Definition of Omniscient

To be omniscient is to know everything. In literature, an omniscient point of view is one in which the narrator knows the thoughts and actions of every character in the narrative. This is called third person omniscient, and was arguably the most popular point of view in novels until the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (though, of course, there were examples of other points of view before the contemporary period, and there are still many contemporary novels written in third person omniscient). A third person omniscient narrator can freely jump between different characters’ minds, either in different chapters or even in the same scene. This creates a sense that the narrator is godlike, and creates some trust that the narrator is objective and telling the truth. However, it can also be jolting to see into different characters’ thoughts in quick succession.

The word omniscient comes from the Latin word omniscientia, which means “all-knowing.” The word is a compound of omni- “all,” and scientia “knowledge.” The definition of omniscient was created in the seventeenth century, though the concept had been debated for centuries before that in a religious context.

Common Examples of Omniscient

There are some technological advances in the field of surveillance which attempts to create a database of all of the communications, actions, and appearances of individuals and organizations. This is called omniscient technology. Some say this kind of technology will help curb terrorism, but there is also fear about technology overreaching and eliminating privacy. Different movies and books have dealt with this concept, such as the following:

  • Spectre (2015 James Bond film)
  • Minority Report (2002 Tom Cruise film)
  • George Orwell’s 1984
  • Dave Egger’s The Circle

Omniscience is also an important concept in many religions.

  • Monotheistic religions: Many Christian, Jewish, and Muslim theologians have debated the omniscience of God, and whether He knows absolutely everything there is to know (total omniscience) or whether He can choose what to know and what not to know (inherent omniscience). This is important to those who ask how omniscience can be compatible with individuals’ free will.
  • Jainism: In Jainism, the possibility of reaching omniscience is considered both a capability of every human soul as well as the goal that everyone should have.

Significance of Omniscient in Literature

There are advantages and disadvantages to an omniscient narrator. As described above, the third person omniscient narrator can be very reliable, as there seems to be little reason for that type of narrator to be biased. However, some third person omniscient narrators do indeed have personalities and opinions. This type of narration also creates some distance between the reader and the narrator; though the reader may trust the third person omniscient narrator, the reader will also probably feel less sympathy for the characters than if the events were presented from within a single character’s point of view. The mode works well for large epics that have hundreds, or even thousands, of characters. It also is sometimes employed in small family dramas in which understanding the motivations of each character on a more intimate level can be important for understand the outcome.

Examples of Omniscient in Literature

Example #1

If he could have heard what her parents were saying that evening, if he could have put himself at the point of view of the family and have heard that Kitty would be unhappy if he did not marry her, he would have been greatly astonished, and would not have believed it. He could not believe that what gave such great and delicate pleasure to him, and above all to her, could be wrong. Still less could he have believed that he ought to marry.

(Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy)

This is a good example of omniscient narration from Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. The narrator is party to the thoughts of the character of Vronsky, but in the same breath the narrator is able to recount what Kitty and her family are thinking. Indeed, Tolstoy makes the choice to move between the thoughts of so many characters in the story that he even includes some chapters written from the point of view of a dog.

Example #2

But no sooner had he made it clear to himself and his friends that she hardly had a good feature in her face, than he began to find it was rendered uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes. To this discovery succeeded some others equally mortifying. Though he had detected with a critical eye more than one failure of perfect symmetry in her form, he was forced to acknowledge her figure to be light and pleasing; and in spite of his asserting that her manners were not those of the fashionable world, he was caught by their easy playfulness.

(Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen)

Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice follows the character of Elizabeth very closely, usually presenting the narrative from her point of view. However, there are certain moments where we see events that Elizabeth isn’t aware of, and then there are moments such as the except above in which we see how Elizabeth is perceived by others. In this case, her suitor Mr. Darcy is realizing, to his horror, how much he really likes Elizabeth. The third person omniscient narrator jumps between different characters’ thoughts, and also provides some more universal statements, such as the opening line of the novel: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

Example #3

I at least have so much to do in unraveling certain human lots, and seeing how they were woven and interwoven, that all the light I can command must be concentrated on this particular web, and not dispersed over that tempting range of relevancies called the universe.

(Middlemarch by George Eliot)

George Eliot is the presumed narrator in her novel Middlemarch, and she is an interesting omniscient example. She freely moves between the thoughts and feelings of different characters in her novel, but also sometimes includes her own feelings and thoughts. In the above excerpt, Eliot gives a hint about why she had chosen the omniscient narrator for her novel: she see omniscience as the only way to really understand different characters and why they do the things they do. Omniscience in the controlled setting of her own novel is more revealing than trying to understand the universe at large.

Example #4

A few creatures came and looked at them when the fire had died away. A fox passing through the wood on business of his own stopped several minutes and sniffed.

“Hobbits!” he thought. “Well, what next? I have heard of strange doings in this land, but I have seldom heard of a Hobbit sleeping out of doors under a tree. Three of them! There’s something mighty queer behind this.” He was quite right, but he never found out any more about it.

(The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien)

J. R. R. Tolkien chose the third person omniscient narrator for his Lord of the Rings trilogy, which works well for his novel that had so many hundreds of characters. Interestingly enough, at one point, excerpted above, he even includes the point of view of a fox passing by the hobbits.

Test Your Knowledge of Omniscient

1. Which of the following statements is the best omniscient definition as it applies to literature?
A. A character who is all-powerful.
B. A narrator who is all-knowing.
C. A spirit that is all-present.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. Which of the following narrators would be considered an example of an omniscient narrator?
A. The narrator in Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude who has access to different characters’ thoughts and opinions.
B. Nick Carraway in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby, who presents the story of Jay Gatsby (the protagonist) from his own point of view.
C. The anonymous teenage boys who narrate Jeffrey Eugenides’s novel The Virgin Suicides who share thoughts and opinions from the point of view of “we.”

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. What is one advantage of the omniscient narrator?
A. The reader feels more distant from the characters.
B. This type of narration can feel a bit jolting as it switches between points of view.
C. The author can present viewpoints from many different characters, thereby showing events that not all of the characters know about.

Answer to Question #3 Show

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