On Writing

The rise and rise of the omniscient ‘I’

Peter Jackson and actress Saoirse Ronan promoting the film version of The Lovely Bones: the novel is told by an all-seeing narrator who is dead. Sergio Perez/Reuters

In an age of uncertainty, in which truth is apparently an illusion and all claims to authority are suspect, it is tempting to believe that a first person narrator telling their own story – in a style that is skewed, fragmentary, and unreliable – is the only point of view that can strike a chord of authenticity with the reader. At least, my students tend to think so.

Yet the same decades that saw the proliferation of such edgy literary phenomena as the first person present tense have also been marked by the discrete emergence of a qualitatively different kind of “I” – an “I” that attempts to break free of the technical constraints traditionally imposed by a first person narration to take on the attributes of omniscience. (That is, the literary attributes associated with the all-seeing, all-knowing third person perspective familiar to readers of the 19th century novel.)

These would-be omniscient ‘I’s habitually gain access to the thoughts and feelings of other characters, happily narrate scenes from which they are physically or mentally absent, and round out the social and cultural context of their stories with a welter of telling details. (As opposed to a traditional first person that is limited to the thoughts, feelings and language of the narrating character.)

Writers have had all sorts of fun inventing tricksy devices to account for this flagrant “rule-breaking”. Perhaps the best known example is Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, which is narrated by the ‘I’ protagonist Susie Salmon who can see what occurs everywhere and anywhere because she is dead. (“When I first entered heaven I thought everybody saw what I saw”).

Or Marcus Zuzak’s The Book Thief, which is narrated by Death itself (“It suffices to say that at some point in time, I will be standing over you, as genially as possible. Your soul will be in my arms.”)

Other writers have found more terrestrial – or, at least, less celestial – solutions. Ian McEwan’s Atonement, for example, reads like a traditional third person novel until the very last chapter, in which Briony, who has now become a novelist, informs the reader that she has actually written the book herself. (“How can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God?”).

Ian McEwan in 2011. Nir Elias/Reuters

Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin uses a similar device, also narrating the last chapter in the first person (“If you knew what was going to happen, if you knew everything that was going to happen next—if you knew in advance the consequences of your own actions—you’d be doomed. You’d be as ruined as God.”)

Then, of course, there’s Philip Roth’s trilogy of American life – American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain – in which Roth creates a kind of first person alibi by getting his alter-ego, the writer Nathan Zuckerman, to narrate the characters stories for him (“You’re Zuckerman?” [the Swede] replied, vigorously shaking my hand. “The author?” “I’m Zuckerman the author.”)

And there’s Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes in the Museum, in which Ruby Lennox – in the tradition of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy – narrates her family’s life from the moment of her own conception.

The first person omniscient is not a postmodern fad or indeed a symptom of a qualitatively new kind of cultural megalomania (however tempting it is to make such an argument). It is also not a careless slap-dash style that has persisted in the work of inept or slovenly writers despite repeated attempts to stamp it out.

Indeed, Gerald Gennette, the illustrious narratologist, argues that this “paradoxical” and “to some people shameful” point of view is historically not uncommon, and that numerous examples are to be identified in the works of the most venerated writers, including Marcel Proust.

Flaubert’s Madam Bovary is – of course – another case in point. Though commonly tagged as a third person omniscient novel it is, strictly speaking, narrated from the first person perspective of a school friend of Charles Bovary’s who mysteriously – or “omnisciently” – inhabits Charles and Emma’s heads.

In fact, the real problem I suspect is that the term “omniscient” is relatively meaningless. It is a baggy sort of catch all word that is used to describe an array of novelistic techniques, including certain truth effects, uses of the intrusive or essayistic narrator, a synoptic or widescreen overview of events, together with a grab-bag of other techniques associated with relaying the thoughts and feelings of other characters, whether those thoughts and feelings are reported accurately or not.

The clanger is that all of these techniques can in fact be used whether a story is written in the first, second or third person.

Although it might be academically not-quite-respectable to say so, the fact is that in much fiction it is not always altogether clear who is doing the speaking. In the third person the mingling of a character’s speech and thoughts with the narrator’s is called “free indirect style”.

But there is no comparable term for the linguistic tension when the narrator’s words mingle with the characters in a first person narration. (Even though William Faulkner still sounds like William Faulkner in the first or the third person. Or, to use another example, unreliable narrators are only unreliable because the “invisible hand” of the author is constantly at work, pointing out the ironies and falsities of every situation.)

More than switching pronouns

Writers’ manuals too often reduce point of view to an issue of grammatical consistency (or else barrack for one point of view over another irrespective of need or circumstance). As a consequence, when asked to switch point of view – in the hope of getting a little closer, or, indeed, a little further away from their subject – my students all too often switch around the pronouns without altering any other aspect of the language.

It would be better to cast aside all the well worn critical myths about cohesive worlds and God-like authors and start thinking about what language actually does – that is, the ways in which narrative point of view shapes the ethical and emotional reactions of the reader.

Basically, the reader will feel differently about a plot event depending on whether they are observing down the wrong end of a telescope or up close and personal like an MRI scan, not to mention from which character’s perspective they are doing the looking and feeling.

Occasionally, the colourfully blinkered point of view that makes a first person narrator such an immediate and immersive presence for the reader may also be the very thing that prevents the character from knowing themselves.

The attraction of the omniscient is that by seeing events through the eyes of multiple characters, readers can come to know those characters in ways that the characters do not know themselves.

Judiciously used, it can endow a character with a bit of cultural surround sound, or expose the far-flung corners of their subconscious – or indeed the wider universe – that are otherwise invisible. Ultimately, the only problem with omniscience is that it is very hard to do it well, and therefore all too easy to do it very badly.