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 3 is as dry and rather wandering as Part 1. 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 3)
Having sketched out the principles underlying the problem of point of view, traced its emergence as a critical concept, and examined the range of its possibilities, let us see if we can sum up our results as a solution to that problem. Contrary to the general impression created by those on either side of the question, objectivity and consistency are really not the shibboleths only of a parochial and monistic New Criticism. “Homer, admirable as he is in every other respect,” said Aristotle, “is especially so in this, that he alone among epic poets is not unaware of the part to be played by the poet himself in the poem. The poet should say very little in propria persona, as he is no imitator when doing that. Whereas the other poets are perpetually coming forward in person, and say but little, and that only here and there, as imitators, Homer after a brief preface brings forthwith a man, or woman, or some other Character—no one of them characterless, but each with distinctive characteristics” (Poetics, chapter 24, Bywater translation). As we have seen, it has all along been a commonplace of aesthetic theory that effective presentation and objectivity go hand in hand.
The application of the principles of objectivity and consistency, however, has tended to become monistic and parochial in modern criticism, as indeed any principle tends to become when means are seen apart from ends. Whether an author is being an imitator cannot be resolved imply in terms of point of view alone. Thus Wayne Booth is certainly correct in attempting to frame the question in a larger context. There should be nothing merely automatic about using more objective points of view as opposed to less objective ones. What is truly crucial, as always in formal criticism, is whether the end effect—seen both generally and particularly—is best achieved by this technique or that, in combination with everything else in the whole.
The basic assumption of those who are seriously concerned over technique, as James himself so long ago point out, is that the general end of fiction is to produce as complete a story-illusion as possible. Given material potentially interesting, concentration and intensity, and hence vividness, are the results of working within limits, albeit self-imposed; and any lapse thereof is in all probability the result either of not establishing a limiting frame to begin with or of breaking the one already established. Surely this is one of the basic principles of artistic technique in general. Even breaking the limiting frame, if it is done deliberately for the sake of calling attention to the artificiality of art—which is, curiously, as characteristic of earlier as of modern novelists—may be subsumed under this principle, for the breaking of a frame implies the existence of a frame in the first place.29
Thus the choice of a point of view in the writing of fiction, although it does not in and of itself determine the degree of objectivity, is at least as crucial as the choice of a verse form in the composing of a poem: just as there are certain things which cannot get said in a sonnet, so each of the categories we have detailed has a probable range of functions it can perform within its limits. The question of particular effectiveness, therefore, is one of the suitability of a given technique for the achievement of certain kinds of effects, for each kind of story requires the establishment of a special kind of illusion to sustain it. Editorial omniscience, for example, may be called the free verse of fiction: its limits are so wholly internal that an unwary novelist has more opportunities for illusion-breaking here than with the others. How much of Whitman, Carl Sandburg, or Edgar Lee Masters is flat and dull? And how much of War and Peace—to take the highest achievement—could easily be dispensed with? On the other hand, as I have suggested, when the personality of the author-narrator has a definite function to fulfill in relation to his story—say of irony, compassion, philosophical range and depth—he need not retire behind his work, so long as his point of view is adequately established and coherently maintained. It is more a matter of consistency than of this or that degree of impersonality.
But the author-narrator has a more complicated problem on his hands here, and had best look to his devices. Free verse is not “free” after all, as Eliot has somewhere remarked; but to establish a pattern within it is more difficult and hence more liable to disruption. In this respect, Fielding’s Tom Jones is more successful than War and Peace: the intellectual tone and pedantic material of Tolstoy’s interchapters are often at variance with the tenor and impact of the story itself, which has as its issue the discovery (in Pierre, Kutuzov, Karataev, Nikolay, Natasha) of the instinctive and intuitive forces in life and the adoption of an attitude of negative capability toward experience. There is thus revealed, for all its majesty, a fatally unresolved ambiguity at the core of the novel: it is commonly agreed that Andrey and Pierre are symbolic projections of Tolstoy’s own ambivalence; and it is as if, having killed off Andrey, the author-narrator could not allow Andrey’s irritable reaching after fact and reason to disappear altogether from the story and so kept it alive, as it were, in the interchapters. However we may view them, they are basically undramatic.
