I’ve been drilling down into narrative point of view further than I have before – it’s for a course I’m doing with the CIEP.
It’s not that I haven’t thought about narrative viewpoint before. Of course I have: I’ve been a student and teacher of English for all of my adult life. But, I don’t mind admitting that it’s something I’ve glossed over – first or third person? Right. Move on – preferring to analyse texts at sentence and word level.
I haven’t stopped for long enough to think about the bigger structural picture and the subtle nuances and distinctions between different points of view (POVs) – that is, until recently, and until this course.
I know the best way for me to fully get to grips with a tricky concept is by explaining it to others. So, I am going to position you as the following reader:
– You have a rudimentary knowledge of narrative point of view (like me, you are OK with terms like ‘first’ and ‘third person’)
– You are aware of the basic storyline of Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’
– You have an interest in narrative point of view and the distinctions between styles, with a particular desire to understand how POV can affect tone.
So, assume the position. Here goes:
Without a doubt, Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ is a told tale.
The narrator conjures up Scrooge’s world with an all-knowing, godlike view. The narrator knows all that ever happened, all that is happening and all that will happen.
This covers not only the exterior events of the past, present and future, but also the interior feelings of Scrooge at each of these points.
In the scene where Scrooge has been taken back to his former school – where he sat, one Christmas, with only his books for company – we are told that Scrooge is excited to see Ali Baba again, and Robin[son] Crusoe (for, in childhood, these characters were so real to him that he could see them):
‘Then, with a rapidity of transition very foreign to his usual character, he said, in pity for his former self, “Poor boy!” and cried again.’
Here it’s the ‘in pity’ that shows us the omniscience. We are not just accessing Scrooge – who is accessing his memories – we are also accessing his emotions. Exterior: Ali Baba, ‘with an axe stuck in his belt, and leading by the bridle an ass laden with wood.’ And, interior: Scrooge, ‘expending all the earnestness of his nature’ and ‘[speaking] in pity for his former self…’
This is emphatic omniscience as opposed to cinematic (or limited) omniscience. Such is the godlike quality of the narrator that they are able to immerse themselves into characters’ thoughts and feelings.
Does the emphatic omniscience stretch to other characters, too?
It could, but – I’ve had a think about this – I don’t think it does.
I know this book inside out but I’ve never thought about its narration in such precise terms. So, correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think the omniscient narrator chooses to access any other character’s thoughts, even though it could.
And I think that’s deliberate. Take, for example, the scene in stave three where the Ghost of Christmas Present takes Scrooge to see the Cratchits’ Christmas Day. Through reported speech, we find out:
‘Bob Cratchit told [his family] how he had a situation in his eye for Master Peter, which would bring in, if obtained, full five-and-sixpence weekly. The two young Cratchits laughed tremendously at the idea of Peter’s being a man of business; and Peter himself looked thoughtfully at the fire from between his collars, as if he were deliberating what particular investments he should favour when he came into the receipt of that bewildering income.’
Here we have a key indicator of third person omniscience. The choice of the full name, ‘Bob Cratchit,’ gives us further narrative distance, as opposed to the alternative in third person limited which would likely have rendered him ‘Bob.’
But that’s a slight digression: the point I am trying to make relates to emphatic omniscience, specifically accessing interior thoughts.
The second clause of the second sentence made me stop and think: ‘Peter himself looked thoughtfully at the fire from between his collars, as if he were deliberating what particular investments he should favour when he came into the receipt of this bewildering income.’
For a second, I wondered whether ‘thoughtfully’ might indicate access to Peter’s thoughts, but then I considered that an exterior POV could still interpret an action as ‘thoughtful.’
But, if we look more closely at the if clause, ‘as if he were,’ we get the sense that the person doing the supposing must be Scrooge.
This interpretation is lent more weight if we consider the semantic field of finance that follows the if.
Would Peter really talk in terms of investments, receipts and income? Or does that sound more like Scrooge himself?
Of course, Scrooge would project the language of pecuniary exploits onto others as it’s been a long time since he has talked in any other terms.
