Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Curious Case of the First Person Omniscient Narrator

Craft Analysis, Packet 1
Author(s): Kurt Vonnegut, John Gardner, Walter Dean Myers
Novel Title(s): Slaughterhouse-Five, Grendel, Monster
Student: Amanda LaFantasie
Semester 2, August 2013

The Curious Case of the First Person Omniscient Narrator

            What are rules for if not for breaking, or at least bending?  The Elementary school version of first person point of view might go something like this: the main character uses the pronoun ‘I’ and the story is told completely from his or her perspective limiting us to only what that character knows.  But it isn’t as clear as all that.  The phrase, ‘I learned later,’ is just one way that authors are able to provide greater scope to a scene where the first person narrator might fall short of giving a solid account of the action.  There are other ways to stretch the limits of what first person narration is capable of. 
            Kurt Vonnegut, for instance, enables the narrator of Slaughterhouse-Five – a veteran of WWII who survived the Dresden firebombing – to relay his story with a degree of omniscience that is rare even in third person point of view.  He uses a particular method to accomplish this: a story within a story.  Others have also found ways to free themselves from the strict parameters of first person.  In Grendel, John Gardner invokes the omniscience that one would commonly find on the stage in moments when the first person narrator, the famous monster from the Old English poem “Beowulf,” views the world as if it were a play.  Similar to this, Walter Dean Myers broadens the first person narrative by alternating between journal and screenplay format in the novel Monster, wherein a sixteen-year-old boy faces the possibility of jail time after a neighborhood robbery goes wrong. 
Each of these novels warp the typical portrayal of the first person narrative until the warping itself becomes part of the characterization, creating a sense of detachment and revealing the mental strain and sometimes dubious sanity of the narrator.
            For any of this to really work, the author must first establish a strong first person voice.  Chapter one of Slaughterhouse-Five is 22 pages of ‘I’ and ‘we’ and all the traditional elements associated with a first person POV, thus introducing the reader to the god-author who will make himself known in further chapters.  The narrator begins with stating, “All this happened, more or less. […] I’ve changed all the names,” and so simply sets us up for the third person story that he wrote (a story within a story), which takes place primarily between chapters 2 and 9 (Vonnegut 1).  In chapter 10, the first person narrative voice returns and wraps up the experiences not only himself but of the main character from his story.
At the end of the first chapter, the narrator prepares the audience for a leap away from the first person point of view that they’ve just gotten used to and bring us into a story he calls The Children’s Crusade (Vonnegut 15).  “I’ve finished my war book now.  The next one I write is going to be fun. This one is a failure, and had to be, since it’s written by a pillar of salt. 
It begins like this:
Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.
It ends like this:
Poo-tee-weet?” (Vonnegut 22).  And just as promised, the story does begin with “Listen” and end with “Poo-tee-weet,” but what he fails to mention is that he is not going away just because it’s Billy Pilgrim’s story.  Despite the appearance of third person omniscience in The Children’s Crusade, the narrator continually makes himself present through first person annotations as well as bold assertions of authorial omniscience.  During a scene where Billy and a fellow soldier are captured by German forces, the author mentions the sound of a dog barking.  He goes on to relay information that only a god-narrator could know saying, “The dog, who had sounded so ferocious in the winter distances was a female German shepherd.  […]  She had never been to war before.  She had no idea what game was being played.  Her name was Princess (Vonnegut 52).  This sort of excessive trivia appears again and again ranging from the way a stranger perceives Billy to be “in abominable taste” to the fact that Billy and a young German guard are actually distant cousins but that neither of them ever found that out (Vonnegut 151, 158).  It is almost as if the narrator cannot possibly keep from interfering in his own novel.  When Billy is set up at the first POW camp, he receives stamped dog tags and the narrative author, not Billy, makes this observation: “A slave laborer from Poland had done the stamping.  He was dead now.  So it goes” (Vonnegut 91).
