Point of view in narrative fiction
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Published: Thu, 11 May 2017
With reference to at least two novels, explore the ways in which point of view informs our reading of narrative fiction
Point of view is the position from which the action of a narrative is viewed and presented to the reader. While there are various forms of point of view, the chief distinctions often cited are third person narratives and first person narratives. The third person narrator may be omniscient, and is as a result able to show an unrestricted knowledge of the story’s events from outside them. There is an alternative form of third person narrator: one who may confine the reader’s knowledge of events by whatever is observed by a single character or small group of characters. Limited point of view allows the story to be told by the protagonist of the story and therefore allows the reader to feel a greater connection to that character and to empathise with or dislike them depending on the reader’s personal preference, or the author’s projection. This point of view is the ‘limited point of view’. The first person narrative point of view is often restricted to his or her partial knowledge and experience. Therefore, there is limited access to the emotions and hidden thoughts of the other characters in such a narrative. Jane Austen extended the definition of point of view through her use and refinement of free and indirect discourse. By this method, Jane Austen merged the thoughts of her narrators and of her characters. However, it still remains primarily a form of third person narration and it utilises some of the characteristics of first person direct speech. Through this method Austen gives the reader a much closer relationship to the characters, whilst enabling the author to convey personal points of view on given situations.
Defoe’s Moll Flanders is the story of eponymous character and her infamous, often illegal, life. The narrative is written in first person, seen through the eyes of an older reminiscent Moll. Moll Flanders is an ‘autobiographical’ account, which sees Moll Flanders describe her life up until the point of her repentance in Newgate Prison. Defoe is experimenting with the narrative form in this novel by writing an autobiographical confession of a woman. Written from Moll’s point of view, it allows the reader to empathise with Moll and ultimately begin to care about what happens to her. As the events of the narrative are seen through the eyes of Moll there are certain events of Moll’s life that remain and ambiguous. Moll as the narrator is able to set the tone and pace of the narrative, she can choose to go into great detail about events in her life, or skim over them as she pleases, for example the details of Moll’s first marriage are restricted to one page , demonstrating how unimportant were the five years of her marriage to Robin.
Defoe’s principle of point of view was to commit himself to the fiction of Moll’s life, while utilising his imagination to fully convey a seemingly factual account of events. This juxtaposition of styles enabled Defoe to present Moll’s point of view. Moll’s point of view is expressed throughout and is the only point of view that is prevalent in the novel. According to the preface, the story that Moll relates has only been edited by Defoe. He clearly points out that this is for the sake of decency. According to Defoe, Moll’s words were, ‘having been written in Language more like one still in Newgate'. By emphasising that this novel is the story of Moll told by Moll, Defoe has defined the point of view of the novel. This definition is important to the reader, as it immediately informs them that what they are going to read is a true account of Moll’s life. The reader is instantly connected to Moll much beyond the action of just reading her story. Instead, the reader is aware that they will be seeing events from an up-close and more personal manner. As a result, the drama of the narrative is dictated by what Moll chooses to exaggerate and what she chooses to ignore or, only briefly comment upon. The tensions between these and the readers’ close connection to Moll through the first person point of view drive the narrative. Utilising this narrative technique, Defoe creates a character through which the reader can feel and experience Moll’s particular and peculiar perception of the world and compare it to the world as it is. As the novel is allegedly autobiographical, and more so that Moll is apparently telling her story near the end of her life, this combination of narrative techniques creates a double point of view: there are arguably two women in this novel, the younger, crafty, scheming and immoral Moll and the older, reminiscent, repentant, Moll.
Through telling the story from a more mature and experienced position, the ‘older’ Moll’s character and philosophy filter through into her telling of ‘younger’ Moll’s past. The younger Moll essentially still rules the older Moll; her own understanding of life comes from the relating of these experiences. The reader is aligned with the older Moll as the reader’s sympathies and understanding of Moll are shaped by her escapades as a younger character. The reader knows redemption is forthcoming as it is stated in the title page, however, the reader begins to sympathise with Moll as she inexplicably descends in to moral ambiguity, crime and prostitution. This almost unconscious double view point of Moll shapes the novel and the readers understanding of the character.
