The Power of Point of View

Reading 1 & 2 Samuel with Undergraduates using Perspective Criticism

Head Shot 3 (08.09)by SCOTT S. ELLIOTT   This coming semester (spring 2014), I will be teaching an upper-division course, “Literature of the Hebrew Bible,” which will focus on 1 & 2 Samuel. One of my primary areas of interest is literary theory, so I place a strong emphasis on close reading in the course, and class discussions center on matters of literary aesthetics, dynamics and techniques of narrative discourse, the role of the reader in the construction of meaning, and so on. This year, I’m assigning Gary Yamasaki’s book, Perspective Criticism (Cascade Books, 2012), together with Robert Alter’s The David Story (W. W. Norton & Co., 1999) and Joel Baden’s The Historical David (HarperOne, 2013). We will read and discuss Perspective Criticism at the outset of the course, and then attend to the various planes affecting narrative point of view throughout our reading of 1 & 2 Samuel. At the conclusion of the course, students will be required to submit a research paper in which their principal objective will be to analyze an episode of their choosing from 1 or 2 Samuel with respect to the narrative aspect of point of view.

I decided to incorporate perspective criticism into my course for two reasons. First, I have long had an interest in narrative point of view and focalization. Point of view is a fundamental aspect of narrative discourse. I am particularly intrigued by the interplay between points of view within a narrative (e.g., those of various characters) and points of view that lie elsewhere (e.g., those of the narrator, which theoretically occupies a position that is at once both inside and outside the narrative). Attending explicitly to these different layers will afford students, I think, a fruitful opportunity to critically engage in a more balanced way both the story and the discourse. Second, the force that narrative point of view exerts on readers stems in large part from its transparency and the subtle ways in which it is often disguised. The planes of point of view delineated in Perspective Criticism make point of view crafting accessible and provide a manageable means whereby students can analyze its role in narratives.

One of the greatest challenges I have faced in teaching the Bible to undergraduates has been enabling them to see, understand, and appreciate the fact that biblical literature does not reflect a unified or monolithic perspective. Not only do different works speak with different voices, but often different points of view are reflected within a single work. What I most hope my students will learn to do through class discussions and their research papers is to refine their skills at close reading, and then to articulate their observations with precision and nuance. The material in 1 & 2 Samuel embodies multiple perspectives in tension with one another on the figures of Saul and David. If students are better able to identify where, when, and how those differing perspectives are in play, they will then be better prepared to posit creative and intelligent suggestions concerning the implications and consequences of their findings.

The most significant obstacle students will face, I suspect, is training their eyes to see the camera, as it were; to recognize that selection and framing are inescapable, defining characteristics of narrative discourse. It is all too easy — and enjoyable! — to ignore or simply forget about the camera, and to lose oneself in the story. It requires a great deal of intellectual energy and effort to look for what lies beyond the margins and to observe the presentational apparatus. But, contrary to what it may seem to some at first blush, doing so frequently lends an even deeper degree of pleasure to the reading experience.

If the site administrator will permit me to do so, I will follow-up this post in May, at the conclusion of the semester, with a post mortem reflection on how things played out.

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