The Power of Point of View

S.B.L. Book Review Session on “Perspective Criticism” (part 7): Response to Yamasaki’s Response

Steve Blackby STEVE BLACK   I am beginning to think that I am not sure that I find Yamasaki’s concept of “point of view character” to be useful. I prefer simply to think of “point of view” rather than “point of view character.” In essence, point of view is the point of entry that the narrator gives to the implied audience into the narrative. This point of entry has different aspects (spatial, temporal, ideological, etc.), but at root always remains a point of entry into the narrative. A narrator can craft the narrative to tell the story from the perspective of a character, several characters, a group, or several groups. Alternatively, a narrator can grant an entry into a narrative without adopting the perspective of any character or group. That is, a story can be narrated from a neutral perspective outside of the vantage point of any particular existent within the narrative. Finally, a narrator can shift from the perspective of one character to that of another, and from the point of view of a character to a neutral position at will. The job of perspective criticism, as I see it, is to account for the decisions made by the narrator, and to posit effects that each decision made for the implied reader. This is best done on a case by case fashion, rather than crafting global and static rules.

My concern with the concept of “point of view character,” at least as Yamasaki defines it, is that it tends to turn a fluid phenomenon into something static and wooden. Yamasaki, in my view, fails to account for certain focalizations simply because they do not fit the criteria that he has set for what constitutes a “point of view character.” An example of this is the story of the disciples going to Emmaus in Luke 24:13-35. The point of entry into this episode is clearly the disciples. This is indicated most clearly on the spatial plane. That is, the narrative follows them from beginning to end. They head out from Jerusalem to Emmaus (24:13), they are talking (24:14), Jesus approaches them (24:15), but they do not recognize him (24:16), and so on. They are the focus of the movement and the action. The story is told from their perspective. The reader’s entry point into the narrative is through them. Their emotions are conveyed, although they are not necessarily relayed directly by the narrator to the implied reader. It seems rather arbitrary to require direct communication between narrator and implied reader relating to inner thoughts, emotions, volitions, etc. to qualify as “point of view character.” Hopes, fears and desires can all be conveyed by means of direct speech or action as easily as through direct statement of narration. Narratologists often prize the former over the latter.  Whether the disciples in Luke 24 are “point of view characters” is not as important as recognizing that they are simply the entry point into the narrative. If speaking of “point of view characters” causes us to miss this, then I suspect that speaking of “point of view character” does more to obscure point of view analysis than illumine it.

The issue is even clearer (at least to me) in the narrative of John the Baptist’s death in Mark 6. Yamasaki notes that this story is not told through Herod’s perspective on the spatial plane in 6:24-27. This suggests a rather rigid approach to perspective criticism. It suggests that we need to ask questions like, “what percentage of a narrative must be told through a particular character’s perspective for that character to qualify as the point of view character?” Does nothing less than 100% count? How about 85%? 80%? I think that in raising the question of “point of view character,” and defining it as he does, leads Yamasaki to miss perspective critical facets in the narration of this story. That is, his concern with “point of view character” has caused him to miss what is happening on the “point of view” narration of the story of John’s death. The vast bulk of the story of John’s death is told though the perspective of Herod. The audience gains entry to the story through Herod. This is striking and unexpected, and requires explanation. Does this also make him the “point of view character?” I’m not sure that answering this question is as important as simply accounting for the “point of view” that this episode provides to the audience. Why did the narrator decide to grant his audience assess to this story through Herod? The fact that this perspective is not complete and that it switches briefly to other perspectives hardly answers this question. It also does not cancel the fact that the audience gains entry to the vast bulk of the story through Herod. (I am not sure how the narrator could have explained Herodias’ evil scheming through the perspective of Herod without being extremely awkward. Sometimes the demands of the story itself make certain decisions necessary for the narrator.)

Yamasaki argues that another factor that keeps Herod from being the “point of view character” is the gap between him and the audience on the informational plane. The action in 6:24-25 is made known to the audience but not to Herod. (Likewise, Yamasaki suggests that 6:27b happens apart from Herod’s knowledge, but this is forced. Seeing as Herod sent the executioner to kill John, the fact that he then does so hardly can be said to be truly outside of Herod’s knowledge.) While this may be true, I do not think it takes away from the fact that the “database” of the audience and of Herod has been more or less equal for the bulk of the episode. Again, I think that Yamasaki’s use of point of view is too wooden. The fact that the narrator moves away from using Herod as an entry point into the narrative in 6:24-25 does not take away from the fact that Herod remains the dominant entry point for the most of the episode. This is why I am not sure speaking of “point of view character” is helpful. If one needs to determine a singular point of view character that is sustained throughout an entire narrative, then we must conclude that there are no “point of view characters” in the whole of Mark. That is, there is no single character through which the whole of the story is told. The point of view switches from here to there and back again freely. Perhaps we might say that in order to be a “point of view character” all that is required is that one maintains this position for only one episode within a larger narrative. But is it necessary for a character to maintain that position for 100% of that episode? This seems too arbitrary for me. It is much better to simply analyze “point of view,” and perhaps set aside the “point of view character.” This enables us to notice Herod’s unique narrative position in chapter 6 without being distracted by minor shifts in focalization.

Finally, Yamasaki argues that Acts 9 is an example of a villain being a “point of view character” in such a way as to forge a merging with the audience. I believe this example actually does more to demonstrate my argument than Yamasaki’s. I do not think biblical narrative has anything similar to what is found in modern narrative, where implied readers empathize and “root for” villains such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The audience does not approve of Saul’s persecution of Christians, and does not want him to succeed in this. They do, however, approve of the “converted” Paul. The one who renounced his former antagonistic ways is a wonderful “hero,” and will win a great deal of sympathy from the audience of the book of Acts. The villainous persecuting pre-conversion Saul only wins sympathy because of his conversion. The narrative does not ask its audience to “root for” the one “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” (9:1). They rejoice, however, that this terrible opponent of the faith becomes the faith’s biggest advocate.

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