The Narrator as Observer

The principal narrator of a novel is usually the main character. That goes without saying, right? However, some stories call for a different strategy: the narrator as observer. A popular example was William Styron’s classic 1979 novel, “Sophie’s Choice.” The story focuses on two young lovers, Nathan Landau and Sophie Zawistowski. The narrator is a young writer from Virginia named Stingo. He is a boarder at a rooming house in Brooklyn, New York, where Nathan and Sophie live together.

The story revolves around the relationship between Sophie, a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps, and Nathan, who poses as a Harvard graduate and a biologist. Nathan and Sophie befriend young Stingo. The reader finds out later that Nathan has invented his background and he is a paranoid schizophrenic. Nathan is at times generous and at other times abusive. Stingo finds out from Nathan’s brother that Nathan is schizophrenic and he has made up his career as a cellular biologist working on important medical research. Stingo and Sophie leave Brooklyn when Nathan, believing they are having an affair, threatens to kill Stingo. Sophie shares with Stingo her harrowing past as a concentration
camp survivor.

Without revealing any further plot details, Sophie’s “choice” refers to the dilemma when an individual must choose between two equally horrible alternatives. So why did Styron choose a character other than Nathan or Sophie as the main character?

As the narrator, Stingo described the events of the story years later when he was an older, successful novelist. He tied in his own family’s past history as slave owners in the South, which Stingo abhorred. I suspect Styron selected Stingo as the narrator because he is the only character who could view the relationship between Nathan and Sophie with some measure of objectivity. Stingo as narrator also underscored the theme of the universality of cruelty and racism. Nathan, as a Jew, is obsessed with and haunted by the holocaust. Sophie, as a Polish-Catholic, lost her family and suffered as a result of the tyranny of the Nazis. Stingo’s family also took part in the racist system of slavery.

Author Philip Roth has published eight novels where the character Nathan Zuckerman appears. In “American Pastoral,” Zuckerman is not a major character but is an observer/narrator. Swede Levov is the main character. Another famous example is Nick Carraway in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, “The Great Gatsby.”

The narrator-observer technique creates distance between the reader and the main characters. Stingo cannot possibly know Nathan Landau’s true state of mind. What Stingo brings to the story is a greater degree of reliability. The reader trusts him. He can present the complex relationship between Nathan and Sophie in a way that neither of them can. Styron presents Stingo as an earnest and honest young man. He has an avid curiosity and he uncovers details about their relationship as he becomes a confidante, especially to Sophie.

The narrator-observer is an unusual narrative technique. It’s rarely used, but it can be an effective tool in a story where the main characters are too biased to reveal all of the dimensions of a novel.

Have you ever used the narrator-observer point-of-view? Can you think of other examples of this technique  in literature?

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10 Comments

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10 responses to “The Narrator as Observer

  1. oh dear, well yes, right now I am using a narrator observer.. in my present work. I did not realise it was a rare choice..she is involved though she only makes one game changing decision in the end.. but it is working..,, this is making me think.. now i am going to go away and think some more.. c

    • Cecilia,
      Thanks for your comments. When I said the narrator as observer was a rare choice, I wasn’t basing it on any empirical data. I was basing it on my own experience as a reader. I read 25 novels a year and I can only recall three books where it was used (Sophie’s Choice, American Pastoral and The Great Gatsby). Having said that I wouljdn’t rule it out simply because it’s not a populat narrative technique. I think it depends on whether you want to achieve some distance from the main character or characters and present a more objective view of them. Good luck with your work-in-progress.

      Chris

    • Cecilia,
      Thanks for your comments. When I said the narrator as observer was a rare choice, I wasn’t basing it on any empirical data. I was basing it on my own experience as a reader. I read 25 novels a year and I can only recall three books where it was used (Sophie’s Choice, American Pastoral and The Great Gatsby). Having said that I wouljdn’t rule it out simply because it’s not a populat narrative technique. I think it depends on whether you want to achieve some distance from the main character or characters and present a more objective view of them. Good luck with your work-in-progress.

      Chris

  2. I think I’ve used a hybrid of what you are defining here.

    In my trilogy, Irv’s Odyssey, I set up a character (Irving Podolsky) who tells the reader in the first paragraph that he doesn’t fit in and that he is a visitor on this planet observing humankind. And then he narrates a mythic journey whereby he interacts with a cast of characters in very strange situations. He is the main voice because he is in every scene. But at the same time, he is trying to figure out what is going on with the people he meets, and how to interact with them without getting hurt and sucked into their dramas. It happens anyway, and many times, Irv talks directly to the reader as an “aside” as he connects the dots.

    So I’m not sure if this technique is aligned with your concept of the Narrator/Observer, but it worked for the story I wanted to tell. And since then, I have adopted my visitor/observer name Irv Podolsky, as my writing identity, because as an author, I too feel like I am visiting this planet and taking notes. And my reports of what I see and hear, turn into books.

    Irv

    • Irv,
      Thanks for your observations. I think your use of it as you’ve described it is appropriate. It’s most effective when you want to achieve some distance from the main characters. Some authors create a character who is an alter ego. Critics have said Philip Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman was not only an alter ego of other characters, but of the author himself. Roth drew on his experiences growing up in Newark in creating Zuckerman. It’s a rare choice, but it can be effective.

      Regards,
      Chris

  3. I don’t recall ever using the narrator-observer method of description in my writing, but I have been considering it seriously lately. As you suggest, it isn’t just the story that’s important in the end, it’s also who tells the story. As the ruler of the universe I create, I have to take the time to evaluate where is the best starting point and where will the story end. Who will tell it, and will they tell it in present time, or as a series of memories that can be peppered with interjections from the present.

    There is so much to consider. That’s the beauty and the art of it.

    You really gave me some excellent food for thought, and an outstanding reason for considering an option I have not yet employed. Thanks for the perspective.

    • Jamie,
      Thanks for your comment. The narrator-observer is not a widely used technique. Writers should evaluate whether they need a narrator who has some distance from the main characters. With the right story, it can be effective.

      Chris

    • Jamie,
      Thanks for your comment. The narrator-observer is not a widely used technique. Writers should evaluate whether they need a narrator who has some distance from the main characters. With the right story, it can be effective.

      Chris

  4. Viviana

    If the narrator is part of the main character’s life in one chapter, but then he tells the story from a third person (the rest of the chapters), what kind of narrator would it be? Thanks for your prompt replay.

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