From Long Shots to X-Rays: Distance & Point of View in Fiction Writing

David Jauss | September 2000

David Jauss

In his story "Hills Like White Elephants," Ernest Hemingway places us at a table outside a train station in Spain. Sitting at the table beside us are a man and a woman who are waiting for the train to arrive, and for the bulk of the story, we eavesdrop on their conversation, just as we might in real life. And also just as in real life, we cannot enter into their minds; we can only hear what they say and see what they do. This objective point of view is called "dramatic," for it imitates the conventions of drama, which does not report thoughts, only words and deeds.

Like a play, Hemingway's story consists largely of dialogue. At first, the dialogue is the smallest of small talk—the man and the woman discuss what they should drink, etc.—but there is some tension between them, something unmentioned that lurks beneath their trivial conversation, and our interest is piqued. Two pages into this five-page story, the man finally broaches, however indirectly, the subject that is causing their tension: the woman is pregnant, and she wants to have the baby and he doesn't. Though the man says repeatedly that he is "perfectly willing" to go through with the pregnancy, he is doing his best to pressure her into having an abortion. Eventually, his protestations of selfless concern for her wear out her patience, and she asks him to "please please please please please please please stop talking." The conversation over, he picks up their suitcases and carries them to the other side of the station, and we follow him there.

At this point in the story, Hemingway momentarily abandons the dramatic point of view and tells us the man "looked up the tracks but could not see the train." In this sentence, Hemingway reveals something that cannot be externally observed—what the man was unable to see—and so moves us a little way into his mind, reducing the distance between us and him ever so slightly. And two sentences later, Hemingway completes the segue that sentence begins, taking us even farther inside the character and reducing the distance significantly. He writes that the man "drank an Anis at the bar and looked at the people. They were all waiting reasonably for the train." Notice that word reasonably. This word violates the objective, dramatic point of view even more than the statement that the man did not see the train, for it tells us not just what the man sees—or, in this case, fails to see—but the man's opinion about what he sees. Just as Hemingway could have written "He looked up the tracks" without going on to tell us whether or not the man saw the train, he could have written simply "They were all waiting for the train" without conveying the man's opinion that they were all waiting "reasonably."

If Hemingway had done this, he would have maintained consistency of point of view, and according to virtually every discussion of the subject I have ever read or heard, consistency of point of view is an essential element of good fiction writing. But for my money, the word reasonably is the most important word in the story and Hemingway's shift in point of view is the single smartest move in a story full of smart moves. In the context of their argument over the abortion, this word implies that the man considers the woman unreasonable, unlike the people in the bar—and, of course, unlike him. This implication complicates the story considerably and thereby rescues it from potential melodrama.

How does the word reasonably complicate the story? Although it's clear that the man is trying to manipulate the woman into doing what he wants—all the while absolving himself of any responsibility for the decision—it isn't clear whether he is consciously doing so. If he is, he would be a relatively simple villain, and the woman, who agrees to have the abortion, a relatively simple victim. The story would veer therefore in the direction of melodrama, which thrives on the simple, knee-jerk emotions that result from the mistreatment of victims by villains. But if the man believes what he is saying, then he is a relatively complex character, someone whose behavior stems from self-delusion, not one-dimensional villainy, and the story immediately becomes too complex to evoke the simple responses of melodrama. It is essential, then, that the reader knows what the man thinks about himself and the woman. If Hemingway had maintained the dramatic point of view throughout, as most commentators on point of view would recommend, we would never know whether the man was a conscious, Machiavellian villain or a self-deluded person. But Hemingway wisely shifts his point of view, twice moving into the character to reveal, with increasing depth, the man's thoughts. In my opinion, this is a brilliant example of how a writer can use the technical resources of point of view to manipulate distance between narrator and character, and therefore between character and reader, in order to achieve the effect he desires.

Similarly, Anton Chekhov violates the so-called "rule" against shifting point of view in his story "A Trifle from Real Life" in order to manipulate distance and achieve the effect he desires. For all but two sentences of this story, the unidentified first-person narrator reports the thoughts and feelings of only one character, Nikolai Belayeff, who discovers during a conversation with his lover's eight-year-old son Aliosha that the boy has been secretly seeing his father against his mother's wishes. Although Nikolai promises not to reveal this secret to the boy's mother, as soon as she returns home, he does. Distraught, Aliosha's mother turns to her son and asks him if what Nikolai has said is true. At this point, Chekhov steps slightly closer to the boy's mind for a moment, telling us that Aliosha "did not hear her," then he immediately returns to Nikolai's point of view. It isn't until the story's final sentence that Chekhov closes the distance between his narrator and Aliosha enough to tell us the boy's thoughts: "This was the first time in his life that he had come roughly face to face with deceit; he had never imagined till now that there were things in this world besides pastries and watches and sweet pears, things for which no name could be found in the vocabulary of childhood."