It is necessary, in other words, to relate the choice of point of view to the needs of the plot and its effect rather than simply to an abstract set of prescriptive criteria about objectivity, and for this we must discuss more than either technique as discovery or technique as morality. Thus if it is essential to an author’s purpose that the minds of many be revealed freely and at will—to achieve, for example, the effect of a social milieu in the manner of Huxley—and if the author’s superior and explanatory tone is to dominate the perception and awareness of his characters—to achieve that typical Huxleyan effect of smallness and futility and indignity—then neutral omniscience is the logical choice. If the element of suspense is to be foremost—as, say, in mystery stories and detective fiction—if a situation is to be gradually built up and revealed piecemeal—as in Lord Jim—then the witness narrator seems more likely than any other. If the problem is one of tracing the growth of a personality as it reacts to experience, the protagonist-narrator will prove most useful—as in Great Expectations—assuming that he has sufficient sensitivity and intelligence to develop and to perceive the significance of that development (a naïve protagonist may, of course, be used for an ironic effect). If the author is concerned with the way in which personality and experience emerge as a mosaic from their impingement upon the sensibilities of several individuals, then multiple selective omniscience provides a way—as in To the Lighthouse. If the intent is to catch a mind in a moment of discovery and decision —as in A Portrait of the Artist—selective omniscience is the means. And finally, if the author's purpose is to produce in the reader’s mind a moment of revelation—as in Hemingway’s “Hill Like White Elephants”—then the dramatic mode, with its tendency to imply more than it states, provides the logical approach.
Nor need any given point of view be used consistently throughout, for this would indeed be requiring a merely mechanical kind of consistency. I have said that my categories are simply reference marks, and that often in practice they are found in combination. There are many different first person points of view in William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and varying first-person points of view plus omniscience in The Sound and the Fury, but such composites are not effective or ineffective per se. Michael Millgate praises the former book, noticing its fifteen first person narrators, but he mentions certain reservations. “This diversification and multiplication of point of view has often been praised, but it seems at times both excessive and irritating, as when Darl is presented as clairvoyant and made to report events (such as the finishing of the coffin in the rain) at which he is not present. Richard Chase has commented on the tendency of a multiple point of view to become ‘simply the point of view of the omniscient author.’”30 It would seem that a more limited point of view which fails to stay within its limits is tantamount, in effect, to omniscience.
Or again, Hemingway uses omniscience, the protagonist-narrator, and a witness-narrator in different parts of To Have and Have Not; while these shifts may not in themselves be the cause of disunity, they may indeed reflect the disunity of the book’s origins and manner of publication. Conrad uses an omniscient narrator to being Lord Jim, and then shifts to Marlow’s witness-narration. Marlow himself, of course, relays various other witnesses’ accounts to us in addition, and this is surely quite effective.31 An anonymous witness introduces us to the protagonist-narrator in The Heart of Darkness Although Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night is selectively omniscient in focusing on Dick Diver’s consciousness, it beings by focusing on Rosemary’s but the problem that Fitzgerald had with this book was more one of order than of point of view.
Consistency in the larger sense and not cold bloodedness is all; for consistency, within however big and diverse and complex a frame, signifies that the parts have been adjusted to the whole, the means to the end, and hence that the maximum effect has been rendered. Point of view is, however, a necessary rather than a sufficient cause; the overall consistency of a great but clumsy novelist may emerge in spite of his technical inadequacies, while the consistency of a lesser talent will not in itself produce masterpieces, succeeding within a smaller frame than that which genius may attempt Sometimes a noble failure is more exciting than a petty victory. But how many of our most ambitious and brilliant novels would have been even more successful if closer attention had been directed toward these matters? There is surely no necessary contradiction between genius and technical mastery.
I have in mind here the obvious inconsistencies in the narrative of Don Quixote as well as the often burdensome references to Cid Hamet, the author of the “original” manuscript;32 or Melville’s continual bursting of his basic witness-narrator frame in Moby-Dick; or the frequent absurdities engendered by Samuel Richardson’s epistolary technique in Pamela. These are not merely matters of changing points of view, or of not using a point of view which is objective enough; they are more matters of lack of care, or of failing to realize the limits and potentials of whatever point of view or combination of points of view the author himself establishes as his basic medium of presentation.
