Third-person narrators: the difficulties of classifying them

The differences between various kinds of narrator seem clearer in theory than they do in practice. This is because most narratives do not stick 100% to the same mode all the time. That is, some 3rd-person narratives are omniscient sometimes, objective other times. A good example of this is in war films, when the good guys are in a country where they don’t speak the language (say Americans in Russia); many movies alternate between scenes in which the Russian dialogue is translated (as subtitles) and scenes where the Russian characters speak without translations (often at critical moments in the action). Here the film’s “narrator” (as it were) is omniscient when he/she (it?) wants us to know what the Russians are saying, but objective when it wants to increase the suspense by merely showing the Russians speaking without providing the interpretation of a translation.

I mentioned in class that objective narration is relatively easy to identity, and that objective narrators can’t say certain things without ceasing to be objective. One of these is reading minds. Omniscient narration is trickier (how do you know that a narrator is omniscient unless he/she is reading minds?). By the way, what I have been calling third-person subjective is also known as limited omniscient narration (i.e., the narrator is omniscient, but only with some–usually one–characters; in Daisy Miller, the narrator has access to Winterbourne’s mind but not to Daisy’s or to Mrs. Costello’s). I prefer subjective to limited omniscient, though, because this kind of narrator is often not particularly direct in her judgments (consider the narrator in Daisy Miller, whose judgments on Winterbourne are never too explicit, always subtle and ironic), while omniscient narrators–at least in nineteenth-century fiction–tend to make pronouncements, to guide our interpretation, to comment on the action.

I mentioned, however, that omniscient narrators can sometimes give themselves away and make us wonder whether we can trust their omniscience. When what has seemed like an omniscient narrator in Wyndham Lewis’s Tarr (1918) suddenly comments on a character that “she was a gigantic blonde slut,” most readers can’t help but question whether this kind of judgment is consistent with omniscience: it seems too personal, too evaluatory and judgmental  to be the assessment of a consciousness that can theoretically see and know everything and everyon’s mind (only a narrator shut out of this woman’s mind–and therefore not omniscient–could possibly find this to be a sufficient description of her character). This is not to say that omniscient narrators don’t judge or make moral distinctions, because they often do. Remember the passage from George Eliot’s Adam Bede that we read in class, which speaks of some people as being “insignificant,” or of the Bible’s description of Job as being “perfect and upright.” The difference, to me, between the Lewis passage and these two examples is that the judgement in Lewis is presented in language that reflects too much personality–and an omniscient narrator will find it hard to convince us of his/her omniscience if he/she seems to much like an individual person; the Bible and Eliot, by contrast, speak with a less individual voice, a more communal or universal one. Though Eliot frequently has her narrators use “I”, this is not really an individual “I” in the sense that Tony Webster uses it; it’s closer to the newspaper editor’s “we.” 

Here’s an example you may find helpful. In most fairy tales, the omniscient narrator makes very definitive judgments on characters. Thus Cinderella is good and virtuous, while her stepsisters are bad. The narrator will make these judgments, and we must accept them if the tale is to work–as long as the tale doesn’t give us too much reason to become sceptical with the narrator’s assessment. If Cinderella proceeded to poison her stepsisters in their sleep and then defraud the prince for all he was worth, we might start to find that our narrator was not so omniscient. What we would have is a narrator who is either woefully flawed his judgment or, perhaps, who shares in Cinderella’s delusions. It’d probably be a more interesting tale, too.


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