As this sentence suggests, the true protagonist of the story is Aliosha, not Nikolai, for he is the character who undergoes a complete process of change. Yet, except for the two sentences I've mentioned, the story restricts itself to Nikolai's point of view. Why does Chekhov shine the spotlight on a minor character rather than on his protagonist? The answer, I believe, is that by focusing on Nikolai, Chekhov forces us to make the same mistake Nikolai does: the mistake of assuming that it is the adult whose experience is important, not the child. By abruptly shifting to Aliosha's point of view, Chekhov reveals that the story is not really about Nikolai and his trifling grievance but about Aliosha and his devastating discovery of an adult's capacity for duplicity and betrayal. This revelation allows Chekhov to complicate our response to Nikolai's despicable act by making us "accomplices"—for we, too, have been guilty of underestimating the importance of this "trifle from real life" to Aliosha. In a way, then, by abruptly reducing the narrative distance between Aliosha and us at the end of the story, Chekhov reduces the moral distance between Nikolai and us, and a potentially "trifling" story becomes serious and complex.

As these two examples suggest, perhaps the most important purpose of point of view is to manipulate the degree of distance between the characters and the reader in order to achieve the emotional, intellectual, and moral responses the author desires. Outside of Wayne C. Booth, who makes this argument persuasively in his book The Rhetoric of Fiction, few writers have stressed this aspect of point of view. Of the creative writing textbooks I know, only two discuss the issue of narrative distance at any length—Janet Burroway's Writing Fiction and Richard Cohen's Writer's Mind: Crafting Fiction—and neither one goes into much depth about the subject. Generally, textbook authors define point of view in terms of "person," focusing on the angle of perception—who tells the story—instead of the various degrees of depth available within that angle. Even Richard Cohen, who does go on to discuss narrative distance briefly, defines point of view this simplistically. "There is no mystery about point of view," he says. "There are basically two of them: first person ('I') or third person ('he, she')." (He says "basically two" because there are a few works of fiction written in second person-for example, Jay MacInerney's novel Bright Lights, Big City and some of the stories in Lorrie Moore's Self-Help.) The more complex discussions of point of view, like Burroway's, go on to divide each of Cohen's two basic points of view into various types: first person is usually divided into "first-person central" and "first-person peripheral," depending on whether the narrator is the main character or a secondary one; and third person is divided into "omniscient," "limited omniscient," and "dramatic," depending on whether the narrator tells us the thoughts and feelings of several characters, just one character, or none.

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. We may call this technique "omniscience" when a third-person narrator uses it, or "inference" when a first-person narrator uses it, but the terminology cannot hide the fact that the technique is the same: in each case, the narrator assumes what Booth calls "privilege," the right to inform the reader of the contents of a character's heart and mind. While I'd like to see us abandon the term "omniscient" and replace it with "privileged," I know that word would cause at least as many problems as it would solve, so I'll continue to use the conventional word "omniscient" throughout this essay. But please be aware that when I talk about "omniscience," I'm not referring to its ostensible meaning—"all-knowing" and "truthful"—but to the narrative technique of reporting—whether accurately or not—characters' thoughts and feelings. It seems to me that we can't understand how point of view actually works in fiction until we put more emphasis on technique than we do on Truth.

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.

Sometimes, but not always. Often, we respond to a first-person narrator's omniscience exactly as we do to a third-person narrator's omniscience—with complete trust. Chekhov's "A Trifle from Real Life" is one example. Conrad's Heart of Darkness is another. In it, Charlie Marlow tells us not only the thoughts of Kurtz and a half-dozen other characters but even the thoughts of the jungle. If that's not omniscience, I don't know what is. And though we certainly may question some of Marlow's editorial comments on the nature of women and so forth, we do not question the accuracy of his omniscient statements about other characters' thoughts.

Another work that employs first-person omniscience is Flaubert's Madame Bovary. The narrator of that novel is a childhood friend of Charles Bovary's, yet he enters as fully into the minds of —events—he could not have known anything about, and yet at no point do we question his omniscience. Because we have been taught that omniscience is the province of third-person narrators, readers tend to consider first-person omniscience a "mistake" on the part of the author. One scholar I know had the audacity to claim that Flaubert—possibly the most fanatically meticulous artist who ever lived—simply forgot that he was writing a first-person novel when he told us the thoughts and feelings of Charles and Emma. (If he did forget, he must have remembered by the end of the novel, for the narrator refers to himself in the first person again there.)

How do we explain the fact that such a superb writer violated what so many consider the most basic of all "rules" about point of view? My answer is that there isn't, and never was, such a rule. First-person omniscience has been used in every period of literature. We see it in the oldest known collection of stories, the Egyptian Tales of the Magicians, which was written between 5,000 and 2,000 b.c.; we see it in such medieval works as the Gesta Romanorum and Boccaccio's Decameron; we see it in such early novels as Fielding's Tom Jones and Sterne's Tristram Shandy; and we see it in Melville's Moby Dick, Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables, Dostoevsky's The Devils, Gogol's "The Overcoat," and James's "The Turn of the Screw." And first-person omniscience isn't just some "old-fashioned narrative liberty" we've outgrown; it is still very much with us today. Among the many contemporary writers who have used it to superb effect are John Barth, Jorge Luis Borges, Frederick Busch, Junot Díaz, Günter Grass, Mary Grimm, Milan Kundera, Alice Munro, Tim O'Brien, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. First-person omniscience has a long and noble pedigree; the prejudice against it is of more recent birth. If this attitude persists, I'm afraid we fiction writers will be deprived not only of a narrative technique that has served the masters well for centuries, but of the complex effects it can achieve.