Moby-Dick also presents us with another sort of problem which I have mentioned in a different connection, and that is the case in which the witness-narrator (or reflecting consciousness, in the case of third-person selective omniscience) becomes so central as almost to usurp the role of the protagonist. That is to say the use of a technical device can become disproportionate enough to threaten a disruption of the plot structure itself. If the protagonist is defined as the one around whom the causes of the action operate—upon whom the causes work, and from whom they flow—then Ahab and not Ishmael is the protagonist of Moby-Dick. It is Ahab and his monomania which motivate the action and bring about its culmination. But Ishmael is so much more often present, he does so much talking about himself, and he does indeed go through such significant changes, that it is difficult not to think of him as the main character and of Ahab as simply grist for his mill. Similar questions arise, as I have shown, in Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, Daisy Miller, and All the King’s Men.
An even more basic sort of inconsistency is found in Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, and Schorer has outlined he underlying cause of the curious restlessness with which his book leaves the reader. In spite of its “modern” concern with sex and the unconscious, it is still narrated within the frameless frame of old-fashioned editorial omniscience, and the danger of authorial identification with the protagonist—and hence of partisanship and dice-loading—has not been obviated The author-narrator thus analyzes Miriam’s thoughts: “So in May she asked him [Paul] to come to Willey Farm and meet Mrs. Dawes. There was something he hankered after. She saw him whenever they spoke of Clara Dawes, rouse and get slightly angry. He said he did not like her. Yet he was keen to know about her. Well, he should put himself to the test. She believed that there were in him desires for higher things, and desires for lower, and that the desires for the higher would conquer. At any rate, he should try.” And then Lawrence adds, “She forgot that her ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ were arbitrary” (chapter 9).
Both Schorer and Diana Trilling point out that there is consequently a contradiction in the book’s theme: Paul Morel cannot achieve a satisfactory sexual relationship either because of his enervating mother-fixation or because Miriam can encompass only the “spiritual” aspects of such a relationship.33 Since these two themes are mutually exclusive—the fault is the mother’s or Miriam’s—the trouble is that Lawrence has been unable sufficiently to dissociate himself from Paul to tell one from the other, with the result that he tries to have it both ways. The reader remains frustrated; lack of consistency means loss of effect. Yet the irony is that Lawrence himself believed in the efficacy of dramatic projection as a way of clarifying and understanding his own emotional problems: “one sheds one’s sickness in books—repeats and presents again one’s emotions, to be master of them.” E.T., however, the original of Miriam, knew that in this case he had failed: “he burked the real issue. It was his old inability to face his problem squarely His mother had to be supreme…. So instead of a release and a deliverance from bondage, the bondage was glorified and made absolute…. The best I could think of him was that he had run with the hare and hunted with the hounds.”34
By way of contrast, we may note Joyce’s presentation of Stephen in A Portrait, where, in spite of the common tendency to treat it as autobiographical, the story of the hero’s coming of age is completely objectified. Because Joyce has strictly limited the flow of information only to those scenes, perceptions, thoughts, and feelings which Stephen’s mind records, he has minimized the possibility of authorial partisanship which so vitiates the structure of Sons and Lovers. As a result, we get so clear a picture of the protagonist that near the end of the book one of his friends can say to him: “It is a curious thing, do you know—Cranly said dispassionately—how your mind is supersaturated with the religion in which you say you disbelieve.” Once cannot conceive of Lawrence, given his lack of control, as allowing Miriam to say to Paul: “It is a curious thing, do you know, how your rather excessive love for your mother causes you unwittingly to seek a sexual outlet with younger women which will be devoid of spiritual content. Passion and devotion are split in your mind by guilt, and therefore you react violently when a woman asks you for both together, accusing her of wanting to draw the soul out of you. Your soul has already been given to your mother. So you misconceive me completely when you say I want only your spiritual love.” (Due allowance will, I hope, be made for the fact that I am not a novelist; but I believe, from the evidence in E.T.’s book, that Miriam was fully capable of such penetration. Lawrence, however, renders her as agonizingly inarticulate.)
