The Omniscient Narrator

Several years ago I heard an excellent lecture by Jonathan Culler about the concept of omniscient narrators. His talk really was very good, sadly he prefaced his talk with needless attacks on anyone who believes in a god or religion. I have written about that before, but never commented on the substance of his lecture before. I do not remember the details, but the main gist was that there really is no such thing as an “omniscient narrator” (ON).  That is to say, even when an author is present us with the typical ON that we all learned about in 7th grade English, the narrator never really does reveal everything that s/he ostensibly knows. Instead the narrator may tell us what our main protagonist thinks and perhaps may shift to another character and reveal their thoughts for a time, but it is practicably impossible for the narrator to exhibit complete omniscience, even if we might assume that the author him or herself did know exactly what each character was thinking, doing, etc. This was the “no duh” aspect of Culler’s lecture. Of course what he said was patently obvious once one bothered to take note of it.

All of this is, in some ways, just an effort on my part to have a clever title for this post, but I have often thought about Culler’s comments and what they mean for authors and readers alike. I do think that such musings can be useful when we consider scripture. Particularly for those working within a faith framework where God is considered the “author” of not only the Bible but life itself. Certainly God is considered omniscient, but we do not, in fact, find any of our biblical narratives exhibiting what we would describe as an omniscient narrator. (If I am wrong, please feel free to correct me.) This is, of course, due to culture and context. Every genre and literary form owes its nature and character to the community within which it grows and it serves to remind us just how different the biblical narrative is from what we might write today.

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