So, if the interior thoughts accessed are solely those of Scrooge, what’s the point in the omniscience? Why did Dickens not choose third person limited POV instead? That would have given access to Scrooge’s thoughts more directly.
This, I believe, is down to the creation of the wider world of the novel and Dickens’ desire to situate Scrooge as a loner. Take, for example, stave four where the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come shows Scrooge the following scene:
‘A pale light, rising in the outer air, fell straight upon the bed; and on it, plundered and bereft, unwatched, uncared for, was the body of this man.’
If Dickens had chosen third person limited here, that list of adjectives would have been lighter by two.
Scrooge can observe that the body had been ‘plundered’ and was ‘bereft’. He could see for himself that it was ‘unwatched’. But, without omniscience, would we be party to the fact that this body was ‘unwept’ and ‘uncared for’?
The omniscient point of view, knowing all that has ever happened, has the authority to tell us that nobody has wept for this corpse. Nobody has cared for him. It’s not presented as Scrooge’s interpretation.
This also serves as a good example of how syntax links to narrative point of view.
Dickens has chosen a periodic sentence here which draws attention to the told-tale nature of the story. It’s deliberate artifice intended to keep us on tenterhooks while we wait for the subject of the sentence…
What was ‘plundered’ What was ‘bereft’? What was ‘unwatched’? What was ‘uncared for’?
‘[T]he body of this man.’
Boom. Mic drop. Oof. Top effort there from the narrator. I’m going to call him Dad.
Thank you, Dad, I was hooked on every word. A body. Clearly it’s…!
A thick helping of dramatic irony makes us aware that we are the audience. It’s nice to suspend disbelief, but it’s also nice to be smug, feeling like you’ve got one over on the character when you have worked out something before they have.
So, it’s clever storytelling. And it never pretends it’s otherwise. In fact, in the preface, Dickens writes:
‘I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book to raise the Ghost of an Idea which shall not put readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their house pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.’
He places the book firmly within the domestic setting when he mentions his ‘readers’ and their ‘houses’. This story is intended to be a family diversion.
And, like many Victorian novelists, Dickens gives the family reader a helping hand to establish a convivial tone by inserting scripted ad libs (which I know is a contradiction, but you’ll see what I mean) into the narration as a way of gaining extra engagement from the listeners– for laughs, for food for thought, for spooks, for digressions:
‘Old Marley was as dead as a doornail. Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know of my knowledge what there is particularly dead about a doornail.’
‘There is no doubt Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.’
‘The curtains of his bed were drawn aside; and Scrooge, starting up into a half-recumbent attitude, found himself face to face with the unearthly visitor who drew them; as close to it as I am now to you, and I am standing in the spirit at your elbow.’
To modern readers, it may seem incongruous and unexpected to have first person pronouns in a narrative which is otherwise third person. Third person may seem like a misnomer.
But the narrator is not a character. That’s important to remember. We have a narrator, an ‘I’ in the narrative, who acknowledges the fact that they are the narrator.
The narrator makes no bones about the fact that you are listening to a story.
You are given permission to suspend your disbelief and you are thankful to the narrator for taking the time to tell you a story, especially one as good as this. You are listening to the storyteller like you’d listen to your dad telling you a story at the fireside.
Maybe it is your dad telling you the story. But, even if it isn’t, Dickens helpfully gives us the dad-tone to establish that feeling of warmth.
Your dad is a bit of a card. You allow him to interject. You accept that this is a performance and you allow him his digressions (and editorialising – because he can’t help himself) and you are grateful for the direct address that reminds you this tale is for you and you’re special.
I think that’s why I like the Victorian novelists.
I’m thankful for the distraction. I appreciate the time taken to tell me a story.
I know it’s not real. It doesn’t attempt to deceive me into thinking that it is, and that’s appreciated.
There’s a time and a place for gritty realism, and there’s a time and a place for Dickens.
I’ve enjoyed considering one of my old favourite stories through the lens of my new knowledge. It’s definitely consolidated what I’ve been learning about narrative point of view.
Now, can you write a blog about what you’ve learnt from my blog? That’s surely the next step!
❓ What brought you to this blog? Are you an author, a student, a teacher, an editor? I’d love to know.