Critical Concepts:
Foils & Point of View

Deliberate and systematic contrasts are such a staple of literary procedure that people who make a habit of discussing literature have settled on a standard term for them:  foils. The reason this technique is so common in fiction of all sorts (narrative & dramatic, poetry and prose) is quite simple:  it is so useful -- and, in some circumstances, all but indispensable.

If we want to draw the reader's attention to some facts in a situation, we can of course simply mention outright all of the particular details we want the reader to notice. But writers are often reluctant to do this.

Indeed, if they are writing for a dramatic medium, like the stage or film, it is impossible to do so without intrusively destroying an illusion of reality, or at least without interrupting the swift flow of action.)  Especially in short stories and novels written during the last hundred or so years, many writers have made a conscious decision to avoid the omniscient narrator -- even the impartial omniscient narrator (who refrains from expressing evaluative judgments about the characters and events being told of), but especially the editorially omniscient narrator, who not only explicitly points out what we should notice in the "facts" of what is going on but who tells us what we are to think about it (sometimes even explaining to us why).

There are many reasons for this "modern" reticence.

Some authors, who find themselves unable to assert a faith in the existence of a providential deity, argue that the omniscient narrator is a hold-over from an age in which people believed that the world of Time and human history itself is a work of art of an all-knowing Creator, who rules both behind the scenes and through supernatural intervention in nature and history to manipulate affairs in accordance with his pre-conceived plan, or "plot" for mankind. Others, who might be described as deists, maintain that, while there may be a divine being who is interested in human conduct and the outcome of human affairs and who has foreseen in advance how things will turn out, this deity has evidently chosen to refrain from personally intervening in the human story. They are inclined to adopt a similar "stance" towards the situations they create.

Understandably, many people have found these explanations puzzling. After all, all authors are constantly intervening in their stories - however invisibly - since they are responsible for creating, by their writerly decisions, every single one of the details that constitute the stories they create! And besides, stories with omniscient narrators can be delightful, sophisticated, and challenging - instead of preachy, pedantic, or commonplace - all depending on whether the writer knows how to handle "authoritative" intrusions in a truly skillful way. To appreciate this, put on your reading list for the future two wonderful novels: Henry Fielding's Tom Jones (1749) and Milan Kundera's The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1979). Fielding was certainly a believing Anglican Christian, but Kundera is pretty obviously an atheist. Both, however, use omniscient narration to brilliant effect.

The real question, then, is why many modern authors, even devoutly religious ones, often avoid omniscient narration. The answer is probably simply that they are fascinated with the possibilities of the game of fiction when it is played with first-person narration (and especially with unreliable narrators), with a special sort of third-person narration that critics somewhat awkwardly call "limited omniscient narration," or with what is sometimes called "objective" or "dramatic" narration. The fascination lies in devising a tale in which the reader has to skillfully infer certain unstated facts of the situation from the facts that are made explicitly available and, further, has to arrive on his or her own at some conception of what the point of the story is from the author's point of view. (The reader is always, of course, at liberty to reject the author's point of view once it has been arrived at. The problem - the game the writer offers the reader to play - is how to arrive at it. And the game is no fun if the reader is at liberty simply to "make up the facts" to suit his own preconceived notions, or to interpret the explicit details in just any arbitrary way.)

(1) There are lots of different possibilities here. In one favorite one, the narrator (not the author, but a creature of the author) either does not know the whole truth of the story he or she tells the (as a character within the story), or is positively mistaken in his or her assessment of the situation, or is deceptive and lying (perhaps even to himself or herself). Writers who write this way do so because their readers enjoy the challenge of having to correct the "bent" picture they are initially confronted with, in virtue of being forced to view the situation through the "distorted lens" of the unreliable narrator.

(2) Another favorite device is "objective" narration. This is also sometimes called dramatic narration or dramatic point of view, because the effect sought is somewhat akin to what we get when we attend a play or view a film: generally we view the characters and their actors "from the outside." That is, as spectators, we are afforded "direct" knowledge of their behavior, including what they say. As when we witness the behavior of people around us in our everyday situations, we have to arrive at what they are supposedly really thinking and feeling by a process of empathy and reasoning. That is, we have to "figure them out."

