The uninflected prose of an objective narrator has seemingly declined in contemporary literature in favor of the “voicier” POVs such as first person, second person, or third person close. We are told that reflecting characters’ personalities in the language—such as by collapsing the distance between the way they speak and the way the story is narrated—is a good thing. The logic has to do with maximizing prose’s flexibility to dip inside the mind. Film and TV, for example, have a hard time; the best they can do is resort to voice-overs that are often clunky. But I’ve seen as many clunky attempts in fiction to capture voice, many forcing quirky speech patterns such as repeating words (“he went, went, went to the supermarket”) or the overuse of italics, certain recurring expressions, dialect, etc. This is a severely limited understanding of POV and, rather than enhancing the power of prose, diminishes it.
The objective POV is woefully underestimated and misunderstood. Its elegance lies not so much in its lack of opinion than in its being unopinionated. It’s smooth because it’s unpretentious. Its invisibility is an asset. The best prose would have use of it, even the most stylized ones. Here, I look at the use of the objective POV in a wonderful case of shifting POVs.
Andrea Barrett’s short story “The Littoral Zone” (from the 1996 National Book Award collection Ship Fever) is about Ruby and Jonathan, a zoologist and a botanist who start an extramarital affair while conducting research at a remote New Hampshire island. The narrator alternates between Ruby’s and Jonathan’s POVs, as each try to remember the beginnings of the romance and, to some degree, justify it. One of the couple’s contested origin stories is the time when Jonathan took Ruby’s hand, chewed on her fingernail and swallowed it, after which she became physically a part of him.
“Nails are keratin,” she’d tell him. “Like hooves and hair. Like wool. We can’t digest wool.”
“Moths can,” Jonathan would tell her. “Moths eat sweaters.”
“Moths have a special enzyme in their saliva,” Ruby would say. This was true, she knew it for a fact. She’d been so taken by Jonathan’s tale that she’d gone to the library to check out the details and discovered he was wrong.
But Jonathan didn’t care what the biochemists said. He held her against his chest and said, “I have an enzyme for you.”
Barrett also uses an interesting POV that I seldom encounter: the third person plural, they. When Ruby and Jonathan come home from the island, Barrett describes the scene as follows:
Nothing that was to come—not the days in court, nor the days they moved, nor the losses of jobs and homes—would ever seem so awful to them as that moment when they first saw their families standing there, unaware and hopeful. Deceitfully, treacherously, Ruby and Jonathan separated and walked to the people awaiting them. They didn’t introduce each other to their spouses. They didn’t look at each other—although, they later admitted, they cast covert looks at each other’s families. They thought they were invisible, that no one could see what had happened between them. They thought their families would not remember how they had stepped off the boat and stood, for an instant, together.
Barrett’s narrator has immense capability, able to dip into each character’s mind while also able to summarize what both feel. When I asked Barrett about it during a Q&A session at the University of Iowa, she said structure was the driving force behind the story—there was, in essence, no story when she started. But she had an idea of experimenting with alternating POVs: “What would happen if a story has certain perspectives?”
Charting just the first section of “The Littoral Zone,” one would see the following shifts in POV:
They >> Ruby >> Jonathan >> They >> They >> They >> Jonathan >> Ruby >> Ruby >> Jonathan >> They >> Jonathan >> Ruby >> Jonathan >> Ruby >> Jonathan >> They >> Ruby
One might naturally wonder if such a structure might appear schizophrenic, ping-ponging in and out of characters’ minds, sometimes within a paragraph. Barrett’s narrator defies the oft-quoted prohibition against POV-shifting, but I was never lost or irritated at the jumps while reading the story. Perhaps, one might argue, it’s because of the third person plural, acting as a kind of traffic light for the moving perspectives. I think there’s something to that, but I also think there’s another possibility: the objective POV.
Clearly, the narrator in Barrett’s story is omniscient and has established its power of clairvoyance. But looking closely at the transitions, the moments where the POV shifts occur, the narrative perspective seems closer to the objective in tone.
The tide was all the way out….
“No water?” Jonathan said…
For half an hour they sat on their ledge…
The POV during the crucial shifts is uninflected, neutral, and most of the time, concerns only factual matters. Starting with dialogue, too, is a strategy associated with the objective, compared with, say, a person’s feelings. A third person close, for example, usually dispenses with tags such as “he said” or “he thinks”—so deep into the characters’ minds are we that such clarifications become unnecessary. The objective POV in Barrett’s story, therefore, gives us a kind of safety in shallow waters before we dive deeper into alternating characters’ thoughts.
In film and TV, there’s a basic rule on shooting and editing a dialogue scene: the 180-degree line. To avoid dizzying viewers from the many jump cuts inherent in portraying two or more speakers, an imaginary axis is drawn. The camera steadfastly remains on one side of the axis throughout the scene. The rule creates the semblance of an objective angle, a kind of neutrality. It’s a rule that allows the viewer to witness two perspectives, all while sitting comfortably on one side of the bleachers. This is what Barrett achieves with her use of the third person plural and the objective perspective, anchoring us down amid the soaring voyeurism of the omniscient narrator.
Andrea Barrett began writing fiction seriously in her thirties and published her first novel, Lucid Stars, in 1988. In 1996, she received the National Book Award for her fifth book, Ship Fever, a collection of stories. Barrett is particularly well known as a writer of historical fiction. Her work reflects her lifelong interest in science, and women in science. Many of her characters are scientists, often nineteenth-century biologists. Barrett received a MacArthur Fellowship in 2001. Her short story collection Servants of the Map was a finalist for the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Her latest short story collection, Archangel, was published in 2013.