When beginning a novel—as opposed to a play, which we will discuss at the end of this section—readers must first determine who is telling the story and whether the narrator is reliable. Students should also understand the difference between the author of a text and the narrator of a story. As we read a work of fiction, we need to examine the relationship that forms between the author, reader, and narrator to not only understand the text more fully, but also to avoid misinterpreting the author's thematic intent.
There are three primary narrative points of view used in fiction, which we will examine one at a time:
2. Third-Person Limited
3. Third-Person Omniscient
First-person narrators tell the story of their own lives. Readers are granted access to their innermost thoughts and feelings, but we only see the world from their limited perspective, which means we cannot necessarily trust their observations or judgments. For instance, in Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, we discern in the opening paragraphs that our narrator is an uneducated boy living on the fringes of society. We quickly learn that Huck's story will consist of events recalled from his very recent past, which means our narrator will most likely lack the maturity and understanding that only comes from time and experience.
When first-person narrators describe or interact with other characters in the novel, we have to consider whether our narrators fully understand the actions, thoughts, and motivations of these secondary characters. Oftentimes, first-person narrators misinterpret events around them, and the careful reader can recognize flaws in their logic and inconsistencies in their thoughts and actions.
When authors choose to use a first-person narrator, they not only create a character to tell their own story, but they also create distance between themselves and the narrator. When a narrator believes something or expresses an opinion, readers should not assume that the author necessarily agrees with the narrator's assessment. To help students differentiate between a first-person narrator's limited perspective and the author's thematic intent, we often analyze the beginning of a novel to consider how the author might use the narrative point of view to foreshadow larger themes that will be developed over the course of the book. For instance, in the opening paragraphs of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, we ask students to determine Huck's value system and predict how those values might connect to Twain's overall theme.
Even though first impressions can sometimes be misleading, it seems that Huck values honesty from the opening sentence. At the same time Huck does not begrudge people like "Mr. Mark Twain," the person who wrote about his adventures with Tom Sawyer in the book "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," for exaggerating the truth and telling "some stretchers." Huck lightly chastises the author for his dishonesty, but he also seems to be a person who is forgiving by nature and generally tolerant of human flaws and inconsistencies. Still, integrity appears to be important to Huck, and we wonder if there will be a limit to his tolerance.
In the next paragraph, we discover that Huck is someone who does not fit comfortably within society and bristles at Widow Douglas' attempts to "sivilize" him. Huck tells us that he would rather live in the woods by himself where he can be "free and satisfied," which foreshadows his decision to "light out for the territory" at the end of the novel. At this point, however, he succumbs to peer pressure and returns to the Widow's house at Tom's urging for him to "be respectable." From the opening paragraphs, Twain establishes thematic tension between conforming to society's expectations and living an independent life according to one's own principles and values.
Since Huck has always lived as an outcast, Twain implies that Huck has not yet been corrupted by society. In many ways Huck is still an innocent and naïve to the ways of the world, which makes us question his judgment and perceptions throughout the novel. In particular, we find ourselves frustrated when Huck is unable to see his own goodness when choosing to defy the norms of the corrupt society in which he lives. While we applaud Huck's decision to help Jim, for instance, we are saddened that he thinks he is "wicked" and will end up burning in hell for his inability to do the "right" thing by turning in Jim.
The discrepancy between what a narrator thinks versus what an author intends creates irony, which is critical to identify to understand the deeper meaning of any literary work. While Twain uses irony to emphasize Huck's ignorance of the world in which he lives, Harper Lee uses irony in To Kill a Mockingbird to contrast Scout's naïve perceptions as a child with her more sophisticated understanding as an adult.
Lee also uses first-person narration in her novel, but, unlike Huck's narration, many years have elapsed since the events occurred in To Kill a Mockingbird. Instead of seeing the world through the eyes of a child, as we do in Twain's novel, we instead see childhood retrospectively through the eyes of an adult recalling her youth. The change in narrative perspective creates an ironic distance that allows the adult Scout to provide subtle, sophisticated commentary that the younger Scout would be unable to do.
To help students understand the different narrative perspectives in Lee's novel, we analyze three character descriptions from the opening chapters to compare how young Scout perceives Calpurnia, Boo Radley, and Miss Caroline in comparison to how older Scout understands them. From this exercise, students must then consider how Lee uses these competing perspectives to convey the larger themes of the work.
From these excerpts, we should see that young Scout is guilty of similar prejudices and biases that she later condemns in many of the people of Maycomb County after the trial of Tom Robinson. When the narrator—who is now an adult—looks back on her childhood, she can see the ignorance of her previous thoughts and attitudes. Lee implies that Scout has learned through age and experience how to be empathetic and to treat others with compassion and respect. Ultimately, Lee's novel is about maturity, which makes us consider whether racism and intolerance are simply immature ways of seeing and understanding other human beings.
Third-Person Limited Narration
With third-person limited narration, we are granted access to the innermost thoughts and feelings of a single character, but unlike first-person narration, we do not hear from the character directly. Instead, we have a narrator who serves as an intermediary and is positioned outside the story—like us, the readers. In some ways, Lee's technique in To Kill a Mockingbird is more like third-person limited narration than first-person because the older Scout serves as an intermediary who recalls the thoughts and feelings of her younger self. By using this narrative technique, Lee creates "psychic distance"—to borrow John Gardner's term in The Art of Fiction—between the reader and the characters, which allows the narrator to subtly comment on young Scout's misperceptions in a way that Twain cannot in his novel.
Ray Bradbury uses third-person limited narration in his dystopian novel Fahrenheit-451, where the narrator gives us access to the thoughts and feelings of Montag, the main character. In the opening paragraphs, we discover that Montag finds it "a pleasure to burn," but how does Bradbury want us to feel about Montag's desire "to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed"? To answer this question, students need to differentiate between Montag's feelings about his profession and the narrator's tone.
