While other categories of analysis, such as characterisation, plot or space are useful both for the analysis of narrative and drama, the category of narrator is unique to the more diegetic genres (narrative prose and narrative poetry).
Two aspects are considered: narrative voice (who speaks?) and focalisation (who sees?). These two aspects together are also called narrative situation. Some critics also talk about narrative perspective or point of view in this context, though these terms do not always distinguish clearly between narrative voice and focalisation.
Narrative situation is an aspect of , which means that it is part of the analysis that examines HOW a narrative is told. It is characteristic of narrative prose (and ) that it is always told by someone, i.e. it is always mediated in some way through a 'voice'. This is not the case in drama or film, where the characters generall speak directly.
When one examines narrative voice, one basically wants to know who speaks, or more precisely, who tells the story. The question ‘who speaks’ is asked of the narrative as a whole. This narrator can, of course, report on other characters' conversation. This does not change the narrative situation; it is still the narrator who speaks.
The first distinction that is made, following Genette (1980), is between a narrator who is also a character in the story – a homodiegetic narrator, and a narrator who is NOT a character in the story but in a way hovers above it and knows everything about it – a heterodiegetic narrator. If the homodiegetic narrator is also the protagonist of the narrative, it is an autodiegetic narrator. Franz Stanzel’s distinction between first-person narrative situation and authorial narrative situation roughly corresponds with Genette’s terms homodiegetic/heterodiegetic (see Stanzel 1984; Stanzel introduces a third type of about which see below).
Note by the way that the narrator is NOT the same as the author. Narrators can have opinions that are not the author's. This is especially obvious in the case of homodiegetic narrators; a male author can create a female narrator without necessarily putting his own gender up for question and one author can create different narrators in different books without having to be suspected of a split personality. The necessary separation between author and narrator also holds for heterodiegetic narrators, of course. Even in autobiographical texts the distinction between author and narrator is useful, since the narrating I is always partly a construction and thus not identical with the author.
The communication situation in prose texts thus comprises three levels: A character addresses another character in the narrative; this is narrated by a narrator who sometimes addresses an imaginary “dear reader” (the narratee); the text has been composed by a real author and is read by an actual reader. Authors and readers are frequently embedded in different historical and cultural contexts.
Compare the types of narrators in the following two examples:
In both cases we are told about the birth and childhood of a little girl and in both cases indications are given that there are certain defects in the girl’s upbringing. Nonetheless, the scope of the information we receive is quite different. Moll Flanders is a homodiegetic-autodiegetic narrator. She is herself the main character in the story she tells and there is a lot she does not know about herself as a very small child or can only relate from hearsay. In contrast, a well-informed heterodiegetic narrator is able to give us information of considerable detail about Arabella. On the other hand, we gain a personal impression of Moll’s character because we hear her own voice. The report about Arabella is by contrast much more distanced.
One makes a further distinction between overt and a covert narrators. An overt narrator seems to have a distinct personality, someone who makes his or her opinions known. In the quotation from The Female Quixote we notice for example that the narrator does not approve of romances as reading material (“unfortunately for her”, for evaluative use of language see narrative modes, ). A covert narrator, on the other hand, is hardly noticeable. Consider the following extract from Ernest Hemingway, The Snows of Kilimanjaro:
There is quite obviously a (heterodiegetic) narrator here, someone who tells us who is speaking (“he said”). But we learn nothing about the narrator’s own position, we do not get an impression of him as a person: It is a covert narrator who concentrates on rather than .