(3) Less stringent but often highly challenging for readers and writers to bring off is the limited omniscient narrator. In this case the writer adopts the stance of an impersonal consciousness, itself not an agent in the events of the story, able to observe the thoughts of one (or only a few) characters. The reader is thus afforded an "inside view" of the experience of this particular figure (or - usually in more extended fiction, bordering on the novel  these few figures). This is clearly something we are not able to do in "real life," where each of us is directly aware only of our own personal reflections, feelings, perceptions, and is constrained to intuit or infer what others must be experiencing. Hence the term "omniscient." Such a narrator comes across as reliable - as far as it goes.

(4) The term "limited," though, points in the first instance to the fact that (a) the reader is able to do this only with one (or a few) characters, and that the experience of others is reachable only tentatively and provisionally, by empathetic skill and reasoning.

"Limited" often points to two other possibilities.  (b) An author may expect readers to be willing, for the purposes of the story, to grant the hypothesis that human beings are possessed of an "unconscious" - a dimension of experience (thoughts, feelings, fantasies) that they manage to remain largely unaware of, through psychological strategies of distraction or repression. In such a case, we may be given (i.e., explicitly told) important details of the central character's conscious experience - memories, daydreams, wishes, desires, fears, noticings-of-surroundings, actions towards others - but expected, on the basis of these, to arrive at an understanding of motives at work of which the character himself is unaware. In this case we as readers are limited in our explicit knowledge to what the character himself knows, but this experience in turn is so designed (by the author) as to be understandable only if we manage successfully to go beyond that knowledge to some called-for hypothesis of what is going on "underneath," why it is going on, and why it is not going on in the light of the character's own awareness. (As you can imagine, a similar game is also afoot in the case of unreliable first-person narrators.)

And (c) even our appreciation of the full range of a character's conscious experience usually requires us to reason and empathize from the part to the whole. One of the sources of intensity is economy, and Hemingway, especially, was emphatic that writing is an art of selection, not only for "subjective" events but for "objective" ones as well:

Looking back much later at one of his early stories, he wrote:  It was a very simple story called "Out of Season" and I had omitted the real end of it which was that the old man hanged himself. This was omitted on my new theory that you could omit anything if you knew that you omitted it and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.  (A Moveable Feast [1964], p. 75)

If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.   (Death in the Afternoon [1932], p. 192)

Hence, even when the writer gives us details of the inner experience of a given character, the information we are afforded will have been carefully chosen to imply a whole complex of additional, unstated factors in that character's experience.

We are now in a better position to appreciate why a skillful use of foils is a crucial part of the repertoire of so many modern writers of short fiction - and why skillful readers of this fiction are so adept at recognizing foils at work and so aggressive in thinking through their significance. Setting things in systematic and detailed contrast to each other is one way of drawing intense attention - by throwing into potentially stark relief - to details that get explicitly mentioned but whose attendant facts and further significance the writer refuses to spell out. To spell this out is to dilute the flow of events. Or it is to deprive the reader of the exercise of intelligent empathy. Foils therefore offer the writer interested in psychological or social realism a way of maintaining the illusion of reality while at the same time maintaining the crucial distinction between art and life. That is, the situation presented for inspection in good art will always be more potentially clear and intelligible than the ragged and accidental situations we are typically confronted with in our more direct lived experience. (As we will see in the end, though, expressionist and "surrealist" writers are driven as well to make well-nigh obsessive use of foils in their imaginative constructions.)

This means that an eye for significant contrast, and an appetite for tracing out that significance, is one of the most essential parts of the standing repertoire of any skillful reader. Begin now to cultivate an eye for contrast - overt and implicit  in any and every dimension of the fictions you read:

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   Contents copyright 1999 by Lyman A. Baker

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  This page last updated 30 August 2000.