Our misunderstanding of first-person omniscience is not the only problem that results from defining point of view primarily in terms of person rather than technique. Because it's generally a bad idea to shift person in a work of fiction—to have a first-person narrator suddenly morph into a third-person narrator, for example—we leap to the conclusion that point of view should be singular and consistent. In fact, however singular and consistent the person of a story may be, the techniques that truly constitute point of view are inevitably multiple and shifting. The point of view we call third-person omniscience may be consistently third person, but it is not consistently omniscient, for the narrator must shift from omniscience to the dramatic point of view whenever he deals with a character whose mind he does not enter.

Defining point of view largely in terms of person ignores the fact that whenever a third-person narrator presents a character who is telling a story, that character takes over as narrator, if only briefly. Witness the many first-person narrators who combine to tell the story of Thomas Sutpen and his descendents in Faulkner's third-person novel Absalom, Absalom! Defining point of view in terms of person also ignores the fact that first-person narrators, when they talk about other characters, use third person. How, then, are we to classify their narration? First person? Third person? Both? Clearly, defining a work's person doesn't tell us much about its point of view.

I agree with Booth that the term "point of view" should be understood to refer not only to person but also to the various techniques that allow fiction writers to manipulate the degree of distance between characters and readers. Some of these techniques have the effect of long shots—they keep us very distant from the characters—and others resemble close-ups. Still others are like X-rays; they take us all the way inside characters, so that we're thinking and feeling with their central nervous systems. For most of "Hills Like White Elephants," for example, we watch Hemingway's protagonist with the distance and detachment of a surveillance camera, then Hemingway zooms in for a close-up of the man and, finally, a quick one-word X-ray of his soul. Chekhov follows this same pattern with Aliosha in "A Trifle from Real Life." (In terms of technique, these two stories are virtually identical, though one is written in third person and the other in first.) Good writers, like good filmmakers, know how to use these techniques to manipulate the reader's distance from the characters, sometimes moving in for a close-up and other times moving back for a panoramic view. And, often, going where the camera can't, into the mind, heart, and soul of a character.

What I want to do now is define the principal techniques we can use in our fiction to manipulate narrative distance and give some examples of each. Though we don't have enough space to discuss how each point of view, and each shift from one point of view to another, can affect the reader's response to a story, please remember that directing the reader's response is the ultimate purpose of these techniques, as I hope my comments on "Hills Like White Elephants" and "A Trifle from Real Life" have made clear.

Most if not all of the techniques that constitute point of view will be familiar. What may not be familiar is the fact that all of these techniques are available to any narrator, whether that narrator uses first, second, or third person. Since second-person narrators are rare, we'll focus here on first- and third-person narrators. And we'll look at the techniques these narrators use in order of decreasing distance-from long shots to X-rays. As we'll see, some of the resulting points of view keep us entirely outside the characters; some allow us to be simultaneously outside and inside; and others take us all the way inside. We'll also see that point of view is more a matter of where the language is coming from than it is of person. The points of view that keep us outside a character require the narrator to use his language, not his character's, whereas the points of view that allow us to be inside a character require the narrator to use the character's language, at least some of the time.



There is only one point of view that remains outside all of the characters, and that is the dramatic point of view, the point of view Hemingway uses for all but two sentences of "Hills Like White Elephants." In this point of view, the narrator assumes maximum distance from the characters he describes and writes about them in language appropriate to him but not necessarily to them. We are so distant from Hemingway's characters that we don't even know their names—they're simply "the man" and "the girl." As James Joyce says, a writer who uses the dramatic point of view is "like the God of the creation": he is "within or behind or beyond or above His handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring His fingernails." The narrator who uses this point of view imitates the conventions of drama, restricting himself to presenting dialogue, action, and description, but no thoughts. The excerpt from "Hills Like White Elephants" that follows is a good example. Like a play, it consists solely of dialogue and "stage directions."

"It's really an awfully simple operation, Jig," the man said. "It's not really an operation at all."
The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on.
"I know you wouldn't mind it, Jig. It's really not anything. It's just to let the air in."
The girl did not say anything.
"I'll go with you and I'll stay with you all the time. They just let the air in and then it's all perfectly natural."
"Then what will we do afterward?"
"We'll be fine afterward. Just like we were before."
"What makes you think so?"
"That's the only thing that bothers us. It's the only thing that's made us unhappy."
The girl looked at the bead curtains, put her hand out and took hold of two of the strings of beads.
"And you think then we'll be all right and be happy?"
"I know we will. You don't have to be afraid. I've known lots of people that have done it."
"So have I," said the girl. "And afterward they were all so happy."