The narrator makes himself unavoidably present throughout his ‘novel’ when he states boldly, things such as: “It would make a good epitaph for Billy Pilgrim – and for me, too,” and, “Now Billy and the rest were being marched into the ruins by their guards.  I was there.  O’Hare was there.  We had spent the past two nights in the blind inn-keeper’s stable” (Vonnegut 121, 212).  This insistence to remind the reader of his presence is not limited only to scenes which show him in a favorable light.  The first time Vonnegut’s narrator inserts himself into The Children’s Crusade is after Billy Pilgrim follows the sounds of grief coming to him from the latrine where he finds an American soldier wallowing in intestinal discomfort upon the toilet.  “That was I.  That was me.  That was the author of this book,” says the narrator, in full admission (Vonnegut 125).
            Another technique that Vonnegut employs to create an omniscient flavor to his story is the addition of an all knowing character or characters.  In Slaughterhouse-Five, this role belongs to the Tralfamadorians, a race of aliens who see past, present, and future simultaneously and who may or may not have kidnapped Billy Pilgrim and kept him a zoo (Vonnegut 30).  During his time with these creatures, Billy makes an assertion that Earth’s violence will play a part in the destruction of the universe and, to his shock, the creatures assure him, “’We know how the universe ends –‘ said the guide, ‘and Earth has nothing to do with it, except that it gets wiped out, too.’ […] ‘We blow it up, experimenting with new fuels for our flying saucers.  A Tralfamadorian test pilot presses a starter button, and the whole Universe disappears.’ So it goes” (Vonnegut 117).
The moments of Vonnegut’s book that tend toward a third person omniscience are the moments that solidify the first person authorship off the war vet narrator who knows everything about every character and about every object in his book.  While Vonnegut is responsible for  Slaughterhouse-Five, the first person narrator is very much the author of The Children’s Crusade and can and does get away with saying impossible to know things about side characters and how they feel toward Billy Pilgrim.  The layering of authorship – even Billy Pilgrim becomes an author and public speaker in the story (Vonnegut 142) – creates a certain tug on the reins, strains the reliability of the narrator and reveals a bit of the fragmented psyche of an old man desperate to chronicle his time as a prisoner of war. 
            Some of the omniscience in Gardner’s Grendel comes from the bird’s eye view that the title character often assumes.  In this way the world comes to him via the Shaper’s (Bard’s) songs and the extrapolations Grendel is able to make based on what he sees and hears from the near and far.  Grendel would, “… be watching a meadhall from high in a tree, night birds singing in the limbs below me […].  Inside the hall I would hear the Shaper telling of the glorious deeds of dead kings – how they’d split certain heads, snuck away with certain precious swords and necklaces – his harp mimicking the rush of swords, the heroes’ dying words” and through his observations the narration becomes more and more omniscient (Gardner 34).   He learns of the surrounding peoples and the shifts in alliances and even knows somehow from his perch that “…two groups would fight as allies […], except that now and then they betrayed each other, one shooting the other from behind for some reason, or stealing the other group’s gold, some midnight, or sneaking into bed with the other group’s wives and daughters” (Gardner 37).
            Just as in Slaughterhouse-Five, Grendel’s omniscience relies heavily on the establishment of a strong first person narration.  This book, for the most part keeps true to this form, even stating quite obviously who the narrator is such as in the passage: “The harp turned solemn.  He [the Shaper] told of an ancient feud between two brothers which split all the world between darkness and light.  And I, Grendel, was the dark side, he said in effect.  The terrible race God cursed” (Gardner 51).  There are other places where Grendel proclaims his own name in relation to the ‘I’ of the story it is when he begins to say Grendel as a separate entity that things really take on an omniscient point of view.  Here is the first time the narrator breaks from first person:

