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« Écritures de l’histoire, écritures de la fiction » - Dossier issu du colloque 16 au 18 mars 2006

The Reader as Focalizer - Valerij G. Timofeev

The ideas underlying this paper are rather anachronistic, for they belong, so to say, to the days when the grass was greener, when narratology was young and, searching for its own identity, felt free to call on both structuralism and reception theory, to the days when confusions like the one described by Gérard Genette, in his Narrative Discourse, following Todorov’s lead on this point (Todorov, 1966, pp. 146–147), might occur and be discussed:

On the one hand, […] critics restrict questions of narrative enunciating to questions of “point of view”; on the other hand, they identify the narrating instance with the instance of “writing,” the narrator with the author and the recipient of the narrative with the reader of the work […]. (Genette, 1980 [1972], p. 213)

Jonathan Culler introduced Genette’s Narrative Discourse to those in the English-speaking world “who are interested in narrative theory itself” as being one of the central achievements of the structuralist project “to develop a poetics […] which would attempt to make explicit the system of figures and conventions that enable works to have the forms and meaning they do” (Culler, 1983, p. 8).

The cited passage contains some of the notions that the mature narratology of today has either ridiculed or modified or would ignore: ‘point of view’, the recipient, the reader, the system of figures and conventions. These are notions that, I think, might still be taken into consideration today, especially if we consider the conclusion Genette arrived at when describing Todorov’s confusion:

a confusion that is perhaps legitimate in the case of a historical narrative or a real autobiography, but not when we are dealing with a narrative of fiction, where the role of the narrator is itself fictive, even if assumed directly by the author, and where the supposed narrating situation can be very different from the act of writing (or of dictating) which refers to it. (Genette, 1980 [1972], pp. 213–214)

It might be inferred from this passage that the two situations differ in the way the subjects of the communicative act in each situation send and receive the message. In the case of historical narrative, the process of sending is more or less direct and not multilevel – to the extent, at least, that it is not all-important to differentiate between the narrator and the author and between the recipient of the narrative and the reader of the work. In a fictional narrative, both procedures – that of sending and that of receiving the message – are indirect and multilevel: the very procedures themselves form part of the message.

For the purpose of distinguishing those situations, we will bring the notions of point of view, recipient, real reader, system of figures and conventions back into the discussion.

‘Point of view’ was rejected by Genette as being too ambiguous. His theory of ‘focalization’ uses a much more straight-forward term. Although there have been countless discussions of the theory and numerous attempts to amend it, point of view is still with us, being a keystone for quite a few in the trade. Being a less technical or “scientific” term than focalization, and although it seems terminologically deficient, point of view may nevertheless be helpful in differentiating fictional narrative from the narration of history.

Point of view offers a vantage point from which the reader might be seen and described as taking part in a communicative act through instances, positions, devices, roles, etc., and thus might help to avoid confusion, as in the following passage, where Genette faces the same trap which he earlier described as being a place where Todorov is caught.

For instance, in Book XII of the Odyssey, Ulysses interrupts his narrative at the arrival on Calypso’s island, although most of the audience does not know what follows; the pretext is that he told it briefly the day before to Alcinous and Arete (Book VII); […] “It liketh me not twice,” says Ulysses, “to tell a plain-told tale”: this reluctance is, to begin with, the poet’s own.” (Genette, 1980 [1972], p. 232)

To avoid confusion, we can put the situation in the following way. Both the author and the narrator evidently take into account the real reader, or the real audience to be historically precise, even though the narrator’s words were addressed to his audience whose interests and reasons are of no importance, since both the narrator and his listeners are pure narrative instances through which the communicative act with the real reader is organized. Here we find a convention similar to those employed in drama. Both dramatic monologues and dialogues, though the latter indirectly, are “addressed” mainly to the audience.The words uttered can be addressed to some dramatic personae, but the scene, including the words, the personae and their reactions, is presented to the real audience. In Boris Uspensky’s terms, it is a clear case of multiple points of view. Uspensky cites P. A. Florensky (1882–1937), who discussed this problem in the 1920s:

