Definition of Point of View
Point of view is the perspective from which a story is narrated. Every story has a perspective, though there can be more than one type of point of view in a work of literature. The most common points of view used in novels are first person singular (“I”) and third person (“he” and “she”). However, there are many variants on these two types of point of view, as well as other less common narrative points of view.
Point of View vs. Narrator
Point of view is very closely linked with the concept of a narrator. The narrator of a story can be a participant in the story, meaning this character is a part of the plot, or a non-participant. The point of view in a story refers to the position of the narrator in relation to the story. For example, if the narrator is a participant in the story, it is more likely that the point of view would be first person, as the narrator is witnessing and interacting with the events and other characters firsthand. If the narrator is a non-participant, it is more likely that the point of view would be in third person, as the narrator is at a remove from the events. These are general guidelines, of course, and there are many exceptions to these rules. Let us look more in depth at the multiple options for narrative point of view.
Types of Point of View
First Person Singular
First person singular point of view uses the “I” pronoun to refer to the narrator. This narrator is usually the protagonist of the story, and this point of view allows the reader access to the character’s inner thoughts and reactions to the events occurring. All of the action is processed through the narrator’s perspective, and therefore this type of narrator may be unreliable. The choice to write from an unreliable first person point of view gives the reader a chance to figure out what is reality and what is a creation on the part of the narrator. A notoriously unreliable narrator is Humbert Humbert from Vladimir Nabakov’s Lolita:
When I try to analyze my own cravings, motives, actions and so forth, I surrender to a sort of retrospective imagination which feeds the analytic faculty with boundless alternatives and which causes each visualized route to fork and re-fork without end in the maddeningly complex prospect of my past.
First Person Plural
This point of view is extremely uncommon in novels, as it uses “we” as the primary pronoun. This implies a group of people narrating the story at once. While it is unusual now, most Greek tragedies contained a chorus that narrated the events of the play together. To use this point of view successfully, there must be a sense of group identity, either facing a similar challenge together or placing themselves in opposition to another “outside” group. For example, the recent novel The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka is about a group of Japanese women who come to the United States as mail-order brides:
Most of us on the boat were accomplished, and were sure we would make good wives. We knew how to cook and sew. We knew how to serve tea and arrange flowers and sit quietly on our flat wide feet for hours, saying absolutely nothing of substance at all.
Another uncommon point of view is second person, using the “you” pronoun to narrate the story. This point of view either implies that the narrator is actually an “I” trying to separate himself or herself from the events that he or she is narrating, or allows the reader to identify with the central character. This was popularized in the 1980s series Choose Your Own Adventure, and appears in the recent novel Pretty Little Mistakes by Heather McElhatton:
While standing in his parents kitchen, you tell your boyfriend you’re leaving. You’re not going to college. You’re not buying into the schedules, the credits, or the points. No standardized success for you.
This point of view definition uses “he” and “she” as the pronouns to refer to different characters, and provides the greatest amount of flexibility for the author. There are two main possibilities for the third person point of view: limited and omniscient. In a third person limited point of view, the reader is privy only to one main character’s thoughts. In this way, it is similar to the first person singular point of view, since the focus stays tightly on one character. Third person omniscient point of view allows the author to delve into the thoughts of any character, making the narrator seem godlike. This was a popular point of view in 19th century novels. For example, the opening of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice presents an all-knowing narrator:
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
Some novels combine two or more of the above types of point of view. For example, some novels alternate between a first person singular point of view in some chapters and the third person point of view in other chapters. The Harry Potter series alternates between third person limited—allowing access to Harry’s thoughts—and third person omniscient when information must be shared that Harry is not witness to.
Common Examples of Point of View
All of us experience life through a first person singular point of view. When we tell stories from our own lives, most of these stories are thus from that perspective. However, we also sometimes tell stories in the first person plural if a pair or group of people is involved throughout the entire story. We also tell many stories from the third person point of view when talking about events at which we were not present. Here are some examples:
- First person singular: “I had the craziest night last night! I’ll tell you all about it.”
