Third-Person Point of View: Definition & Examples
In this lesson, we’ll discuss third-person point of view, looking at examples from Margaret Atwood, Kurt Vonnegut and Ernest Hemingway. Then test your knowledge with a quiz.
Definition of Third-Person Point of View
At some point, you’ve probably heard a joke that starts with, ‘A man walks into a bar.’ Although jokes don’t usually have the most complex narratives, whoever is telling the joke about that man walking into a bar is technically a narrator. To put it simply, a narrator is a voice that tells a story. Depending on a story’s point of view, the narrator’s behavior varies.
One way to think of this is to imagine the distance between the narrator and the story. In a first-person point of view, the narrator is in the story, using an ‘I’ voice, so the distance is as small as can be. In a third-person point of view, however, the narrator is more distant, telling us about the story rather than playing a major part in it. So, when someone says, ‘A man walks into a bar,’ they’re using a third-person point of view to tell us that character’s story.
Of course, there’s more than one way to tell a story in third-person point of view. In this lesson, we’ll use three examples to examine these different approaches. Still, these approaches aren’t always so easy to tell apart, since authors tend to experiment with different narrative techniques within a single text (especially if it’s a longer work like a novel). For our purposes, though, we’ll divide third-person point of view into three categories.
One of the most common forms of third-person is third-person limited. In third-person limited, the narrator is still telling us about what’s happening, but we are given the opportunity to see one character’s innermost thoughts and feelings. In other words, the narrator’s ability to tell us about thoughts and feelings is limited to one character.
To give you a better sense of how this works, let’s look at an example from Margaret Atwood’s novel Oryx and Crake. This science fiction novel is set in a post-apocalyptic world, where a mysterious disease has killed most of the human population. The main character is a human survivor called ‘Snowman,’ who was once friends with the person behind the disease. Here is an excerpt from the opening of the novel that gives us a sense of Snowman’s mental state:
‘Out of habit he looks at his watch – stainless-steel case, burnished aluminum band, still shiny although it no longer works. He wears it now as his only talisman. A blank face is what it shows him: zero hour. It causes a jolt of terror to run through him, this absence of official time. Nobody nowhere knows what time it is.
Calm down, he tells himself. He takes a few deep breaths, then scratches his bug bites, around but not on the itchiest places, taking care not to knock off any scabs: blood poisoning is the last thing he needs. Then he scans the ground below for wildlife: all quiet, no scales and tails. Left hand, right foot, right hand, left foot, he makes his way down from the tree. After brushing off the twigs and bark, he winds his dirty bedsheet around himself like a toga. He’s hung his authentic-replica Red Sox baseball cap on a branch overnight for safekeeping; he checks inside it, flicks out a spider, puts it on.’
Another common (although somewhat trickier) form of third-person is third-person omniscient, in which the narrator is able to tell us the thoughts and feelings of every character that appears. The term omniscient means ‘all-knowing,’ so one way to remember this form of third-person is to think of the narrator as having psychic powers.
Many clear examples of third-person omniscient can be found in Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five, which tells the story of a man named Billy Pilgrim who becomes ‘unstuck in time.’ As a result, the novel is a sort of collage of Billy Pilgrim’s life events, from his experiences in World War II to his time as an exhibit in an alien zoo.
The narrator of Slaughterhouse-Five, however, doesn’t just describe Billy Pilgrim’s thoughts and feelings. Rather, we are given the opportunity to see into the minds of even the most minor characters (sometimes even animals). In this example, the narrator jumps between Billy Pilgrim’s mind and the mind of a German corporal who takes Billy Pilgrim prisoner:
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