‘When in Hamlet, Shakespeare shows the reader the theatrical presentation, the play within the play, he presents to us the world of this play within the play from the point of view of its audience: Claudius, the Queen, Hamlet, and so forth. For us as audience [as readers – B.U.] there is no great difficulty in imagining the world of Hamlet, and within that, the world of the play within the play.’ (Uspensky, 1973 [1970], p. 6)

Stating the methodological foundations for his point of view theory, Uspensky refers to Shklovsky (estrangement device), Florensky (the audience in theatre as contrasted to the reader, the viewer’s position in visual arts), and Mikhaïl Bakhtin (monologue framing, non-concurrence of the positions of the author, character and reader). Among several possible approaches to point of view, the scholar names one which considers the recipient’s position: “we may study it with respect to perceptual characteristics” (Uspensky, 1973 [1970], p. 6). It may be easily inferred from this that the role of the reader/audience/viewer in Uspensky’s theory of point of view was to be substantial from the very start. Nevertheless, it was this very point which somehow failed to attract the attention it deserved from most of scholars who treated the problem.1 Paul Ricœur seems to be one of the few who saw the necessity to discuss Uspensky’s theory in relation to the reader: “Every point of view is the invitation addressed to the readers.”(Ricœur, 1988 [1984], p. 99).   

This paper can thus be regarded as both a tribute to the great scholars who raised the problem of point of view and to the reader who definitely deserves more narratological attention.

II. Discussion

Modifying a well-known question posed by Nelson Goodman, “When is art?”, we might ask two new questions: “When is fiction?”, and “When is historiography?” These questions seem to open a path along which we might trace at least some conditional features that allow us to differentiate the two types of narrative. The conditions these features depend upon are, I suggest, the act of reading and the conventions by means of which this act of reading takes place.

The presence of the reader in the text can be manifested in numerous ways, but even in cases where such presence is not evident, the reader is taken into account through the chosen point of view. This might be achieved by widening the time frame to include the reader’s ‘now’ (the time when the real reading occurs is always ‘now’) as its starting point. Use of the present perfect tense in the following passages exemplifies one of the ways used by the omniscient author to invite the reader to enter his realm:

It has rained so hard and rained so long, down in Lincolnshire, that Mrs. Rouncewell, the old housekeeper at Chesney Wold, has several times takenoff her spectacles and cleaned them, to make certain that the drops were not upon the glasses… She is a fine old lady, handsome, stately, wonderfully neat and has such a back and such a back and such a stomacher, that if her stays should turn out when she dies to have been a broad old-fashioned family fire-grate, nobody who knows her would have cause to be surprised. Weather affects Mrs. Rouncewell little. The house is there in all weathers and the house, as she expressed it, “is what she looks at” […]

It is the next difficult thing to an impossibility to imagine Chesney Wold without Mrs. Rouncewell, but she has only been here fifty years […] Mr. Rouncewell died some time before the decease of the pretty fashion of pig-tails, and modestly hid his own (if he took it with him) in a corner of the churchyard in the park, near the modly porch. He was born in the market town, and so was his young widow. Her progress began in the time of the last sir Leicester […]. (Dickens, 1991 [1982–1853], pp. 82–83; my emphasis)2

The chosen point of view allows us to maintain the time frame shared by the author-narrator, the character and the reader by using three tenses (present perfect, present simple and past simple), and especially by showing explicitly that the ‘now level’, to which the narrator and the reader “naturally” belong, is the center of the time frame. The past, to which the character belongs, is shifted by the magic of the convention employed to be closer to the ‘now’ of the reader. It should be noted that the convention used here originates in fiction and can hardly be used in any other type of discourse, for it transforms a description into a virtual or imaginary one. Authors of children’s stories, however, might use this convention without being afraid of fictionalizing the narrated events, since their audience needs vivid pictures.

In a fictional narrative, the process of forming (constituting) the narrative event is sustained by means of a bifocal lens, so to speak. The effectiveness of this process of focalization depends on tacit cooperation between the author and the reader. For the convention of reading a fictional text to take effect, the reader must be willing and able to remain within the focalization of the event, this being the only way it can exist.

