Advantages of the Close Third Person Point of View: Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome

This is now the third post I’ve done on Edith Wharton. I didn’t set out to become the president of the Wharton fan club, but you guys: she’s just so damn good! In other posts I’ve talked about her skill with narrative structure and world-building. In this gorgeous, intensely page-turning novella— which I’d never read before—what I noticed most had to do with point of view, and in particular the deft way she uses close third person to unfold her story in a way that is irresistible and nearly impossible to put down.

The story works in large part because it paints a clear, vivid scene and refracts it through the consciousness of an acutely observant, emotionally intense protagonist, thereby immersing you in the story-world in ways that are, as I've written elsewhere, compulsive and impossible to resist:

“The village lay under two feet of snow, with drifts at the windy corners. In a sky of iron the points of the Dipper hung like icicles and Orion flashed his cold fires. The moon had set, but the night was so transparent that the white house-fronts between the elms looked gray against the snow, clumps of bushes made black stains on it, and the basement windows of the church sent shafts of yellow light far across the endless undulations.”

Wharton is free to describe the scene so fulsomely and with such lyricism, in part, because in close third she feels no obligation to write in the “voice” of her laconic narrator. In first person narration, the voice of the narrator has in some way to match the voice of the character. This would have been hard to do, as Ethan Frome’s voice, when he does talk, is clipped and colloquial in a way that feels very true to rural New England culture, limited throughout the story to laconic observations such as this:

“‘Oh, Ned ain’t much at steering. I guess I can take you down all right!’ he said disdainfully.”

Even if a first-person narrative voice didn’t exactly match the bitten-off exclamations of “spoken” Ethan, it would have been hard to credit his direct thoughts taking on the soaring, descriptive lyricism of Wharton’s implied narrator. With close third, the reader’s subconscious expectation is that the narration will partake of the “essence” of the POV character, without having to actually capture or mimic that character’s “voice.” So we get a sense of Ethan’s inner landscape—among other things he is an acute, melancholy, and poetic observer of nature—without having to wonder about why his thoughts are so different than his speech:

“Here the snow was so pure that the tiny tracks of wood-animals had left on it intricate lace-like patterns, and the bluish cones caught in its surface stood out like ornaments of bronze.”

At the center of the novella is a bittersweet, highly affecting love story. Close third gives Wharton the ability to portray the development and efflorescence of Ethan’s feelings for Mattie with the refracted intensity of lived experience:

“It was one of those days when the glitter of winter shines through a pale haze of spring. Every yard of the road was alive with Mattie’s presence, and there was hardly a branch against the sky or a tangle of brambles on the bank in which some bright shred of memory was not caught. Once, in the stillness, the call of a bird in a mountain ash was so like her laughter that his heart tightened and then grew large; and all these things made him see that something must be done at once.” 

“She clung to him without answering, and he laid his lips on her hair, which was soft yet springy, like certain mosses on warm slopes, and had the faint woody fragrance of fresh sawdust in the sun.”

Note that these lyrical visions of Ethan’s emotionally refracted inner landscape would have been far too poetic to be transmitted to the reader using Ethan’s first-person voice. But we’re also privy, as we would be in first person, to his most private internal agony:

“It seemed to Ethan that his heart was bound with cords which an unseen hand was tightening with every tick of the clock. Twice he opened his lips to speak to Mattie and found no breath.”

Because the entire story (minus the frames at the beginning and end) is written in rigorous close third, there’s no expectation that we’ll get the perspective of other characters in the story. And much of the suspense has to do with the fact that we think we know, but are not quite sure about what the other characters are feeling:

“He saw the rise in colour in Mattie’s averted cheek, and the quick lifting of Zeena’s head.”

“The sudden heat of his tone made her colour mount again, not with a rush, but gradually, delicately, like the reflection of a thought stealing slowly across her heart.”

Imagine how different these effects would be if the story were written in the omniscient point of view, even limited omniscience. We would know what the other characters were feeling, and this would eliminate much of the uncertainty, diluting the suspense and most likely blunting the overall impact of the story, which depends on an intense scrutiny of the gradually expanding consciousness of a single individual.

