Part of our conversation yesterday focused on the choice one student had made to tell a story from a collective consciousness, the voice of the “we.” Perhaps the most well-known example of this strategy in short fiction is the Faulkner story, “A Rose for Emily,” which begins by establishing the perspective of the Mississippi town in which Emily Grierson has lived and died:
When Miss Emily Grierson died, our whole town went to her funeral; the men through a sort of respectful affection for a fallen monument, the women mostly our of curiosity to see the inside of her house, which no one, save an old manservant–a combined gardener and cook–had seen in at least ten years.
Notice how this opening not only sets up the collective point of view of the town, but also divides that perspective into two subsets: the perspective of the men in town and the perspective of the women. The point of view can then shift slightly within that collective consciousness depending on what is called for at a certain point. A contingent of men can visit Miss Emily’s house when she doesn’t pay her taxes, and within that scene we can see Miss Emily in action through the point of view of “the men” :
They rose when she entered–a small, fat woman in black, with a thin gold chain descending to her waist and vanishing into her belt, leaning on her ebony cane with a tarnished gold head.
And we can hear her speak for herself, engaging in dialogue with “the men”:
She did not ask them to sit. She just stood in the door and listened quietly until the spokesman came to a stumbling halt. Then they could hear the invisible watch ticking at the end of the gold chain.
Her voice was dry and cold. “I have no taxes in Jefferson. Colonel Sartoris explained it to me. Perhaps one of you can gain access to the city records and satisfy ourselves.”
“But we have. We are the city authorities, Miss Emily. Didn’t you get a notice from the sheriff, signed by him?”
The scene goes on much the way any scene of dialogue and action would in a story, but in this case everything is filtered through the perspective of “the men.” Miss Emily turns them away, insisting that she has no taxes. A few of the women in town try to pay her a visit, but she won’t receive them, bringing out this response in a collective dialogue:
“Just as if a man–any man–could keep a kitchen properly,” the ladies said; so they were not surprised when the smell developed. It was another link between the gross, teeming world and the high and mighty Griersons.
The story unfolds in this manner, the point of view never dipping into a single character’s consciousness. There’s a mystery about what’s happened to Homer Barron, the construction foreman who’s taken to squiring Miss Emily around. That mystery is finally solved at the end of the story, when, after Miss Emily’s death, the townspeople force open the door to a room “in that region above the stairs” and find on the skeleton of Homer Barron on the bed and an indentation in the pillow beside his remains where “a long strand of iron-gray hair” indicates that Miss Emily used to lie there beside the skeleton. Furthermore, the townspeople, remembering the arsenic she bought from the druggist, claiming she needed it for rats, now understand that she used it to kill Homer Barron. He wasn’t the marrying kind, the story tells us, but it began to look, from the evidence gathered by the townspeople, that he and Miss Emily were making wedding preparations. The last time Homer Barron is seen is when a neighbor sees Miss Emily’s servant “admit him at the kitchen door one evening.” The townspeople assume that the “quality of her father which had thwarted her woman’s life so many times had been too virulent and too furious to die.” It’s clear that Miss Emily has had this one last chance at love, and familial expectations have kept her from enjoying a married life with Homer Barron. What a poignant image that indentation in the pillow by Homer’s skeleton is. What work the detail of that long strand of iron-gray hair does. Faulkner said in an interview once that the story came from a picture he had in his head of a strand of gray hair on a pillow. “It was a ghost story,” he said. “Simply a picture of a strand of hair on the pillow in the abandoned house.” It’s a story of loneliness, of a desperate act, a tragic choice, a lifetime of consequences. All revealed to the townspeople in that final image. All of it made a particular type of story because of the point of view choice.
The point of all of this? The lens through which we see a story, creates a particular type of experience for us that couldn’t be replicated with a different point of view choice. Faulkner’s choice allows Miss Emily’s despair and loneliness to wash over the townspeople. It casts her and her life in a very different light than was possible in the world of gossip and assumption. The very individual and private life made public carries with it a resonance that’s hard to forget.
When we make a choice in point of view, we begin to create the overall effect of the story. Often, this is an instinctual choice. We want, for example, to tell the story of something that had a significant effect on a central character, so we filter everything through his or her consciousness. Sometimes, though, we want to establish a completely different effect with the material at our disposal. We may want to broaden the lens of perception, as Faulkner did in “A Rose for Emily,” to show how an event radiates through segments of a particular population or community, or we may want to work with an ironic effect only possible with the omniscient point of view. When we move away from the traditional first-person or third-person limited point of view to something less common, we should ask ourselves how that point of view choice allows us to best explore what interests us in a story and also how that choice makes possible the final effect of the narrative.
Whenever a writer makes