When writing about historical facts and events, authors obey other rules and use different types of conventions.

The First World War has generally been taken as the dividing line between the Art Nouveau and Art Deco eras, but the Art Deco style was actually conceived in the years 1908–12, a period usually considered as transitional. Like its predecessors, it was an evolving style that did not start or stop at any precise moment. Many items now accepted as pure Art Deco – furniture and objets d’art by Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann, Paul Iribe, Clément Mère and Paul Follot, for example – were designed either before the outbreak of hostilities in 1914, or during the war. The movement cannot therefore be rigidly defined, as was its decline. In fact, were it not for the four-year hiatus created by the First World War, the Art Deco style would have run its full, and natural, course by 1920. (Duncan, 1988,  p. 7; my emphasis)

This type of discourse evidently deals with opinions and interpretations of events rather than with events themselves. The present perfect tense in the first sentence states that the idea of considering the First World War to be a dividing line was born some time ago and is still alive, at least for somebody, but not for the author, who tends to present his opinion as a fact by using the past simple tense (the Art Deco style was conceived). The following sentences are intended to support the author’s opinion. The last sentence, though starting with “In fact,” actually describes an ‘if-version’ of history using the subjunctive mood as prescribed by grammar.  

The last argument is intended to persuade the reader to believe that the author’s understanding of historical events is based not only on the facts known to him, and which possibly unknown to the reader, but in the first place on some rule or code, something like a universal truth: the Art Deco style was doomed by this code to die by 1920, and it would have died, but for some obstacles.

The passage exemplifies a work intended for a general audience in which its readers might readily accept the presence of the “omniscient narrator” in nonfiction texts: the point of view chosen by the author depends upon the reader he is writing for. It might so happen that the text is read by, so to say, the “wrong” reader, e.g., a scholar whose opinions differ from that of the author. In this case, even though the reader may only agree to differ with the author, the reading would be “expedient” anyway. The author suggests his opinions even though some of these opinions might be presented as facts. The reader gets acquainted with all of them, even with those that are not convincing. Since both the author and the reader interpret events rather than form them, they are both outside the events. This is quite the opposite of what they do in fictional narrative, due mainly to differences in the conventions employed by each type of narrative.

“You may believe me or not, but you get my position clear.” – This is what underlies the relationship between the author and the reader in historical narrative. “You have to believe me and work together with me on forming everything around us while we are inside the discourse, otherwise you get nothing” is the idea of the agreement “signed” by the reader of fiction. Seeing the two types of narration as extremes that “do not meet” is a purely theoretical assumption. Actual “meetings” or mergers of these extremes occur due either to the reader’s failure to obey the corresponding convention or to the author’s deliberate or playful misuse of it.

Examples of deliberate and playful use and misuse of conventions can be found in John Fowles’ novels.

Primitive yet complex, elephantine but delicate; as full of subtle curves and volumes as a Henry Moore or a Michelangelo; and pure, clean, salt, a paragon of mass. I exaggerate? Perhaps, but I can be put to the test, for the Cobb has changed very little since the year of which I write; though the town of Lyme has, and the test is not fair if you look back towards land.

However, if you had turned northward and landward in 1867, as the man that day did, your prospect would have been harmonious. A picturesque congeries of some dozen or so houses and a small boatyard – in which, arklike on its stocks, sat the thorax of a lugger – huddled at where the Cobb runs back to land […]

The local spy – and there was one – might thus have deduced that these two were strangers, people of some taste, and not to be denied their enjoyment of the Cobb by a mere harsh wind. On the other hand he might, focusing his telescope more closely, have suspected that a mutual solitude interested them rather more than maritime architecture […]. (Fowles, 1981, pp. 7–8)

If an author of fictional narrative imitates the historical narrative and still feels the necessity to make the reader take an active part in the process of forming the event, as John Fowles does in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, he might adopt the subjunctive mood to shift the temporal perspective and make room for the reader: “However, if you had turned…”

The omniscient author stays in the “historical” present of 1967, describing the events of 1867 using the simple past. But to invite the reader to take a journey into the past, he chooses the past subjunctive. John Fowles (playing with conventions and stereotypes) does not allow the reader to share the narrative point of view “naturally,” so to say, making him/her feel responsible for the cooperation. The author invites the reader to have a look and then shows how this curiosity might be regarded if seen from aside: “Thelocal spy – and there was one – might have deduced […],” thus breaking the illusion of making the reader step outside the narrated event. Fowles does the trick quite often to achieve his didactic aims of teaching the reader: “You may choose to confirm or to contest, but you should choose consciously.” To break the illusion as Fowles does, a writer must first create that illusion.