Such is the success of Joyce’s projection that, in spite of the fact that both he and his hero deliberately rejected Catholicism, literary Catholics can nevertheless relish his portrayal of religious life in the book. Thus Thomas Merton comments regarding the famous Hell passages: “What impressed me was not the fear of hell, but the expertness of the sermon…. So then I continued to read Joyce, more and more fascinated by the pictures of priests and Catholic life that came up here and there in his books.” Similarly, Caroline Gordon can say, “I suspect that this book has been misread by a whole generation. It is not primarily a picture of the artist rebelling against constituted authority. It is, rather, the picture of a soul that is being damned for time and eternity caught in the act of foreseeing and foreknowing its damnation.” While I think that this is perverse sophistry, I think also that it is a tribute to Joyce’s dramatic genius that a Catholic can sympathize with the portrayal of Catholic values which the hero rejects.35
When we talk of objectivity and consistency, then, we should be careful not to confuse questions of overall organization with mere matters of technique. Schorer is surely right about the somewhat muddled effect created by Sons and Lovers, but I do not agree with him about its cause. It seems to me that he takes hold of the problem by the wrong handle: finding the right technique will not enable the writer to be objective; it is rather being able to be objective which permits him to find the right technique. Lawrence’s lack of success with the omniscient point of view is a symptom rather than a cause of his overidentification with Paul and his special pleading in relation to Miriam. Fielding, using editorial omniscience in Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones, is as detached and ironic in relation to his characters as one could wish. A writer can use an objective point of view, and use it consistently, and still not produce a successful work; or he can use a subjective point of view, and then shift around, and still produce an effective work. For the real criteria are control and unity rather than simply objectivity and consistency. The writer may use a subjective point of view, so long as it is the most suitable to the whole, and he may vary it, so long as he does so with the sense of what he is doing. It is the arbitrary and self-indulgent which are to be avoided, rather than the subjective and the shifting.
But if Booth has made out a similar case for underlying unity of focus as opposed to mere technical objectivity and consistency, he raises more problems than he solves, I think, in his strictures against moral ambiguity. In opposing the technical dogmatism of modern critics, who require objectivity and impersonality in rendering, he has substituted a dogmatism of his own, in requiring a moral focus and consistency. In other words, if the New Critics do not want the author to be confused or over-identified with his characters, Booth does not want him to be too separate from or underidentified with them, for this will be, as he argues, both aesthetically and morally irresponsible.
While I do not think it is necessarily wrong to treat technical and moral problems together, as I have said, I do think it is better to separate them before joining them. Booth, in concerning himself on the technical level with the moral and intellectual qualities of the narrator, has in reality painted himself into a corner. It is one thing to castigate modern critics for conceiving of objectivity in terms which are too narrow, but it is quite another to conceive of it in terms which are too broad. Overall formal control and unity are not necessarily the same things as either technical objectivity on the one hand, or moral clarity on the other, although all three levels of inquiry are indeed related. A work, that is, can be formally unified and still be morally ambiguous without diminishing its excellence—indeed, as I hope I have already made clear, formal unity and moral ambiguity may stand in positive and healthy relation to one another. Or, at least, a profound concern for form may help make our approach to moral questions more profound. Having related technical to formal objectivity, then, let us see if we relate formal control to the question of moral control.
One of the reasons Booth dislikes dogmatic technical objectivity is that it encourages the writer to adopt a laisse-faire attitude toward his materials, abdicating his responsibility for shaping them somehow into a pattern whose moral significance is ultimately clear. The writer, he says, should not leave the reader rudderless in a sea of moral ambiguities; a deadpan, noncommittal presentation of evil, for example, is both aesthetically and morally vicious.36
Although I am certainly against sin, I am not sure I always know what evil really is, whether fundamentally or in particular cases—except, perhaps, not seeing another as a human being—and I would like to see the problem constantly being explored. And even if I did know, I am not sure I should impose my knowledge upon others, or legislate how it should relate to art. Booth confuses, it seems to me, art and life rather badly: as a man, I must make up my mind about such matters, however tentatively, in order to function in society, however restively; but as a writer and reader, I must be constantly experimenting and inquiring (recall Keat’s ideas about negative capability and the chameleon poet).37 Things which were once thought good—the accumulation of property, for example—are now seen to be not so good, while things which were once thought to be bad—sexual pleasure, for example—are now thought to be not so bad.
