Who decides what history books tell us

Narrative perspective

Every epic text has a narrator, i.e. a voice, who tells the story to the reader. This narrator can take on very different positions, i.e. change the perspective from which the story is told. So the Narrative perspective the point of view from which a literary work is told. We distinguish between four different narrative perspectives: authorial, personal, neutral as well as the special form of the First-person narration.

All narrative perspectives have different effects and give a different impression of the overall situation of the literary work. After all, it decides how much we can know about the plot and the different characters of a story. As a result, the chosen narrative perspective can significantly influence and thus control our reading experience.

We can recognize the narrative perspective by asking the text: "Who is telling the story?" and "What can the narrator actually know?". We receive an answer to these questions that makes it very easy for us to classify them in our narrative model.

Note: In this article, we would like to introduce you to the different narrative perspectives and use examples to explain what the special features of each perspective are. We would also like to show you to what extent the chosen view can influence the reader.

Overview of the narrative perspectives

Basically, the individual narrative situations are differentiated according to who is telling the story and what that person knows about the protagonists of the story.

When we ask what the narrator knows, there are really only three possible answers. Either the narrator knows everything about the actors or he only knows about one or more people or he knows nothing at all and can only look at a situation from the outside.

Note: It is important that stories are not told from the same narrative perspective all the time. Sometimes the position that the narrator assumes changes in the course of the plot. This means that we have to look carefully and not commit ourselves to a passage.

Authoritative narrative perspective

The authoritative narrators has an omniscient narrative perspective and an unrestricted top view of what is happening. He knows everything about the characters involved in a work.

This characteristic enables the authorial narrator to show connections between the protagonists and deuteragonists, but also all other characters in the story. It is also possible for him to tell the story in flashbacks or anticipations.

This perspective is almost divine and consequently omniscient. However, one should not make the mistake of equating the authoritative narrator with the author of a story. The author is the author of the narrator, but not the same person.

Note: The authorial narrator evaluates and comments on the story, he knows more than the characters who act in the story and can report on what they think and feel. He can also anticipate events or explain the background to the plot in flashbacks. This narrator looks at the narrated story from the outside with the reader (Outside perspective).
Authoritative narrator in "Clothes make the man" (Gottfried Keller)

“On an unfriendly November day, a poor little tailor wandered the country road to Goldach, a small, rich town only a few hours away from Seldwyla. The tailor carried nothing in his pocket but a thimble, which, in the absence of any coin, he kept twisting between his fingers when he put his hands in his trousers because of the cold, and his fingers ached from this twisting and rubbing. Because of the fall of some Seldwyler master tailor, he had to lose his wages with the work and had to emigrate. He hadn't had breakfast yet but a few snowflakes that had flown into his mouth, and he was even less likely to see where the slightest lunchtime bread would come from. Fencing was extremely difficult for him, indeed it seemed completely impossible to him, because over his black Sunday dress, which was his only one, he wore a wide, dark gray cycling coat, lined with black velvet, which gave the wearer a noble and romantic look, especially his long, black hair and mustaches were carefully groomed and he enjoyed pale, but regular features. " (see clothes make the man)

Hints for the example above

The authoritative narrator reveals himself very early in Keller's story. After all, in the first sentence he points out that the tailor's pockets are empty and the protagonist is poor. Thus, he gives us background information about the figure, which it does not express itself. He is therefore omniscient.

He also knows that the little tailor has not yet eaten breakfast and that his hands are sore from turning and rubbing. He gives us a top view of what is happening and knows all kinds of things about the characters involved.

Personal narrator

The personal narrator don't know everything. He describes the whole thing from the perspective of one or more characters in the text and does not comment on what is happening.

The narrator slips into one of the roles of the work and describes their impressions of the event. In doing so, he uses the personal pronouns He and you back or use the names of the characters involved. However, the grammatical first-person form is not used, which is what defines a first-person narrator.

Hence the personal narrator can only know what the character from whose point of view the story is being told knows. All other things or backgrounds about other roles cannot be conveyed to a reader. Only when the figure of the text itself encounters it. Consequently, the personal narrator cannot use flashbacks or anticipations to tell the story. The reader only experiences it when the character speaks about it himself or remembers what has gone before.

