HAVE WE NOT all been witness, if not to an execution, then to some memorable experience worth reporting? In addition to our own eyewitness accounts, we often find it necessary to seek other points of view if we wish to expand or embellish the subject. We cannot, like a novelist, call on omniscience. Our most likely sources of information, then, will be other witnesses, whose accounts we gather through conversations, letters, emails, telephone calls, and similar means.
But suppose that we have exhausted all our sources and still need to round out the picture. Have we not at times lapsed into empathetic identification and found ourselves saying something like the following: "I gather that the speaker was thinking of ... or feeling that..."? In other words, we put ourselves in another's place, seeing the world through his or her eyes, vicariously.
Slipping into the skin of another and trying to experience that person's life is to be admirably human. Some of us, in fact, become so comfortable in our new skin that we imitate the person's behavior and speech. Imitation is not only the sincerest form of flattery, but also a shortcut to understanding a person's psyche and the reasons or motives behind it. To achieve psychological depth, writers enter vicariously into the lives of their characters; a few also allow a character to enter into the person of another. Such is the case with the novelists Chuck Palahniuk and William Kennedy.
In Palahnuik's Fight Club, a recent novel and movie, the narrator tries to find relief from insomnia by impersonating a seriously ill person. A more famous example, though, is William Kennedy's novel Legs. Here the narrator, Marcus Gorman, tells the reader what he sees and what others have seen of the gangster Jack "Legs" Diamond, even delving into Jack's Catholicism, a religion Marcus shares. But when Jack dies, Marcus has no way of knowing Jack's final thoughts: reminiscences that are necessary for Marcus to complete the "Legs myth." To effect this scene, the narrator becomes the dying gangster and shares his memories with the reader, thus fulfilling the narrator's opening line of the book, "I really don't think he's dead," and Legs's ostensible closing line of the book, "I really don't think I'm dead." Legs lives in the narrator's telling.
William Kennedy learned this trick of having one character slip into another's point of view from the example of Nick Carraway, the first-person narrator in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. So great was Kennedy's anxiety about Fitzgerald's influence that Kennedy made sure to sprinkle in his novel the names Fitzgerald and Gatsby, as if pleading nolo contendere and asking the reader to judge not the morality but the artistry of his borrowing.
For those of us interested in social learning through vicariousness, Fitzgerald's novel is instructive. Let us therefore look at The Great Gatsby and the workings of the point of view.
Whenever Nick conveys Gatsby's thoughts, as he does on Gatsby's return to Louisville at war's end, or imparts suppositions, such as "[Gatsby] must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass" (126), the reader would be perfectly justified to ask: How can Nick possibly know what Gatsby is thinking? These implausible moments, which increase in number towards the end of the novel, indicate the problem that Fitzgerald encountered with the witness point of view and its limited avenues of information.
For the witness point of view to work with the least amount of awkwardness, the sources of information must appear natural, reasonable, and perhaps even inevitable--and the narrator must be wholly in control of the information. Henry James speaks to this point in the "Preface" to The Golden Bowl.
Beset constantly with the sense that the painter of the picture or
chanter of the ballad (whatever we may call him) can never be
, and for every inch of his surface and note of his song, I
track my uncontrollable footsteps, right and left, after the fact,
they take their quick turn, even on stealthiest tiptoe, toward the
of view that, within the compass, will give me most instead of least
answer for. …