How do you eat an elephant?
The Inner Calvinist and the Petrol Pump

The red spot in the monograph

On a thread about Point of View, in the public bit of WriteWords, I posted a link to this admirable exploration by David Jauss of the whole business of point of view and psychic distance in fiction. Jauss starts by discussing Hemingway's story "Hills Like White Elephants", which is an exemplar of what some call the Dramatic point of view, and some call Third Person Objective. The story is largely built from dialogue, and the rest is plain narrative of physical action and setting: it's dramatic in the proper sense, in other words: it contains nothing that someone in the stalls couldn't hear and see... except for one phrase, right near the end, where we're admitted briefly to the man's own viewpoint, and then another word. As Jauss puts it (my italics):

Hemingway... tells us the man "looked up the tracks but could not see the train" ... reducing the distance between us and him ever so slightly. And two sentences later... He writes that the man "looked at the people. They were all waiting reasonably for the train." Notice that word reasonably... it tells us not just what the man sees - or, in this case, fails to see - but the man's opinion about what he sees.

And that reasonably, Jauss says, is the most important word in the whole story. On that WriteWords thread, though, someone questioned whether most readers would even notice two such tiny shifts in what CW vocabulary would describe as point of view ( and the more narrow-minded would call a breach of the "rules"). Certainly, surely, it makes no difference to the overall effect of the piece.

But I agree with Jauss. As I read him, his point about isn't that Hemingway's trying to make the reader conscious of a switch of point-of-view, and failing because it's done so slightly: so discreetly if you like. Non-writer readers aren't aware of point-of-view as a technique anyway, except that when it's not working properly they're less involved in the story or feel vaguely uneasy. I think Jauss's point is that everything up until that word has been entirely neutral in its telling. Subjective experience - emotion, perception, opinion - is latent in Hemingway's words, if you like: the text hardly even implies them, and what we "read" of the character's feelings is entirely what we infer from those external, objectively recorded things.

So, if you're reading a narrative which is uncoloured by any subjective experience, the very subjective "reasonably" suddenly brings strong colour: the reaction/thought/emotion of a particular character at that moment, which tells us not only what he thinks of those people, but by implication (not just our inference) what he thinks about the conversation he's just had. And like a wholly white canvas with a single stain of red, the picture suddenly becomes all about red, and the tension between red and white, even though red is a tiny part of the total area. We may not articulate how this is working to ourselves, just as non-readers don't articulate their experience of point of view: we just experience it. But that dot of red has an influence on how we read the painting out of all proportion to its size.

This isn't just an observation about point of view, or subtly. It's not simply (for a change) an exhortation for prose writers to start thinking like a poet. It's also a cheering thing to remember in that rather punched-in-the-stomach moment when you get a thick sheaf of editorial comments. At first the request to strengthen - develop - change... characters, settings and themes... can seem incredibly daunting. But once you really start looking, the story may only need a few dots, in just the right place, of just the right colour.

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