The Power of Point of View


Here is a collection of some helpful resources on the literary concept of point of view:

Anderson, Janice Capel. Matthew’s Narrative Web: Over, and Over, and Over Again. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994.

Chapter 2 of this work includes a section setting out insights into the point-of-view crafting of Matthew’s gospel that Anderson had originally compiled in a 1981 unpublished SBL paper, a paper that stands as the earliest significant treatment of point of view by a New Testament scholar. Anderson was the first to set forth how the historical present and long sections of uninterrupted discourse are relevant to the analysis of point of view. However, her most significant contribution has been the empathy-producing properties of point-of-view crafting she discovered in Wayne Booth (listed below).

Berlin, Adele. Poetics and Interpretation of Biblical Narrative. Sheffield: Almond Press, 1983.

The third chapter of this work is dedicated to point of view, and stands as the single best treatment of the topic in the first quarter-century of the narrative-critical approach to the Bible. Its use of the analogy of a movie camera to explain the nature of point of view is particularly effective in capturing the essence of this difficult literary concept. In a section on textual indicators of point of view, Berlin covers six such indicators, with her discussions of the use of the Hebrew term hinneh (“lo, behold”) and of reports on the inner life of a character being the most helpful.

Booth, Wayne. The Rhetoric of Fiction. 2nd edition. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1983.

This is a classic in the study of the modern novel, but it is only the chapter entitled “Control of Distance in Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’” that is pertinent to the analysis of point of view. Booth posits that Austen has crafted her narrative in such a way as to have the readers see most of the action through the title character’s point of view, resulting in the readers coming to feel empathy for her, thus wishing for her happiness in the end (for more details, see the Sep 25/12 post). This discovery by Booth constitutes the single more significant insight into how point-of-view crafting is relevant to the interpretation of narrative texts.

Kuno, Susumu. Functional Syntax: Anaphora, Discourse and Empathy. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1987.

Kuno is a linguist, and in his chapter entitled “Empathy Perspectives,” he explores the empathy dynamics of a number of different syntactic constructions; for each, he demonstrates how the reader is led to feel more empathy for one person mentioned in the construction than for another. Kuno does not couch his discussions in terms of “point of view,” but his speaking of these empathy dynamics as involving the placing of the “camera” closer to one person than other clearly reflects the dynamics of point-of-view crafting. This material provides insights valuable for the development of point-of-view studies going forward.

Sternberg, Meir. The Poetics of Biblical Narrative: Ideological Literature and the Drama of Reading. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.

The nature of Sternberg’s approach to biblical narrative is rather unique in the annals of narrative criticism in that his initial field of expertise was literary studies, and only later started applying this expertise to biblical texts, as opposed to basically all other narrative critics who started as biblical scholars, and then branched out into literary studies. Point of view is the focus of only chapters 4 and 13. In them, Sternberg develops the concepts of a “normative” axis, and an “informational” axis, of point of view in biblical narratives, with the latter being his main contribution to point-of-view studies (see the Oct 25/12 post for more detail on this concept).

Uspensky, Boris. A Poetics of Composition: The Structure of the Artistic Text and Typology of Compositional Form. Trans. Valentina Zavarin and Susan Wittig. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973.

For the purposes of incorporating point of view into the study of biblical narratives, biblical scholars have turned to this volume more often than any other. It presents point of view as functioning on five planes–ideological, psychological, spatial, temporal, phraseological–and this simple organizing principle may be behind its appeal to biblical scholars. Unfortunately, Uspensky’s focus is on explaining and illustrating the various point-of-view dynamics used in composing narratives, and not on developing how awareness of these dynamics can be significant to the interpretation of narratives. Still, Uspensky’s material proves invaluable when coupled with an interpretative grid such as that proffered by Booth.

Yamasaki, Gary. Watching a Biblical Narrative: Point of View in Biblical Exegesis. New York: T. & T. Clark International, 2007.

The first four chapters of this book constitute a compendium of the work done on point of view, beginning with how this concept developed in the study of the modern novel, then moving on to its treatment at the hands of linguists, before chronicling the efforts of New Testament and Old Testament scholars to adapt it to the analysis of biblical narratives. The fifth chapter sets out the various storytelling devices significant in the crafting of point of view, organizing them into six categories–following Uspensky’s five-plane typology supplemented by one more from Sternberg–and chapter 6 presents a comprehensive point-of-view analysis of the account of Jesus and Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10.

________. Perspective Criticism: Point of View and Evaluative Guidance in Biblical Narrative. Eugene: Cascade Books, 2012.

This book builds upon the work on point of view set out in Watching a Biblical Narrative, going into more detail on the storytelling devices related to point of view, illustrating many of them with descriptions of movie scenes utilizing them. It also makes a case for seeing point-of-view crafting as a means by which biblical storytellers are able to produce within readers a sense of empathy for given characters, resulting in the readers making positive evaluations of them. This thesis is put to the test with chapter-long point-of-view analyses of Gamaliel in Acts 5 and Gideon in Judges 6. (For more details on this book, click here.)

2 Responses »

  1. You are studying an area that I have tended to call narrative rhetoric. Depending on definitions, point of view can be one part of that, or if expanded as Uspensky does, a very large part of that. Uspensky’s ideological point of view, I have tended to call evaluative point of view, which can involve any indications by the narrator of positive or negative evaluation of characters and events. Empathy with characters is a significant factor. In light of the relative lack of reports of character’s inner life in biblical stories, your comments about “following” a character highlights a factor that is significant.
    Robert Tannehill


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