The illusion as the main condition for the reader to be “inside” the narrated event, taking an active part in forming it, seems to be one of the features that the act of reading a fictional narrative should have. This is something that reading a nonfiction narrative can well do without. That means that reading fictional narrative differs from reading historical narrative in the types of conventions they are guided by.

According to Paul Ricœur, it is through voice that point of view is transmitted to the readers. Readers become focalizers when they “direct their gaze in the same direction as the author or the character” (Ricœur, 1984 [1970], p. 99) and obtain the position necessary to decode the message. The focalized position may be non-current with the point of view, since this might be part of the message.  

The reader as focalizer is thus a notion where both point of view and voice meet.


Bal, Mieke (1997). Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative. 2nd ed. Toronto/Buffalo, NY/London: University of Toronto Press.

Chatman, Seymour (1978). Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film. Ithaca, NY/London: Cornell University Press.

Culler, Jonathan (1980). “Foreword.” In Gérard Genette, Narrative Discourse. Translated by Jane E. Lewin (pp. 7–13). Ithaca/New York, NY: Cornell University Press.

Dickens, Charles (1991 [1852–1853]). Bleak House. New York, NY/London/Toronto: Everyman’s Library.

Duncan, Alastair (1988). Art Deco. London: Thames and Hudson.

Fowles, John (1981). The French Lieutenant’sWoman. London: Triad.

Genette, Gérard (1980 [1971]). Narrative Discourse. Translated by Jane E. Lewin. Ithaca/New York, NY: Cornell University Press.

Hühn, Peter, Wolf Schmid and Jög Schönert, eds. (2009). Point of View, Perspective, and Focalization. Berlin/New York, NY: de Gruyter.

Ricœur, Paul (1988 [1984]). Time and Narrative. Vol. 2. Translated by Kathleen Blamey and David Pellauer. Chicago, IL/London: University of Chicago Press.

Rimmon-Kenan, Shlomith (2002). Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics. 2nd ed. London/New York, NY: Routledge.

Schmid, Wolf (2010). Narratology: An Introduction (2005). Translated by Alexander Starritt. Berlin/New York, NY: de Gruyter.

Sternberg, Meir (1986). “The World from the Addressee’s Viewpoint: Reception as Representation. Dialogue as Monologue.” Style 20, pp. 295–318.

Steinberg N. A. (2004). “On a particular case of the author’s manifestation in a narrative text” [Ob odnom sposobe manifestatsii avtorskogo prisutsyviya v narrativnom tekste] Vestnik SPbGU, Seriya 9, 3–4, pp. 92–98.

Todorov, Tzvetan (1966). “Les catégories du récit littéraire.” Communications 8, pp. 125–151.

Toolan, Michael J. (2001). Narrative: A Critical Linguistic Introduction. 2nd ed. London/New York, NY: Routledge.

Uspensky, Boris (1973 [1970]). A Poetics of Composition. The Structure of the Artistic Text and Typology of a Compositional Form. Translated by V. Zavarin and S. Wittig. Berkeley/Los Angeles, CA/London: University of California Press.


1 This problem has been raised at various times by authors such as M. Sternberg (1986),W. Schmid (2010), S. Rimmon-Kenan (2002), M. Toolan (2001), S. Chatman (1978) and M. Bal (1997). For a helpful collection of essays on point of view, perspective, and focalization, see Hühn, Schmid and Schönert, eds. (2009).

2 I wish to thank N. A. Steinberg who, in her article “On a particular case of the author’s manifestation in a narrative text” (2004), drew my attention to this quotation, making it possible to examine the presence of the reader in narrative fiction.


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