Moll’s, narration of her life takes the form of her awareness of her past through various stages: innocence, dishonesty, guilt and finally redemption. Moll’s transition through these stages ultimately hinges upon material gain. She repeatedly emphasises her achievements in gaining material independence and the craft she utilises in achieving such independence. Defoe uses irony in describing Moll’s boasting in her ascendance to fame, particularly when Moll boasts of outdoing the infamous Moll Cut Purse. Moll narrates the story of her past in the spirit in which she lived the events and, although she narrates with energy and pleasure, she occasionally expresses regret at some occasional events of youthful inexperience. Hindsight to Moll is merely a way in which she expresses how she would have altered events to have made life better for her. For instance, she confides that had she known then what she now knows from experience, her first affair would have been a different matter:
… if I had known his thoughts, and how hard he supposed I would be to be gain’d, I might have made my own terms, and if I had not capitulated for an immediate marriage, I might for a maintenance till marriage, and might have had what I would; …. 
Humorously, Moll’s sorrow at this event is expressed, with sincerity. However, the fact that she is repenting this affair purely on the basis that she could have made it of more benefit to herself is heavily and amusingly ironic. Such repentance and musings on her past allow the reader to understand the true nature of Moll’s character. The narrative style makes it possible for the reader to truly feel as if they understand Moll. The first person point of view allows for a closer examination of who Moll is and what it is that drives her, even though it is a perspective that is derived from a Moll of more advanced years. There are, however, limitations to Moll’s point of view. Moll’s obsession upon independence and financial gain prohibits the reader from seeing beyond that point of view. Moll is capable of giving the briefest overview of passing years with, at most, a few words of comment. In her eyes, not much of importance has happened, as with the five years of marriage to Robin. This does not give Moll a rounded character in the eyes of the reader, instead, the reader is left with the impression that there is perhaps more to Moll, yet there is no way of extracting it from the text as Moll’s narration allows the reader to see only what she is prepared to reveal. Conversely, small events can be extremely significant to Moll, and she offers pages of narrative to particular details she feels are important, ultimately stories of her attempting to win financial independence. As a result of this episodic, controlled re-telling of events, the reader is left with the impression that life according to Moll is a sequence of events she takes pride in relating
Through a series of episodes, Defoe creates a character driven by the need for material gain. Moll is not a commentator of the situation of the poor in London, and arguably Defoe does little to enforce a criticism of London during his period. Assumptions such as these are left to the individual reader. Defoe’s Moll comments upon those things that are important to her. She does not look at London as a city populated by prostitutes and whores, instead she sees potential escape routes and items to steal in shop windows. Her telling of the story is reliant upon her observations and musings of those things that affect her directly:
Defoe is true to his art, to Moll’s point of view. Moll never sees her background with any real perception, although she is aware of some of the reasons for her youthful depravities. Despite the fact that she roams about London, about England and America, she notices very little of eighteenth-century panorama
It would be incorrect however, to only presume that Moll is purely motivated by the need for and material gain. Although Moll’s point of view primarily informs the reader that she is interested in only the procurement of a better life through material wealth, the reader learns that Moll is motivated by envy for what she considers gentlewomen and by her ceaseless forceful nature to dominate her environment and to climb out of situation she was born into. Her descent into a life of crime is driven by her will to create a better life for herself. The irony is obvious; she cannot remove herself from her origins without at first accepting them and then utilising the skills implicit in that lifestyle. Moll’s point of view throughout the narrative also forces the reader to question whether or not her repentance should be seen as genuine, or just another attempt by Moll to improve her situation. Given her situation, facing execution, it is entirely probable that she seemed to repent, as she claims, ‘…a secret suprizing Joy at the Prospect of being a true Penitent, and obtaining the Comfort of a Penitent…' However this supposed penitence is offset by the lack of contrition after her transportation: perversely Moll, during her transportation to America, does all she can to secure herself a good berth for the voyage, further emphasising her need to be better than the rest. The reader is forced to make their own judgements as to whether or not Moll truly repents. Her tale, thus far, of immorality, cannot be ignored. Moll’s point of view here does little to inform the reader of her true nature. Instead, it asks the reader to engage their own feelings on the topic. Moll herself states:
“This may be thought inconsistent in it self, and wide from the Business of this Book; Particularly, I reflect that many of those who may be pleas’d and diverted with the Relation of the wild and wicked part of my Story, may not relish this, which is really the best part of my Life, the most Advantageous to myself, and the most instructive to others; such however will I hope allow me the liberty to make my Story compleat.”