"Hills Like White Elephants" is written in third person, but Hemingway also uses the dramatic point of view extensively in some of his first-person stories. In the following excerpt from "The Light of the World," Nick Adams, the narrator, reports action and dialogue but no thoughts, either his own or those of any other character.

When he saw us come in the door the bartender looked up and then reached over and put the glass covers on the two free-lunch bowls.

"Give me a beer," I said. He drew it, cut the top off with the spatula and then held the glass in his hand. I put the nickel on the wood and he slid the beer toward me.

"What's yours?" he said to Tom.
He drew that beer and cut it off and when he saw the money he pushed the beer across to Tom.
"What's the matter?" Tom asked.
The bartender didn't answer him. He just looked over our heads and said, "What's yours?" to a man who'd come in.

Because the dramatic point of view allows the narrator to report only the externals of a story, it requires a mastery of what T.S. Eliot called the "objective correlative," an objective, sensory detail or act that correlates to a character's subjective thought or feeling. (In "Hills Like White Elephants," for example, we know that the woman does not want to discuss having an abortion because of the way she looks at the ground instead of responding to the man. And in "The Light of the World," we know the bartender thinks Nick and Tom don't have much money because of the way he covers the free-lunch bowls and waits to see the nickels before he gives them their beers.) When an author is a master of this technique, as Hemingway is, the story that results is inevitably subtle. Careless or inexperienced readers will often be confused by stories employing this point of view.

Outside & Inside

There are two points of view that allow the narrator to be simultaneously outside and inside a character to various degrees: omniscience and indirect interior monologue.


Most textbooks distinguish between two kinds of omniscience: "limited" and "regular." In limited omniscience, the narrator relates the thoughts and feelings of only one character whereas in regular omniscience, he relates the thoughts and feelings of at least two and usually more. I don't believe dividing omniscience into "limited" and "regular" tells us anything remotely useful. The technique in both cases is identical; it's merely applied to a different number of characters. And as I see it, all omniscience is "limited": I don't know of any work of fiction that goes into the hearts and minds of all of its characters. Though we call the point of view of War and Peace "omniscient" rather than "limited omniscient," Tolstoy stays outside of a hundred or more minds than he enters. So I propose that we use the term "omniscience" to describe the point of view used when the narrator reports, in his language, the thoughts of any number of characters. The fact that the narrator retains his own language keeps him "outside" while the fact that he reports a character's thoughts allows him to go "inside"; hence, this point of view allows the narrator, and the reader, to be simultaneously outside and inside a character.

Let's start by looking at two relatively simple examples of omniscience, one in third person and the other in first. The following passage is from Dostoevsky's third-person novel, Crime and Punishment:

The triumphant sense of security, of deliverance from overwhelming danger, that was what filled his whole soul that moment without thought for the future, without analysis, without suppositions or surmises, without doubts and without questioning. It was an instant of full, direct, purely instinctive joy.

As I suggested earlier, "where the language is coming from" is one of the most important issues in point of view. The language here clearly belongs to the novel's third-person narrator. At this particular moment, Raskolnikov would not have used these rational, abstract, insightful words to describe his "purely instinctive joy"—in fact, he could not have used them because the moment was "without thought" and "without analysis." For Raskolnikov, the moment was "purely instinctive," not reflective. And if these are supposed to be his thoughts, they amount to the absurdly contradictory thought "I'm not thinking." If Raskolnikov is not thinking and analyzing at this moment, then, these thoughts and analyses—and the language that conveys them—must be the narrator's. As a result, we are conscious of someone outside the character peering into his soul and telling us what he sees. We are therefore both inside and outside Raskolnikov at the same time—inside in the sense that we witness his feelings, and outside in the sense that we are conscious that those feelings are being defined and articulated by an omniscient observer. In omniscience, then, the narrative perspective is still external to the character, as in the dramatic point of view, but we have moved, if only tentatively, into his mind and heart.

The next example is from Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, in which the first-person narrator, Nick Carroway, occasionally assumes an omniscient understanding of Gatsby.

One autumn night, five years before, they (Gatsby and Daisy) had been walking down the street when the leaves were falling, and they came to a place where there were no trees and the sidewalk was white with moonlight. They stopped here and turned to each other. Now it was a cool night with that mysterious excitement in it which comes at the two changes of the year. The quiet lights in the houses were humming out into the darkness and there was a stir and bustle among the stars. Out of the corner of his eye Gatsby saw that the blocks of the sidewalks really formed a ladder and mounted to a secret place above the trees-he could climb to it, if he climbed alone, and once there he could suck on the pap of life, gulp down the incomparable milk of wonder.

His heart beat faster and faster as Daisy's white face came up to his own. He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable vision to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning-fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At his lips' touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete.

Like the example from Crime and Punishment, this passage employs the language of the narrator, not of the character the narrator is discussing. Whereas Carroway's style is often lyrical and poetic, Gatsby's is nothing if not laconic. It's impossible to imagine him saying-much less thinking-"the tuning-fork that had been struck upon a star." Clearly, Carroway is "translating" Gatsby's overwhelming, inchoate feelings into language that conveys what his own could not. Technically, then, these two passages employ the same point of view, though one is third person and the other is first person. Indeed, if we didn't know the excerpt from The Great Gatsby was narrated by one of the novel's characters, we would almost certainly assume that it was another example of conventional third-person omniscience. That fact alone should indicate that we should pay more attention to technique than to person.