The story is told in the past tense, but with close third there is no real question about where the narrator herself stands in time, as there always is with first person. Because of this the terrible, suspenseful, tragic story can unfold without any expectation of a retrospective vision, such as “if only I’d known what was going to happen, I would have . . . ”

Here’s an example, from the climactic scene:

“As they flew toward the tree Mattie pressed her arms tighter, and her blood seemed to be in his veins. Once or twice the sled swerved a little under them. He slanted his body to keep it headed for the elm . . . ”

With first person, we would either have had to bear the awkwardness of present tense, or we would have expected the retrospective voice to intrude, letting us know how and why this was going to be such a pivotal event in his life—and if we didn’t hear any of that retrospective voice, we probably would have wondered why it was absent at such an important moment in the story.

My take-homes:

Close third is a better choice than first person or omniscient if:

You want to describe the setting fulsomely and lyrically, and your character is not a poet or a painter.

You want the focus to be on the character’s essence, rather than the sound of his voice. 

The story turns on the misconceptions or limited perspective of the main character, and/or the suspense of not knowing what the other characters in the story are thinking.

You want the story to unfold moment-to-moment, without having to address either the presence or absence the retrospective view—i.e., you wish to have a story where the narrator’s stance in time is indefinite. In other words, if you wish to rely on suspense or mystery more than dramatic irony as a page-turning mechanism.


First Person, Present Tense: Robert Bausch’s Far As the Eye Can See

For the first three quarters of this colorful novel of the American West, I was completely immersed. The book is set in the years leading up to Custer’s defeat at Little Bighorn, and it tells a vivid and gripping story. The reluctant hero is good company. He interacts with many sympathetic and/or interesting characters. Bausch creates a fully realized novelistic landscape that comes alive in rare and impressive ways. 

Far As the Eye Can See was the one book that I’d brought on a long trip to Tierra del Fuego and Patagonia, and I’d expected it to last me the whole time. But early in the trip, I started flying through it. I really didn’t want to put it down—and I only did so in order to savor it and make it last.

At a specific point around three quarters of the way through the book, Bausch made an unfortunate choice having to do with the mode of narration. When the story finally caught up with the events that had been narrated in the prologue, he switched the first-person voice from the past to the present tense. 

This may seem an inconsequential decision, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s the way the author thought of it at the time, but for me this minor shift in perspective was a major problem. Suddenly the book went from an effortless to a more difficult to read. The guiding consciousness that had been so natural and fluid before now felt stilted and off-putting. I had increasing trouble suspending my disbelief, and from the point where the POV shifted to the end of the book I was continually thrown out of the story. What happened?

Admittedly, I may have succumbed to the hypercritical mood that sometimes overtakes a writer who reads. Nevertheless, I think it will be illuminating to try to identify what I was reacting to by looking at a few sample passages. The first is from the present-tense prologue:

“The path is thick with brush and patches of thicket full of thorns and dry, twisted branches, but it’s a path, and way beyond the two knobs of hill in front of me, I see him coming along on foot. A dark, thin shadow that might be a Indian or not. I can't tell. For my money, a soldier’s just as dangerous as a Indian.”

The second passage is in the past tense, which begins with chapter one and continues unabated throughout the first three quarters of the book:

“After I killed my first Indian, Theo bade me ride in front of the lead wagon with Big Tree every day, so I guess you could say I become a part of the wagon train because I killed a man and proved I could be useful.”

To me, this mode of narration feels natural, and—once the reader is accustomed to the quirky diction of Bausch’s unlettered first person narrator—appropriately transparent. In other words, it does what a good narrative POV should do, fading into the background so we can focus on the story.

The third passage is from the final quarter of the book, after the sudden shift back to the present tense:

“We stay completely still most of that day. I don’t think I sleep more than a half hour or so, and when the sun begins to drop behind the high hills behind us, we start off again. We move slow and quiet most of the night.”

