by the problem of finding a “centre,” a “focus” for his stories, and that he in large measure solved it by considering how the narrative vehicle could be limited by framing the action inside the consciousness of one of the characters within the plot itself. “A beautiful infatuation this,” he comments, “always, I think, the intensity of the creative effort to get into the skin of the creature.” Thus, since the irresponsible illusion-breaking of the subjective omniscient author, who tells the story as he perceives it rather than as one of his characters perceives it, is eliminated by this device, objectivity is equated with intensity, vividness, and coherence. “There is no economy of treatment without an adopted, a related point of view, and though I understand, under certain degrees of pressure, a represented community of vision between several parties to the action when it makes for concentration, I understand no breaking-up of the register, no sacrifice of the recording consistency, that doesn’t rather scatter and weaken.”2
Beach undertook to organize the theory of this method and to apply it to James’s own fiction. he distinguishes among several kinds of points of view and discriminates between James’s calculated shifts in focus and “that arbitrary and unconsidered shift of point of view within the chapter, within the paragraph, the visible manipulation of the puppets from without, which is so great a menace to illusion and intimacy” The problem as a whole, however, “is a most complex and difficult one, and the practice of story-tellers is manifold. It would be impossible to give a brief summary of the common usage, even if one had made a sufficiently careful survey of the field to feel certain of all the facts.”3 The time was ripe, apparently, for the next step.
It remained to Lubbock to apply the general distinction between direct and indirect presentation—a distinction common, as we have suggested, throughout the history of aesthetics and criticism—to a discussion of James’s particular concern with point of view in fiction. “The art of fiction,” he claims, “does not begin until the novelist thinks of his story as a matter to be shown, to be so exhibited that it will tell itself (rather than being told by the author)…. The thing has to look true, and that is all. It is not made to look true by simple statement.” If artistic “truth” is a matter of compelling rendition, of creating the illusion of reality, then an author speaking in his own person about the lives and fortunes of others is placing an extra obstacle between his illusion and the reader by virtue of his very presence. In order to remove this obstacle, the author may choose to limit the functions of his own personal voice in one way or another: “The only law that binds him throughout, whatever course he is pursuing, is the need to be consistent on some plan, to follow the principle he has adopted; and of course it is one of the first of his precepts, as with every artist in any kind, to allow himself no more latitude than he requires.” One of the chief means to this end, the one James himself not only announced in theory but followed in practice, is to have the story told, albeit in the third person and the past tense, as if by a character in the story in the present. In this way the reader perceives the action directly as it impinges upon the consciousness of that character; he perceives it without superimposed commentary; and he perceives only what that character perceives, thus avoiding that removal to a distance which results when either the author or the character tells it retrospectively: “the difference is that instead of receiving his report we now see him in the act of judging and reflecting; his consciousness, no longer a matter of hearsay, a matter for which we must take his word, is now before us in its original agitation.”4 Mental awareness is thus dramatized directly instead of being reported and explained indirectly by the narrator’s voice, much in the same way that words and gestures may be dramatized directly (scene) rather than being summarized by the narrator (panorama). And implied here is that scene involves the expanded scale, while panorama involves the condensed scale.
Although one may find many shrewd observations on this point scattered through the writings of novelists and critics before the prefaces of Jams served to crystallize the main issue—for his notions did not spring full-blown from the head of Jove5—we must perforce limit ourselves to a brief consideration of what happened to them after they were expounded by Beach and Lubbock. An exception may be made, however, for the work of Selden L. Whitcomb, entitled The Study of a Novel (Boston, 1905), the first to my knowledge which devotes a formal section to the rubric, “The Narrator. His Point of View.” Here it is claimed that “the unity of a passage or a plot depends largely on the clearness and stability of (the narrator’s) position.”6 This notion, coming as it does a year or two before James’s prefaces, seems remarkably prophetic of things to come, since from this point on almost every manual published on the art of fiction contains a similar section. During the next ten years or so we find a spate of such manuals which soon grows into an avalanche, and the specific analysis of point of view becomes common property.
