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Craft based Analysis of New Yorker Stories

Point of View: How to pass the baton of perspective in a short story.

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Point of View: How to pass the baton of perspective in a short story.

A Flash Critique of “The Erlking” by Sarah Shun-Ben Bynum

The New Yorker’s 20 under 40 Series

This week I’m going to a tackle a story I’m not actually crazy about, despite the fine craftsmanship the author employs to achieve, a compelling ending.  This is an important lesson, for while we all write, and we all aspire to write something great, there is much that goes into that process, part of it craft, and part of it sensibility. For me, the sensibility of the characters in “The Erlking” felt off, but that does not detract from the author’s ability to handle a variety of craft issues, including what is undoubtedly one of the more difficult ones – alternating points of view in a short story.  This is no small feat, and Ms Bynum added to that the complexity by making one of those points of view a small child.

So first a word on pov (point of view). There are a number of ways to approach this issue, but for this flash critique we’ll focus on third person limited point of view   This pov tends to follow one character around from scene to scene –(She felt something stir inside her, an old anger that she thought she’d long buried) – or in alternating third person point of view, characters trade points of view. Novels often employ the latter – sometimes mixing in first person, and third person pov, as in David Mitchell’s masterpiece Cloud Atlas. When we encounter alternating third person pov in a novel, chapter changes often signal a point of view change.  Sometimes a chapter will be titled something like “Edward” and then the reader hears everything from Edward’s point of view, then it’ll switch to “Bella” and the reader will get her point of view (this of course is not how the first Twilight book manages pov).

This is much more challenging to accomplish in a short story. A writer doesn’t have chapter breaks with titles. Instead, a writer needs to indicate when the point of view has changed, and the writer needs to do it quickly, efficiently, and smoothly – all things Ms. Bynum accomplishes.  So let’s take a look at the variety of tools Bynum employs.  The opening line of the story is a great example of clearly setting point of view:

It is just as Kate hoped (61).

We are firmly in Kate’s (the mother) head.  Stories, where a pov switch does not occur, would perhaps not make such an obvious point of pov in the opening sentence. Bynum does so because the pov changes in this story and this opening firmly establishes that the reader is moving through the world via Kate.  The description of an Elve’s Faire held at a local Waldorf school is infused with her sensibility – her sticker shock at the cost of the stuffed animals (seventeen dollars!). The other thing to note is that all of the scenes we see through her pov are based on Kate’s identity as a mother (we learn nothing of work she may do, of a husband, etc – it is all about being mom). She worries if she is giving her daughter the right education, whether her daughter will fit in, what she can afford for her daughter versus what she wants to give, and more.

This conflict rubs up against her daughter’s own wants (this Flash Critique will not be about conflict but note:  a great way to think about conflict is to see it as two character’s desires butting up against one another).  The conflict, and the pov change that is impending, is introduced in the fourth paragraph of the story

“Ruthie wants to take one home with her, a baby giraffe.”

That could indicate a point of view shift, but it actually doesn’t, as the following paragraph is all observational of Ruthie (seeing her from the outside).  However, that line introduces us to the conflict, and to the idea of another character’s vision of the world.  Here, Bynum is laying the groundwork for a pov switch.  The actual shift comes a few paragraphs later, right after Kate buys the giraffe Ruthie wants. We then shift to Ruthie’s point of view:

She says to Ruthie, “This is a very special thing.  Your one special thing from the Elves’ Faire, O.K.?”

“O.K.,” Ruthie says, looking for the first time at the animal that is now hers. She knows that her mother likes giraffes at the zoo . . . . (61).

This is a great way to shift point of view – and actually common – the use of an object to alter perspective. In this case, it’s the giraffe, and we switch from Kate’s dialogue about it (already a move away from her ‘interior’ consciousness) to Ruthie’s take on it. It’s subtle, but highly effective and allows the reader to become comfortable with the change.  Also note that the last line from Kate (O.K.) becomes the first line for Ruthie.

Bynum also moves us nicely out of Ruthie’s pov a few paragraphs later. The last line of Ruthie’s point of view in this section is:

“Mommy,” Ruthie says, “Is my birthday before Christmas or after?”

“Well, it depends on what you mean by before,” Kate says, unhelpfully.

With that one adverb, unhelpfully, we know we are still in Ruthie’s point of view, but then as we move to the next paragraph, Bynum makes a very subtle change, this time by having the characters touch.

“Holding hands, they leave the elves’ lawn . . . . .Kate guesses that this . . . .” (61)

This is also a great way to alter point of view. Bring the characters into a scene jointly, pan out (as in camera angle) and then move back in via another character’s point of view.

Also note that in this scene Ruthie’s point of view is contained within it.  The reader is not moved via big section breaks, but by subtle machinations of character, objects, and space and the most important thing to note is that point of view is fully under control throughout the story.  Ruthie’s voice and view of the world don’t arise from nowhere.  I challenge you to look at each shift and find the other tools Bynum uses, but I want to come back to the larger implications the pov shift has on the story as a whole (honestly, if I had more space, I could touch on each change).

Over the course of the story, Ruthie’s attention becomes focused on a mysterious character, (an easily believable presence at a Waldorf fare).

“The man is tall and thin, with a cape around his neck that is not black or blue but a color in between, a middle-of-the-night color, and he pushes back the hood on his head and looks at her as if he knows her.”

This is the Erlking, a malevolent being who brings death and he is the harbinger for the ending of the story where the reader is firmly in Ruthie’s point of view.  This is the crux of the story, for we are at the heart of a typical day for this mother and child, one filled with all the minor distractions and misbehaviors, but the mother is unaware of what is going on inside Ruthie’s prescient mind. Ruthie sees the Erlking and feels a pull towards him a pull, the end of the story promises, will result with Ruthie’s death.

The story can be read as a child’s first awareness of death, and a beautifully rendered one that requires that we be in the child’s point of view.  But it is also a reflection on the relationship between mother and child, how fraught it can be with the parental desire to make the right choice when what awaits us all is death; the story also holds a commentary about the desire of a culture (as epitomized in Waldorf) to keep a child safe from the world, and how this safety can be seen as not only psychological, but as a kind of biological imperative, much like Ruthie’s desire to pee. She knows it will happen, the mess and all of it, and yet there is a thrill in the knowledge, a secret, that makes life thrilling.  This is why Bynum opted to alternate pov rather than simply stay wedded to one.  She needed the interplay of perspective to tease out all these themes.

Ultimately, the reader ends the story in Ruthie’s as she is the one who as a seeing, epiphanic, moment. What she sees – her absence from the world, from her mother’s hand, from everything – creates a wonderful dissolution of point of view as well.

So although I don’t feel character worked fully in this story, and that sometimes there were easy, or far too subtle attempts to raise certain character issues, Bynum did an excellent job on the craft level by managing the reader’s experience of character.  Let me know what you think?  Do you differ with my opinion?  Comments on point of view?  And thanks for reading!

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Written by newwordsmiths

July 9, 2010 at 7:15 pm

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