Saturday, January 21, 2012

Playing with Point of View

As you know, I've been rereading WUTHERING HEIGHTS.  It's gotten me thinking again about point of view.  Bronte tells her story through so many layers of different POV characters that it's sometimes hard to remember who's narrating.  First, there's the outsider who's come to live at Thrushcross Grange.  Then, there's the housekeeper, who bore witness to so much of the story as it unfolded.  Then, there's the characters who related events to the housekeeper when the housekeeper wasn't actually present.  All these POV shifts aren't straightforward shifts.  They're layers through which we view the story.  It's the outsider telling us what Nelly the housekeeper told him about what Zilla and young Catherine and Isabella told her.  Whew!

I'd completely forgotten this element of Bronte's novel.  And now I can't help asking "Why?"  Why all the layers?  Why all the distance?  It seems like such a convoluted approach to the story.  Is it a flaw, or a masterful and intentional device?  At a minimum, I feel compelled to identify the effect that this approach has on me, the reader.  Because, when you're reading as a writer, that's the trick, isn't it?  Not "Do I like this technique?" but "What effect does this technique have on the reader?  How and when could I use it in my own writing to best advantage?"

In Bronte's work, maybe her choice of layered viewpoints relates to the unadorned, unimpeded level of viciousness and cruelty she's laying before us.  All that viewpoint distance functions as a kind of protection, allowing us to look into the dark abyss without risk of falling in.  A large part of an author's choice in point of view relates to the balance of risk and safety for your reader.  How close can you take them without scaring them off completely?  How far back must you stand in order to keep them from running away?  How safe do you want them to feel?  The answers vary from genre to genre, story to story, writer to writer.

One of my favorite books to reference as a point of view example is THE HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG.  There are 3 different points of view, each with a different level of distance.  The least sympathetic character actually has the most immediate point of view and gets the longest stretch to tell her side of the story at the outset.  The most sympathetic character, in my mind, has the most distant point of view and the least page time to tell his side.  In this case, distance seems to function in direct reverse proportion to sympathy, in an effort ultimately to present a fully balanced, three-fold version of events, leaving the reader to judge.

Back to WUTHERING HEIGHTS, then.  If the closer you are, the more an unlikeable or sympathetic character might gain your sympathy, then Bronte clearly wants as little sympathy for Heathcliff, and any of the characters directly involved in her tale, as possible.  She seems to be demanding our harshest judgment.  And she wants that judgment to extend to every layer of the narrative, except, perhaps, the outsider.  Yet over the years, we've developed this rose-colored view of Heathcliff as tortured romantic hero.

Maybe Bronte feared exactly that.  She desperately wanted to prevent us from falling in love with him.  She wanted to present a fully unvarnished vision of him.  Maybe he was drawn from someone in her own life who pulled her into his whirlpool so completely that the act of writing about him honestly could only happen through the safely removed distance provided by those layered viewpoints.  Sometimes we writers have to do that when we're writing about something raw and close to the bone.

Point of view is a powerful tool for writers, and a critical decision.  You can go straightforward, or you can play around.  Multiple viewpoints.  Varied levels of distance.  Unreliable narrators.  Yes, it takes skill to pull off the more experimental approaches, but for the right story, it can have amazing results.  Have you ever experimented with point of view?  What did you discover?


  1. I've. Always wondered why Bronte did that. Your explanation makes more sense than anything I've ever heard or speculated.

    You've touched on another factor I've just begun to explicitly notice, and that's the "experience" of the book. Not just the story with its excellent plot points, not just the quirky characters -- although that's getting closer, but the quality of the time I spend in the world. Do I WANT to be there?



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