Jane Austen’s Persuasion offers a different perspective of narrative fiction than that of Moll Flanders, by providing the reader with an entirely different point of view. Where as Defoe’s novel is written in the first person form, allowing the reader to see and learn exactly what the narrator wants them to, Persuasion is written in the third person. The reader sees the events of the narrative unfold through the eyes of the protagonist, Anne Elliot, but also has the benefit of an authorial voice. This element allows the reader to see a broader view of events. While the reader learns more about the protagonist’s feelings and emotions, events and action in the narrative are arguably less self obsessed, as they are in Moll Flanders, and less biased, taking in a more rounded view of the situation and thereby allowing the reader to gain a more reasonable and reliable understanding of the narrative.
Persuasion, like Jane Austen’s previous novels, relies upon her ability to craft a narrative based within narrow limits. Her narrative never strays beyond family tensions, romance and the social classes that she would have interacted with. Austen’s works are contained to a small social world of the rural/landed gentry and the similar social circles inhabiting Bath. Walter Scott says of Austen:
That young lady has a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life, which is to me the most wonderful I ever met. The big Bow-wow strain I can do myself like any now going; but the exquisite touch, which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting, from the truth of description and sentiment, is denied me'
This vindication of her methods highlights how well received and regarded were her novels. It also emphasises the understanding that Austen had of personal relationships and the people of her society. Her works contain nothing superfluous and she does not introduce to the narrative anything that is not directly relevant to her central theme of the personal relationships between people.
In Persuasion, there appears to be a change in Austen’s style of writing. In her earlier novels, Austen makes use of free and indirect speech. However, in Persuasion, Austen uses it to a greater extent. According to Norman Page, ‘it is Persuasion that offers the fullest and most important use of free indirect speech in Jane Austen’s work, and represents a remarkable and fascinating step towards technical experimentation at the end of the novelists life.'
This technique employed by Austen of the third person narrative told through various points of view through Anne, showing her views, observations and reactions but still in the form of a third person narrative liberates the reader. Austen is still in control of the text, guiding the narrative and shaping the readers understanding of the events, but rather than being merely an outside observer, speaking through a protagonist, she empowers Anne Elliot, and gives her a descriptive ability much like Moll’s in Moll Flanders. Persuasion is relatively light-textured in comparison to Austen’s Emma. Anne Elliot, over the course of the novel, and because of the narrative is persuaded to think better of herself. The readers sympathies are engaged, the use of free indirect discourse allows the reader to see actions from Anne’s perspective whilst taking in the wider view of events and thereby emphasising Anne’s situation. Anne thinks freely whilst her actions are curtailed. The reader can see that she wishes to act with the carefree spontaneity she sees and admires in other characters, but is unable to do so. Everything in the narrative is seen from Anne’s point of view. Anne’s aptitude for self ridicule allows the free indirect style of her thoughts ‘can offer a seemingly sufficient scope'. The other characters of the novel only have a place in relation to Anne. For example, Benwick, a character of education and literary learning’s, is given no direct speech, instead all of his dialogues are reported by Anne. Due to this focused point of view, Anne seemingly becomes isolated from almost all of the characters within the text, As Gillian Beer states,
Anne’s predicament is that she is not so much a commonwealth as a solitary island, endlessly discoursing within herself on the niceties of passion and withdrawal, the semiotics of gesture, the significant silence or the burst of doubled speech. She can speak to no one of her feelings, not even Lady Anne Russell. The reader is therefore placed in a peculiarly tender relation to Anne as the only other inhabitant of her commonwealth’.
Jane Austen was a moralist as well as an entertainer. She could be a harsh judge of the society in which she lived and often in her novels she presents the reader with a carefully considered series of judgements. Her characters are the vessels for conveying these judgements, either dramatically or by Austen’s direct comments about them. In Persuasion she offers an obvious comment on the society she inhabited through Sir Walter Elliot, ‘Vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter Elliot’s character. Vanity of person and of situation’. This comment, is later emphasised by the drama of Sir Walters departure, ‘Sir Walter prepared with condescending bows for all the afflicted tenantry and cottagers who might have a hint to shew themselves’. Austen’s ironic tone passes a judgement on not only Sir Walter, but all those who posses his qualities of vanity and stupidity, whilst lacking a truly didactic moralising tone.
The power of free and direct speech enabled Jane Austen to utilise her satirical piquancy, whilst removing her authorial voice from the narrative. She is ultimately the narrator of the text and Anne is her mouthpiece, however free indirect discourse defines the separation between author and character.
