Perspective in Literature

Perspective is one of 7 concepts that underpin teaching and learning in the English A: Literature Course. Linking to the 3 areas of exploration, these ideas allow students to make points of connection and comparison between works studied, as well as facilitating narratives that can take us from one work to another.  It is important to introduce students to the seven concepts early on in the course so that they become familiar with them and begin the process of exploring, discussing and connecting them in the context of specific texts.   

Who's telling me this story? 

This is a fundamental question  - arguably the fundamental question - when faced with any literary text, as David Lodge explains:

“The choice of the point(s) of view from which the story is told...fundamentally affects the way readers will respond, emotionally and morally, to the fictional character and their actions.” 

As a novelist, Lodge is focused on prose fiction here, but as perspective is one of the core concepts on the course, his point can be expanded to become an essential understanding we want our students to have as they study any literary work.  Of course, the nature of this understanding and how it is explored will change depending on the literary form being studied but the essential point remains: all texts offer us one, some or many perspectives which impact the reader's engagement, response and interpretation.   

As a prelude to consideration of this concept in literature, we recommend using some paintings or images to explore how works of art position their audience and give us a certain perspective on their subject.   See the page Critical thinking through painting for an example of this approach.  The mini-text page on Framing: Golden Hill is also useful for this concept, with an example of a prose extract that explicitly frames a perspective before reversing it.  

Find below some further extracts from different literary forms, all good for introducing and exploring the concept of perspective.  These could be used as part of an introductory activity to the concept, as unseen practice extracts for Paper 1 or, if you are teaching one of these texts, they could be embedded into a broader study of the work/author. 

Perspective in Poetry: This is a Photograph of Me by Margaret Atwood (1966)

This is a Photograph of Me is one of Atwood's earliest poems and also her most anthologized.  Its connection to the concept of perception is evident in its title and looking at photographs  - whether provided by the teacher or brought in by students - is an interesting activity to use either before or alongside an exploration of the poem.  In doing so, ask questions to tease out ideas about the way that photographs frame perception of people and places, how we look at static images, how we see things differently and how what we see might change over time.  It is also an interesting poem to look at as it is a text that, on one level, can be read as a reflection on the art of writing and reading poetry; while short and seemingly simple on a first reading, it allows 'room' for different interpretations and it is written in such a way that the more you look at it, the more you see.  Therefore, it is a contained, manageable text for students to explore questions relating to perception, and with which to practice the art of constructing and testing out alternative interpretations.  

Click on the icon below to see the text. 

This is a Photograph of Me

It was taken some time ago.
At first it seems to be
a smeared
print: blurred lines and grey flecks
blended with the paper;

then, as you scan
it, you can see something in the left-hand corner
a thing that is like a branch: part of a tree
(balsam or spruce) emerging
and, to the right, halfway up
what ought to be a gentle
slope, a small frame house.

In the background there is a lake,
and beyond that, some low hills.

(The photograph was taken
the day after I drowned.

I am in the lake, in the center
of the picture, just under the surface.

It is difficult to say where
precisely, or to say
how large or how small I am:
the effect of water
on light is a distortion

but if you look long enough
you will see me.)

Perspective in Prose Fiction: Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle (1993)

Thinking about voice and perspective is such a fundamental consideration with prose fiction, that almost any passage from any text could be used for a focus on this concept.  Of course some extracts lend themselves to a more focused consideration of perspective and this passage from Roddy Doyle's Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha is a favourite.  It captures a child's point of view with beautiful simplicity: the warmth and safety of home, the delicious secrecy of a special hiding place, and then, at the end, the sadness of getting older and bigger.  

It is also a great passage for some focused work on narrative perspective. The first person child narrator is an interesting example of how such a voice can be crafted to feel authentic but also convey subtext and some complexity. While 'unreliable narrator' is a term often used in literary discourse, it does not quite fit a voice like this one. With Paddy Clarke, we feel he is being truthful with us but we are also fully aware of his limited perspective.  Therefore, describing him as an inadequate (or naive) narrator is more fitting.  The passage works well because Doyle uses the literal limitation in his perspective from under the table to parallel the limitations in his understanding of the adult world.  

After exploring the text, as a follow up exercise ask students to create a short piece with a literal limited narrative perspective used to parallel or explore the narrator's understanding of the world.  

For further ideas about narrative voice and perspective in prose fiction see the page Narrative Voice and Perspective 

Click on the icon below to see the text. 

