As a craft technique, nineteenth-century omniscience is mostly brought up these days for the purposes of pointing out that it’s obsolete. It’s old. It’s passé. The presumed authority of the classic omniscient voice is no longer plausible; its sweeping pronouncements no longer ring true. Less God-like points of view, such as first person and limited third—often split into the perspectives of multiple characters—provide more fitting lenses through which to portray the diverse social, cultural, and emotional realities of the present age.
It’s not my intention to contradict this view, but I do wonder if we as writers have been too quick to turn our backs on an important element of the craft. I’m not alone. In a recent The Writer’s Chronicle article (March/April 2017), Ursula K. Le Guin wrote that the omniscient “is the most flexible and useful of all the points of view. It’s the freest.” She also pointed out that first person and limited third, by far the most common points of view in contemporary literature, are also “the easiest ones, the least interesting.”
Last year, as it happens, I spent a few months immersed in William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. While that colorful saga began to unwind, I noticed the various uses Thackeray made of the omniscient point of view—and the power of the narrative vantage point surprised me. As a matter of fact, more than anything else in the book, it was the central guiding consciousness—its supple elasticity; its expansive vision; its bitingly droll eloquence—that kept me riveted over the course of seven hundred densely printed pages. Curious as to the mechanics underlying this instance of classic omniscience, I went back to take a closer look.
She was small and slight in person; pale, sandy-haired, and with eyes habitually cast down: when they looked up they were very large, odd, and attractive; so attractive that the Reverend Mr. Crisp, fresh from Oxford, and curate to the Vicar of Chiswick, the Reverend Mr. Flowerdew, fell in love with Miss Sharp; being shot dead by a glance of her eyes which was fired all the way across Chiswick Church from the school-pew to the writing desk.
Another well-known characteristic of classic omniscience is the liberty the author arrogates to himself to address the reader directly, drawing us explicitly into the world of the story right alongside the narrator. In the nineteenth century, breaking the fourth wall was not only allowed, it was pretty much de rigueur:
But as we are to see a great deal of Amelia, there is no harm in saying, at the outset of our acquaintance, that she was a dear little creature; and a great mercy it is, both in life and in novels, which . . . abound in villains of the most somber sort, that we are to have for a constant companion so guileless and good-natured a person.
Moreover, the nineteenth-century narrator felt free to mention his own physical presence in the story-world, reminding us that classic omniscience was most often not in the third-person, but the first:
“As an observer of human nature, I regularly frequent St. George’s, Hanover Square, during the genteel marriage season.”
Thackeray had no qualms about asserting his God-like authority—“The novelist, who knows everything, knows this also”—and he was fond of pointing out certain truths about life that he felt were illustrated by events in the story. Indeed, I suspect that the lecturing tone, steeped in the mores of the era’s dominant social class, is one of the aspects of nineteenth-century narration that contemporary novelists most dislike. Thackeray did it frequently:
Praise everybody, I say to such: never be squeamish, but speak out your compliment both point-blank in a man’s face, and behind his back, when you know there is a reasonable chance of his hearing it again. Never lose a chance of saying a kind word. As Collingwood never saw a vacant place in his estate but he took an acorn out of his pocket and popped it in; so deal with your compliments through life. An acorn costs nothing, but it may sprout into a prodigious bit of timber.
One of the reasons Thackeray gets away with this kind of thing is that in addition to possessing a nice turn of phrase, he is delightfully inventive in his mode of address. Witness this moment, when he abruptly morphs from a disembodied narrator into a garrulous host at a dinner party:
It is all vanity to be sure, but who will not own to liking a little of it . . . Sit down, gentlemen, and fall to, with a good hearty appetite; the fat, the lean, the gravy, the horseradish as you like it—don’t spare it. Another glass of wine, Jones, my boy—a little bit of the Sunday side. Yes, let us eat our fill of the vain thing and be thankful therefor. And let us make the best of Becky’s aristocratic pleasures likewise—for these too, like all other mortal delights, were but transitory.