I do not mean to take a relativist position any more in moral questions than in critical ones, however, and claim that nothing is true or false but thinking makes it so. I think that in certain ways things may be called good or evil, but I do not think we can very often know in advance which is which. Here, as in criticism, I am a pluralist: knowledge and values are possible, but we have to work hard to get them, and we must be careful to distinguish between principles and applications. Thus, just as technique must be judged in the context of the plot rather than simply in terms of abstract criteria, so too must a real act be judged in the context of its situation rather than merely in terms of general rules. There are standards, certainly, but they must be applied in relation to the whole rather than to the parts only. Life, even more than art, of course, involves the working of many independent variables, and so we must beware even more of taking parts of wholes here. And, just as plot supplies the context for analysis of technique, so too does it supply the context for discussion of morality—for the plot is the situation in terms of which we must judge the moral and intellectual qualities not only of the narrator but also all the characters as well. Only after this has been done can we say either that the technique is effective or that the values of the author are healthy. Aristotle again has suggested the basis for solving this problem: “As for the question whether something said or done in a poem is morally right or not, in dealing with that one should consider not only the intrinsic quality of the actual work or deed, but also the person who says or does it, the person to whom he says or does it the time, the means, and the motive of the agent—whether he does it to attain a greater good, or to avoid a greater evil” (Poetics, chapter 25, Bywater translation).
Furthermore, art neither affects us directly nor leaves us unaffected: we do not pattern our lives after books, nor do we read merely for amusement or distraction. Art enlarges our minds, broadens our feelings, and deepens our sympathies. It contributes to that process of exploration which Shelley says is the basis of morality; it is one of the ways we have of remaining free from practical decisions while attempting to see what the possibilities really are. It affects our lives ultimately, after being absorbed and assimilated, but not necessarily immediately. My practical life must always remain less full of possibility than my artistic life, but at the same time it should always be open to change and growth, and change and growth can be partially fostered by my artistic experience, The relation between art and life, then, is vital but not indirect.
Thus I can read about an “evil” man, and he can be presented either unfavorably, neutrally, favorably, or in some combined way. Either way, however, I am not a schoolboy learning his catechism: I can learn that what I thought was evil is not necessarily so; or even if it is still evil, I can see more clearly how it looks from the inside. And if the author is genuinely trying to corrupt me, whether intentionally or inadvertently, resisting his influence can be a healthy exercise. But the ambiguity of many modern writers is more a shouldering of moral responsibility than an evasion of it, for exploring complexities honestly is more moral than making rigid categories. The “morality” of art is not that it should conform to the values of daily life, but rather that it should remain open and honest. Aesthetically, though, the question is whether a work can be ambiguous and still be unified. Here a distinction between controlled and uncontrolled ambiguity will prove useful. Multiple meanings may either add to or detract from one another. If a writer wants to create an impression of the complexity of life, and if he does so in terms of the interplay and overlap of meanings, then his work may be perfectly unified—whether generally or particularly—around his intention. There is nothing either morally or artistically vicious about it; he need not fake a definite stand or make up his mind; all he needs to do is to relate varying meanings together in such a way that they build a greater whole which is “truer” than any one meaning; while at the same time being difficult to express without all of them. If, on the other hand, he creates an impression of chaos rather than complexity, and if his meanings, such as they are, fail to relate, or if they contradict one another, instead of interplaying and overlapping, then his work will be lacking in control and unity.
It is in this sense that objectivity and consistency can be used as valid criteria, so long as it is understood that they do not refer simply to this device or that technique. Any amount of technical subjectivity and shifting is allowable so long as it contributes effectively to the whole: a writer may be ultimately quite objective, even while using a subjective device, just as he may be ultimately quite subjective, even while using an objective device. Thus, I agree with Booth as against the New Critics in saying that objectivity is a larger matter, but I agree with the New Critics as against Booth in saying that objectivity is an aspect of the moral freedom of art. And I can occupy this mediating position, I think, because I can interpose between technique and meaning, as neither he nor they appear to do, a more specific concept of artistic form, the validating context.
Part 1 contains Friedman's introduction to the topic of point of view.
Part 2 contains Freidman’s breakdown of the modes of point of view.
Footnotes to be added soon.
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