I’ve been tossing around different ideas lately having to do with point of view. To put a finer point on it, I’ve been trying to figure out if there are any examples in successful literature of something that I can only think to call “first-person omniscient” storytelling. The idea that one person is telling a story, but that person is privy to (and therefore able to relate) conversations and situations that occur outside of his or her presence. All the fiction classes I’ve taken have been very strict about adhering to the “rules” of fiction writing, while also occasionally mentioning that there probably aren’t really any hard and fast rules. (But to those who venture outside of the norm — you’ve been warned!)
My idea is that a narrator is relating a tale of her past. As a result, she knows much more about what happened than she would were she telling a story in the present tense. I’ve found lots of discussions around the web that suggest that there is no such thing as a first person omniscient narrator except in very specific situations. These can include:
- A supernatural narrator (The Book Thief – where the narrator is CAPITAL D Death, The Lovely Bones – where the narrator is a ghost)
- God (don’t have an example for this one…)
And as far as I can tell, that’s pretty much it for ways to stay inside the confines of traditional rules and still have a first person narrator describe things that she doesn’t actually see for herself.
But then I found a ridiculously smart essay written by David Jauss. You can read the essay titled “From Long Shots to X-Rays: Distance & Point of View in Fiction Writing” here. Jauss proposes that using “person” to categorize narrative technique is limiting in itself and not very useful. Instead, he suggests that we use technique. In his words:
In my opinion, classifying works of fiction according to their person tells us virtually nothing about either the specific works or point of view in general. As Booth has said, “(W)e can hardly expect to find useful criteria in a distinction that would throw all fiction into two, or at most three, heaps. To say that a story is told in the first or the third person. will tell us nothing of importance unless we describe how the particular qualities of the narrators relate to specific desired effects.” In other words, we need to focus on the techniques a narrator uses, not his person. And as Booth has pointed out, all narrative techniques are available to all narrators, regardless of person. For example, first- and third-person narrators can, and do, tell us the thoughts and feelings of other characters.
He goes on to say:
In short, despite what the textbooks tell us, the technique of omniscience is not the sole property of third-person narrators. The only difference between first- and third-person omniscience (and it can of course be a crucial difference) is not in the narrator’s technique but in the reader’s response: we never question the truth of a third-person narrator’s statement, but sometimes we do question a first-person narrator’s statement.
Jauss points out that this technique is used in some classic literature often held up for others to learn from and admire:
- The Great Gatsby (Nick Carraway describes this story using exactly the technique I was considering – a past tense retelling. He goes a step further, describing feelings of other characters.)
- Heart of Darkness
- Madame Bovary
What do you think?