Literary Points of View—Part 3

In Part 1, I explained the meaning of the term literary of point of view (POV) and observed that every character in a literary work must have one. To see Part 1 now, click here.

In Part 2,  I introduced and discussed the first two of the ten literary POVs defined by two eminent literary scholars: 1) interior monologue, and 2) dramatic monologue. To see Part 2 now, click here.

In this part, I explain two additional literary points of view: 1) letter narration, and 2) diary narration.

Letter narration

A letter narration is a written story told by a connected series of letters. Each letter advances the tale; it introduces and develops characters, depicts related action, events, and plot, describes scene and situation, and accomplishes all the other literary tasks that the author of the series intends to make happen.

What are letters? In the real world, all letters consist of monologues addressed by an actual person to another actual person for a certain reason. They’re typically accounts of a person’s spontaneous and concerned reaction to something that’s happening or has happened recently, a reaction he wants the letter’s addressee to know about.

A letter composed by an author who’s using it to tell a fictional story is virtually the same: typically it’s the sender’s reaction to something that’s happened to him or to others. The sender in a fictional letter takes the same point of view as a sender would if he were real, but in a fictional letter the sender and addressee are imaginary characters invented by the author. Experiences, motives, reactions, characters, events, situations, and objects–are all inventions of the author.

The letters in a made-up story are concoctions, but in the hands of a competent author they seem just as genuine as if they were real. Made-up letters take the same form and style as real letters, and have the same spontaneity.

The point of view that story-tellers take when they assume the roles of writers and readers in their stories is called the letter narration point of view.

Authors use the letter narration point of view to tell a story in a variety of ways:

  • A series of back and forth letters can amount to a two-way correspondence that recounts a story as if it were a dialog carried on at a distance.
  • Or a series of letters may be a one-way, monologic correspondence.
  • A crisscrossing of letters can contain excerpts from documents such as depositions, references from books and newspaper articles, quotations of passages from conversations, or passages extracted from letters between third parties.
  • In some stories told with letters, multiple writers or readers may be involved.
  • Two letter writers may exchange letters about themselves or each other, as though the letters in a series were a diary.

Taken by itself, an individual letter is a distinct form of literature. But a series of letters that together tell a story does not in and of itself constitute a literary form. Instead, the literary form of the work that contains the letters determines the form of that work.

For example, a short story or novel that consists entirely of letters is an accepted form of literature customarily refered to as an epistolary short story or an epistolary novel, where the word epistle is synonymous with the word letter. Short stories and novels like these are considered to be special forms of short stories or novels rather than special forms of letters. The word epistle functions as an adjective, not as a noun. 

Some eighteenth century authors favored creation of epistolary short stories and novels–works that consisted entirely of letters–because their readers’ tastes leaned toward nonfiction, which was thought by many authorities to be more edifying than fiction. In part, they wanted to write fictional works rather than works based on historical figures and events because they could make them more interesting and appealing; they wanted to use their creative imaginations.

Epistolary novels were departures from convention. To help sell their books, innovative authors in that period wrote new kinds of fictional works that consisted solely of letters because letters were realistic artifacts that made their fictional contents seem plausible, more like the “worthwhile” nonfiction prescribed by critics, clergymen, and scholars.

Two examples of epistolary novels dating from the literary period during which the novel form was being developed are Smollett’s uproarious Humphrey Clinker in England and Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Heloise in France.

Modern authors tend to avoid writing epistolary stories that consist entirely of letters, although from time to time a modern  author will include a letter or series of letters in a longer work. Works like these are mixtures of letters and other writing styles. The letters they contain do not determine their literary form.

Nonetheless, a few modern authors have stepped up to the task of writing an epistolary novel consisting entirely of letters because they felt that letter narration was the POV their work needed. One example of a recent epistolary novel is Mark Harris’ Wake Up, Stupid.

Diary narration

Entries in a diary are similar to letters; one follows another as a story unfolds, and each page accounts for but a small part of the action or a brief time period during which a longer story evolves. As with successive letters that tell stores, successive diary entries express the diarist’s reactions to events almost as they happen.

But unlike writers who send letters to readers, diarists do not communicate with anyone in particular; or stated another way, diarists write to themselves or to the “dear diary” they address whenever they begin a new day’s account.

The diarist’s “dear diary” addressee is someone who knows him well and yet is a general, nondescript listener, a correspondent who does not respond or express opinions of his own. Like a letter writer, a diary writer revels his own state of mind as well as reporting recent events and actions by other people, but his diary is a correspondent that has nothing to add.

Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is such a novel, a fictional account narrated from the point of view of the eponymous character after whom the book is named. Defoe writes the novel as if it were the actual diary of a castaway who spends 28 years on a remote tropical island near Trinidad, encountering cannibals, captives, and mutineers before being rescued. He takes a point of view called diary narration.

What’s next?—Part 4

In Part 4 of this six-part series, we’ll take a look at two more literary POVs: subjective narration and detached autobiography.

Visit Part 4 now: Coming.

Good Reading, Writing, and Theater-Going!

The Muse Of Literature

2013, Decision Consulting, Inc. (DCI). All rights reserved. All copies must include this copyright statement.

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