In the prologue, the present tense was a good fit. The protagonist narrated a single event in exacting moment-to-moment detail. We were new to the world of the story. The characters as yet had no future and no past, so the immediacy of a perspective focused entirely on the present felt right. None of this was the case in the final quarter of the book, so the present tense began to feel strained and unnatural. The easy transparency of the narrative voice had been sacrificed. And for what?

Bausch’s rationale in switching to the present tense for the last quarter of the book is not entirely clear to me. Perhaps it was to delineate for himself and for the reader that the timeline of the story had now caught up to the prologue—but why be so obvious about it? The reader is smart enough to figure out the story’s timeline on his own; he doesn’t need it underlined and put in bold type. And the sudden and permanent switch had the unfortunate effect of interrupting a perfectly fluid reading experience. 

I believe that we can begin to see the reasons for this sensation in the third passage quoted above. Note that we are no longer focused on a moment-by-moment experience. Time is passing in a more typically novelistic way – sometimes faster, sometimes slower, with all the “leaping and crowding” required to tell a story on the large canvas. The story now has its own accumulated memory, an implied retrospective vantage point that is, of course, impossible to gain in the present tense. Perhaps we feel cheated that that implied retrospective vision has gone missing. Perhaps we get a subconscious feeling that the author is ducking something. And to me, chapter after chapter of present tense narration is just, well, awkward.

My takeaway from this reading experience is that present tense ought to be used sparingly. For scenes of moment-to-moment immediacy, for moments of special intensity, when what we might call “narrative memory” has yet to be established, it can work well. But it doesn’t seem to be the right perspective for filling the more abundant canvas of a larger novelistic story. And it’s probably not a good idea to switch horses midstream arbitrarily, without a clear and pressing need to do so.


Fiction’s Inner Landscape: Clues about Writing Irresistible Interiority from The Journals of John Cheever

Fiction continues to thrive as an art form because its dramas play out in the singular realm of the human imagination, where the exterior and interior worlds meet. Novels and stories are imaginative interfaces. Together, the author and the reader create a living landscape that is more complete, immersive, and charged with meaning than the expensively produced moving images on even the most high fidelity flat screen. But how does a writer go about triggering this magical act of co-creation? The answer, in part, is that we allow readers to experience the exterior world from inside a particular character. This concept is known as interiority.

The unique quality of the novel that allows us to become immersed in another human mind is central to its value and its popularity. Perhaps in part because we are denied it in everyday life, we crave the experience of accompanying a consciousness that is not our own as it confronts antagonists, goes on journeys, yearns, searches, reacts, muses, reflects, falls in love, and deals with the stress and emotional difficulties associated with good storytelling. In fiction it’s not the external plot (though external plot is of course essential), but the inner landscape that truly matters. This inner landscape is something novels do better than any other medium, and the reason they will never be fully supplanted by movies or TV or video games.

But why is the inner landscape so irresistible to us? And how can we as fiction writers make it more so?

To look for answers, I turned to one of the most inexplicably propulsive books of unplotted, unstructured narrative I’ve ever read: The Journals of John Cheever. This is a 400 page book with no plot per se, and no arc or dramatic need in the traditional sense either, other than the day-by-day, moment-by-moment struggle of one human being to come to terms with himself and the world. And yet you can’t put it down. Cheever’s inward-looking journal entries are so vivid, so charged with meaning, and so entertaining to read that they are immediately, irresistibly addictive, like heroin or Fritos corn chips. For these reasons, The Journals seems a fitting place to attempt to isolate the factors that make interiority irresistible, even in the absence of an underlying narrative infrastructure.

I’ve compiled a list of several qualities of Cheever’s interiority that work in concert to make it intrinsically interesting and pleasurable to read. There may be more (and if you notice them, please point them out), but here are several of the qualities I was able to isolate:

1. It expresses a deeply held yearning for the descriptive Lost World (domaine perdu) that is a key aspect of immersive fiction:

And with my mouth tasting of old wine, and with this gray sky, I find it so hard not to be incredulous in recalling the wonderful hours and days in the mountains, the cleanliness, P. coming back to the house with her flowers, the breadth of the view, swimming in cold water, making love under a thin roof; and I think now of the months that I have longed to write a story that will be fine, that will be singing, that will have all kinds of lights and pleasures.

