“The narrator is an omnipotent third person.”

This entry is just one in what will turn out to be a long string of errors in literary terminology (remember “dramatic ironing”?). Why is it so hard?

Those who know what she meant know all the reasons why this is funny. But it isn’t even necessary to know what term (or -s) this student was wrestling with to know it’s funny.

As a child I was taught that God is omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent. I never had any trouble remembering all three, or keeping them straight, partly because I thought these were three really cool things to be. But maybe “omnipotent” is the one in most use out there in the world? It is, for example, the one that’s sung in The Messiah, arguably the most musical.

As a child I also learned that “person” is one property of pronouns; it doesn’t refer to actual people—that is, a third-person pronoun does not imply the presence of three individuals. It’s just a term. But one of the errors my student made here is thinking that “person” in the description of the narrator refers to the narrator, not to the person of the pronouns the narrator uses in telling the story. So we begin with narrator as a person.

Then we look at the range of possible narrative stances. (I’m going to describe them even though I believe anyone reading this blog knows them already. I just need to spell them out so I can move to my point. Bear with me!) I write these words on the board, for heaven’s sake, so students do have a chance to see them as well as hear them….

  • First-person narrator, the story-teller one of the characters in the story and therefore using the pronoun “I” to refer to that character, who is him- or herself. (Exception: the narrator in Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” uses “we,” presenting himself as one of the townspeople and offering the knowledge, judgments, and speculations of the town as a group consciousness. I’m sure this isn’t the only example of a first-person-plural narrator, but it jumps at me this morning.)
  • Second-person narrator, hardly ever used and difficult to conceive, telling the story by means of “you,” thus making the reader a character in the story.
  • And then the three third-person possibilities, all using third-person pronouns to refer to all the characters: Objective Third, telling only those parts of the story that can be seen and heard, what people do and say,  like a news reporter; Limited Third (or, as many textbooks have it now, “Over-the-Shoulder”), telling what one person thinks, feels, and sees and hears but referring to that person as “he” or “she,” thus in  the story but not of it, producing a story that feels almost like first-person but leaves air for the reader to recognize the observations as the result of a point of view, not necessarily accurate; and Omniscient Third person, freely moving about in space, time, and consciousness, having access to the inner life of any or all of the characters, like God.

There’s the problem, right? “Like God” is a quick bridge over into the best-known aspect of God: omnipotent. “Omniscient,” the strangest-looking and least-mentioned-in-popular-culture of the three attributes, is left back on the other side of the bridge, the narrator acquires flesh and blood to become a “third person” (a Third Man, maybe?), and we’re off.

All you storytellers out there, wouldn’t you love this student to be right?

About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

One response to ““The narrator is an omnipotent third person.”

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