Title

Narrative viewpoint
Quick revise

After studying this section you should be able to:

  • understand the importance of narrative viewpoint
  • identify different types of narrative viewpoints
  • appreciate the effect viewpoint can have on a narrative

In the previous two extracts, Susan Hill was writing in the first person while Charles Dickens had chosen to write his narrative in the third person. Both forms of narrative have their advantages and disadvantages and each hold various possibilities for the writer.

Progress check

Have another look at the first two extracts and note down what effect each narrative viewpoint has.

Here are some ideas you might have considered:

First person

  • the author takes on the role of a character
  • the story is told from the ‘inside’
  • the narrator appears to address you directly
  • this increases the illusion that the story is ‘real’
  • this view is more limited because we can only ‘see’ things through the narrator’s eyes
  • we do not know what is going on inside other people’s heads.

Third person

  • the narrator becomes almost ‘god-like’ in that they see and hear everything – a kind of ‘fly on the wall’ approach. This is sometimes called the omniscient (all-knowing) narrator
  • the narrator can tell us of events that happen in different places at different times
  • we are told how different characters feel
  • we are often told what they are thinking
  • the narrator is more detached and can make comments on the characters, perhaps mocking them or making positive or negative judgements on them.

Sometimes a writer may choose to make the narrator of the story quite clearly a character in that story. The writer might even choose to have more than one narrator. For example, Emily Brontë uses this technique in Wuthering Heights.

Now look carefully at the following three short extracts.

  • Decide on the narrative viewpoint of each piece.
  • What effect does each have on the narrative?
  • What do you learn about the narrator(s) in each extract?
  • How is information conveyed to you?
*1 ‘I see the house at Wuthering Heights has “Earnshaw“ carved over the front door. Are they an old family?’

‘Very old, sir; and Hareton is the last of them, as our Miss Cathy is of us – I mean, of the Lintons. Have you been to Wuthering Heights? I beg pardon for asking: but I should like to hear how she is.’
‘Mrs. Heathcliff? she looked very well, and very handsome; yet, I think, not very happy.’
‘Oh dear, I don’t wonder! And how did you like the master?’
‘A rough fellow, rather, Mrs. Dean. Is not that his character?’
‘Rough as a saw-edge, and hard as whinstone. The less you meddle with him the better.’
‘He must have had some ups and downs in life to make him such a churl. Do you know anything of his history?’
‘It’s a cuckoo’s, sir – I know all about it: except where he was born, and who were his parents, and how he got his money, at first. And Hareton has been cast out like an unfledged dunnock! The unfortunate lad is the only one in all this parish that does not guess how he has been cheated.’
‘Well, Mrs, Dean, it will be a charitable deed to tell me something of my neighbours: I feel I shall not rest, if I go to bed; so be good enough to sit and chat an hour.’
‘Oh, certainly, sir! I’ll just fetch a little sewing, and then I’ll sit as long as you please. But you’ve caught cold: I saw you shivering, and you must have some gruel to drive it out.’
The worthy woman bustled off, and I crouched nearer the fire; my head felt hot, and the rest of me chill: moreover I was excited, almost to a pitch of foolishness, through my nerves and brain. This caused me to feel, not uncomfortable, but rather fearful (as I am still) of serious effects from the incidents of to-day and yesterday. She returned presently, bringing a smoking basin and a basket of work; and, having placed the former on the hob, drew in her seat, evidently pleased to find me so companionable.
*2 Before I came to live here, she commenced – waiting no further invitation to her story – I was almost always at Wuthering Heights; because my mother had nursed Mr. Hindley Earnshaw, that was Hareton’s father, and I got used to playing with the children: I ran errands too, and helped to make hay, and hung about the farm ready for anything that anybody would set me to. One fine summer morning – it was the beginning of harvest, I remember – Mr. Earnshaw, the old master, came downstairs, dressed for a journey; and after he had told Joseph what was to be done during the day, he turned to Hindley, and Cathy, and me – for I sat eating my porridge with them – and he said. speaking to his son, ‘Now, my bonny man, I’m going to Liverpool to-day, what shall I bring you? You may choose what you like: only let it be little, for I shall walk there and back: sixty miles each way, that is a long spell!‘ Hindley named a fiddle, and then he asked Miss Cathy; she was hardly six years old, but she could ride any horse in the stable, and she chose a whip. He did not forget me: for he had a kind heart though he was rather severe sometimes. He promised to bring me a pocketful of apples and pears, and then he kissed his children good-bye and set off.

from Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

Commentary

  • *1 Mr Lockwood speaks these opening words. He is renting a property near Wuthering Heights and he has recently been to pay a neighbourly call on Heathcliff. He begins by narrating the story and then asks Nellie Dean to tell him about Heathcliff and the others at Wuthering Heights.
  • *2 Nellie Dean takes over the narration of the story.
*1 It was eleven o’clock before the family were all in bed, and two o’clock next morning was the latest hour for starting with the beehives if they were to be delivered to the retailers in Casterbridge before the Saturday market began, the way thither lying by bad roads over a distance of between twenty and thirty miles, and the horse and waggon being of the slowest. At half-past one Mrs Durbeyfield came into the large bedroom where Tess and all her little brothers and sisters slept.
‘The poor man can’t go,’ she said to her eldest daughter, whose great eyes had opened the moment her mother’s hand touched the door.
Tess sat up in bed, lost in a vague interspace between a dream and this information.
‘But somebody must go,’ she replied. ‘It is late for the hives already. Swarming will soon be over for the year; and if we put off taking ‘em till next week’s market the call for ‘em will be past, and they’ll be thrown on our hands.’
Mrs Durbeyfield looked unequal to the emergency. ‘Some young feller, perhaps, would go? One of them who were so much after dancing with ‘ee yesterday,’ she presently suggested.
‘O no – I wouldn’t have it for the world!’ declared Tess proudly. ‘And letting everybody know the reason – such a thing to be ashamed of! I think I could go if Abraham could go with me to keep me company.’
*2 Her mother at length agreed to this arrangement. Little Abraham was aroused from his deep sleep in a corner of the same apartment, and made to put on his clothes while still mentally in the other world. Meanwhile Tess had hastily dressed herself; and the twain, lighting a lantern, went out to the stable. The rickety little waggon was already laden, and the girl led out the horse Prince, only a degree less rickety than the vehicle.
The poor creature looked wonderingly round at the night, at the lantern, at their two figures, as if he could *3 not believe that at that hour, when every living thing was intended to be in shelter and at rest, he was called upon to go out and labour. They put a stock of candle-ends into the lantern, hung the latter to the off-side of the load, and directed the horse onward, walking at his shoulder at first during the uphill parts of the way, in order not to overload an animal of so little vigour. To cheer themselves as well as they could, they made an artificial morning with the lantern, some bread and butter, and their own conversation, the real morning being far from come. Abraham, as he more fully awoke (for he had moved in a sort of trance so far), began to talk of the strange shapes assumed by the various dark objects against the sky; of this tree that looked like a raging tiger springing from a lair; of that which resembled a giant’s head.

from Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

Commentary

  • *1 Much description is given through the narration.
  • *2 Note how we see into characters’ minds.
  • *3 The narrator even seems to see into the mind of the animal.
Tonight, I find myself here in a guest house in the city of Salisbury. The first day of my trip is now completed, and all in all, I must say I am quite satisfied. This expedition began this morning almost an hour later than I had planned, despite my having completed my packing and loaded the Ford with all necessary
*1 items well before eight o’clock. What with Mrs Clements and the girls also gone for the week, I suppose I was very conscious of the fact that once I departed, Darlington Hall would stand empty for probably the first time this century – perhaps for the first time since the day it was built. It was an odd feeling and perhaps accounts for why I delayed my departure so long, wandering around the house many times over, checking one last time that all was in order.
It is hard to explain my feelings once I did finally set off. For the first twenty minutes or so of motoring, I cannot say I was seized by any excitement or anticipation at all. This was due, no doubt, to the fact that
*2 though I motored further and further from the house, I continued to find myself in surroundings with which I had at least a passing acquaintance. Now I had always supposed I had travelled very little, restricted as I am by my responsibilities in the house, but of course, over time, one does make various excursions for one professional reason or another, and it would seem I have become much more acquainted with those neighbouring districts than I had realized. For as I say, as I motored on in the sunshine towards *3 the Berkshire border, I continued to be surprised by the familiarity of the country around me. But then eventually the surroundings grew unrecognizable and I knew I had gone beyond all previous boundaries. I have heard people describe the moment, when setting sail in a ship, when one finally loses sight of the land. I imagine the experience of unease mixed with exhilaration often described in connection with this moment is very similar to what I felt in the Ford as the surroundings grew strange around me. This occurred just after I took a turning and found myself on a road curving around the edge of a hill. I could sense the steep drop to my left, though I could not see it due to the trees and thick foliage that lined the roadside. The feeling swept over me that I had truly left Darlington Hall behind, and I must confess I did feel a slight sense of alarm – a sense aggravated by the feeling that I was perhaps not on the correct road at all, but speeding off in totally the wrong direction into a wilderness. It was only the feeling of a moment, but it caused me to slow down. And even when I had assured myself I was on the right road, I felt compelled to stop the car a moment to take stock, as it were.

from The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

Commentary

  • *1 The narrator explains what is in his mind. 
  • *2 The character seems very restrained and controlled. Why might this be? 
  • *3 Look carefully at this description. Think about the impression this creates of the man.

Summary

The unusual thing about the Wuthering Heights extract is that, although the story is told in the third person, there are in fact two narrators. Mr Lockwood begins the narrative but this is taken over later by Nellie Dean. In fact, if you are studying this novel, you will know that there are also other narrators at different points too. One of the effects that this multi-narrator approach has is to allow us to see things from different perspectives – each narrator brings their own perspective to the story. It also allows Brontë to unfold all these elements of the plot in a natural way as well as providing a variety of narrative voice. In this first extract it is clear that Lockwood has had a bad experience at Wuthering Heights and knows nothing of the history of the family. Nellie on the other hand, is an old family retainer who has a wealth of knowledge about Wuthering Heights that she is only too willing to share with him. The majority of this information is conveyed to us through the dialogue between the two of them.

The second extract, from Tess of the D’Urbervilles, is written in the third person. The ‘omniscient’ narrator can tell us that when Tess sat up in bed she was ‘lost in an interspace between a dream and this information’. He is also able to tell us what goes through the horse’s mind when he is woken. This narrative perspective gives us a detailed view of what is happening and the information is conveyed to us through a combination of dialogue and narrative description.

The third extract, from The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, is written in the first person which give a more intimate feel to the narrative. It seems as if the character is speaking to us directly. It is made even more intimate because the character is telling us what is in his mind. Because the narrative is in the first person all the information we have is that given by the character himself. We can gather that he worked at Darlington Hall and that he had been responsible for the running of it (he is, in fact, the butler) but he has now left to go on a trip. The hall is left completely empty and he feels a sense of unease about this. The fact that he has travelled so little is a sign of his commitment to his job. The tone is very restrained and almost formal, as you might expect from a butler used to the formality of mannered society.

KEY POINT -  The narrative viewpoint from which a novel is written has an important effect on the way that the story is told.

Progress check

Look at the text you are studying and determine whether it is written in the first or third person. Make brief notes on what effect this has on the narrative.

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