The narrator is the agency that transmits the events and existents of the narrative verbally. The narrator can recount events from a position outside the story, adopting the omniscient point of view of someone who, for some reason, knows everything about the story. However, it is also possible for the narrator to adopt the limited point of view of one character in the story and in consequence to remain ignorant of what happens outside this character's range of perception. This choice of perspective is independent of the question whether or not the narrator is a character in the story (as will become clear below). To express the distinction between narrative voice (who speaks?) and perspective (who sees or perceives?), Genette has introduced the term focalisation (Genette 1980: 189-194) in order to avoid confusion with earlier usages of the terms 'point of view’ or ‘perspective’ which is often used to denote narrative voice as well. Genette's terms have been modified by Rimmon-Kenan whose definitions are presented here:
An external focaliser is a focaliser who is external to the story (Rimmon-Kenan 1983: 74) and who is thus also called narrator-focalizer because the focus of perception seems to be that of the narrator. An internal focaliser is a focus of perception of a character in the story, and thus also called character-focaliser. The distinction is best illustrated by comparing it to the change in camera perspective in the following video clip from Oliver Twist (see ).
At first the camera presents an overall perspective, a point of view that hovers above the scene and the audience is able to see the entire scene all at once. Then the perspective changes (as Oliver ducks under the man's arm) and the camera reproduces Oliver’s perceptions, the quick passing of surroundings as he is running, even the loss of consciousness when he is knocked out and the screen momentarily goes black. As the camera changes perspective the audience adopts Oliver’s point of view and sees and experiences events as he sees and experiences them; Oliver becomes the focaliser.
A similar effect can be achieved in a verbal narrative. Consider this extract:
This excerpt is from Virginia Woolf’s novel Flush. The paragraph begins with someone smelling different smells and it seems these smells are perceived of as attractive. In the last sentence it becomes clear that this someone is in fact a young dog; he is the focus of perception, the focaliser. We hear about the smells, the attractions of fox and hare, the flash of passion from the dog’s point of view, as one might imagine a dog to experience these things. Obviously, it is not the dog who speaks here. It is a heterodiegetic narrator who tries to reproduce the dog’s impressions in an internal focalisation. In the terminology introduced by Stanzel, this combination is called figural narrative situation. Careful: it is not possible to have a 'figural narrator' because in this narrative situation a narrator who is not the character continues to speak!
Focalisation does not have to stay the same throughout a narrative. A change in focaliser often introduces another point of view and thus variety into a narrative. Woolf’s narrative of Flush’s first amorous adventure for instance continues thus:
This is a and the narrator is obviously not a dog but a human being (“the moral code of dogs […] is […] different from ours”). This represents a combination of heterodiegetic narrator and external focalisation.
Internal focalisation can be more obvious still when the language abilities and mind of the focaliser are realistically reproduced. This is a little difficult in the case of a dog but it becomes quite possible for instance in the case of children as focalisers. A famous example is the beginning of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:
It is quite possible to imagine that this is the perception of a little boy as he might express it to himself: The syntax is very simple, he does not seem to know the word ‘glasses’ so the expression“through a glass” is used. It is certainly from the little boy’s point of view that we hear about the various smells, the story, the bed-wetting. Notice however, that even though the language of a child is here reproduced, the little boy himself is not the narrator (‘who speaks?’). It is again a heterodiegetic narrator and an internal focaliser.
The difference to an external focaliser becomes very clear when one compares Anthony Burgess’ rewriting of the passage at the beginning of Joyce’s Portrait as a piece with a homodiegetic narrator and external focaliser (the older protagonist looking back as narrating I):
Even though the narrator is now the main character in the story, a homodiegetic narrator, on account of the external focalisation, Burgess’ version is noticeably removed from the child’s perceptions at the time, and so of course is his linguistic ability.
Not all narrators are equally reliable, that is to say the reader is sometimes led to distrust what a narrator says (see Nünning 1998, also in Characterisation). There are various reasons for such distrust. Some narrators tell deliberate lies or omit crucial information. In Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd for instance, the homodiegetic narrator simply omits to mention how he himself commits the murder until the end of the book. Of course in this case, the reader does not realise that this narrator is unreliable until the very end. In other cases the narrator simply does not know enough to give an accurate account of what actually happened. A classic example is Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier which is full of uncertainties and contradictions, simply because the narrator never fully understands what is happening. He tries to piece together various bits of information he receives and indulges in a number of speculations, but he is never quite certain. this makes the information the reader receives (seem) unreliable.