Narrators and Narrative Situation

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 Voices

Narrative situation is an aspect of discourse, which means that it is part of the analysis that examines HOW a narrative is told. It is characteristic of narrative prose (and narrative poetry) 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 narrative situation 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.

Real author

Narrative Text


Character 1 Character 2


Code / Message
Actual reader


Compare the types of narrators in the following two examples:

[…] my Mother was convicted of Felony […] and being found quick with Child, she was respited for about seven Months, in which time having brought me into the World, […] she […] obtain’d the Favour of being Transported to the Plantations, and left me about Half a Year old; and in bad Hands you may be sure.
This is too near the first Hours of my Life for me to relate any thing of myself, but by hear say; ‘tis enough to mention, that as I was born in such an unhappy Place [Newgate prison], I had no Parish to have Recourse to for my Nourishment in my Infancy, nor can I give the least Account how I was kept alive, other, than that as I have been told, some Relation of my Mothers took me away for a while as a Nurse, but at whose Expence or by whose Direction I know nothing at all of it. (Defoe, Moll Flanders)

In the Second Year of his Retirement, the Marchioness brought him a Daughter, and died in Three Days after her Delivery. The Marquis […] was extremely afflicted at her Death; but Time having produced its usual Effects, his great fondness for the little Arabella intirely engrossed his Attention and made up all the Happiness of his Life. […] Nature had indeed given her a most charming Face, a Shape easy and delicate, a sweet and insinuating Voice, and an Air so full of Dignity and Grace, as drew the Admiration of all that saw her. […] From her earliest Youth she had discovered a Fondness for Reading, which extremely delighted the Marquis; he permitted her therefore the Use of his Library, in which, unfortunately for her, were great Stores of Romances; […]. (Lennox, Female Quixote, Bk. I, ch. 1)

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, narrator comment). A covert narrator, on the other hand, is hardly noticeable. Consider the following extract from Ernest Hemingway, The Snows of Kilimanjaro:

‘The marvellous thing is that it’s painless,’ he said. ‘That’s how you know when it starts.’
‘Is it really?’
‘Absolutely. I’m awfully sorry about the odour though. That must bother you.’
‘Don’t! Please don’t.’
Look at them,’ he said. ‘Now is it sight or is it scent that brings them like that?’

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 showing rather than telling.


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 video clip).

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:

[…] what a variety of smells interwoven in subtlest combination thrilled his nostrils; strong smells of earth, sweet smells of flowers; nameless smells of leaf and bramble; sour smells as they crossed the road; pungent smells as they entered bean-fields. But suddenly down the wind came tearing a smell sharper, stronger, more lacerating than any – a smell that ripped across his brain stirring a thousand instincts, releasing a million memories – the smell of hare, the smell of fox. Off he flashed like a fish drawn in a rush through water further and further. […] And once at least the call was even more imperious; the hunting horn roused deeper instincts, summoned wilder and stronger emotions that transcended memory and obliterated grass, trees, hare, rabbit, fox in one wild shout of ecstasy. Love blazed her torch in his eyes; he heard the hunting horn of Venus. Before he was well out of his puppyhood, Flush was a father.

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:

Such conduct in a man even, in the year 1842, would have called for some excuse from a biographer; in a woman no excuse could have availed; […] But the moral code of dogs, whether better or worse, is certainly different from ours, and there was nothing in Flush’s conduct in this respect that requires a veil now, or unfitted him for the society of the purest and the chastest in the land then.

This is a narrator comment 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 style 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:

Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo. . . .
His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a glass; he had a hairy face. […]
When you wet the bed, first it is warm then it gets cold. His mother put on the oilsheet. That had the queer smell.
His mother had a nicer smell than his father. (ch. 1.)

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):

My earliest recollections are of my father and my mother bending over my cot and of the difference in personal odour that subsisted between my two parents. My father, certainly, did not have so pleasant an odour as my mother. I remember I would be told infantile stories, altogether appropriate to my infantile station. One of them, I seem to recall, was concerned with a cow coming down the lane – which lane was never specified – and meeting a child who was called (I am embarrassed, inevitably, to recollect this in maturity) some such name as Baby Tuckoo. I myself, apparently, was to be thought of as Baby Tuckoo. Or was it Cuckoo? It is, of course, so long ago [...] (Burgess 1973: 15)

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.

Unreliable Narrators

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 Reliability 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.


narrative voices
 homodiegetic narrator
 heterodiegetic narrator
first-person NS
authorial NS
overt / covert
external focalizer
internal focalizer
figural NS