Of more immediate use to the contemporary novelist, perhaps, is the freedom of movement implied by classic omniscience. Its ability to soar high above the story-world like an all-seeing hawk, to dart like a trout deep into the currents of a character’s mind, and from there to emerge again, perhaps traversing miles or hours or years in a single instant, and then to descend to earth, slipping unnoticed through the walls of a drawing room, where it may assume the perspective of a sentient spider peering down on a gathering of characters from a cobweb on the ceiling.
Here’s a representative passage, in which Thackeray takes us from exterior to interior, from greater to lesser psychic distance, with no visible borders or impediments to the reach of his omniscient guiding consciousness:
Amelia meanwhile, in Russell Square, was looking at the moon, which was shining upon that peaceful spot, as well as upon the square of the Chatham barracks, where Lieutenant Osborne was quartered, and thinking to herself how her hero was employed. Perhaps he is visiting the sentries, thought she; perhaps he is bivouacking; perhaps he is attending the couch of a wounded comrade, or studying the art of war up in his own desolate chamber. And her kind thoughts sped away as if they were angels and had wings, and flying down the river to Chatham and Rochester, strove to peep into the barracks where George was . . . All things considered, I think it was well the gates were shut, and the sentry allowed no one to pass; so that the poor little white-robed angel could not hear the songs those young fellows were roaring over the whiskey punch.
It’s important to notice, too, that Thackeray often takes advantage of the freedom not to see. This is a crucial and often overlooked aspect of omniscience, and I suspect it’s one reason many contemporary writers don’t often attempt it. Omniscience just seems so big. How can one even think about trying to capture the complexities of a novelistic world in such an all-seeing way? Where does it start, and where does it end?
Thackeray’s answer would be: One sets one’s own limits, unabashedly. One is the all-powerful God of one’s own created universe:
I don’t know whether Miss Crawley had any private feeling of regard or emotion upon seeing her old favourite . . . and as for Rawdon, he turned as red as scarlet, and wrung off Briggs’s hand, so great was his rapture and his confusion at the meeting. Perhaps it was interest that moved him: or perhaps affection: perhaps he was touched by the change which the illness of the last weeks had wrought upon his aunt.
Wait. “I don’t know”? “Perhaps”? But, sir: Are you not omniscient?
Thackeray’s reply: I am omniscient only when I choose to be.
“To this Amelia did not answer, yes or no: and how do we know what her thoughts were?”
Wait. “How do we know what her thoughts were?” How don’t we know?
Thackeray’s answer: We need know only what the author chooses to tell us.
Pulling this off, it would seem, requires a certain kind of arrogance, together with a clear understanding of the precise effects one wishes to evoke in the reader. In other words, full-blown omniscience is not for beginners.
Don’t try this at home.
Unless you really want to.
And if you do want to, there is absolutely no reason that its mechanical advantages—such as the ability to enter and quickly exit the minds of multiple characters; to ignore barriers of time and space; to pull back at any given moment in order to observe the world from a birds-eye distance; to address the reader directly, if one chooses; and yes, even to make big pronouncements on the foibles and injustices of society at large—can’t work just as well in a twenty-first century novel as it does in Vanity Fair. Instead of thinking of classic omniscience as a point of view that is categorically unsuited for our age, perhaps we would be better off thinking of it as a fine antique instrument; one that can, with just a little tuning, be put to good work in our modern symphonies.
There will be writers who find none of this convincing, and that’s fair enough. Old-fashioned omniscience is not for everyone, and that is surely for the best. Perhaps it really isn’t suited to the modern age. Perhaps if we were to use it we would be engaging in a fundamentally wrongheaded understanding of the nature of the twenty-first-century world. On the other hand, one of the joys of being a novelist is that it’s our right—one might even say that it’s our job—to take conventional wisdom and turn it on its head.