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Notes on Focalisation


Decided to do my first semester essay on variable, internal focalisation in Madame Bovary. Want to explore the structuralist roots of perspective as Genette’s Narrative Discourse, the set text, refers to Barthes Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative a lot… And I love a bit of Barthes.

Anyway, for my benefit, here’s a beginner’s guide to focalisation or “point of view”.

Focalisation is the perspective from which we experience the narrative being told. I’m going to find a more concise way of expressing that later… Genette outlines three types of focalisation in narrative:

1. Non-focalised

This is often characterised as “omniscient” and is most frequently a third person narrative. Here, the narrator knows more than the characters about events that have happened and events that are to come, floats among and around them like a God, observing and noting. It’s the classic mode of the story teller, of Dickens and Balzac.

2. Internal Focalisation

Here the story is told from the exclusive viewpoint of the character or characters. It can be told in the first or third person, but presents the narrative through the experience of the focal character. We know what they know, see what they see.

It’s a little more complicated than that, though, as there are three variants:

a) Fixed Internal Focalisation
Here, we experience the text from the viewpoint of one character and one character alone. Classic examples would include:

Catcher in the Rye
A Confederacy of Dunces

b) Variable

In this subtype, we move from character to character within the narrative, experiencing their perspective. This might resemble, on the surface, non-focalised narrative perspective, but in true variable internal focalisation, the narrator knows and channels only the experience of the character she currently inhabits. Madame Bovary could be categorised as a narrative with variable, internal focalisation – but it’s a tricky one… The narrator’s voice begins in the first person, as an observer, for example.

c) Multiple

Multiple internal focalisation is similar to variable. However, we experience different narrative perspectives within a scene. This is the classic device of telling the same story from different viewpoints. There are many examples in film – Four Rooms, Code Unknown, Vantage Point.

3. External Focalisation

This is a rare variant of perspective in literary fiction – in which the action is described by an external observer. This observer doesn’t have access to the thoughts or feelings of the protagonists – and is an entirely external, authorial narrator or a minor character on the periphery. Examples abound in the short stories of Hemingway – but it’s a device most frequently found in genre fictions; crime, horror and the pulpier versions of SF.

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