Note: The personal narrator does not evaluate or comment on the story. Thus, the reader is not controlled by the narrator's comments, but perceives the story from the perspective of one or more characters (Inside perspective).
Personal narrator in "The Trial" (Franz Kafka)

"K. waited a little longer, saw from his pillow the old woman who lived across from him and who was watching him with a curiosity that was unusual about her, but then, alienated and hungry at the same time, he rang the doorbell. Immediately there was a knock and a man he had never seen in this apartment entered. He was slim and yet firmly built, he wore a tight black dress, which, like the traveling suits, had various folds, pockets, buckles, buttons and a belt, and as a result, without it being clear what it was for , seemed particularly practical. "


See: table of contents of The process

Hints for the example above

In Kafka's work we are dealing with a personal narrator. We can tell by the fact that the story is being told in the he / she form. K., the protagonist of the story, is described from the outside, whereby his actions are communicated to us by the narrator.

The personal narrator does not evaluate what is happening or gives us background information about the individual characters. It is these who act and are only represented by the personal narrative situation. In this case, the other characters are us (Woman man) unknown because K. doesn't know anything about her either.

Neutral narrator

A neutral narrator does not tell a story from a character's perspective or comment on what is happening. It only describes what is externally perceptible. If we imagine a film without sound, it resembles the narrative perspective that only registers the outside.

Accordingly, the narrator withdraws completely from the world of characters. So he does not intervene as an authoritative narrator and comment on the story or take the perspective of one or more characters. Rather, it describes how the characters act and act.

Thus, we can very often identify this narrative behavior in scenic representations and thus in dramatic texts that primarily show what the individual characters are saying and thus advance the story through dialogues or monologues.

Note: Most often, this narrative behavior can be assigned to pure dialogues, as it is easy to recognize the neutral, i.e. non-judgmental or commentary, narrative perspective. The neutral narrator only gives us a look at what is happening or reports on how the characters act and does not evaluate or comment on the event in any way.
Neutral narrator in "Effi Briest" (Theodor Fontane)

“One shouldn't try one's fate; Haughtiness comes before the event."
“Always governess; you're the born old maid. "
“And still hope to marry me. And maybe sooner than you. "
"Because of me. Do you think i'm waiting for it That was still missing. By the way, I'll get one and maybe soon. I am not afraid of that. Just recently, little Ventivegni from over there said to me: 'Miss Effi, what's the bet, we'll be here for a hen party and wedding this year.' "
"And what did you say?"
"’ Probably possible, ’I said,“ possible; Hulda is the oldest and can get married every day. 'But he didn't want to know anything about it and said:' No, to another young lady who is just as brunette as Miss Hulda is blond. 'And he looked at me very seriously ... But I go from the hundredth to the thousandth and forget the story. "
“Yes, you keep breaking off; in the end you don't want to. "
"Oh, I want to, but of course, I keep breaking off because it's all a bit strange, almost romantic."
"But you said he was a district administrator."
“Yes, District Administrator. And his name is Geert von Innstetten, Baron von Innstetten. "
All three laughed.
"Why are you laughing?" Said Effi, piqued. "What does this mean?"
“Oh, Effi, we don't want to offend you, and we don't want to offend the baron either. Innstetten, did you say? And Geert? Nobody is called that here. Admittedly, the noble names often have something funny about them. "
“Yes, my dear, they have. That's why it's aristocrats. They can indulge themselves, and the further back, I mean in time, the more they can indulge themselves. But you don't understand anything about it that you shouldn't hold against me. We'll remain good friends. So Geert von Innstetten and Baron. He's just as old as Mama, for the day. "
"And how old is your mom actually?"
"Thirtyeight."
"A good age."

Hints for the example above

FontanesEffi Briest is a prime example of a neutral narrative situation. There is also a different narrative perspective in the work, but the neutral one dominates the story. In this case it is very reminiscent of a scenic representation. The narrator does not evaluate what is happening or gives us further information about the characters. There is only a dialogue between the two actors.

