One of the advantages to using a third person omniscient is the flexibility of narrative distance and character access. Like a camera lens, the narrative can hover apart and above characters or move in close into their minds and out again into an larger view. Many writers, me included, often shy away from the use of multiple points of view in a story, because of the jarring affect it can have with the reader. Worse, if not done well, the shift can pull the reader out of the story. Michael Cunningham’s The Hours is a demonstration on how multiple points of view can be achieved within a scene in a smooth, seamless manner.
Cunningham shifts point of view most notably and most often in the first “Mrs. Dalloway” entry. In this particular chapter, there is perhaps more shifts in not only point of view but in the types of points of view. All of it flows effortlessly through his skillful use of linking points of view.
The chapters opens with the character, Clarissa Vaughn off on an errand to buy flowers for her party. The constant shifts in point of view works with her constant movement on the streets of New York. On page 13, we are deep into Clarissa’s perspective as she makes her way along the streets of New York to buy flowers. The experience is visceral and internal. So how does Cunningham shift out without jarring the reader out of the moment? He has us seeing through Clarissa’s eyes, hearing Clarissa’s thoughts, as she projects the evening with Richard, imagining how “she will shepherd Richard” through the party minglers and then imagines “[escorting] him uptown to receive his prize” (13). The narrative eye then moves and we are looking at her, observing her as she “straightens her shoulders as she stands at the corner…waiting for the light”. In that brief moment the point of view goes from third person limited to third person objective. With the narrative now hinged on dramatic account of Clarissa’s action, the point of view can shift further. The narrative focus proceeds to move further away from her and into another character. From his perspective, we are given indirect interior monologue with, “There she is thinks Willie Bass” (13). The shift continues further, closer into his perspective, where we are now provided with his direct interior monologue. We see her as he does, “the old beauty, the old hippie”. Through his filter, we can see how she’s dressed, hear his opinions and projections of her, which allows the reader to not only see Clarissa physically but to also get a sense of her character from another angle, neither or which we can do while the narrative is in Clarissa’s perspective. The narrative focus then widens when the light changes and Willie walks on (13). However, the focus changes again, while still keeping in the objective third, and we now see Clarissa crossing the street (13), and are primed for the next shift.
Again, using the third person objective as a linking mechanism, we can now easily move in close and into Clarissa’s thoughts. Now we hear how “she loves, helplessly, the dead television set abandoned on the curb” (14) and how “she loves the vendor’s cart” with its vegetables and fruit labeled with index cards. We are so inside her head, we not only see through her eyes, we can actually hear her inner most thoughts. We are so deep inside her head that the point of view shifts into second person point of view, and we can hear her reflecting to her inner self:
You know the story about Manhattan as a wilderness purchased for strings of beads but you find it impossible not to believe that it has always been a city; that if you dug beneath it you would find the ruins of another older city…(14)
Cunningham is smart to not let the narrative stay in the point of view for long. It is enough that we are so close for that very brief moment, because we now can experience what is on the page on a visceral level in whatever point of view or distance that is laid before us. When the “you” is invoked again in the chapter, we will have become quite acclimated to the movements in point of view.
As Clarissa continues to move through New York, the narrative continues to move in its point of view. It shifts into a combination third person omniscient and links with third person objective in parenthesis:
Under the cement and grass of the park (she has crossed into the park now, where the old woman throws back her head and sings ) lays the bones of those buried in the potter’s field that was simply paved over, a hundred years ago, to make Washington Square. (14)
The point of view continues to shift, from third omniscient (“Clarissa walks over the bodies of the dead”) to third objective (“as dead men whisper offers of drugs ((not to her)) and three black girls whiz past…”) then to close third (“Clarissa is skittish and jubilant about her luck”) (14).
Then, as if show us that he can accomplish all points of view in one scene, Cunningham adds the use of the first person plural. We have almost settled into close third with Clarissa, when we are led closer into her mind once again, but rather than invoking the second person point of view, as he did earlier, Cunningham introduces the first person plural for Clarissa’s interiority, and like the second person point of view, it is a brief moment before the narrative continues in its shifting points of view (my comments in parenthesis):
(Starts third person close)…she knows other people must love it too, poor as well as rich, though no one speaks specifically of the reasons. (Now shifts to first person plural) Why else do we struggle to go on living, no matter how compromised, no matter how harmed? Even if we’re further gone than Richard, even if we’re fleshless, blazing with lesions, shitting in the sheets; still, we want desperately to live. (Shifts to third person close) It has to do with all of this, she thinks. (Shifts back out to third person objective) Wheels buzzing on concrete, the roil and shock of it; sheets of bright spray blowing from the fountain… (14-15)
This constant shifting points of view is not for all writers, nor is it appropriate for just any work of fiction. This strategy works for Cunningham in this particular book, and in this particular chapter because of theme and character action. In this chapter, the character is in movement, so the shifting point of view is mimetic of that movement. Cunningham, for the most part, dials down the shifting points of view the remainder of the book, although they still continue to shift. And in those moments, we can learn how to use this technique in our own work, especially when using third person omniscient and need to move in and out of multiple characters.
The second entry of “Mrs. Woolf” provides a great example of how Cunningham eases in and out of multiple characters. It is during Virginia’s conversation with Leonard when she stops by the printing room. When the dialogue begins, the narrative is in close third with Virginia’s perspective. We see Leonard through her eyes. We can see the shift in point of view through a series of links, from Virginia’s dialogue to Leonard’s action then to into his thoughts (my comments in parenthesis):
(Starts as third person close in Virginia’s perspective) “I’ll eat later. I’m going to work now.”
(Dramatic view and a bit of omniscience of Leonard and his action) He hesitates, then nods grudgingly. (Shifts now to third person close in Leonard’s perspective) He does not, will not, interfere with her work. Still, Virginia refusing to eat is not a good sign. (33)
Now we are fully in Leonard’s point of view. The paragraph that follows is completely in his perspective as he observes how “she stands tall, haggard, marvelous in her house coat” (33), contemplating how “her books may be read for centuries” (33), remembering how she looked when they met for the first time in Cambridge (33) and thinking that “she has aged dramatically…she’s grown craggy and worn” and “belong to look as if she’s carved from very porous, gray-white marble” (33).
Since this entry is about “Mrs. Woolf”, it cannot stay in Leonard’s perspective for long, so we have another set of links from his thoughts to his dialogue then to her action and her thoughts:
(Third person close in Leonards’s perspective-in his thoughts) …but she is suddenly no longer beautiful.
“All right,” he says. “I’ll solder on here.”
(Dramatic view of Virginia and her action) She goes back upstairs stealthily, (Shifts now to third person close in Virginia’s perspective) , so as not to attract Nelly (why does she always feel so secretive around servants, so guiltily of crimes?) (34)
While we may not need to go to the extent that Cunningham has done in The Hours, we can still apply this technique of linking in our own work and no longer be afraid of jarring our reader or taking him or her out of the story. We can now take advantage of multiple points of view, and our stories can benefit from the flexibility of distance and character access.