Now let's look at two examples of omniscience that are a little more complex, one from Tolstoy's third-person novel War and Peace and another from Delmore Schwartz's first-person story "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities."

Nicholas turned away from her. Natasha too, with her quick instinct, had instantly noticed her brother's condition. But, though she noticed it, she was herself in such high spirits at that moment, so far from sorrow, sadness, or self-reproach, that she purposely deceived herself. "No, I am too happy now to spoil my enjoyment by sympathy with anyone's sorrow," she felt, and she said to herself: "No, I must be mistaken, he must be feeling happy, just as I am."

"Now, Sonya!" she said, going to the very middle of the room, where she considered the resonance was the best.

Having lifted her head and let her arms droop lifelessly, as ballet dancers do, Sonya, rising energetically from her heels to her toes, stepped to the middle of the room and stood still.

"And what is she so pleased about?" thought Nicholas, looking at his sister.

Finally my mother comes downstairs, all dressed up, and my father being engaged in conversation with my grandfather becomes uneasy, not knowing whether to greet my mother or continue the conversation. He gets up from the chair clumsily and says "hello" gruffly. My grandfather watches, examining their congruence, such as it is, with a critical eye, and meanwhile rubbing his bearded cheek roughly, as he always does when he reflects. He is worried; he is afraid that my father will not make a good husband for his oldest daughter.

If we define the points of view of these passages in the conventional, person-oriented way, the passage from Tolstoy is an example of "regular omniscience" (despite the fact that its omniscience is limited to two of its three characters) and the passage from Schwartz is an example of "first-person central." But classifying these passages according to person can only mislead the reader into thinking that they are diametric opposites when in fact their techniques are essentially identical. Both Tolstoy's third-person narrator and Schwartz's first-person narrator omnisciently enter the minds of two characters (Nicholas and Natasha, the father and grandfather) while presenting a third character (Sonya, the mother) dramatically, reporting only her actions, not her thoughts or feelings. In terms of technique, then, there is virtually no difference between these two passages, yet most critics would put them into two separate categories based on person.

These passages not only illustrate the fact that all omniscience is limited to some extent but also that narrative technique is multiple and shifting, not singular and consistent, and therefore works of fiction almost inevitably use more than one "point of view." Unless the omniscient narrator enters the mind of every character, he will of necessity use the dramatic point of view for one or more characters. Imagine, for example, a hypothetical short story containing five characters. If the narrator—whether first- or third-person—uses the omniscient point of view for one character, he would have to use the dramatic point of view for the remaining four. And if he uses omniscience for two characters, he'd have to treat the remaining three from the dramatic point of view. And so forth.

It is of course theoretically possible for a story to remain in one point of view, but I can't think of a single example. More than any other story I know, "Hills Like White Elephants" consistently employs one point of view, but even it departs from it, as we've noted, at two crucial moments. Since the major function of point of view is to manipulate the degree of distance between reader and character, it shouldn't surprise us that writers use more than one point of view in a story: how else can they create different degrees of distance between the reader and the various characters? And how else can they keep the story from feeling static? Imagine a film in which the camera stays the same distance from the characters, never moving back or in. Boring, right? The same is true for fiction.


The second technique that allows the narrator and reader to be simultaneously outside and inside a character is indirect interior monologue. It differs from omniscience in one very important way. Whereas the omniscient point of view requires the narrator to translate the character's thoughts and feelings into his own language, indirect interior monologue allows him to use his character's language. As a result, the character becomes a kind of "co-narrator," even though he is not, properly speaking, narrating at all. Henry James called this kind of character a "reflector," for the narrator merely holds a "mirror" up to his character's thoughts. But just as mirrors distort what they reflect, inverting left and right, indirect interior monologue distorts what it reflects. A narrator using this technique doesn't report a character's thought exactly as it occurs. Take, for example, that sentence we discussed earlier from "Hills Like White Elephants": what the man is actually thinking is "They are all waiting reasonably for the train" but Hemingway's third-person narrator says "They were all waiting reasonably for the train." As this example reveals, indirect interior monologue involves altering the tense of a character's thought. Almost always, it also involves transforming the person of the thought from first to third. These alterations make us aware that the narrator is outside the character, reflecting the character's thoughts. In this point of view, then, we witness the character's interior monologue—the diction, grammar, syntax, and associational movement of his thoughts—but we do so indirectly, through the narrator's alterations. Like omniscience, indirect interior monologue allows the narrator to be simultaneously outside and inside a character, but because he is giving us the character's thoughts in the character's language, not his own, he is farther inside a character than in any of the other points of view we've discussed so far.

In this passage from Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the third-person narrator reflects the thoughts of Stephen Daedulus, the novel's protagonist.

