The Power of Point of View

How Perspective Criticism Actually Works (demonstrated by an SBL paper on the point-of-view crafting of Mary at the Tomb in John 20)

MaryMandJesusby GARY YAMASAKI   I had the opportunity to present a paper on “perspective criticism” at the recent Society of Biblical Literature meetings in Chicago. It analyzes John 20:11ff. (“Mary at the Tomb”), focusing on the three planes of point of view introduced in earlier posts. A report of this paper’s findings should function well as a demonstration of perspective criticism in action.

Who Says You Have to be Objective points out that the most significant distinction among the various points of view a biblical narrator might choose in the crafting of a particular episode is between an ‘objective’ point of view–where the readers are led to experience a given character from a distance as a mere object–and a ‘subjective’ point of view–where the readers are actually led to merge with the character. So, does the Johannine narrator provide his readers with an objective or subjective experience of Mary?

An appropriate starting point for any perspective-critical analysis is to consider the spatial-plane dynamic of ‘following,’ that is, determining whether the narrator is consistently placing the readers in the vicinity of one particular character, which contributes toward the readers having a subjective experience of the character. In verse 11 of our passage, the readers are positioned in the vicinity of Mary as she stands alone outside the tomb, and they are kept in this position of proximity as Mary interacts with two angels in the tomb (vv. 12-13), and also, as she interact with a man she thinks is a gardener (vv. 14-17).

This clear example of the narrator leading the readers to follow Mary would appear to indicate the narrator intends for the readers to have a subjective experience of this character. However, the Oct 4/12 post also made the point that a mere following of a character is not sufficient, by itself, to bring about a merging of the readers with the character. This caveat is given to account for the case of an ‘enigma,’ that is, a character to whom readers are given amble exposure, but from whom they are kept at arm’s length by means of a lack of access to the character’s thoughts and reasons behind their actions, thus rendering the character a mystery to the readers.

As seen in this post, the granting or denial of access to a character’s inner life is at the heart of point of view on the psychological plane. And so, psychological-plane ‘inside views’ into a character’s thoughts or emotions supplementing a spatial-plane ‘following’ of the character could be all that is needed to provide the readers with a subjective experience of a character. In fact, even a notice by the narrator of what a character is seeing qualifies as an inside view, for it takes the readers inside the character’s head to access what visual data is registering in the character’s brain.

Does verse 11’s note that Mary is weeping qualify as an inside view? This does appear to be an inside view into her emotions, but remember that inside views are statements by narrators setting out for the readers some dynamic occurring inside a character, and thus, beyond the perception of a mere objective bystander. In the present context, a statement by the narrator of what Mary is feeling would qualify. But the comment in v. 11 that she is weeping does not inform the readers of an emotion Mary is feeling, but rather, simply sets forth something any objective bystander could perceive and, as such, it is an ‘external view.’ Therefore, the readers are kept on the outside of Mary in verse 11a.

Verse 12 mentions that Mary ‘saw’ two angels in the tomb, and as mentioned earlier, a notice by the narrator of what a character is seeing qualifies as an inside view of the character. However, verse 13’s depiction of Mary’s interaction with these angels suggests she doesn’t realize they are angels. And this understanding of the verse is supported by the fact that the narrator uses the relatively uncommon verb theoreo to indicate that Mary ‘saw’ two angels–a verb used only two other times by this narrator, both times indicating someone seeing someone else, but in situations where the person doing the seeing believes they are seeing someone other than the person stipulated by the narrator (cf. 6:19; 20:14). Understanding the use of theoreo here in this way means there are two angels before Mary, but she believes they are just men.

This forces us to reconsider whether we actually do have an inside view here, for while the statement “she saw two angels” appears at first glance to be transporting the readers inside the head of Mary, it actually is not, for it is not conveying to the readers the visual data being registered in her brain, that is, two men sitting in the tomb. Therefore, this statement does not join with the spatial-plane ‘following’ of Mary in leading the readers to have a subjective experience of her.

In fact, the effect of this statement on the informational plane of point of view actually works against that end result. As seen in Who Knew What When, a convergence between the information database of the readers and the information database of a character contributes toward the readers having a subjective experience of the character, whereas a divergence between the databases of readers and character leads to an objective experience. In our passage, the fact that there are two angels sitting before Mary is a part of the readers’ information database, but not a part of Mary’s database, and this divergence of databases works to prevent the readers from having a subjective experience of Mary.

Verse 14 reports that when Mary turned away from the tomb, she “saw Jesus standing there.” Here, we have a parallel situation to what we just saw in the preceding verse; just as Mary is reported there as seeing two angels when she thought she was simply seeing two men, Mary is reported here as seeing Jesus when she thought she was simply seeing a gardener, as verse 15 goes on to say. Therefore, again, we do not have an inside view leading the readers to have a subjective experience of Mary. Further, since the readers’ information database contains the fact it is Jesus standing there, but Mary’s database does not, means we again have a divergence of databases, which also hinders the readers having a subjective experience of this character.

The narrator’s crafting of point of view to this point suggests it is his intention that though the readers are to follow Mary, they are only to have an objective experience of her while doing so. The main point-of-view move used to ensure the readers do not have a subjective experience of her is the maintaining of a divergence between the information databases of the readers and Mary. This being the case, verse 16 poses a problem for the narrator. This verse reports Mary coming to realize the man she thought was a gardener is actually Jesus, which transforms the divergence of databases into a convergence, and this contributing toward the readers having a subjective experience of Mary.

At this point where the information plane will no longer help him maintain an objective experience of Mary for the readers, the narrator deftly shifts to the psychological plane for a point-of-view move that keeps the readers’ experience of Mary objective. Mary’s coming to realize the man to whom she has been talking is Jesus is reported with the statement, “. . .turning, she said to him, ‘Rabboni’. . . .” One would have expected this report to read something like, “. . .turning, she realized it was Jesus, and she said to him, ‘Rabboni’. . .” with the actual Johanine statement feeling incomplete in that it does not actually indicate Mary comes to realize it is Jesus. But if the narrator wants to keep the readers’ experience of Mary objective, he must omit any indication of Mary coming to this realization, for to include it would be an inside view into a dynamic occurring in the Mary’s mind, and such a psychological-plane move would contribute toward the readers having a subjective experience of Mary.

To summarize, the readers being led to ‘follow’ Mary throughout this passage is a spatial-plane move contributing toward them having a subjective experience of this character. However, the narrator never supplies the needed supplementation from the psychological or informational planes to have the readers fully merge with Mary. In fact, at points in the passage where inside views of Mary could have been included to supply such supplementation (vv. 12, 14), the narrator reports sightings by Mary in such a way as to avoid including what she was actually seeing, thus disqualifying them as inside views. . .creating, in the process, divergences between the information databases of the readers and Mary, which contributes further to the prevention of a subjective experience for the readers. Then, at the point where the divergence of databases is to become a convergence, the narrator turns to the psychological plane for a move having the effect of maintaining for the readers an objective experience of Mary. This point-of-view crafting of the passage reflects a strategy of keeping the readers at a distance from Mary, as opposed to having them merge with her.

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