The most significant work in the field after Beach and Lubbock, although as we have seen she seems curiously unaware of them, is that of Wharton herself in 1925: “It should be the story-teller’s first care to choose his reflecting mind deliberately, as one would choose a building site…and when this is done, to live inside the mind chosen, trying to feel, see and react exactly as the latter would, no more, no less, and, above all, no otherwise. Only thus can the writer avoid attributing incongruities of thought and metaphor to his chosen interpreter.”7
The remainder of the second decade is distinguished by the demurral of E.M. Forster in 1927, who glances briefly at our problem only to pass it up as a trivial technicality. Allowing Lubbock full credit for his “formulae,” he prefers to regard the novel otherwise: the novelist’s chief specialty is unhampered omniscience whereby “he commands all the secret life, and he must not be robbed of this privilege. ‘How did the writer know that?’ it is sometimes said. ‘What’s his standpoint? He is not being consistent, he’s shifting his point of view from limited to the omniscient, and now he’s edging back again.” Questions like these have too much the atmosphere of the law courts about them. All that matters to the reader is whether the shifting of attitude and the secret life are convincing.”8 Aldous Huxley, speaking through Philip Quarles’s “Notebook” in 1928, agrees: “But need the author be so retiring? I think we’re a bit too squeamish about these personal appearances nowadays.”9
The third decade is graced chiefly by Beach’s monumental study in 1932 of the technique of the twentieth-century novel, which is characterized, he says, mainly by virtue of the fact that “the story tells itself; the story speaks for itself. The author does not apologize for his characters, he does not even tell us what they do but has them tell us, themselves. Above all, he has them tell us what they think, what they feel, what impressions beat in on their minds from the situations in which they find themselves.” Apparently encouraged by the work of Lubbock, which followed shortly after his own early study of James, Beach now makes a concerted and massive onslaught upon the telling-showing problem as it appears in hundreds of modern novels.10
In an essay dated 1941 we find Allen Tate taking up the gauntlet cast down by Forster: “The limited and thus credible authority for the action, which is gained by putting the knower of the action inside its frame, is perhaps the distinctive feature of the modern novel; and it is, in all the infinite shifts of focus of which it is capable, the specific feature which more than any other has made it possible for the novelist to achieve an objective structure.” Accordingly, Phyllis Bentley in 1947 is constrained to remark: “The gradual decline in the use of direct comment, till at last heaved overboard with a splash in the twentieth century, is a fascinating study which should be attempted by a contemporary critic in the interest of (that rather neglected aesthetics of fiction) I mentioned in my introduction.”11
The really notable advance in the theory of point of view which occurred in the forties is the work of Mark Schorer in 1948. If Lubbock was concerned with the point of view as a means to a coherent and vivid presentation, Schorer takes it one step further by examining “the uses of point of view not only as a mode of dramatic delimitation, but, more particularly, of thematic definition.” A novel, he says, normally reveals a created world of values and attitudes, and an author is assisted in his search for an artistic definition of these values and attitudes by the controlling medium offered by the devices of point of view; through these devices he is able to disentangle his own prejudices and predispositions from those of his characters and thereby to evaluate those of his characters dramatically in relation to one another within their own frame. He was here anticipated by Ellen Glasgow, who wrote in 1943: “To be too near, it appears, is more fatal in literature than to be too far away; for it is better that the creative writer should resort to imagination than that he should be overwhelmed by emotion.” The novelist must “separate the subject from the object in the act of creation;” he does this by total “immersion” or “projection” into the materials of his story.12
Most of the fifties were devoted to refining the Jamesian distinctions and extending them inward toward clearer and fuller definitions of the modes of rendering mental states, chiefly the stream of consciousness, as the work of Robert Humphrey, Leon Edel, and Sisir Chattopadhyaya makes evident. A warning of things to come, however, was sounded by Kathleen Tillotson, who wondered in 1959 why the old-fashioned omniscient narrator was not appropriate to the art of fiction after all. That this bit of nonconformity was not simply a throwback to Forster’s talkative narrator who “bounces” us along, was shown by the thoughtfulness of her argument. The tradition of story telling, she said, is not the same as that of the drama; the omniscient narrator is not the author but rather a second self; and the technique of omniscience is complex, various, subtle, and worthy of careful study.13
In one of those more than coincidental sequences we have noticed before in this survey, Booth wrote his influential The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961)14 as if in answer to Tillotson’s suggestions, developing the larger framework for discussing point of view which Schorer introduced. But instead of talking about point of view as a mode of thematic definition enabling the writer to objectify and master his conflicts, Booth sees it as a matter of moral definition enabling the writer to control the reader’s responses and impress upon that reader his vision. The basic thrust of this wide-ranging and patiently worked out study is to substitute a pluralistic approach to the problem for the then reigning monism: the narrator need not disappear, the manner of telling need not be objective, and the effect need not be ambiguous—various devices may be used in relation to various ends. What Booth accomplished was threefold: he refined the usual distinctions concerning point of view, he reinstated the talkative narrator as a possible artistic choice, and he brought the whole problem back into focus as one of means and ends. But he may be faulted in his strictures on ambiguity for attacking not only critical monism but literary modernism as well; and, in his eagerness to relate technique to effect, for underplaying the essential mediating role of plot (more will be said on these points below).15
Whatever else may be said for or against The Rhetoric of Fiction, however, it is certain that the study of point of view will never be the same. Henceforth the concepts of rhetoric and of the implied author are everywhere to be reckoned with. In 1962 Shiv K. Kumar explored the whole question of the stream-of-consciousness novel from a Bergonian perspective. Kenneth Graham showed in 1965 that the Victorian critics themselves were not so naïve about the intrusive narrator and had indeed anticipated James’s notion of the indirect and oblique approach. Michael J. Tolley argued in 1966 that the narrator of Vanity Fair is not Thackeray the man. Robert Scholes and Robert Kellogg, also in 1966, refined the distinctions between interior monologue and stream-of-consciousness, and introduced terms of their own for analyzing various points of view. In 1967 Louis D. Rubin, following Tillotson and Booth, urged that we put the novelist back into the novel, not in the sense of using the author’s biography but rather regarding his role as the teller of the tale. J. Hillis Miller in 1968 developed the notion of intersubjectivity as it applies to point of view. And in 1969 Gordon O. Taylor analyzed intensively the representation of mental states in the late nineteenth century American novel.16
So far the seventies have been a time of penetration, reconsolidation, and sophisticated new directions. Francoise Van Rossum-Guyon outlined in 1970 an international perspective, while Edith Kern applied existential concepts to the problem of author-narrator-character-reality relationships. In 1971 Sharon Spencer approached the question of modernism in fiction afresh and analyzed distinctions among human, photographic, and typographic perspectives. Although Franz Stanzel’s work goes back to 1955, it did not appear in this country until 1971, and it represents an extended treatment of point of view, revealing that the subjective-objective debate was going on in full force in Germany during the early years of this century. Finally, also from an international perspective, Paul Hernadi’s work in 1972 attempted to place the whole issue in the context of genre concepts and promises fruitful applications.17
Part 2 contains Freidman’s breakdown of the modes of point of view.
Part 3 contains Friedman's conclusions and further thoughts on point of view.
Footnotes to be added when I get them.
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