Even though Montag finds it a "pleasure to burn," it should be clear to readers that the narrator is critical of Montag's attitude and behavior. When the narrator describes the brass nozzle in Montag's hands as a "great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world," students should recognize that a python is a dangerous predator, its venom used to kill. Furthermore, in Christian ideology, snakes are linked with temptation and evil. When Montag is equated with "some amazing conductor," students should see the irony in comparing Montag's act of destroying books with that of a conductor creating beautiful music. The narrator also describes Montag's goal in apocalyptic terms: "to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history." While Montag considers his "fiery smile" an emblem of joyous celebration, the narrator depicts Montag as a devil who revels in a hellish landscape of his own making.
By closely reading and analyzing the opening paragraphs, students should understand that Montag's eventual transformation will be a righteous one. When Montag gradually learns to appreciate the value of books and what they represent for our culture and society, we support his determination to actively fight against those forces trying to eliminate them. Bradbury's narration in the opening paragraphs not only helps us understand the character of Montag, but it also reveals the larger themes of the novel by subtly commenting on Montag's misguided thoughts and feelings. Whereas we see the world through the subjective lenses of first-person narrators, third-person narrators have more distance from the characters and events, which makes them seem more objective and reliable.
Third-Person Omniscient Narration
In third-person limited narration, the reader only has access to the thoughts and feelings of a single character, but a third-person omniscient narrator can move freely between multiple characters, giving authors the opportunity to tell their stories from various perspectives, which adds greater depth and complexity to our understanding of the characters and the relationships between them.
In the opening paragraphs of Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, the protagonist, Janie Crawford, returns to her hometown under the withering, disapproving eyes of the townspeople. Hurston could have had the narrator describe the scene from Janie's perspective, but she chose to narrate the scene from the perspective of the townspeople instead. Readers must consider why Hurston chose to begin the story from this vantage point and how that decision impacts our feelings and understanding of the townspeople as well as Janie.
When Janie walks into town alone, the narrator tells us that the townspeople sit collectively on their porches "in judgment." The scene is described as one of "mass cruelty," where the townspeople feel "powerful" and "lords of sounds and lesser things." Janie appears to be one of those "lesser things," but students should also see that the townspeople gain their strength only after the sun has set. The narrator tells us that during the day the townspeople do not feel "human"; instead, they have been reduced by the presumably white "bossman" to something less than human—forced to be "tongueless, earless, eyeless conveniences all day long." The narrator implies that the townspeople may feel "powerful" on their porches at night, but they are actually weak and powerless the rest of the day.
Even though Janie appears vulnerable to the harsh "judgment" of these townspeople, we sense that she also has a strength and independence that remind the townspeople of the "envy" that they "had stored up from other times." When the townspeople see Janie walking into town "as she was," it is clear that she has a power that the townspeople do not. The opening paragraphs suggest that perhaps Janie's strength comes from an ability to "dream" of the person she wants to be and the life she wants to live, but perhaps it also comes from having survived the cruelties and hardships of burying "the sodden and the bloated" corpses of the "sudden dead." Since we have not heard from Janie yet, we can only guess at this point in the novel, but Hurston's opening makes us question the nature of "power" and how one attains it.
The third-person omniscient narration gives Hurston the freedom to explore these different perspectives. By giving us access to the townspeople's thoughts and feelings, we do not necessarily condone their "mass cruelty" towards Janie, but we are able to understand it. Janie is a threat, for her strength makes them recognize their own weakness. If we were only given access to Janie's thoughts and feelings, we might be tempted to vilify the townspeople, which is clearly not Hurston's intent. Instead, the narration humanizes the townspeople and makes us feel bad for them, despite their ill-treatment of Janie. Ultimately, Janie is meant to serve as a role model not only for us, the readers, but for the townspeople as well.
Opening Scenes in Plays
While plays do not have a narrator—with a few exceptions, like Thornton Wilder's stage manager in Our Town—, the opening scenes often foreshadow larger themes that will be developed over the course of the work. For instance, in William Shakespeare's King Lear, the play opens with a seemingly insignificant exchange between Kent and Gloucester about Lear's plan to divide his kingdom and Gloucester's treatment of his two sons—one bred lawfully in marriage and the other illegitimately. The parallels between Lear's plan and Gloucester's treatment of his sons are symbolically significant, however, and a close reading of this opening exchange can help students understand the larger themes of the play.
Despite the fact that Lear has always favored the Duke of Albany, he has decided to give an equal share of his kingdom to the Duke of Cornwall. Similarly, Gloucester claims that Edgar, his legitimate son, "is no dearer in my account" than Edmund, whom he has bred out of wedlock with a mistress. While there is an egalitarian aspect to both Lear's and Gloucester's decisions that seems admirable to the modern reader, it violates the "order of law" that Shakespeare implies will have dire consequences later in the play.
In many ways, King Lear is a family drama with parallel narratives between Lear and Gloucester and their respective offspring. Shakespeare's play makes us question the definition of family and whether familial love should be unconditional and what the consequences are when it is not. His play also makes us consider whether the bonds between people should be governed by the laws of nature or by the laws of society and religion. These questions are raised indirectly in the opening exchange between Kent and Gloucester, and students should understand that the thematic significance of this scene will resonate throughout the play.
Whether it is in the opening scene of a play or the opening paragraphs of a novel, we should anticipate that the larger themes of the literary work will be subtly conveyed by the playwright or author. Students need to read these openings carefully and think deeply about the thematic seeds that are planted and how they might impact our understanding of "the meaning of the work as a whole."