Critical Concepts

"Point of View"

-- of a story
-- of a person, or of a fictional character


In your writing about literature, you want to take care to get on the meanings of technical phrases and terms as these are used in the particular kind of writing you are doing -- in this case, literary criticism.  For example, the terms  “action” and  “plot” don't always carry the same meanings in discussions of literature as they do in other contexts.  The same goes for the phrase "point of view."

The term “point of view” is a complicated case in point.  It has a special meaning as a technical term in discussions of narrative works.   It refers to the particular “mode of access” or  “window” through which the author (not a character) decides to disclose the explicit facts that together constitute the story.  In narration (stories) we have a narrator.  What kind of narrator we have determines the point of view of the story (not of a character).  A “non-participant narrator” is situated outside the world within which the characters exist.  (We can then distinguish various kinds of non-participant narrator, according to the ways in which they relate to the world they tell us about.)  A “participant narrator” is a character who participates in the world within which the action of the story takes place.  (We can then distinguish various sorts of participant narrator according to the ways in which they relate to the action they tell us about). 

This special concept is related to but importantly different from the sense of the term that we’re familiar with in ordinary discourse, where the very same phrase often means something like “personal perspective on things.”   Here we are talking about the information available to the information, assumptions, and values that are peculiar to a given character in virtue of his or her particular situation within the world.   A detective has a radically different “point of view” (in this sense of the term) from that of the perpetrator he is trying to discover.  Each knows different things.  If the detective knew what the criminal does — his identity, present whereabouts, plans — there would not be mystery for the detective to solve.  And typically, at least, the detective is committed to at least some values not shared by the criminal.  Often, too, the detective will be operating from different empirical assumptions.  At least in some stories, the antagonist criminal is convinced that he is infallible, whereas the detective is convinced that the criminal’s project can be defeated.

Note that an author of a detective thriller could decide to tell the story from the point of view of the detective, from the point of view of the criminal, or both.  And this could happen in different ways.  

Note that in covering all these possibilities, we've been forced to resort to both of the concepts attaching to the phrase "point of view."  If we look closely, though, there are often some clues in the exact phrases in English that tip us off to which we have to do with.  

The following all appeal to the technical literary critical notion.  (The last does not use the phrase "point of view," but nevertheless invokes the concept in the literary critical sense of the term.)

The following all employ the familiar everyday notion of "point of view" as something attaching to a person (and hence to a character, or, alternatively, to an author).  [All of them happen to be true of Melville's novella "Billy Budd," which, as mentioned above, happens to be told from an omniscient point of view.]

Note that this latter might be more clearly expressed if we were to distinguish carefully between the notion of an idea that one might hold (which we might call simply "a view") and the notion of a perspective on life which determines what views it is possible for a person to hold, or or to take seriously, or even (in some cases) even to imagine.  (It is this latter which, in everyday parlance, best qualifies to be described as a "point of view," since this is a metaphor about "angles of looking at something," and hence "ways of approaching" it.)  Hence we might reformulate the latter to read:

  • <E10> Melville's view is that people who approach the world from radically different points of view are effectively mutually "excommunicated."

It might also occur to us to reformulate the last sentence in some such terms as these:

  • <E11> From the point of view of "Billy Budd," people who are instinctively principled, people who are simply selfish, and people who see the world in merely legalistic terms are simply unable to make sense of each other's experience. [or:]
  • <E12> The point of view of "Billy Budd" is that... [Contrast:  "The point of view of "Billy Budd" is omniscient narration."]

That is:  to the degree that we take the story to be implying some insight that the author is committed to, we can treat the point of view of the one as equivalent to the other.  Two cautions are in order.  

  1. Presumably, stories (being the expression of a view or of a point of view) do not change their minds in the course of time, whereas authors (being persons) often do in the course of time change their views (sometimes because they change their perspectives on things in general).
  2. We can often avoid lots of confusion by cutting down our resort to unnecessarily ambiguous vocabulary.  In the present instance, it will probably be clearer simply to say something like one of the following:
    • <E13> The theme of "Billy Budd" is that...  [or perhaps:]
    • <E14> Thematically, "Billy Budd" seems to say that...  [or even just:]
    • <E15> "Billy Budd" suggests that...

Sometimes it is not even necessary to bring in the jargon.  We can just speak in ways that indicate we are employing the relevant concepts!

