Point of view (POV) is one of those things that is hardly noticed when done well but can ruin a story if done poorly. Today we’ll examine how POV affects Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Elizabeth Strout’s Abide With Me.
Never have I encountered such perfect novels for this case study. Gilead is widely regarded as a modern classic. Abide With Me is mostly unknown. Yet they both tell remarkably similar stories. Both have Protestant ministers as main characters in small town America in the 50’s. Both authors have won Pulitzer Prizes. They were published a mere two years apart (2004 and 2006). They deal with the same themes. Their lengths are roughly the same. So why the difference in reception? I think it can be completely attributed to Strout’s error in POV usage.
Gilead is told as a sequence of first-person letters from a Congregationalist minister to a son who will not know him. It is deeply personal and reflective to use this POV and serves as an excellent way to delve into discussions of faith in a broadly secular society, religion, theology, disappointment, judgment, fears, and so on. These manifest through conflict the minister has with his small town and what the minister sees as his own personal failings regarding his family.
Abide With Me is told in a very loose, meandering third-person (semi-omniscient) POV. The focus is still on a minister in a small town and his conflicts with the parishioners about theology and personal failings regarding his family. One could try to make an argument that Abide With Me focuses on the town itself as the main character, and this is the point of using a meandering POV. But I can’t get behind this. My guess is that over 80% of the novel is in a close third-person limited view of the minister, so the POV is wrong even for that argument. Also, all of the drama and emotional content come from the minister’s POV. To me, this novel would have been a much cleaner and powerful one if those few POV switches were cut or changed to the minister’s.
Let’s dig a little into why first-person worked so well in Gilead. Here’s a sample:
I get much more respect than I deserve. This seems harmless enough in most cases. People want to respect the pastor and I’m not going to interfere with that. But I’ve developed a great reputation for wisdom by ordering more books than I ever had time to read, and reading more books, by far, than I learned anything useful from, except, of course, that some very tedious gentlemen have written books. This is not a new insight, but the truth of it is something you have to experience to fully grasp.
We learn so much from this one brief passage. The pastor is modest and sympathetic. We get to hear his voice and see how he thinks. We learn how others see him and how he understands how they see him. He’s funny! His sense of humor comes through, because it is in his voice. When you read a whole novel like this, you feel like you personally know him, and I think this is why the novel resonates so well with people. It’s the POV, not the content. This is why Strout’s novel is not held in the same regard.
But Mrs. Slatin arrived for a visit, and took Lauren shopping for curtains, a bathroom rug, a crib, dishes with apples painted on them. And when Mrs. Slatin left, saying, “Well, you won’t be here for long, dear. This is just temporary,” Lauren said she wanted the horrid old place painted pink, she couldn’t stand it, and so Tyler asked the church, and then painted the walls of the living room and the dining room pink. “Perfect!” Lauren said. “I love you!”
Joy filled him, and trepidation, for the job of being pastor of this church was, for Tyler, an assignment of great seriousness. He was moved by the kindness of his parish, how they sometimes left notes for him by his office in the church, saying how his sermon had touched them.
I chose this passage, because I think it is trying to do a similar thing to the other one: establish how the pastor is received by the congregation and how he understands what they think. Look at that opening, though. It focuses on his wife’s POV. We get some of her character, but we’re kept at arm’s length by this distant third-person narration.
This distance is necessary to easily flow between points of view, but it leaves us feeling cold here. When we do switch to Tyler’s POV, we’re just told how he is received. We don’t get his voice. We don’t feel like we fully understand his thoughts. It is a one-dimensional description of his feelings and lacks his voice.
The whole novel reads this way, and it is a strange choice. I’m not sure why Strout chose to tell such a deeply personal story from such a distant and cold POV. There are few times in published literature where one can point to such a blatant mistake, but I think this is one of those times. I can only imagine what this novel could have been if a more personal POV was used.