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

 

4 Comments

  1. Stephen on February 22, 2012 at 4:04 pm

    I’m finding all of these so applicable to things we talk about in nonfiction, as well as fiction, Lee. Something we always hear is to “broaden the scope” and it’s all very easy to say, but when we tinker around with perspective, I think the scope of the essay (or the story) is immediately widened and gains an urgency that can’t be nailed down by just one viewpoint.

    • Lee Martin on February 22, 2012 at 4:21 pm

      Stephen, I’m glad you’re finding an application for nonfiction. I like your thoughts about broadening the perspective in a piece of nonfiction to take in more of the world. Thanks for the comment.

  2. Richard Gilbert on February 27, 2012 at 10:45 am

    This has been such a wonderful series, Lee. I am not sure I have commented before, but have read and learned from and pasted and copied the previous posts.

    I have been writing nonfiction a long time, and much you have said applies to any narrative, certainly to memoir as well as to fiction. When I began, a few years ago, to begin thinking about writing a novel, what really hung me up was point of view. I realized that is is a huge artistic choice that the fiction writer has that is usually much simpler in nonfiction: memoirs are almost always first person; traditional journalism is third-person omniscient, with some deeply immersive pieces written from one character’s point of view; essays and personal reportage are first person. But the decision of which point of view to use is simplified and clarified by constraints.

    That freedom of choice of point of view in fiction arrives, it seems, with a price: angst and confusion! Or at least for me, inexperienced in fiction.

    I have a question about alternating points of view a la As I Lay Dying. I apologize if you have just covered this, can’t remember, but it was my initial inclination. But it seems to be a lot of writers’ inclination, and I’ve realized as a reader that it often does not work for me. I just read a well-reviewed literary novel that uses it, with quite a few characters, and while I admired the author’s imaginative brilliance I was only interested in a couple of the characters and felt the narrative went dead with the others and started skipping them. And I just checked out another novel that uses the alternating POV and weary of the task, in advance, of running all the characters through my head. In a fine irony, I also got a hot new nonfiction narrative that deals with the same subject, Mexican immigrants literally dying in their efforts to cross the border, and find it much more compelling, even though (or because?) it is told in a godlike omniscient way. It moves like a freight train, is gorgeously written, and involves shocking details of what it means to try to enter America illegally. The only reason I want to try to read the novel now is to see if its emotional truth can come close to The Devil’s Highway. (And I am not saying nonfiction is better; the journalistic book could have been fiction, and as it is it reads like it.)

    Now I have read novels where I loved chapters that alternate points of view, like Ann Pancake’s Strange As This Weather Has Been, and Shelby Foote’s Shiloh, but my recent experience with it as a reader is not good.

    Perhaps you can find a question here and answer it!?

  3. Lee Martin on February 27, 2012 at 1:13 pm

    Richard, you’re right that the choice of point of view in nonfiction is more easily made to fit the material, or should I say, to fit the sub-form of the genre. In fiction, though, that choice is more closely linked to the experience that the writer wants to create for the readers via the consciousness, singular or plural, that the writer invites those readers to occupy. The novel that employs alternative points of view sometimes does that in order to increase suspense within the plot. I just finished Charles Frazier’s new novel, NIGHTWOODS, in which a building menace takes shape because we alternate between the perspectives of the man intent on harm and the woman, man, and children who stand to receive that harm. In other cases, a point of view that moves from character to character can serve to highlight ironies that occur when the reader knows more than the characters do. One character, for example, may think that another character dislikes her, when the truth is (and we know this from character number two’s perspective) that other character greatly admires the first character and is only mistakenly snobbish around her because she feels so unworthy of her company. So, to sum up, any given material can be shaped into different types of novels depending on which point of view strategy the novelist employs. At some point in the writing process, the novelist should understand the effect that he or she is trying to create and how the point of view strategy makes that effect possible. I wrote 200 pages of my novel, THE BRIGHT FOREVER, in a third-person limited point of view, which put the focus on the crime and the man who committed it. Those 200 pages taught me that what I was more interested in was how the effects of the crime radiated though the various populations of this small Midwestern town. That’s when I chucked those 200 pages and started over, utilizing an alternating point of view.

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