- First person plural: “New York was great. We went to the Statue of Liberty, we walked around Central Park, and we ate fantastic food. It’s our favorite city.”
- Third person: “My grandfather was a pilot in the war, and one time he survived a terrible crash.”
Significance of Point of View in Literature
The choice of the point of view from which to narrate a story greatly affects both the reader’s experience of the story and the type of information the author is able to impart. First person creates a greater intimacy between the reader and the story, while third person allows the author to add much more complexity to the plot and development of different characters that one character wouldn’t be able to perceive on his or her own. Therefore, point of view has a great amount of significance in every piece of literature. The relative popularities of different types of point of view have changed over the centuries of novel writing. For example, epistolary novels were once quite common but have largely fallen out of favor. First person point is view, meanwhile, is quite common now whereas it was hardly used at all before the 20th century.
Examples of Point of View in Literature
Example #1: First Person Singular
There must have been about two minutes during which I assumed that I was killed. And that too was interesting—I mean it is interesting to know what your thoughts would be at such a time. My first thought, conventionally enough, was for my wife. My second was a violent resentment at having to leave this world which, when all is said and done, suits me so well. I had time to feel this very vividly.
(Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell)
George Orwell writes about his own experiences in the Spanish Civil War in his book Homage to Catalonia. In autobiographical works, the “I” narrator is the character of the author. Here Orwell relates the experience of getting shot and the thoughts that passed through his mind directly thereafter.
Example #2: First Person Plural
It didn’t matter in the end how old they had been, or that they were girls, but only that we had loved them, and that they hadn’t heard us calling, still do not hear us, up here in the tree house, with our thinning hair and soft bellies, calling them out of those rooms where they went to be alone for all time, alone in suicide, which is deeper than death, and where we will never find the pieces to put them back together.
(The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides)
Jeffrey Eugenides’s novel The Virgin Suicides is narrated by a collective “we”, who view and comment on a group of five sisters. Eugenides successfully uses this example of point of view by making the “we” a group of boys who love and try to understand the girls from afar.
Example #3: Second Person
You get home to your apartment on West 12th Street. It’s a wreck. Like you. No kidding. You wonder if Amanda will ever explain her desertion. She was a model and she thought you were rich. You never spotted she was an airhead. So what does that make you?
(Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerny)
Jay McInerny’s novel Bright Lights, Big City, is one of the few novels written for adults in the second person point of view. This point of view example creates a sense of intimacy between the narrator and the reader, implicating the reader in the events of the plot and relating the powerlessness the narrator has to forestall his own self-destruction.
Example #4: Third Person
The family of Dashwood had long been settled in Sussex. Their estate was large, and their residence was at Norland Park, in the centre of their property, where, for many generations, they had lived in so respectable a manner as to engage the general good opinion of their surrounding acquaintance.
(Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen)
The opening to Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility introduces the Dashwood family, and goes on to describe each character in detail. This is another example of Jane Austen using the third person omniscient point of view and gives her access to all of the character’s thoughts, desires, and motivations.
Test Your Knowledge of Point of View
1. What is the correct definition of point of view as a literary device?
A. The opinion that someone takes on in a debate.
B. The perspective from which a story is narrated.
C. The way in which different people see things.
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2. Consider this line from William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying:
Darl Jewel and I come up from the field, following the path in single file. Although I am fifteen feet ahead of him, anyone watching us from the cottonhouse can see Jewel’s frayed and broken straw hat a full head above my own.
In which point of view is this excerpt?
1. First person singular
2. First person plural
3. Second Person
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3. Which of the following is an example of third person limited?
A. Atticus was feeble: he was nearly fifty. When Jem and I asked him why he was so old, he said he got started late, which we felt reflected upon his abilities and manliness. (To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee)
B. On the boat we sometimes lay awake for hours in the swaying damp darkness of the hold, filled with longing and dread, and wondered how we would last another three weeks. (The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka)
C. Sordo passed the wine bottle back and nodded his head in thanks. He leaned forward and patted the dead horse on the shoulder where the muzzle of the automatic rifle had burned the hide. He could still smell the burnt hair. (For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway)
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