In this case, the neutral narrator withdraws completely from the world of characters. He does not comment, he gives no rating. Accordingly, only externally perceptible processes and processes are visible. In this case in the form of a conversation.

First-person narrator

The First-person narrator has a special position, so to speak. He reports the events from the first person, but can certainly show characteristics of the other narrative perspectives.

What is meant by the concept of the first-person narrator is the view of things from the first person singular(I), so the grammatically narrating voice in the form of a I ... it. The first-person narrator can therefore only tell what that I who experiences, sees and thinks history. The narrative behavior should not be confused with the voice in lyrical works. This is called the lyric self.

Accordingly, there is no narrator who evaluates or comments on the characters acting from the outside. The reader sees the narrated world from the eyes of the first-person narrator, who can of course evaluate actions and characters, but is limited to what he knows himself.

It is interestingthat the first-person narrator can accept personal and authoritative perspectives. We differentiate between the experiencing and the narrative self. The narrative I can tell a story retrospectively and thus be omniscient in relation to the story. The personal I experiences the story itself and can therefore only know what it is experiencing or remembering at the moment.

Note: Basically you can recognize this narrative perspective by the fact that a I the story tells. If it tells them in retrospect, this perspective can have authorial traits, since that I knows more than the reader. However, if they experience the story directly, there is no knowledge advantage.
First-person narrator in "The Railway Accident" (Thomas Mann)

"Tell something? But i don't know. Well, I'll tell you something. Once, two years ago, I was involved in a railway accident - all the details are clear to me. It was not one of the first rank, not a general harmonica with "unrecognizable dimensions" and so on, not that. But it was a real railroad accident with accessories and at night on top of that. Not everyone has experienced that, and that's why I want to give it the best. "

Hints for the example above

The railway accident is a story by Thomas Mann based on the portrayals of a first-person narrator. We recognize this fact that already after the initial question (Tell something?) the personal pronoun I is needed. The story is told to us from the point of view of a first-person narrator who experienced it.

In this case we are also dealing with a form of the authorial first-person narrator, because the accident happened two years ago. In the text there are therefore some passages where the narrator comments on the plot, evaluates it or enriches it with flashbacks and anticipations.

Changing narrative perspective

So far, the different narrative perspectives that we can encounter in epic or dramatic works have been presented. Many works rely on a single narrative perspective. However, there are exceptions, which is why the narrative perspective can change.

This means that the narrative situation is changed within the work. Thus, the story can be told by different first-person narrators, but a change between the other perspectives is also possible and can be proven in the literature. It is primarily in modern literature that we find such changes of perspective, which sometimes attempt to break the narrative scheme (see literary epochs).

A fine example is the novelBerlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin. In this work there is a constantly changing narrative perspective that tries to authentically portray the diversity of life.


"I just want to know that, Franz, you must be very happy."
"Now listen to the powers and the nonsense."
“Just ask me. That can't bite you. "

This excerpt out Berlin Alexanderplatz For example, we can infer a neutral narrator who presents us with a pure form of dialogue and does not interfere with the world of characters. However, we also find such passages:


Here anyone who has read this far can see what has happened:
the turn backwards, and it ends with Franz.

The narrator is therefore in no way neutral. He even addresses the reader directly and in this case reveals himself to be an authoritative narrator. The narrative perspective is therefore changeable in the novel and adapts to different narrative situations.

The most important things about the narrative perspective at a glance
  • The narrative perspective is the view of the world of characters that a reader can take when reading an epic or dramatic work. Thus, the narrative perspective is the way we see the characters in the literary work and it sets the limits of what we can see.
  • A basic distinction is made between four different narrative perspectives. The authorial (omniscient), personal (He / She perspective), neutral (without a clear narrative situation) and the first-person narrator. All four give us a different perspective on history.
  • However, the narrative perspective in a work can be changeable. Switching too quickly can confuse the reader. Very often we find the changing narrative perspective in modern literature, which seeks to break up the familiar scheme of the ordering and commenting narrator → literary genres, literary epochs.