Point of View

The most important character is the one who is telling the story. In story craft, this person is called the narrator, and the perspective from which they are telling the story is called Point of View.

In London city where I did dwell, a butcher boy I loved right well,
He courted me my life away, but now with me he will not stay,

These are the opening lines to a song called The Butcher Boy. There are many versions of this song so I am using the one by the Clancy Brothers, which makes it seem a little odd because we have the resolutely male Tom Clancy singing the melody but the story is being told to us by a woman. In contemporary fiction it would be wrong to assume that the person whose life had been courted away by the butcher boy was necessarily a woman, but this is a traditional folk song where the conventions are a little more conservatively applied. So we can assume that the person telling the story is a woman and from just these lines we can already tell quite a lot about what is going on.

From just the first line we can tell that when the story started the narrator was living in London, and she was in love with a butcher boy. She refers to herself as I, using the first person pronoun, and this tells us that she will be the subject of every sentence in which she appears. She will say things like, “I put my book upon the table,” where she is the subject and the book is the object. There are lots of novels told from this point of view, where the character telling the story was involved in the events that took place. Robinson Crusoe (1719) is obviously told from this point of view, since the whole story is related to us by the only person who was there, Robinson Crusoe himself:

During this time, I made my rounds in the woods for game every day….

This point of view has the distinct advantage of putting us right there in the middle of the story so that we can feel the sand beneath our toes and smell the smoke from his camp fire, if he chooses to tell us about those things. But it also means that we can experience only those things that happen near the narrator, anything happening over the hill or on the other side of the island cannot be in the story because the narrator cannot experience it first hand.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), is also told this way:

I swum out and got aboard, and was mighty glad to see home again…,

…putting us right in the middle of the action. From these examples we can see that this point of view, the first person point of view, is suitable for stories that are told by the person the story is about. Huckleberry Finn is right at the heart of his own story and it makes sense for him to tell us first hand how breathlessly exciting it all was.

The second line of the song tells us that time has moved on a little bit. In the first line she said she, “loved right well,” where the past tense implies that those events were in the past, but in the second line she says that things have changed, “but now with me he will not stay,” letting us know that the situation now, as she is telling the story, is different. The word, “now,” brings things right up to date and we are in the immediate present.

I wish I wish I wish in vain, I wish I was a maid again,
A maid again I ne’er will be, till cherries grow on an ivy tree,”

This pair of lines tell us that she regrets it all and would give anything to go back to the way things were before she ever met him, but at the same time she is resigned to the fact that she cannot turn back the clock; she knows that it isn’t going to happen that way. This makes us want to know more, what has happened to make her feel this way?

I wish my baby it was born, and smiling on its daddy’s knee,”

She is pregnant with the butcher boy’s child, and from line two we know that he has run off and left her. No wonder she is so miserable. She will have the shame of giving birth to a bastard child and the almost insurmountable problem of caring for her child and finding work at the same time. But her wish is not for one of these problems to somehow magically disappear, she does not want harm to come to anyone else, but for her child to be born and to be sitting happily on its daddy’s knee. She wants them to be happy together.

And me poor girl to be dead and gone, with the long green grass grown over me,”

But she is so miserable that she wishes that she were dead.

She went upstairs to go to bed, and calling to her mother said,
Give me a chair till I sit down, and a pen and ink till I write down,”

This is a change of point of view, because the story is no longer being told by the woman, but by someone who can see her climb the stairs and hear her call down to her mother. This new storyteller is not the woman’s mother, to whom she called down the stairs, because then the line would have read, “and calling to me she said.” No, this new storyteller is someone else, someone not in the story but there in the room and able to see and hear what is going on. This is a third person narrator.

You, dear reader, you are the second person. When the writer draws you into the events and says that you opened the gate and you stepped inside the garden, that is a story being told from the second person point of view. Anyone not the first person of I or the second person of you is third person. So when the pronouns are he, she, them, they, all of those are third person pronouns and whenever the story involves any of those people climbing the stairs and sitting down, the story is being told by a third person narrator from the third person point of view. This explains why writers are such narcissists, I am always first, you are second and anyone else is third person.

Don’t be distracted by the I in line eight. She says, “till I sit down,” but this is reported speech. This is not the narrator speaking, it is the woman speaking from upstairs asking for a pen and paper and the narrator is reporting directly, precisely, exactly what she said, “till I write down.” The point of view is still that of the third person narrator who heard her say those words and is telling us about them.

At every word she dropped a tear, and every line cried Willy dear,”

The pen and paper have been brought to her and she has written something down. We know that she has already written it because it says she, “dropped” a tear, and she, “cried,” and both of these verbs are in the past tense. These things have already happened, the narrator saw them and is telling us about them after the event.

It isn’t usual to switch around like this in storytelling but it is quite common in song lyrics and poetry where the story is not so much a chronological sequence of ordered events but an emotional fog that envelops the reader in a sense of what happened as a single experiential miasma. This explains why a close analysis of Bob Dylan’s song lyrics often results in much highly confused head scratching and the consulting of many folk and etymological dictionaries while listening to him sing those same words brings a sense of having completely and utterly understood what it was all about. Songs and poems are not always about the words but are often about things that were not and can not be said directly. Why else would people listen to opera being sung in a language they can neither speak nor comprehend? A story, on the other hand, is a sequence of events, so pretty much by definition it has to be, at some level, comprehensible to the intellect rather than purely to the heart.

Oh what a foolish girl was I, to be led astray by a butcher boy,”

This is a continuation of the reported speech from the previous line. She cried out, “Willy dear, oh what a foolish girl was I,” blaming herself for what has happened to her. She says it was her fault, she was foolish to have been led astray rather than blame Willy the butcher boy for leading her astray and then running off.

He went upstairs and the door he broke, he found her hanging from a rope,
He took his knife and he cut her down, and in her pocket these words he found,”

It isn’t immediately obvious who this, “he” is, but since she called downstairs to her mother I am assuming this is her father who has gone upstairs to find out why she has not come down for her supper. The third person narrator tells us that he has had to break the door down to get in and found his daughter has committed suicide. In her pocket he has found a note that will hopefully explain why.

Oh make my grave large wide and deep, put a marble stone at my head and feet,
And in the middle a turtle dove, that the world may know that I died for love.”

You can hear the Clancy Brothers singing this here.

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