Thursday, October 02, 2014


Self-Referral: Reseeing Point of View, Part I, Traditional View and Beyond

Point of View

Every story has a teller. The storyteller narrates the story from a particular point of view to shape the reader's (or listener's) experience of the story. The reader becomes the ultimate experiencer of story, seeing beyond the narrator's point of view, even seeing beyond the writer's point of view. To understand story and to understand the mechanics of point of view, we must understand the reader's experience, and to understand the reader's experience, we must understand the mechanics of consciousness. The concept of consciousness as a self-referral process can aid us in examining the many possible points of view that can be experienced in story and how that element shapes the story.

Over the next few posts, we'll consider point of view from a traditional perspective, from a reader-response perspective, and from a self-referral perspective, and finally we will look at how point of view is experienced in a contemporary Chinese story called "The Explosion in the Parlor" by Bai Xiao-Yi.

Traditional View
The classic understanding of point of view is that it defines the narrative stance operating within story. The writer adopts a narrative stance and tells the story from that perspective. So, almost immediately we have the possibility for multiple points of view. The scene in the photograph to the left shows a plurality of perspective. We have the perspective of the child, who is taking a photo, and we have the perspective of the father who is taking a picture of the child, and we have the perspective of the person who is taking this actual photograph. Plus, or course, we have the perspective of the person(s) viewing the photograph.
Traditionally, point of view in fiction is generally categorized into first person narration or third person narration, and the latter may be limited or omniscient, though experimental techniques sometimes move the narration outside of this sphere. In first person, narrators proceed in a self-reflexive manner, describing the action as if witnessing it first hand (looking at their own experience of what is happening to them). The narrator uses I, my, or me, our, us in the telling of the story. The effect is immediate and intimate.
Poe's story "The Cask of Amontillado" uses first-person narrative, beginning with this bit of hyperbole from the main character/ narrator Montresor: "The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could; but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge." Montresor tells the reader the story, sharing his intense, overblown emotions. The reader  views the events of this horror story through this deranged, albeit comic, perspective of Montresor, who apparently would rather be injured than insulted.  
Third-person narrative seemingly provides an outside, perhaps more objective observer. This narrator may be another character in the story although a narrator outside of the storyworld can also serve this function. This narrator uses he, she, it, they, them, or their  in the telling of the story. The effect is seemingly more object, even reportorial at times. Hawthorne  uses third-person narration in "Young Goodman Brown," beginning with this observation: "Young Goodman Brown came forth at sunset into the street at Salem village; but put his head back, after crossing the threshold, to exchange a parting kiss with his young wife" (339). The narrator is apparently in the village, observing the actions of the Browns. The reader can't be sure at this point if the narrator is a villager or some more omniscient form of narrator who can see into all the characters' hearts as well as report on what they are doing and feeling.
Reader Response View
As reader response theory developed in the 1960s and 1970s, the reader's role in processing fiction began to be more taken into account. The old notion that a reader simply identified with the main character was challenged. The whole reading process (reader, reading process, experience of story) began to be considered). Wolfgang Iser recognized the reader as the "co-creator of the work," the one who "fills in the gaps" of what isn't specified.2 Point of view now shifts more fully into the reader's cognitive court as elements of the story that are non-specified in the text began to recognized as relevant because the reader experiences them as part of the reading process.  
Theorist, Stanly Fish, goes further to say that we shouldn't talk about meaning in a story but rather about the experience of story, moving the discussion of point of view even more directly into the reader's cognitive court.3 As readers, we are the determiners of the point of view in our experience of story. The writer may choose a narrative stance, but the reader, while acknowledging that stance, also fills in the gaps that that stance creates. So, we must look within the reader's own consciousness to understand the possibilities for points of view in experiencing story.
In the next post, we'll consider how the consciousness of the reader allows for multiple perspectives, experienced as a wholeness when the story is read.
Photograph: Courtesy of Heather Caldwell 

1. Charters, Ann. The Story and Its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction. New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2007. 

2. Tompkins, Jane P. Reader-Response Criticism from Formalism to Post-Structuralism. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980, p. xv.

3. Tompkins, Jane P. Reader-Response Criticism from Formalism to Post-Structuralism. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980, p. 98.


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