The preacher's knife had probed deeply into his diseased conscience and he felt now that his soul was festering in sin. Like a beast in its lair his soul had lain down in its own filth but the blasts of the angel's trumpet had driven him forth from the darkness of sin into the light.

This passage does not use the narrator's diction; rather, it reflects the diction that has infected Stephen's mind after hearing a hellfire-and-brimstone sermon. Stephen is thinking "my soul is festering in sin," but the narrator transforms the person and tense to read "his soul was festering in sin."

While indirect interior monologue is most often employed by third-person narrators reflecting a character's thoughts, it can of course be used by first-person narrators reflecting the thoughts of another character. More often, however, first-person narrators use it to reflect their own prior thoughts. In such cases, the first-person narrator treats his previous self as if it were a separate character. In Heart of Darkness, for example, Conrad's narrator, Charlie Marlow, uses indirect interior monologue to present thoughts he had during his voyage up the Congo River, as this excerpt reveals: "I turned my shoulder to him (the manager of the Central Station) in sign of my appreciation and looked into the fog. How long would it last?" Marlow did not think, "How long would it last"; he thought, "How long will it last?" The change in tense indicates that Marlow is not asking now, at the moment he is narrating the story, how long the fog would last, but rather that he is reflecting a thought he had at a previous time. As such, he is doing to his previous self what a third-person narrator does to a character: reflecting, indirectly, that person's interior monologue.

Sometimes, though, a narrator using indirect interior monologue reflects not only the diction of the character's thoughts but the grammar, syntax, and associational movement of those thoughts as well. In passages employing this technique, we frequently find rhetorical questions, exclamations, sentence fragments, and associational leaps as well as diction appropriate to the character rather than the narrator. The following example is also from Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. As you'll see, it differs stylistically from the previous example from the same novel, because in this one, Stephen is several years younger, and the narrator is therefore reflecting less adult diction and syntax.

It pained him that he did not know well what politics meant and that he did not know where the universe ended. He felt small and weak. When would he be like the fellows in poetry and rhetoric? They had big voices and big boots and they studied trigonometry. That was very far away. First came the vacation and then the next term and then vacation again and then again another term and then again the vacation. It was like a train going in and out of tunnels and that was like the noise of the boys eating in the refectory when you opened and closed the flaps of your ears. Term, vacation; tunnel, out; noise, stop. How far away it was! It was better to go to bed to sleep. Only prayers in the chapel and then bed. He shivered and yawned.

Clearly, the adult narrator of Joyce's novel is not asking the question "When would he be like the fellows in poetry and rhetoric?" Rather, he is reflecting the child's question "When will I be like the fellows in poetry and rhetoric?" Similarly, the adult narrator would not characterize the young boys Stephen looks up to as having "big voices and big boots": those words come from the character, not the narrator. And the narrator, whose sense of time is certainly more sophisticated than young Stephen's, wouldn't measure it in vacations and school terms, nor would he think the year or two that separates Stephen from the older boys he admires is an extraordinary amount of time. The exclamation "How far away it was!" is not the narrator's thought; it's a reflection of Stephen's thought, "How far away it is!" And of course it's Stephen, not the narrator, who associates the alternation between term and vacation with a train going in and out of tunnels and the noise of the boys eating in the refectory. As this example shows, the change in person and tense allows the narrator to remain outside the character while simultaneously reporting, almost verbatim, that character's thoughts.

This example also illustrates the very important but rarely acknowledged fact that narrators often shift points of view not only within a story or novel but within a single paragraph. The first two sentences, which do not reflect Stephen's thoughts but summarize them in the narrator's diction, use omniscience. The next nine reflect the diction, grammar, syntax, and associational movement of his thoughts, and are therefore examples of indirect interior monologue. And the last sentence, which reports action only, uses the dramatic point of view. If we were to graph the point of view of this paragraph, we'd see that it begins on the outside edge of Stephen, then goes deeper and deeper inside, and finally retreats to being completely outside.

As I hope this example suggests, handling point of view is much more than a matter of picking a person or a narrative technique and sticking with it; rather, it involves carefully manipulating the distance between narrator and character, moving closer one minute, then farther away the next, so as to achieve the desired response from the reader. Joyce's handling of distance in this paragraph allows us to enter into the psychological drama of what, on the surface, would seem to be a moment of extreme boredom. If he had employed only the omniscient point of view, our sense of this drama would be significantly diminished. As evidence, here's a purely omniscient rendering of the paragraph's opening sentences: "It pained him that he did not know well what politics meant and that he did not know where the universe ended. He felt small and weak. He wanted to be like the older boys at the school, who studied poetry, rhetoric, and trignometry, but several terms and vacation would have to pass before he was their age. That seemed like a long time to him."

Or, worse yet, imagine how the moment's drama would utterly disappear if Joyce had used only the dramatic point of view. This entire paragraph would shrink to the following simple and unevocative sentence: "Stephen shivered and yawned."


There are two points of view that to differing degrees eliminate the distance between character and reader and take us all the way inside, abandoning either temporarily or permanently the mind and diction of the narrator. They are direct interior monologue and stream of consciousness.


