The “outside” narrator does not participate in. the conflict of a story. In fact, usually the outside narrator is not a character at all. This kind of narrator is, instead, a voice relating a story from a distance. The narrator recounts the characters’ experiences and may tell you about their thoughts and feelings, as if able to read their minds.
The outside narrator is used in many types of fiction. As you read the following excerpt from a fairy tale, notice whose voice is conveying information about the characters, their circumstances, and their environment.
Close to a large forest there lived a woodcutter with his wife and his two children. The boy was called Hansel and the girl Gretel. They were always very poor and had very little to live on. And at one time when there was famine in the land, the woodcutter could no longer procure daily bread.
One night when he lay in bed worrying over his troubles, he sighed and said to his wife, “What is to become of us? How are we to feed our poor children when we have nothing for ourselves?”
“I’ll tell you what, husband,” answered the woman. “Tomorrow morning we will take the children out quite early into the thickest part of the forest. We will light a fire and give each of them a piece of bread. Then we will go to our work and leave them alone. They won’t be able to find their way back, and so we shall be rid of them.”
“Nay, wife,” said the man, “we won’t do that. I could never find it in my heart to leave my children alone in the forest. Wild animals would soon tear them to pieces.”
“What a fool you are!” she said. “Then we must all four die of hunger. You may as well plane the boards for our coffins at once.” She gave him no peace till he consented. “But I grieve over the poor children all the same,” said the man.
- Excerpted from “Hansel and Gretel” by The Brothers Grimm
In the preceding passage, who tells you about a poverty-stricken family living in a forest?
- the woodcutter
- the woodcutter’s wife
- an unnamed narrator
Answer (5) is the correct response. The narrator is not identified. You do not sense the narrator’s actual presence in the story. Instead, you are aware of a voice describing the situation. The authors, the Brothers Grimm, act as a single storyteller who tells you about the family’s financial problems and the parents’ plan to abandon the children.
This method of narration, or storytelling, is also used in this passage from a science fiction novel.
Montag had done nothing. His hand had done it all, his hand, with a brain of its own, with a conscience and a curiosity in each trembling finger, had turned thief. Now it plunged the book back under his arm, pressed it tight to sweating armpit, rushed out empty, with a magician’s flourish! Look here! Innocent! Look!
- Excerpted from Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
As you read the paragraph, did you discover from an unidentified narrator Montag’s state of mind when he took the book?
Character as Narrator
An author may also invent a character to tell the story. The character participates in the action, and you witness the events through his or her eyes. In this method of narration, the story sounds like a firsthand report.
For example, in Mark Twain’s novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck Finn, the central character, is the narrator. The novel begins with Huck introducing himself to the reader:
You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.
- Excerpted from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
In his own language, Huck relates the experiences that follow. You personally observe the way in which Huck, a teenage boy, views his surroundings and other characters.
Point of View
Some authors may choose to have an outsider (someone who is not taking part in the events of the story) narrate (tell) the story. Other authors may choose to have one of the characters in the story tell about what is happening, as he or she participates in the events.
Directions: Read the short passages below, and try to determine who is telling the story. Write an O in the blank if it is an outside narrator telling the story. Write a P in the blank if the narrator is a participant in the story.
- Mrs. Pocket was sitting on a garden chair under a tree, reading, with her legs upon another garden chair; and Mrs. Pocket’s two nursemaids were looking about them while the children played. “Mamma,” said Herbert, “this is young Mr. Pip.” Upon which Mrs. Pocket received me with an appearance of amiable dignity.
- Excerpted from Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, 1861
- Albert went away regretfully, but the drayman and some of the Methodist ladies were in Mr. Holliday’s yard, packing chairs and tables and ice-cream freezers into the wagon, and the twins forgot the sick cat in their excitement. By noon they had picked up the last paper napkin, raked over the gravel walks where the salt from the freezers had left white patches, and hung the hammock in which Vickie did her studying back in place.
- Excerpted from Old Mrs. Harris by Willa Cather, 1932
- And right there he’d stay, watching that door like a hawk until I came through it again. Well he’d just have to watch it for a while; I was doing the best I could.
- Excerpted from The Sound and The Fury by William Faulkner, 1929
- And she told her sister, as well as she could remember them, all these strange Adventures of hers that you have just been reading about; and, when she had finished, her sister kissed her, and said “It was a curious dream, dear, certainly; but now run in to your tea; it’s getting late.” So Alice got up and ran off, thinking while she ran, as well as she might, what a wonderful dream it had been.
- Excerpted from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, 1865
- We were there for many hours. I remember the search boats and the sunset when dusk came. I had never seen a sunset like that: a bright orange flame touching the water’s edge and then fanning out, warming the sea.
- Excerpted from The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, 1989