One of my student writers wants to use omniscient point of view for her historical novel–an admirable but not an easy goal! For her Story Workshop in Sacramento a few years back, Zoe Keithley had us read Harriet Doerr’s novel CONSIDER THIS, SENORA. Zoe advised us to pay close attention to the shifts in point of view that Doerr writes so smoothly. Readers are not jarred with these changes of whose mind we are “inside of” due to the skill with which Doerr creates her narrative.
Omniscient, of course, literally means “all knowing.” As my iMac dictionary says: ORIGIN early 17th cent.: from medieval Latin omniscient- ‘all-knowing,’ based on scire ‘to know.’
It’s a sort of eye of God view–a story told from a narrator who can dart in and out of, well, everyone’s mind! A storyteller who knows what each and every character is feeling and thinking–in the past, present and future. Generally this eye of God tells the story from the 3rd person–talking about the characters using pronouns for the narration such as “he, she, they” rather than presenting the story from inside a 1st person view, using “I” because that generally limits the story to what the “I” narrator knows. However, if the narrator is omniscient, well s/he knows all! But I digress.
Okay, why is this not easy to do? For the most part, readers want to “fit into” the voice, the point of view, telling the story. If the reader feels yanked in and out of various characters’ minds and states of feeling, the reader can become annoyed at this interruption of the flow of the story itself. Sometimes, so much so that the reader just tosses the book aside. And, that is never what the writer intends!
So, opening up Harriet Doerr’s novel we see on the first three pages, her omniscient narrator unfolds the story from three different points of view in the first ten paragraphs. Through the auspices of Amazon.com, everyone can link to actually read the first few pages.
For the purpose of studying omniscient point of view, I’ve bold faced key words that indicate who knows/plans/feels what. In other words, the elements that could not be seen by an outside, objective camera-eye point of view. Take a look:
A number of years ago in the town of La Luz, on an August day half of hot sun, half of rain, Don Enrique Ortiz de Leon prepared to sell his ancestral estate to an American gentleman and an American lady. “The economy of Mexico compels me,” he explained, facing his two buyers across a desk littered with legal briefs. “Taxes,” said Don Enrique. On the wall behind him, under his grandmother’s portrait, hung a 1962 calendar dark with inked-out days. “Taxes,” he repeated. “They are becoming insupportable.”
The American gentleman, who was using the false name of Bud Loomis, nodded. Like other travelers, he had come to Mexico for the sake of new surroundings, to get away. Particularly to get away. His own taxes were under investigation in Arizona. In his pocket was a summons to appear in a Tucson court that day. “I know what you mean,” Bud said in border Spanish. He drummed his blunt fingers on the arm of his chair and stared at Don Enrique’s calendar.
“So I am selling the land that came to me through my mother–all four hectareas of my land at Amapolas.” As he spoke these words, Don Enrique–Don Enrique Cesar Ortiz de Leon–apologized silently to that Castilian ancestor of his who had stepped just behind Cortes onto Mexican soil. He drew his spare frame taller in order to stiffen his pride.
“How large is an hectarea?” asked the woman in slow, precise Spanish. From her shoulder bag she removed a pencil and a notepad, on which her name, Susanna Ames, was printed at the top. She pulled her chair closer and made space at a corner of Don Enrique’s crowded desk.
Susahnahahmes, Don Enrique pronounced phonetically to himself. Her name’ is Susahnahahmes. He repeated it like a soundless chant. In answer to her question, he said, “An hectare is ten thousand square meters.”
Bud Loomis, who had reduced her name to one syllable on the day they met, said, “The whole thing’s ten acres, Sue, give or take.” Then added, without speaking, This is going to be a steal.
“Ten acres. As much as that.” She was clearly surprised.
At this, an identical notion entered the minds of both men. They believed they were in the presence of a helpless female. This Susahnahahmes, Don Enrique supposed, was need of a man. Perhaps one her own age, or—better—an older man, one who understood business and the law.
Bud retained his original impression of her. When he and Sue Ames had met for the first time, by coincidence, in the property agent’s office, he noticed her looks and her reckless attitude toward land and concluded then that all she needed was shaping up. Further acquaintance had only reinforced his opinion.
Now, with the two men observing her, Susanna Ames began to draw for the first time in years. She sketched on her notepad a long rise of ground, which dropped to a lake at one end and met the steep slope of a hill at the other. Beyond these she drew in a whole landscape of cornfields and, beyond them, a range of mountains that climbed to a peak. She lined one shore of the lake with a neat row of houses and a church. She left empty the flat, extended surface of the rise, though she might have penciled in a dream, for in a corner of her mind that excluded reason she had already constructed a low adobe house and a separate studio looking north and had planted apricot and fig trees, a small vineyard, and an alfalfa field, simply for the green of it. Though this house did not appear on the page, Don Enrique noticed that she was exaggerating everything—the fields, the mountains, the good order of the dwellings that faced the pond.
Can you see how Doerr makes her transitions from the three points of view, from inside the minds of the three characters, such a smooth journey for her readers?
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