Focalization (Point of View)
As readers, when we look at a story, we instinctively pay more attention to the events and characters in the text, but do not care as much for who is telling the story (when the text is not first-person narrated), and even less for the perspectives from which we access it. We often talk about a narrator or a narrative voice, but sometimes forget that the narrator also sees, or it is possible that even if it is the narrator who is “speaking,” what we “see” is through the narration is not from the narrator. Examining focalization thus offers us a new way to look at, as opposed to “listen to”, texts through “the mediation of some ‘prism’, ‘perspective’, ‘angle of vision’, verbalized by the narrator though not necessarily his” (Rimmon-Kenan 73), and this “mediation” is not only between perspectives and texts, but also may turn out to be one between the writers and the readers.
Since “perspective”, “prism”, and “angle of vision” all require some level of mental process, focalization will inevitably touch on characters’ interiority. Within focalization there is a subject (the ‘focalizer’) and an object (the ‘focalized’), the previous being “the agent whose perception orients the presentation” while the latter means “what the focalizer perceives”(Rimmon-Kenan), and from the nature of perception, we can conclude that it’s the focalizer’s mental states that will be reflected, though the interiority of the focalized may also be shown. Zunshine suggested that some characters are able to “embed multiple mental states,” namely they can present mental states not limited by their own, but can incorporate, for example, that of others’, and that of themselves in others’ eyes’, and she also claimed that the more mental states a character displays, the higher is that character in the cognitive hierarchy (Zunshine 153). Being the focalizer means the character has a relatively more private or subjective display of interiority, and so the focalizers has the advantage that as soon as the subject or consideration is not exclusively themselves, they automatically go beyond the first-level cognitive embedment. When Pauline told Cholly that she was pregnant, Cholly “surprised her by being pleased” (Morrison 121). In this particular circumstance, Pauline considered Cholly’s possible thoughts on her pregnancy, showing a second-level cognitive embedment, while all we can know of Cholly is that he was “pleased”. If we think of Cholly as a real person, we may expect him to go through a more complicated mental process since he must have thought about Pauline or the child or both to be pleased, but his interiority was limited to what the text presented, which is but his emotions
Actually, I would like to argue that the focalizer is prone to have a superior level of cognitive embedment than the focalized, since the readers can only access the mental state of the focalized through the perception of the focalizer. Therefore, if the focalized is considering themselves, they are demonstrating first-level cognitive embedment, and the focalizers who perceive this are demonstrating second-level cognitive embedment, and it is the same when the focalizer is thinking about the focalizer, in which case the focalizer has third-level cognitive embedment while the focalized has the second-level. When Pecola attributed Mr. Yacobowski’s ignoring her to the perception of her blackness — “her blackness is static and dread” (Morrison 49) — she was perceiving how she was perceived by Mr. Yacobowski, conjuring the mind of Mr. Yacobowski and her presentation in the eyes of Mr. Yacobowski. It seems that even if the focalized was shown to have mental process, as did Mr. Yacobowski, the interiority of the focalized is not as significant as that of the focalizer, since the relationship between readers and the focalizer is more direct, and it is the perspective of the focalizer that facilitates the flow of the texts. In this sense, the focalizer is a major character, or more major than other characters at the given moment.
Woloch wrote that the minor characters may “threaten to destabilize the narrative, through the force of their unique consciousness,” and to solve that, writers may flatten minor characters, removing their “human particularity,” to stabilize the narrative (Woloch 22). Yet in the foreword, Morrison claimed that she “did not want to dehumanize the characters who trashed Pecola and contributed to her collapse” (Morrison xii), meaning she probably refused this theory and would even make an effort to make minor characters round by letting a minor characters Cholly be the focalizer of a whole chapter and invited readers to learn the complexity of his mental process and of this very character. The sensitiveness of the topic made it easy for readers to assume and come to conclusions too quickly, as I am going to discuss in the following paragraph.
Within a text, the focalizer may shift, and the shifts may serve to clarify, extend, or adjust readers’ understanding of certain characters. From the very beginning of The Bluest Eye, Claudia stated that Cholly made his daughter Pecola pregnant, and the incest could have shocked readers and generate a picture of a heartless, most inconsiderate, and most unforgivable father. However, Morrison chose to make Cholly the focalizer of the chapter from page 132 to 163, and by doing so provided his detailed mental process before his attempt to rape his daughter — “The confused mixture of his memories of Pauline and the doing of a wild and forbidden thing excited him…” (Morrison 162) — and his perception of his action — “He wanted to fuck her—tenderly.” (162-163) to literally force readers into his mind. Basically, the readers were not given any room to freely interpret Cholly’s intentions since his mental process was given as fact through focalization without any ambiguity. The text presented Cholly’s conflicting mind between violence and tenderness, and though this information does not justify his action, it helped readers to accept Cholly as an unpardonable individual who had done a terrible thing with his own causes, but not as a flat rapist who raped his daughter solely because he was a rapist or he was bad.
Having Cholly to be the focalizer and present his interiority gives readers much more information than the purely laying down what he had done — “Pecola’s father had dropped his seeds in his own plot of black dirt” (Morrison 6) — in which case the readers have more freedom to fit intentions into the action using mind-reading. Mind-reading is the attempt for people to analyze others’ mental states based on their behavior, but the problem is that it is always subject to mistakes.(Zunshine 149-150) The exact same action can imply different meanings under different circumstances, under different cultures, and for every different individual. Sexual intercourse between fathers and daughters may not be a serious concern for Greek gods, but in most human societies it is immoral. Therefore when it is expectable that readers are likely to mind-read an action of a character and respond in ways that the writer wants to avoid, the writers may find it useful to use focalization to restrain the readers, so that they can examine the text from the perspective that the writers offer them. Readers may not be conscious of the their change of attitude from exploring the states of mind of characters through mind-reading to accepting their thoughts as they are through focalization, but the writer could be using focalization to direct readers to identify characters more as functional device for the flow of the text than real people reacting to incidents in their lives.
