How Point of View Points

Post Date: March 22nd, 2009

Today’s Word Count for the Novel: 118,703. 2560 words added; 150,000 is my approximate goal.

Page Count for the novel: 428

In other news: I’ve received some rejections for various stories and a finalist position in the Stanford Magazine contest for “3.0,” which has been a finalist in Glimmer Train’s January 2008 Family Matters contest and even got a personal note from The Missouri Review editors. It went back in the hopper and now its new and improved draft is visiting other magazines. My story “Retrograde” is also on the short list for consideration at another magazine.

He’s a real Nowhere Man,
Sitting in his Nowhere Land,
Making all his nowhere plans for nobody.
Doesn’t have a point of view,
Knows not where he’s going to,
Isn’t he a bit like you and me?

— John Lennon

It’s been a perfect day for rest and reading, and also a perfect day to reflect on J.D. Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” I was inspired to return to my copy and re-read heavy annotations on a story that mystifies me still. But after five or six reads, I saw some sparks. It was a delight to comb the text of Nine Stories and strike some gold.

I’ve studied the point of view and label the narration as third-person objective – a fly on the wall reporting the action without feeling, also similar to a movie camera taking in all the shots without judgment. Most paragraphs read like the first and last of the story: this happened, then by the way, that happened. Tweezing a troublesome mole is treated with the same emotion and urgency as firing a suicide bullet. Events progress with sensory detail, but there is no pause for play-by-play commentary.

Except for the second paragraph: that one is an interesting and momentary lapse into omniscience.

“She was a girl who for a ringing phone dropped exactly nothing. She looked as if her phone had been ringing continually ever since she had reached puberty.”

This is the one time that the narrative voice takes on a personality, almost as if a reporter whose role was to be objective has a catty moment. (To this point, we don’t have any emotional attachment to her because she is simply “the girl in 507.”) But here the camera retreats to take a lifetime view of her and speculate that her looks as she tweezes speak to a lifetime of narcissism and nauseating popularity.

We watch the girl (Mrs. Glass, aka Muriel, it’s later revealed) works with religious devotion to maintain her physical appearance. Meanwhile, her husband is adrift on the sand, befriending little girls and making odd and incendiary statements to strangers. The narration doesn’t help us to interpret these almost surreal events where people do vain, lonely, and troubling things. Instead, we travel unaided with a conceited woman who inventories her looks and a lost man who, returned from World War II with most likely a case of PTSD, has a childlike need to be around little girls (more is implied, an almost unhealthy fascination, but it’s never developed beyond hints of impropriety). When we have only physical descriptions and dialogue to cling to, we have to wonder which characters we should ally with, if any. The narrative voice or lack thereof (no sound but a whirring camera or buzzing fly) poses this question of who to care about, if anyone.

If you had just returned from a debilitating war experience to a wife who couldn’t really be bothered, you might have a feeling of disorientation as Seymour Glass does. The narrative tone mirrors that disconnect he must be feeling with a superficial world run by those more concerned with clothing, manicures, and moles as his wife is — or drinking martinis before five as Sibyl’s mother is. Yet, when he commits suicide, we as readers aren’t inclined to weep. Therefore the narrative point of view is distant, off-putting and removed, as is typical of the mood of third-person objective.

Still, there’s that quick moment of judgment of Muriel, making us wonder: aren’t we supposed to feel a bit more deeply for this veteran who can’t get his bearings? We feel lost at the end, as the man who seems to be saying the most odd and interesting things, shaking up his surroundings, is now gone and can’t be followed by the narrative camera any longer.

He is Seymour Glass, “see more glass,” Sibyl says, as if a man walking on shards and feeling what cuts so deep. It also invokes related images. “For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face,” reads the King James Bible, in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, 1, 12:13. Perhaps Seymour is tired of the dim and distant images of the world where all the colors blur, as images would be in the polished brass people in Paul’s day used for mirrors. Perhaps Seymour needs to rocket himself out of this world, this point of view, maybe into a stratosphere where there are no more feelings.

Amazing what a point of view can point to — a world of thoughts and feelings for each reader who dares to dip a toe in. My parting thought is this: as tragic as it is for Seymour to die, I feel some relief that Sibyl is safe from him, he who speaks of little girls with “desire.” The unflinching eye of Salinger’s narrative camera gives none of these lost souls a verdict or a pass; it’s left up to the likes of me to make the call. And I say, Let’s raise kids who don’t have to go to war, and maybe Sibyl, the seer, won’t have to “see more glass.”

Tomorrow’s Writing Goal: Pick up on page 251 and tie scenes together and cut, cut, cut. Get only the most essential scenes in.


  1. Anonymous says:

    I like your ‘point of view!”
    This is a wonderful post. Keep up the great work.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I agree with YM.
    Personally I like the third person omnicient POV because it allows me distance and emotional freedom from the characters. Since I’m anaytical by nature, it’s more comfortable that way.


  3. bobmust says:

    A great look at an interesting story, Lyn. Good job! Third person objective is sort of out of vogue now, but I wish it weren’t. It engages the reader much more than a lot of other POVs.

  4. Lyn Hawks says:

    I wonder why 3rd-person objective is out of vogue? In post-war eras, it seems like an apt POV that resonates for writers dealing with the horrors of battle. For me, the POV shoves the reader away while pulling you in at the same time. Salinger’s stories are like train wrecks; I can’t turn my head. Yet I really never know the victims, either. They are strangers who have bad luck and make bad choices.

  5. Lyn Hawks says:

    YD — an interesting point about omniscience allowing distance and emotional freedom. I would agree that the godlike, editorial narrator of omniscience can have an undisputed power to roam above characters and through their minds anytime, anywhere. I do think that omniscient narration can allow empathy, however, with a variety of characters. The challenge as a writer is, how much time do you have to stop and stay a while with each person? Often, time gets to wasting and we have to make tough choices. Inevitably I ally myself with someone, I find, either by giving the better behavior to one character or more time in his or her head. But that’s just me thus far in my writer’s process; I haven’t attempted many omniscient pieces.

  6. bobmust says:

    I think 3-O fell out of favor when fiction began to delve into the characters’ psychology and contrast that to exterior things, such as their behavior – which didn’t always dovetail with their inner urges.
    Writers and readers still love that comparison – that’s why writers tend toward first person and a third person that’s tightly constructed about the protagonist.