But what about the following formula?

This is perfectly acceptable, but we should note that we are here we are actually touching on both senses of the term -- the special literary critical one (here, specifically, protagonist narration) and the everyday one (we are characterizing the protagonist's perspective as deranged).  

But we are not always so fortunate.  There do frequently arise situations in which this kind of complexity leads us to fall into equivocation, and involve ourselves (and our reader) in a real muddle.

Example:  Suppose we reading over a draft of an essay on Alice Walker's story "Everyday Use," and come across the following sentence:  <E17> “The narrator, who is the mother, ensures we see the whole story, at least from her point of view.”  

We might first be struck by the fact that what we're saying seems to obvious, almost tautological (circular):  after all, who else's point of view could she tell the story from?  But this doesn't seem to do justice to what we might have been trying to get at, and before we throw away the point altogether, we would want to see if we can get clearer to ourselves what it might have been that motivated us to say this (nevertheless so far) unsatisfying thing.  If we call to mind the distinction between the two distinct useful senses in which the phrase "point of view" has come to be used (in ordinary discourse, and in the discussion of literary technique),  we may notice that we have two quite distinct important points to make, each one involving a different sense of the term "point of view".  The first job is to untangle them.  (After that we can see how it might be that we want to connect them back together, without blurring the one into the other.)  

On the one hand, we have occasion to draw attention to the fact that the story is told from the point of view of the mother, who makes the crucial decision at the climactic moment of the plot.  And since the mother is here acting as the judge in what is partly her own case, the story raises the issue of whether she adequately understands and evaluates the implications of this crucial decision.  In other words, we are led to ask whether she is a reliable narrator.  Let's suppose that, on reflection, we have come to the conclusion that she is.  We have now to explain how we came to that conclusion.  One important consideration, it may be, is that her point of view on the relevant issues and agents is sound.  

(Perhaps what we wanted to say when we spoke of her as "ensuring that we see the whole story" is that she has adequate knowledge of her two daughters' divergent characters on which to base her decision, and that she strikes us as one who, in the light of these facts, has her heart as it were in the right place, so that though she ends up "favoring" one daughter in giving the disputed quilts to her, she isn't "one-sided" or "partial" in doing so.  But if this was what we wanted to get at, why did we end up undercutting what we seemed to have been getting at by adding qualifying phrase "at least from her point of view," as if there was something "limited" about her picture of things.  We were right to raise the question as to whether her limitations prevented her from reaching a sound decision.  But if, on reflection, we've come to the conclusion that they did not, it seems that this is the wrong place in the sentence to be placing this phrase.) 

Now we try to figure out how we might get these ideas back together again in a way that clearly establishes their relationship to each other that's relevant to our purposes, and avoids making both ideas unclear by smudging the one into the other.  Here we could go in different directions, depending on the needs of our essay at this particular juncture.

One the one hand, it may be that clarity could best be served by expanding our sentence into a series of separate sentences, somewhat along the lines of the way in which we untangled them in the paragraph before last.  We might come up with something like this:

Note that because of the specificity of the intervening context between the two occurrences of the phrase "point of view" here, a reader is less likely to be led astray as to which notion to supply in each case.   Still, there might be some virtue in taking the cautious approach, and <E19> substituting the phrase "her perspective on" for "her point of view on" in the second instance.

On the other, it may be that the place where we have in mind to "set" the statement we're trying to come up with calls for something more succinct.  This might be the case if we are writing part of the introduction to our essay, which it will be the business of the body of the essay to clarify and develop.  If this is so, we might first come up with something like this:

But this strikes us as inelegant, to say the least.  Here are two alternatives we might consider:

In discussions of fiction, therefore, it’s often best to treat the phrase “point of view” as a “reserved term” denoting the voice through which the story is told, considered in its relationship to the world it is telling us about.  When you want to talk about a character’s particular angle of access and attitude towards something or someone in the situation with which he or she is confronted, you will probably be well-advised to use the term “perspective.”  We can keep to this convention, too, when the character in question happens to be the narrator.  The virtue of this convention is that, if we hold to it, we avoid the risk of slipping into an equivocation or at least momentarily confusing our reader.  

Similarly:  when you want to talk about the perspective on life indicated by the story as a whole, you'll probably do better to avoid speaking of "the point of view of the story," and to resort instead to the term "theme" or to speak simply of "what the story implies."