How Anne’s more rigid requisitions might have taken, is of little consequence. Lady Russell’s had no success at all-could not be put up with-were not to be borne. ‘What! Every comfort of life knocked off! Journeys, London, servants, horses, table,-contractions and restrictions every where. To live no longer with the decencies of a private gentleman! No, he would sooner quit Kellynch-hall at once, than remain in it on such disgraceful terms’.
This report of the persuasion of Sir Walter to rent Kellynch-hall reports actual phrases whilst doing it indirectly, so that the narration combines the voice and moral perspective of the original speaker with that of an external narrator. The words within the quotation marks should be viewed as Sir Walter’s, however the syntax of the passage, the use of ‘he’ in referring to himself show that he is not being quoted directly, rather through the reporting voice of Lady Russell. The use of syntax clouds who is actually reporting, but it is safe to assume that Lady Russell is the reporter as it is she who lacks success and has difficulties with Sir Walter. However, the report is satirical, it is a commentary upon Sir Walter’s vanity and Lady Russell throughout Persuasion displays little or no satire in her speech, therefore there is arguably a subtle authorial voice penetrating the text. These instances invite the reader to share the author’s point of view through her characters. To present this moral view point on characters, and to show character development over time, the novel needs the fixed point of reference; Jane Austen’s authorial voice, and Persuasion’s point of reference is Anne. By this Anne is very close to Jane Austen; Austen remains a detached observer of events, but her voice is clearly heard through Anne, who is in turn influenced by events in the narrative. Wayne Booth says in the essay ‘Control of Distance in Jane Austen’s Emma’,
In Emma there are many breaks in the point of view because Emma’s beclouded mind cannot do the whole job. In Persuasion, where the heroine’s viewpoint is faulty only in her ignorance of Captain Wentworth’s love, there are very few. Anne Elliot’s consciousness is sufficient, as Emma’s is not, for most of the needs of the novel which she dominates.
Where Anne’s viewpoint is not sufficient Jane Austen takes over, but arguably Jane Austen has not succeeded in keeping viewpoints separate. She often uses Anne as a mouthpiece for her own views, blurring the distinction between the authorial voice and character’s viewpoint, and making Anne a less well-defined character than her other heroines. The story is told largely as seen by Anne; her observations and reflections provide the serious elements of the novel, and Jane Austen prompts us to sympathise with Anne and accept her moral standpoint right from the start.
In Moll Flanders, Defoe utilises a first person narrative. We see the events of the narrative through the eyes of his protagonist Moll Flanders. Subsequently, the reader only sees what the narrator wants us to see. This point of view is arguably limited in its scope, as character development and plot development is entirely dependant upon the narrator and how much of their story they are willing to reveal. Moll Flanders controls the story and therefore controls the reader. As a result of this narrative form, the reader views Moll’s life as a series of episiodes, episodes that excite and amuse Moll. This novel barely moves beyond the realm of the picaresque novel, Moll assuming the role of the ‘loveable rogue’, relating her journey into and out of trouble. This is not to criticise Defoe however, as the point of view benefits the story he is telling, the reader lives the life of Moll, there is sympathy for her and her plight and the reader wishes to learn more of Moll’s life.
Jane Austen uses a different approach to narrative. Her use of free indirect discourse was not only revolutionary in terms of writing text, but also in informing the reader and how a reader would approach and dissect the meaning of a narrative. Austen is able to create a moral message in her texts without ever sermonising or taking on a didactic tone. Instead the reader enjoys a satirical ironic narrative through the eye’s of it’s protagonist Anne Elliot. Through Anne, we learn of Austen’s dislike for vanity and certain elements of the society she lived in. Both novels deploy different forms of point of view and there is a strong sense in both to entertain, rather than to preach. Whilst entertaining however…………………..
- Moll Flanders, Daniel Defoe, (Penguin Classics, London, 1989) Page no.?
- Moll Flanders, Daniel Defoe, (Penguin Classics, London, 1989) Page no.?
- Conscious Artistry in Moll Flanders, Robert R. Columbus., (Jstor). Page no.?
- Moll Flanders, Daniel Defoe, (Penguin Classics, London, 1989) Page no.?
- Walter Scott-
- Norman Page-
- Persuasion, Jane Austen, ed Gillian Beer (Penguin Classics, London,1998) pg xxiii
- Persuasion, Jane Austen, ed Gillian Beer (Penguin Classics, London,1998) pg xxiii
- Persuasion, Jane Austen, ed Gillian Beer (Penguin Classics, London,1998)pg
- ‘Control of Distance in Jane Austen’s Emma’, Wayne Booth page no.?
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