2. The writing is lyrical, rhythmic, interesting, and insightful. It’s chock full of defamiliarized imagery and keen observations about human nature, such as this one taken from Cheever’s extensive time in Rome:

After lunch I walk in the streets and observe how the facial traits of the people differ from the massive and weary countenances of the emperors and their wives. It may be no accident that much of the Roman portrait statuary we see in America reminds us of Americans.

3. The vivid sensory description that pervades the book is often flavored by undertones of dread:

The early-morning air is moist, and mingling with the sweet fragrance of the earth is the smell of smoke, frying fish, and the slack river water. It is no wonder that we are stirred by this show of light and color; it is the plain difference between sanity and horror.

4. Sometimes the dread is closer to the surface. In these places it feels intentional, as if Cheever is deliberately trying to gin up suspense, in preparation for, or perhaps as a kind of musical practice for, writing fiction. Elsewhere I’ve called this “shadow description.” 

What the travel books don’t mention is the sense of danger experienced by the visitor to Rome. Driving back into the city after a long weekend you see at the gates of the Campo Verano a long line of hearses . . . You ask one of the drivers what the occasion is and he says it is the epidemic. He makes the sign of the cross and moves slowly forward to the gates . . . The floodlights aimed at the monument, the yellow clouds of a big-city fog. You park your car and lock the ignition switch, the steering wheel, and all the doors, since car thefts go on every night in this quarter.

5. Finally, and most importantly, I believe, Cheever’s interiority often expresses conflicting feelings:

In an upper-class gathering I suddenly think of myself as a pariah—a small and dirty fraud, a deserved outcast, spiritual and sexual impostor, a loathsome thing. Then I take a deep breath, stand up straight, and the loathsome image falls away. I am no better and no worse than the other members of the gathering. Indeed, I am myself. It is like a pleasant taste on the tongue.

The Journals of John Cheever is full of such conflicted interiority, which creates something known as “microtension.” To quote writer and craft expert Donald Maass: “When you create in your reader an unconscious apprehension, anxiety, worry, question, or uncertainty, then the reader will unconsciously seek to relieve that uneasiness. And there’s only one way to do that: read the next thing on the page.”

As Cheever knew very well, one of the best ways to create that “unconscious apprehension” is to portray the consciousness of a character with conflicting feelings. To restate Maass’s point above, conflicting feelings produce a sense of uneasiness in the reader, and a subconscious desire to relieve that apprehension by turning the pages. This is the mechanism that makes conflicting feelings a good way to sustain interest moment-by-moment in a story.

Consider one further example:

By lewdness I mean just that: raised petticoats in kitchens and back stairs and long afternoons in bed when the sheets smell like the lagoons of Venice; but if my hands tremble with desire they tremble likewise when I reach for the chalice on Sunday, and if lust makes me run and caper it is no stronger a force than that which brings me to my knees to say thanksgivings and litanies. What can this capricious skin be but a blessing?

We need to turn the page to find out how this character will resolve his roiling inner conflict. In part it’s because we want to learn what the experience of this other consciousness can teach us about resolving our own inner conflicts, and in part it is our helpless fascination as we watch a slow motion train wreck.

The Journals of John Cheever offers a fascinating peek into the private thoughts of a fellow human being. It is irresistible because it offers us a defamiliarized version of our own processing mechanism, in all its wisdom and its ignorance and its strange, conflicted beauty.

The main lesson I take out of all this is that when it comes to interiority, you must immerse yourself in the truest, deepest experience of your protagonist’s interior, and trust the reader to be mesmerized. Done right—and Cheever shows us how—it is a crucial and glorious aspect of the fiction writer’s craft.