What will we call the Hrothgar-Wrecker when Hrothgar has been wrecked?
(Do a little dance, beast.  Shrug it off.  This looks like a nice place – oooh, my! – flat rock, moonlight, views of distances!  Sing!)

Pity poor Hrothgar,
Grendel’s foe!
Pity poor Grendel,
O, O, O!

Winter soon.
(whispering, whispering.  Grendel, has it occurred to you my dear that you are crazy?)
(He clasps hands delicately over his head, points the toes of one foot – aaie! Horrible nails!! – takes a step, does a turn:
It will be winter soon. 
Midway through the twelfth year of my idiotic war.
Twelve is, I hope, a holy number.  Number of escapes from traps.  (Gardner 91-92)

            It takes all the way until the end of the section before Grendel reclaims himself as ‘I.’  Through this technique the reader has a clear idea of the loss of control Grendel feels and the effect it has on his mental stability, which is, obviously, debilitating.  Toward the end of the novel, Gardner demonstrates Grendel’s emotional destruction further by ambiguously presenting dialogue in italics, therefore making it seem either imagined or telepathic: 

His syllables lick at me, chilly fire.  His syllables lick… A meaningless swirl in the stream of time, a temporary gathering of bits, a few random specks, a cloud…Complexities: green dust, purple dust, gold.  Additional refinements: sensitive dust, copulating dust… The world is my bone-cave, I shall not want… (He laughs as he whispers.  I roll my eyes back.  Flames slip out at the corners of his mouth.) (Gardner 170)

Preceding this italicized conversation are a myriad of places within the text where the first person narrator moves further and further into objectivity and omniscience, consequently moving detaching himself further and further from himself.  At one point he seems to have an out of body experience which is presented parenthetically in italics.  (He lies on the cliff-edge, scratching his belly, and thoughtfully watches his thoughtfully watching the queen.) (Gardner 93).   Gardner takes it a step further in this strange mixture of first person commentary and third person stage play:

Theorum: Any action (A) of the human heart must trigger an equal and opposite reaction (A1).
Such is the golden opinion of the Shaper.
And so – I watch in glee – they take in Hrothulf;
quiet as the moon, sweet scorpion,
he sits between their two and cleans his knife. 

SCENE: Hrothulf in the Yard.
Hrothfulf speaks:

In ratty furs the peasants hoe their fields,
fat with stupidity, if not with flesh.  (Gardner 113)

            The semi-mathematical word choice also lends itself to the omniscience of the piece as it comes across as grossly anachronistic.  In Slaughterhouse-Five the all-knowing characters are the Tralfamadorians; in Grendel that role belongs to the Dragon.  With the inclusion of such characters/elements into their first person narratives, both Vonnegut and Gardner are able to make the overall concept of omniscience much more palatable.  The Dragon tells Grendel, “’Things come and go […] That’s the gist of it.  In a billion billion billion years, everything will have come and gone several times, in various forms.  Even I will be gone.  A certain man will absurdly kill me.  A terrible pity – loss of a remarkable form of life.  Conservationists will howl’” (Gardner 70).
            There is no alien race or dragon to unveil the past, present, and future in Walter Dean Myer’s novel, Monster, rather this time it is through a camera lens and a journal that the audience comes to understand what happened and what could happen to the first person narrator, Steve Harmon.   He establishes a first person base line with a journal entry indicating, “Sometimes I feel like I have walked into the middle of a movie.  It is a strange movie with no plot and no beginning.  The movie is in black and white, and grainy.  Sometimes the camera moves in so close that you can’t tell what is going on and you just listen to the sounds and guess” (Myers 3).  
This novel teeter-totters between this journal format and that of a screenplay.  Unlike Vonnegut’s novel, Monster does not spend a great deal of time in the first person to start out, instead, Myers inserts journal entries throughout, frequently and powerfully enough to keep the audience from forgetting the narrative voice.  There is another key difference between Monster and the other two, Slaughterhouse-Five and Grendel, this being that the first person and third person omniscient do not bleed into each other.  There are some sudden shifts between the two forms, but Myers keeps screenplay and journal separate.  The following is an example of the omniscient portions which are structured to resemble a screenplay:

FADE IN:  INTERIOR: Early morning in CELL BLOCK D, MANHATTAN DETENTION CENTER.  Camera goes slowly down grim, gray corridor.  There are sounds of inmates yelling from cell to cell; much of it is obscene. (Myers 7)

            While the traditional first person point of view does not make an appearance in these segments, the narrator does find a way to insert himself without saying ‘I’ or ‘me’ but with just as much potency.  The rolling credits appear on the page in this fashion:

Steve Harmon

Produced by
Steve Harmon

Directed by
Steve Harmon

(Credits continue to roll.)
(Myers 9)

The direction in the action line indicates that the credits are to roll like the opening of Star Wars and while this isn’t as direct as plastering his name all over the place, it keeps Steve’s voice present for the audience.  Something even as simple as a line of direction can create a duality within a story.   On one hand, the audience reads the bare bones of a screenplay and on the other hand, when it comes to action lines, they are reading only the things that Steve feels are most important concerning his trial and that makes it almost more intimate than his journal entries.  We learn of his past through scenes of the movie:

CUT TO: FILM WORKSHOP at Stuyvesant High School.  A film on a small screen is just ending.  It is a class project.


