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The power of perspective: how the narrative lens can transform a story

Sarah Lewis uses Midnight Sun as a springboard to discuss the politics of perspective how the narrative voice can transform a story.

The recent release of Stephanie Meyer’s Midnight Sun has introduced a new perspective on the Twilight story, now told from Edward Cullen’s point of view. Regardless of what we think of the series, they succeed in highlighting one of the most exciting and complex elements of storytelling: the perspective of the narrator. Who is telling the story?

As soon as an author chooses a first-person narrator over an omniscient third-person, the story suddenly gets a lot more interesting. Objective truth and reality fly out the window, and instead we are left with one individual’s version of events. It is then the task of the reader to decide what they believe.

All first-person narrators are unreliable to some extent, and many of the best novels out there utilise them to create depth and intrigue in their stories. Whether it be Nick in The Great Gatsby, or Nelly in Wuthering Heights, the unreliable narrator is a literary staple.

But perspective becomes even more powerful when a new narrator is introduced to a pre-existing tale. This was a device Mary Shelley employed in Frankenstein, which begins with Victor Frankenstein’s tale of the murderous and destructive monster, only to turn to the monster himself, who tells a very different story. Frankenstein’s nameless creation speaks of how his creator abandoned him, and of the loneliness that followed as he discovered the fear and disgust he inspired in others. Once the ‘monster’ has spoken, it is no longer clear who occupies the moral high ground.

Another transformative example is found in the 1966 novel that reworked the beloved Jane Eyre story. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys gives a back-story to the ‘madwoman in the attic’, Bertha Mason. She is re-imagined by Rhys as the Jamaican-born Antoinette, whose life of trauma and neglect leads to a drastic decline in her mental state, and her eventual imprisonment in Mr Rochester’s attic.

The Jane Eyre story casts Mr Rochester’s first wife as a gothic monster and a threat, who is othered and stripped of her humanity. This is epitomised in Jane’s first sighting of Bertha, where she becomes an it: “What it was, whether beast or human being, one could not, at first sight, tell: it grovelled, seemingly, on all fours; it snatched and growled like some strange wild animal…”

Rhys transforms Brontë’s “beast” into a human being. Her rewrite provides a biting critique of English colonialism through her depiction of post-Emancipation Jamaica, combined with a feminist reading of the marginalised ‘madwoman’ who has suffered in a world of patriarchal oppression.

Wide Sargasso Sea had a far-reaching legacy within literary criticism as a whole, paving the way for other classic works of literature to be re-examined with a more critical eye. Feminist and post-colonial readings became increasingly popular in the latter half of the 20th century, and are now essential elements of literary study.

The authority of the white and male point of view is undermined when voices that have been silenced for so long are finally given the opportunity to speak out, and to tell the story anew. This process of re-reading applies, perhaps most crucially, to history itself. A long-running story told by the winners, the colonisers and the men in charge – history is perhaps the narrative most in need of a re-write. Tales that tell of the ‘glorious’ British Empire, or of a ‘peaceful’ first Thanksgiving in the New World are just two stories told by biased and unreliable narrators.

As the Hamilton musical reminds us, it all comes down to “who tells your story”. Who controls the narrative, and whose agenda are we being fed? Now more than ever, we should all be reading with a critical eye.

So when Meyer decided to give us Edward’s perspective in Midnight Sun, the narrative is flipped on its head, but this time in a return to the white male’s point of view. Whether this finally allows us to understand Bella’s elusive vampire love-interest, or if it merely serves to highlight the more pathetic and possibly even predatory aspects of Edward’s character, is left for the reader to decide.

Yet what is equally true is that by re-inventing the Twilight story in this way, Stephanie Meyer adds to a long-running conversation on the nature of narrative, and what it means to tell a story. I’m sure for many Twilight fans, it’s really ‘not that deep’, but it is nevertheless a reminder of the power of perspective, and the transformative potential of a new point of view.

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