An omniscient narrator is a type of voice that guides a reader through a story. They can look into the minds of all the characters and describe what they’re thinking. The author brings all the characters to life through the use of an omniscient narrator. The narrator is the only person in the realm of the story who knows everything that’s going on.
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Definition and Explanation of Omniscient Narrator
Narrators are omniscient if the reader gets information from more than one perspective and if there’s nothing in the story that the narrator doesn’t know about. Their voice might stay the same throughout the entire story, meaning that they use the same language and tone to describe what’s going on no matter which character they’re talking about. Or, the writer might choose to continue the omniscient narrator but change the tone when it comes to different characters. This helps them convey the person in a particular way to the reader.
Omniscient or Limited Omniscient Narrators
The difference between omniscient and limited omniscient is well-defined. The first refers to a narrator who has knowledge about all the characters, can look into all of their minds, and convey all their thoughts and actions to the reader. They are all-knowing. The limited omniscient narrator is only able to look into the mind of one character, with the others remaining a mystery to both narrator and reader. They are defined through the thoughts of the main character.
Examples of Omniscient Narrators
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
This well-loved novel is a great example of a third person, omniscient narrator. The main character is Jo March but the narrator is capable of looking into the minds of all the other characters, such as Amy and Aunt March. This allows the story to be told through multiple perspectives. Here is an excerpt from the novel that demonstrates how the third person, limited omniscient perspective works:
Margaret, the eldest of the four, was sixteen, and very pretty, being plump and fair, with large eyes, plenty of soft brown hair, a sweet mouth, and white hands, of which she was rather vain. Fifteen-year-old Jo was very tall, thin, and brown, and reminded one of a colt … Elizabeth, or Beth, as everyone called her, was a rosy, smooth-haired, bright-eyed girl of thirteen, with a shy manner, a timid voice […]
Here, the disembodied voice of the narrator conveys the thoughts and feelings of multiple characters. In this case, the March sisters.
The Scarlet Letter by Nathanial Hawthorne
The Scarlet Letter includes an omniscient narrator who is able to look into the minds of all the characters in the novel as well as scrutinize and pass judgment on them. The narrator has a lot of information about the characters. In some cases, it appears that the narrator has more information about them than they do about themselves. This narrator is a good example of what’s known as a subject narrator. They form their own opinion about the events of the novel and that opinion tints their depiction of certain characters. For example, if one character does something the narrator doesn’t like, they might describe the character in negative terms, later on, to show their distaste for what the person did. Here is a phrase from the first chapter of The Scarlet Letter:
In this passage, the narrator is drawing the reader’s attention to a rose bush. They are well-aware of the events they’re about to convey and choose to mention rosebush as a symbol of the morality of the tale. Here is another example from the passage in which the narrator describes Hester:
And never had Hester Prynne appeared more lady-like, in the antique interpretation of the term, than as she issued from the prison. Those who had before known her, and had expected to behold her dimmed and obscured by a disastrous cloud, were astonished, and even startled, to perceive how her beauty shone out, and made a halo of the misfortune and ignominy in which she was enveloped.
In Pride and Prejudice, Austen uses an omniscient narrative perspective, despite spending most of the novel focused on Elizabeth Bennett. The narrator will, on occasion, move to Mr. Darcy’s perspective such as in the following quoted passage:
Mr. Darcy, who was leaning against the mantle-piece with his eyes fixed on her face, seemed to catch her words with no less resentment than surprise. His complexion became pale with anger, and the disturbance of his mind was visible in every feature
Why Do Writers Use Omniscient Narrators?
The omniscient narrator is one of the most popular literary perspectives used in historical and contemporary writing. It allows the reader to enter the minds of all the characters in the novel. This adds to the overall complexity of the story and ensures that the reader has some attachment to more than one character. This perspective also allows the writer to fully explore the nature of the characters they’re using. They can dig into the character’s good or bad features and make sure that those are clearly conveyed to the reader.
Related Literary Terms
- First Person Point of View: a literary style in which the narrator tells a story about him or herself.
- Second Person Point of View: a literary style in which the narrator tells a story about “you”.
- Third Person Point of View: a literary style in which the narrator tells a story about a variety of characters.
- Point of View: what the speaker, narrator, or character can see from their perspective.
- Unreliable Narrator: a narrator whose credibility is in doubt, or somehow compromised.
- Novel: a long, written, fictional narrative that includes some amount of realism.