Under the table was a fort. With the six chairs tucked under it there was still plenty of room; it was better that way, more secret. I’d sit in there for hours. This was the good table in the living room, the one that never got used, except at Christmas. I didn’t have to bend my head. The roof of the table was just above me. I liked it like that. It made me concentrate on the floor and feet. I saw things. Balls of fluff, held together and made round by hair, floated on the lino. The lino had tiny cracks that got bigger if you pressed them. The sun was full of dust, huge chunks of it. It made me want to stop breathing. But I loved watching it. It swayed like snow. When my da was standing up he stood perfectly still. His feet clung to the ground. They only moved when he was going somewhere. My ma’s feet were different. They didn’t settle. They couldn’t make their minds up. I fell asleep in there; I used to. It was always cool in there, never cold, and warm when I wanted it to be. The lino was nice on my face. The air wasn’t alive like outside, beyond the table; it was safe. It had a smell I liked. My da’s socks had diamonds on them. I woke up once and there was a blanket on top of me. I wanted to stay there forever. I was near the window. I could hear the birds outside. My da’s legs were crossed. He was humming. The smell from the kitchen was lovely; I wasn’t hungry, I didn’t need it. Stew. It was Thursday. It must have been. My ma was humming as well. The same song as my da. It wasn’t a proper song, just a hum with a few notes in it. It didn’t sound like they knew they were humming the same thing. The notes had just crept into one of their heads, my da’s probably. My ma did most of the humming. I stretched till my foot pushed a chair leg, and curled up again. The blanket had sand in it, from a picnic.  That was before my mother had Cathy and Deirdre. Sinbad couldn’t walk then; I remembered. He slid along the lino on his bum. I couldn’t do it any more. I could get under the table but my head pressed the top when I sat straight and I couldn’t sit still; it hurt, my legs ached. I was afraid I’d be caught. I tried it a few times but it was stupid.

Perspective in Drama:  Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare

The scene below, taken from the Globe performance, is the moment when Juliet's family discover her 'dead' the morning after she has taken Friar Lawrence's sleeping potion.  It is a good scene to use as most students will be familiar with the story and, if not, will be able to grasp the context quickly. 

When considering perspective in drama, it is important for students to consider the performative nature of the genre and therefore a clip like this, which shows a live performance, should lead to a discussion of the staging and how the audience's perspective shapes the way they 'read' a play on stage.  

The scene is also interesting in that it is a scene full of dialogue and yet the characters are not really talking to each other: each is wrapped up in their own perspective of the tragedy they believe to have happened.  As such, students should consider the roles that dialogue, physical movement, action and staging play in creating perspectives on the characters and their relationships for the audience.  

Finally, the scene should not be discussed without consideration of dramatic irony and how this creates a priviliged perspective which heightens the experience for the audience.  Further ideas and scenes to consider for dramatic irony can be found on the page Dramatic Irony

Click on the icon below to see the scene. 

Perspective in Prose Non-fiction: My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundreth Anniversary of the Emancipation by James Baldwin (1963) 

This letter comes at the start of James Baldwin's essay collection, The Fire Next Time.  The extract below is just the beginning of the letter; the whole letter is not long and is worth exploring in full if you have time, and the collection itself is also a powerful text worth studying as a non-fiction choice.  As is evident from this extract, Baldwin adopts a personal perspective in his essays which creates a powerful and persuasive perspective on racial prejudice and inequality in America.  

The personal element and use of first person perspective is something students may not readily associate with essays and this is an interesting text to explore as it is an essay 'dressed up' as a letter, or rather it could be consided both an essay and a letter.  The role of the audience and how that connects to perspective is important to consider here.  How does the stated audience shape Baldwin's writing and our perspective of his points about racial injustice?  How is he seeking to influence the perspective of the wider audience?  How does he combine a personal perspective with a broader, historical perspective to create a sense of urgency for his audience? 

For further ideas about essays and how authors use a first person perspective see the page Essays 

Click on the icon below to see the text. 

Dear James:

I have begun this letter five times and torn it up five times. I keep seeing your face, which is also the face of your father and my brother. I have known both of you all your lives and have carried your daddy in my arms and on my shoulders, kissed him and spanked him and watched him learn to walk. I don't know if you have known anybody from that far back, if you have loved anybody that long, first as an infant, then as a child, then as a man. You gain a strange perspective on time and human pain and effort.

Other people cannot see what I see whenever I look into your father's face, for behind your father's face as it is today are all those other faces which were his. Let him laugh and I see a cellar your father does not remember and a house he does not remember and I hear in his present laughter his laughter as a child. Let him curse and I remember his falling down the cellar steps and howling and I remember with pain his tears which my hand or your grandmother's hand so easily wiped away, but no one's hand can wipe away those tears he sheds invisibly today which one hears in his laughter and in his speech and in his songs.

I know what the world has done to my brother and how narrowly he has survived it and I know, which is much worse, and this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it. One can be--indeed, one must strive to become--tough and philosophical concerning destruction and death, for this is what most of mankind has been best at since we have heard of war; remember, I said most of mankind, but it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.

Perspective in the Graphic Novel: Maus by Art Speigelman

In many ways, looking at images from graphic novels might be a logical place to start a consideration of perspective.  Art Speigelman's Maus is an important and powerful text, well worth using in full as its combination of memoir, autobiography, interview, graphic images and postodern techniques make it a rich and rewarding experience for students.  However, even if it is not one of your texts, using some selected images such as those below will lead to interesting discussions around the concept of perspective and how the author uses voice and visual techniques to frame the story and characters for readers.  

For further ideas and terminology used for exploring graphic novels,  look at the pages on Graphic Novels and Persepolis

Click on the icon below to see the sample images. 


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