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1.4 Understanding and interpreting a narrator’s perspective

6 min readjanuary 25, 2023

ChristineLing

ChristineLing


AP English Literature 📚

145 resources
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Introduction

Welcome to study guide 1.4 of AP Lit! Here, we’ll look at the role of narrators in a narrative. You probably know what a narrator is, but do you know if a narrator is the same as a character? Can characters be narrators? What are the different points of view that the narrator can hold?
All of these questions, and more, will be answered in this study guide.

Narrator Basics

Let’s first learn what/who a narrator is. Is it the same thing as the speaker? The author?
A narrator is the voice or persona that tells a story in a narrative. The narrator may be a character in the story or an external voice that is not a character. They are responsible for relaying the events of the story and providing information and commentary on the characters and events.
A speaker, on the other hand, is the voice or persona that speaks in a poem, song or other forms of literature. The speaker may be the author themselves, a fictional character, or a persona assumed by the author for the purpose of the poem or song. The speaker conveys their thoughts, feelings, and emotions through their words and expressions.
Note: the speaker or narrator is NOT necessarily the same as the author in literature! When the speaker or narrator is a fictional character within the story, they are distinct from the author. The author creates the character and gives them a voice, but the character is not the author themselves. Additionally, some authors choose to write in a first-person point of view (explained in the next section) and use a narrator that they have created. This narrator is distinct from the author. In some special cases, works of literature are written in the form of letters, diaries, or other forms of personal communication, in which case the narrator/speaker may be a character who is relaying their experiences and thoughts (not the author’s).

What is Point of View?

Point of view (aka POV) in literature refers to “the position from which a narrator or speaker relates the events of a narrative” (College Board AP Lit CED 2020). It determines the level of access the reader has to the thoughts, feelings and observations of the characters. There are several different types of point of view, including:
  • First-person point of view: The story is told by a character using "I" and "me." This point of view allows the reader to see the story through the eyes of the character.
  • Second-person point of view: The story is told using "you" and "your," which addresses the reader directly and makes them a character in the story.
  • Third-person point of view: The story is told using "he," "she," "it," and "they." This point of view provides a more objective narrative, as it is detached from characters’ thoughts and feelings, and allows the reader to see the story from an outsider's perspective. 
  • Omniscient point of view: The narrator knows everything about the story and all the characters. The narrator can move in and out of the perspectives of different characters, giving the reader a detailed and comprehensive understanding of the story and all the characters. 

Test Yourself

Let’s practice identifying the narrator and point of view with this quick exercise.
Look at the short story "The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe. Then, identify and describe the narrator. Also, what point of view is the story told from? The story is linked here. Or, you can search the story yourself; you’re bound to find a copy of it.
I’ll put the answer to this exercise at the end of this study guide.

Influence of Narrator/Speaker

To tie narrator and speaker together, let’s look at their similarities. This is what College Board says about them
“Narrators or speakers relate accounts to readers and establish a relationship between the text and the reader.”
In essence, the narrator/speaker plays a significant role in shaping the reader's understanding of the story as they establish a relationship between the text and the reader.
The narrator's perspective, voice, and level of involvement in the story can greatly influence the reader's perception of the events and characters. For example, if the narrator is a character, the reader may be limited to the narrator's perspective and thoughts, which can create a sense of intimacy and immediacy. A narrator can also affect the tone of the story, whether it's serious, humorous, ironic, etc.
The relationship between the narrator and the reader also plays a role in how the story is perceived. The narrator establishes a connection between the reader and the text, drawing them into the story and making it more engaging. For example, a narrator who is relatable and likable can make the reader more invested in the story, while a narrator who is unreliable or untrustworthy can create a sense of uncertainty and tension.
In some cases, where the narrator IS a character, their position can affect the way they tell the story. In these cases, you should be proactive and cognizant of the narrator’s potential biases.

Influence of POV

POV affects what the narrator, characters, or speakers can share with the reader. Depending on how close they are to the events and characters, it can determine how much information they can give us.
For example, if a story is written in first-person POV, the reader is privy to the thoughts and feelings of the narrator, which can create a sense of intimacy and immediacy. This POV can be effective when the narrator is a relatable and likable character and the reader can connect emotionally with the story. An example of this is Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," which is written in first-person POV, and the reader is able to see the story through the eyes of Huck Finn and experience his journey on the Mississippi River.
On the other hand, if a story is written in third-person POV, the reader is given an objective and detached perspective of the events, which can create a sense of detachment but also allows the reader to see the story from an outsider's perspective. This can be effective when the story is complex or has multiple characters. An example of this is George Orwell's "1984," which is written in third-person POV, and the reader is able to see the story from different characters' perspectives and understand the society under the control of Big Brother.

Answer to Test Yourself exercise

In Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The Tell-Tale Heart," the narrator is an unnamed, first-person narrator who is also the protagonist of the story. The narrator is not identified by a name or any specific characteristics, but their behavior and thoughts reveal them to be a person driven by an obsession with an old man's "vulture-like" eye, and ultimately confessing to the murder of the old man. The point of view is first-person limited, which means that the reader only knows the thoughts, feelings, and observations of this particular narrator.

Conclusion

Today, you read an overview of the role of narrators and speakers in literature. It explained that a narrator is the voice or persona that tells a story in a narrative, and can be a character in the story or an external voice that is not a character. It also explained that a speaker is the voice or persona that speaks in a poem, song or other forms of literature, and can be the author themselves, a fictional character, or a persona assumed by the author. 
This guide also covered the concept of point of view (POV) in literature, explaining that it refers to the position from which a narrator or speaker relates the events of a narrative and determines the level of access the reader has to the thoughts, feelings and observations of the characters. We went over the different types of POV (like first-person, second-person, third-person, and omniscient) and looked at examples.
That’s all for this guide, see you in the next one!
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