We see STEVE raising his hand, looking much the same as he does in court.

I liked the editing. (Myers 18-19)
Whereas we learn of his now through the journal: “Notes: I can hardly think about the movie, I hate this place so much.  But if I didn’t think of the movie I would go crazy.  All they talk about in here is hurting people” (Myers 45).  As mentioned before, there are some quick shifts between journal and movie, and it is when these two styles meet, but do not mix, that the audience gets an idea of the narrator’s emotional duress as he immediately chooses to switch over to a detached persona rather than put this court appearance into a real time journal entry. 

When we got in the court, there was a delay because the stenographer had brought the wrong power cord.  The court officer was talking about termites. 


So this guy comes to the house and tells Vivian we got
termites.  I get home and she’s all upset.  I said no way
we got termites.  No way.

You ever see any termites? (Myers 65)

            It becomes clear that Steve is using the movie as a way to forget that this horrible thing is happening to him.  At one point, Steve has a death fantasy involving lethal injection and eve this appears as part of the movie, the camera focusing on his face as imaginary executioners put in a plug to keep him from messing his pants as he dies (Myers 73).  The final movie moment of the novel captures the fragmentation left by this false sense of security – that the objective world (third person omniscient) doesn’t hurt as much as the subjective one (first person limited).    

CUT TO: CU of O’BRIEN.  Her lips tense; she is pensive.  She gathers her papers and moves away as STEVE, arms still outstretched, turns toward the camera.  His image is in black and white, and the grain is nearly broken.  It looks like one of the pictures they use for psychological testing, or some strange beast, a monster.

The image freezes as last words roll and stop mid screen.

A Steve Harmon Film (Myers 276-277)

So it goes, that breaking the rules of first person and expanding a fairly limited point of view to the point of omniscience has many effects on the story.  For these three novels, the most compelling effect is that of escape.  These narrators – the veteran, Grendel, and Steve – are all prisoners in some way or other.  The first one was a POW and spends much of his life trapped in the memories of that time.  The second narrator tries and fails to understand and walk among the humans.  He becomes a prisoner of his condition, trapped in his cave with only his mother for constant companionship.  Lastly, Steve is, quite literally, a prisoner.  When he is not in court, he is in a prison cell – guilty until proven otherwise so it seems.  For each one of these characters, it is the idea of escape that propels them toward omniscience.  The drive to know and be done with it.  To finally be free of their prison.
At the end of Myer’s novel, there is an Extra’s section where the author answers various questions.  When asked why he chose to use the screenplay format, he explained, “In interviewing inmates I noticed a tendency for the inmates to attempt to separate their self-portrayals from their crimes.  In Monster I have Steve speak of himself in the first person in his diary, but when he gets to the trial and the crime he distances himself through the use of the screenplay” (Myers, Extras 7).  What Walter Dean Myers sums up in this response is more than just the reason why Steve hides behind the camera lens, it is the reason for the war veteran’s story within a story and the logic of Grendel’s stage play projections.  It is why the disintegration of first person into third is a fascinating ride for the audience; it exemplifies humanities ever present need to cope.

Works Cited:

Gardner, John. Grendel. New York: Vintage, 1989. Print.

Myers, Walter Dean, and Christopher Myers. Monster. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1999. Print.

Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-five: Or, The Children's Crusade, a Duty-dance with Death. New York: Dell Pub., 1999. Print.


  1. Via my mentor's comments: there is a great deal that can be improved in this essay including better focus on the thesis and a bit more explanation into what these authors did that was new or unusual beyond just metafiction. I'm excited to keep learning and keep honing my critical writing. Next time I post about a craft I hope that it is even better and much more concentrated.

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