In direct interior monologue, the character's thoughts are not just "reflected," they are presented directly, without altering person or tense. As a result, the external narrator disappears, if only for a moment, and the character takes over as "narrator." Unlike traditional first-person narration, however, the narrator is not consciously narrating. Elizabeth Bowen's story "The Demon Lover" provides an example of this point of view.

As a woman whose utter dependability was the keystone of her family life she was not willing to return to the country, to her husband, her little boys, and her sister, without the objects she had come up to fetch. Resuming work at the chest she set about making up a number of parcels in a rapid, fumbling-decisive way. These, with her shopping parcels, would be too much to carry; these meant a taxi—at the thought of the taxi her heart went up and her normal breathing resumed. I will ring up the taxi now; the taxi cannot come too soon: I shall hear the taxi out there running its engine, till I walk calmly down to it through the hall. I'll ring up—But no: the telephone is cut off. She tugged at a knot she had tied wrong.

Like the excerpt from Joyce, this passage demonstrates how a good writer can manipulate distance within a brief paragraph. The first two sentences here are examples of omniscience. The third sentence slides into indirect interior monologue, altering the thoughts "These will be too much to carry" and "these mean a taxi" to "These would be too much to carry" and "these meant a taxi," then shifts back to omniscience. The next three sentences are direct interior monologue-her actual thoughts presented without alteration, comment, or even attribution by the narrator-and the final sentence is dramatic.

Sometimes the transition from external third-person narration to direct interior monologue is even more abrupt than in this passage. In Ulysses, for example, Joyce leaps from external narration to internal thought with the aid of nothing more than a colon. The following sentence is typical in the way it segues from a description of Leopold Bloom's actions to his thoughts: "He sighed down his nose: they never understand." Jean-Paul Sartre uses the same technique in his short story "Intimacy," though he uses a comma more often than a colon to separate the external from the internal. And sometimes he makes the transition into direct interior monologue without any punctuation at all, as in this sentence: "She didn't even take the time to comb her hair, she was in such a hurry and the people who'll see me won't know that I'm naked under my grey coat."

As with indirect interior monologue, direct interior monologue is most common in third-person narration, but it is sometimes used by first-person narrators also. Again, Conrad's Charlie Marlow provides an example when he says, "I caught sight of a V-shaped ripple on the water ahead. What? Another snag!" The last two sentences report directly, without altering person or tense, the thoughts that occured to him then, not thoughts he is having now, as he narrates.


The other point of view that takes us completely inside a character is stream of consciousness. The term comes from William James, who coined it in his book Principles of Psychology to describe the incessant, associational movement of our thoughts. Writers and critics have adopted this term as the name for a point of view that, as Janet Burroway nicely put it, "tries to suggest the process as well as the content of the mind" (italics mine). Like direct interior monologue, stream of consciousness presents a character's thoughts and feelings directly, without transforming either their person or tense, but unlike that point of view, it presents those thoughts as they exist before the character's mind has "edited" them or arranged them into complete sentences. Because our thoughts are continually moving, each one rippling into another, writers who want to convey the process as well as the content of a character's mind often eschew punctuation. But sometimes writers use a kind of "shorthand" approach to the character's constantly flowing thoughts, giving us brief fragments from the stream of associations. Joyce does this regularly throughout Ulysses. In the following example, he sandwiches 19 fragments from Leopold Bloom's stream of consciousness between two sentences of external narration:

He walked on. Where is my hat, by the way? Must have put it back on the peg. Or hanging up on the floor. Funny, I don't remember that. Hallstand too full. Four umbrellas, her raincloak. Picking up the letters. Drago's shopbell ringing. Queer I was just thinking that moment. Brown brilliantined hair over his collar. Just had a wash and brushup. Wonder have I time for a bath this morning. Tara street. Chap in the paybox there got away James Stephens they say. O'Brien.

Deep voice that fellow Dlugaacz has. Agenda what is it? Now, my miss. Enthusiast.
He kicked open the crazy door of the jakes.

In the final chapter of Ulysses, Joyce uses the "longhand" version of the stream of consciousness technique. By telling us everything Molly Bloom thinks, without interruption for so much as a comma, he takes us as far inside her mind as an X-ray takes us inside a body. The chapter, which consists of 40-plus pages of Molly's unpunctuated thoughts as she falls asleep, opens with the following words:

Yes because he never did a thing like that before as ask to get his breakfast in bed with a couple of eggs since the City Arms hotel when he used to be pretending to be laid up with a sick voice doing his highness to make himself interesting to that old faggot Mrs Riordan that he thought he had a great leg of and she never left us a farthing all for masses for herself and her soul greatest miser ever was actually afraid to lay out 4d for her methylated spirit telling me all her ailments she had too much old chat in her about politics and earthquakes and the end of the world let us have a bit of fun first God help the world if all the women were her sort down on bathingsuits and lownecks of course nobody wanted her to wear I suppose she was pious because no man would look at her twice I hope I'll never be like her a wonder she didn't want us to cover our faces.

