The Power of Point of View

Sympathizing with a Most Unexpected Character in Mark

Steve Blackby STEVE BLACK   It has been argued that point of view can be used as a means of getting the reader to sympathize with a given character. Yamasaki argued additionally “if readers are led to have a subjective experience of a character—another way of saying ‘viewing the events of the story line through a character’s point of view’—the readers will develop a sense of empathy for that character, and thus, become inclined to pull for the character in whatever he or she does.”

If this is true (as I suspect it is), it has some surprising results. To illustrate this I will consider the narrative of John the Baptist’s death in Mark 6:14-29. John the Baptist, the one we might expect that the narrator would lead the implied reader to sympathize with in this episode, is never the focal point of the story. The story never adopts his point of view psychologically. When he is narrated, he is always externally focalized (his inner consciousness–thoughts, feelings, desires–are not described). The narrator does not seem to be leading the reader to sympathize with John the Baptist.

The surprising thing is who the story is focalized through–Herod! That is, it is Herod’s point of view that is adopted and through which the story unfolds. This is almost exclusively so (minor exceptions include 6:24-25, 29). Herod is most vividly internally focalized in 6:20 (“Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him”). In this verse the reader is made privy to Herod inner consciousness, and this inner consciousness is very interesting. It is wonderfully complex and conflicted, making Herod one of the rounder characters in the whole Gospel. When John is sentenced the reader again learns of the inner workings of Herod’s mind–“he was deeply grieved!” The fact that the reader is made aware of what is going on in Herod’s mind while left in the dark about the other characters draws the reader close to Herod. The narrator is leading the reader to sympathize with the murderer of John the Baptist! John the Baptist is a rather distant figure, while Herod is painfully detailed and complex–because of the way he is focalized (or, because of the point of view that tells the story through Herod’s perspective).

Narratively I think what I am suggesting is somewhat clear. What is not clear, at least to me, is why. What could be the reason to lead the reader to identify with Herod? Why not John?

Much of the trial of Jesus is similarly focalized through Pilate, and this creates a parallel between the two figures. Nevertheless, this parallel exists beyond elements of point of view: it can be established thematically as well. Hence, all this parallel does is add the question “why does Mark lead his readers to identity with Pilate?” to the pre-existing question “why does Mark lead his readers to identity with Herod?”

Neither has a clear answer as far as I can see.

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