Sometimes it is easier to learn who is the focalizer and who is the focalized, since the text may explicitly offer information about who is perceiving things at a given moment, whether by directly giving the character’s thoughts or indicating the character’s experience. Cholly’s reaction to Aunt Jimmy’s appearance and behavior — “then he wondered whether it would have been just as well to have died there” (Morrison, 132-133) — was simultaneous, and did not reflect knowledge or thoughts beyond the “Cholly” at the time, and so the focalizer was Cholly.
However, sometimes it is harder, or even impossible to identify the focalizer, especially in The Sympathizer, given its unique structure. The whole book could be divided to three parts: that of the protagonist’s edited and reedited confession of his early life, that of his torture, and that of his escape, all written by the protagonist almost immediately after the experience, and the writing process would continue beyond the ending of the book. Consequently, the only means for the readers to access the story was the protagonist, who is also the narrator, and so the only “mediation of some ‘prism’, ‘perspective’, ‘angle of vision’” (Rimmon-Kenan 73) was verbalized by the protagonist and the protagonist only. So to speak, the whole book was of the perception of the protagonist and nobody else. Then when it came to the interiority of other characters — “But now, even though I was a card-carrying American with a driver’s license, Social Security card, and resident alien permit, Violet still considered me as foreign…” (Nguyen, 127) the first impression the readers might have could be that Violet was the focalizer perceiving the protagonist, but if we take the quote into the context of the whole story, we can find that she could not be the focalizer because the narrator, as another human being, had no means of taking her position in her mental process, and could not ascertain her perception of events. Therefore, what we initially take as Violet’s perception was instead the protagonist’s, and the protagonist was the focalizer here, and also the mind-reader, which is another reason why we probably should not take Violet’s perception as fact.
The base of mind-reading is a person’s actions and reactions, but as Rebecca pointed out, the lack of quotation mark was the evidence that the narrator could not provide the exact words that were spoken, (Naimon) so even the conversations were the narrator’s perception of past communication, or the narrator’s perception of his memory of it, and similarly the behavior of other characters, or the scenes, or anything except the narrator himself, was the narrator’s perception. Then even when the General questioned “You can’t think of anybody?” (Nguyen 57) the focalizer was still the narrator, and we grasp Violet’s omission of punctuation and grammar, and her condescending attitude (Nguyen 126-127) through the narrator as the focalizer. If the base of mind-reading was not accurate, how accurate was the result of the mind-reading, and how reliable was the narrator who offered this? Yet how significant was Violet’s actual perception? In the textual world, the narrator was the author of the book, so Violet was first a character in his text, and then a real person as the origin of this character. He addressed Violet as an American who could never accept immigrants as true Americans, more functional than real. It was the focalizer’s perception of the discrimination that a Vietnamese felt that mattered, and the focalized could be a Miss Orange or Mr Red, since the identity of Violet as an actual person had to yield to the story.
However, as I had mentioned before, sometimes it is impossible to identify the focalizer. To be more precise, in The Sympathizer, it is impossible to know if the contemporary narrator or the future narrator was the focalizer when it comes to the mental process of the protagonist. When the protagonist responded to Dr. Hedd — “I was going to prove him wrong” (Nguyen, 252) it was the combination of the contemporary narrator’s mental process and the future narrator’s recreation of his younger self’s thoughts. Without either of them the sentence would not exist, and both were perceiving during the process, so it would seem wrong if I claim one of them was the focalizer and the other the focalized. I would argue that indeed the only thing we can say is that the narrator is the focalizer, without distinguishing between the contemporary narrator and the future narrator. While this could be the failure, or the limitation of focalization, I would like to claim that at least in The Sympathizer, the blending of two narrators served to better illustrate the characteristic of this very text. The text had been edited for many times to fit the expectation of the Commandant, so while the experience was the contemporary narrator’s, the future narrator had to go back to go through all the events and all the contemporary narrators’ perception of these events, and mediate them in the favorable perspective. The unique focalization thus underlines the co-existence of the two narrators for the readers to understand the unique writing experience of the narrator.
Fundamentally, focalization links the writers with the readers through characters, helping writers to shape readers into understanding characters in particular ways, so through the characters readers may read texts more efficiently in that they could quicker get on the trek provided by the writers and advance from there.
Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. Vintage International. 2007.
Nguyen, Viet Thanh. The Sympathizer. Grove Press, 2015.
Naimon, Rebecca. Focalization and Memory of the Self. voices.uchicago.edu, March 1st, 2018, https://voices.uchicago.edu/201801engl25640/2018/03/01/focalization-and-memory-of-the-self/. March 14th, 2018.
Rimmon-Kenan, Shlomith. Text: Focalization, Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics, Routledge, 2003, ISBN 9786610075355, March 14th, 2018.
Woloch, Alex. THE ONE VS. the MANY — MINOR CHARACTERS and the SPACE of the PROTAGONIST in the NOVEL, PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2003, ISBN 0-691-11313-0, March 14th, 2018.
Zunshine, Lisa. Cognitive Alternatives to Interiority, The Cambridge History of the English Novel, Cambridge University Press, 2012, ISBN 9780521194952, March 14th, 2018.