On Using the Omniscient Point of View Successfully

by Meredith Sue Willis

The omniscient point of view is dangerous: it seems easy– you can just tell anything anyhow you want– but, handled badly, it quickly begins to look amateurish.

Virginia Woolf handled omniscient point of view very well, especially in her novel Mrs. Dalloway. This novel links its switches from one character to another by the simple device of having them pass one another on the streets of London, and as they pass, the point of view shifts. At one point, an unnamed member of the royal family drives by, and the mild excitement of this event links wealthy Clarissa Dalloway out shopping for flowers for her party and Moll Pratt the rose seller as well as some random unnamed men.

When I think of Mrs. Dalloway, I usually remember it as told from Clarissa Dalloway’s point of view. If pressed, I might recall that it also followed the war-damaged Septimus Warren Smith. What I had totally forgotten is that the novel also follows Septimus’s wife, Clarissa’s husband, Clarissa’s old love Peter Walsh and many others, including the flower seller Moll Pratt.

One reason the movement among many consciousness works so smoothly is that the novel dances on the surface of the observed world. This in no way suggests it is superficial, but rather that it often concerns itself with physical surfaces– light glinting on porcelain, the sweep of a gown, the colors of flowers. In Woolf’s hands, of course, such things are a direct line to memory and deep emotion, and they become a natural way into the characters. The sense details experienced by Woolf’s many characters join with the patter of human voices just below the surface- the more-or-less conscious thoughts of her people, and this becomes the fabric of her novel.

Here is a sample from Mrs. Dalloway:

Gliding across Piccadilly, [the car carrying a member of the royal family] turned down St. James’s Street. Tall men, men of robust physique, well-dressed men with their tail-coats and their white slips and their hair raked back…. stood even straighter, and removed their hands and seemed ready to attend their Sovereign, if need be, to the cannon’s mouth, as their ancestors had done before them….Shawled Moll Pratt with her flowers on the pavement wished the dear boy well (it was the Prince of Wales for certain) and would have tossed the price of a pot of beer–a bunch of roses–into St. James’s Street out of sheet light-heartedness and contempt of poverty had she not seen the constable’s eye upon her, discouraging an old Irishwoman’s loyalty….
– Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1953), pp. 26-27.

Since these people come from all walks of life and share the same splendid June day in London, their moment in the same space and time seems natural. Even more to the point, their thoughts are mostly just one-level-down– the kind of things anyone could be thinking and that that would be reasonably accessible to a sensitive imagination. Thus, the omniscient point of view earns its keep, moving smoothly from person to person. It is, indeed, essential to creating the world of the morning of Mrs. Dalloway’s party.

2 Replies to “On Using the Omniscient Point of View Successfully”

  1. joanne sabates

    So an omniscient narrator may or may not have an identify, a name, a character. Keeping this in mind, I understand why this point of view must be carefully crafted because it sets up judgment by the reader. I especially liked your comments re the ‘reason the movement among many consciousness works so smoothly is that the novel dances on the surface of the observed world. This in no way suggests it is superficial, but rather that it often concerns itself with physical surfaces– light glinting on porcelain, the sweep of a gown,,,,’ etc., which in essence captures moments, where a writer might delve too deeply below the surface thus changing what you refer to as the ‘fabric of the novel.’ Thank you for bringing these structural thoughts to light which may help writers ‘choose a fabric’ suitable to what they intend to portray.

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