If we define point of view solely in terms of person, stream of consciousness is "first-person point of view." But there's an enormous difference between stream of consciousness and your garden-variety first-person narration, and that difference stems from the important fact that in stream of consciousness the character is not conscious of narrating. Although no external narrator is presented as reporting or reflecting these thoughts, the point of view implies the ultimate in omniscience: the author asserts that he knows absolutely every thought that passes through his character's mind and can present them verbatim. Other points of view report, in the narrator's language, a character's conscious thoughts, or they reflect, in the character's language, that character's conscious thoughts. But this point of view can present, directly and without any apparent mediation, a character's conscious—even, sometimes, unconscious—thoughts. In a way, then, this point of view resembles its diametric opposite, the dramatic point of view, which remains completely outside a character's mind. In both points of view, the author is—to quote Joyce once more—"like the God of creation": "within or behind or beyond or above His handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring His fingernails."

The last chapter of Ulysses uses only stream of consciousness, but sometimes a narrator will mix stream of consciousness into passages that employ other points of view. In the second chapter of The Sound and the Fury, for example, Faulkner inserts brief italicized passages of stream of consciousness into Quentin Compson's first-person narration of his conscious thoughts and actions as he walks through the streets of Boston. Here is a representative passage:

The street lamps would go down the hill then rise toward town I walked upon the belly of my shadow. I could extend my hand beyond it. feeling Father behind me beyond the rasping darkness of summer and August the street lamps Father and I protect women from one another from themselves our women Women are like that they dont acquire knowledge of people we are for that they are just born with a practical fertility of suspicion that makes a crop every so often and usually right they have an affinity for evil for supplying whatever the evil lacks in itself for drawing it about them instinctively as you do bed-clothing in slumber fertilising the mind for it until the evil has served its purpose whether it ever existed or no He (the deacon) was coming along between a couple of freshmen. He hadn't quite recovered from the parade, for he gave me a salute, a very superior-officerish kind.

Within the stream of consciousness point of view, as within every other point of view, there are various degrees of depth possible. Most passages of stream of consciousness go only as deep as conscious thought, but in this passage Faulkner gives us two levels of Quentin's mind, both his conscious thoughts and those that lie just beneath them. In Light in August, Faulkner goes even deeper, giving us three levels of a character's mind.

"I don't even know what they are saying to her," he thought, thinking I don't even know that what they are saying to her is something that men do not say to a passing child believing I do not know yet that in the instant of sleep the eyelid closing prisons within the eye's self her face demure, pensive.

As Dorrit Cohn has noted in Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction, "A sort of stratification of Joe Christmas' consciousness is suggested here, with each successive mental verb ("he thought, thinking. believing") descending into lower depth, less clear articulation, and more associative imagery." In short, Faulkner quotes Joe Christmas's conscious thought and then, in italics, presents first a semi-conscious thought that exists simultaneously with it and then the unconscious thought that underlies them both.

These, then, are the basic techniques fiction writers may use to manipulate distance between the reader and the characters. It's important to note, however, that there are other ways that writers manipulate distance, and a more complex description of point of view would have to take them into account. Consider, for example, the question of a narrator's reliability. Both Melville's Moby Dick and Grass's The Tin Drum are first-person novels that employ omniscience, but we feel substantially "closer" morally, intellectually, and emotionally to Ishmael than we do to Oskar Matzerath because Ishmael is a reliable narrator—even when he reports thoughts Ahab has when he's alone, we never question the truth of what he says—and Oskar is an unreliable one-he is an inmate in a mental institution, after all, and he credits his omniscience to his toy drum, which he claims "tells him" about people and events he never witnessed. (There are degrees in our response to a narrator's unreliability, of course: we feel much closer to Oskar than we do to, say, the narrator of Ring Lardner's "The Haircut," who thinks destroying someone's life with a practical joke is great fun.)

And just as we feel closer to a character in a play who breaks through the "fourth wall"-that imaginary wall that separates us from the actors—and speaks directly to us, so we feel closer to narrators who are conscious of addressing an audience. Both Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms are first-person novels that focus on the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of their narrators, but we feel closer to Huck, whose very first word is "You" and who addresses us throughout his narration, than we do to Frederic Henry, who tells his story as if the fourth wall were reality, not metaphor. I do not mean to suggest that Twain succeeded where Hemingway failed—far from it. Each author created the kind of distance that best directs our response to his protagonist. We are supposed to feel an affinity to Huck, who behaves nobly while thinking he is behaving badly, and we are supposed to feel some distance from Frederic Henry, who sometimes behaves badly while thinking he is behaving nobly.

When we think about point of view in our fiction, then, we should pay attention not only to the person we use but all the techniques that manipulate our narrator's distance from the characters. And if we remember that manipulating distance is the primary purpose of point of view, we'll write stories and novels that take fuller advantage of this all-important narrative resource.


David Jauss's most recent book of short fiction, Black Maps, won the AWP Award Series in Short Fiction and was published in 1996 by the University of Massachusetts Press. He teaches at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and in the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College.

No Comments