Point of view – how to understand it
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Point of view – definition
‘Point of view’ is a term from literary studies which describes the outlook from which events are related.
It is used of a statement which offers a particular viewpoint or perspective on something.
This viewpoint might be that that held personally by the writer or speaker, but it could also be that of a deliberately created fictional character.
- I think Bill’s taste in clothes is appalling.
[My point of view.]
- “I think Bill’s taste in clothes is appalling” John said sneeringly.
[John’s point of view.]
- She tried desperately to persuade me of her husband’s honesty.
[My point of view.]
‘Point of view’ is an important concept in analysing and understanding both speech and writing.
Point of view may be overt and explicit, or it may be subtly implied.
It is often used to create character by presenting recognisable opinions.
It may also be used to present psychology in depth by revealing unconscious thoughts.
Information may often be presented from a particular point of view without revealing the source – which the observer is invited to guess.
It may also be mischevously imitated for ironic effect.
NB! Point of view is more than just an ‘opinion’. It also implies an identifiable source.
The concept of ‘point of view’ is essentially concerned with identifying the source of information.
This is not always a straightforward matter, because statements may contain more than one point of view.
In the first example – I think Bill’s taste in clothes is appalling – we are given only one point of view: that of the ‘I’ who is making the statement. We have no way of putting this view into any other perspective. Strictly speaking, we do not know if Bill’s taste is bad or not. We only know the opinion of ‘I’ about the matter.
In the second example – “I think Bill’s taste in clothes is appalling” John said sneeringly – the same statement is made by John, and this is reported to us by someone else – the narrator. The narrator informs us that the statement was made ‘sneeringly’. This casts John’s opinion into a critical light, because the term ‘sneering’ carries very negatives overtones.
Thus in this second example we have two points of view – John’s and the narrator’s. One is passing comment on the other. This gives the reader more information with which to make judgements.
In the third example – She tried desperately to persuade me of her husband’s honesty – there are again two points of view, though the second is less obvious this time.
The first point of view is that of the ‘me’ recounting events. This person – the narrator – controls what we know. The second point of view is that of the ‘she’ who is discussing her husband. This view however comes to us from the narrator – the ‘me’.
The terms ‘desperately’ and ‘persuade’ suggest that this effort is being made under emotional pressure – and that the attempt is not succeeding.
But the person recounting this event [the narrator] might have a bias of some kind, or prejudice against the woman. We tend to believe that narrators are telling the truth, but what if this person were a robber who had just broken into the house and was stealing the family jewels?
The point here is that we cannot know if the husband is actually honest or not. We only have two points of view – that of the wife who is trying to persuade a narrator, and failing. [It’s a complex business, isn’t it?]
Sometimes a point of view may be implied rather than directly stated. Consider the following example, from a story which concerns a young girl making a journey at night:
A faint wind blowing off the water ruffled under Fenella’s hat, and she put up her hand to keep it on. It was dark on the Old Warf, very dark; the wool sheds, the cattle trucks, the cranes standing up so high, the little squat railway engine, all seemed carved out of solid darkness. Here and there on a rounded wood pile, that was like the stalk of a huge black mushroom, there hung a lantern, but it seemed afraid to unfurl its timid, quivering light in all that blackness; it burned softly, as if for itself.
Here the first point of view is that of a narrator – telling the story of Fenella, the young girl. But then in the second sentence, starting with terms such as ‘cranes standing up so high’ and ‘the little squat railway engine’, the events are narrated from the young girl’s point of view – as they might seem to her.
This is a very typical example of a writer using ‘point of view’ to offer readers an imaginative experience – in this case seeing the world as it would be perceived by a young girl.
Point of view may also be impersonated, assumed, or mischevously implied in both speech and writing for ironic effect.
To summarise, point of view is important because we need to place any statement into a context before we can evaluate it properly.
Self-assessment quiz follows …
© Roy Johnson 2003
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