Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Dune: A Ridiculously Close Look

Here I am to look at Dune, as promised. But I've decided not to do the very opening of the book, where Frank Herbert starts with a piece of an (ostensibly) historical document. What I want to concentrate on here is the omniscient narrator and the phenomenon of "head-hopping." Head-hopping, of course, is what people call it when it irritates them, but it's essentially the tendency of an author to switch points of view continually through the narrative.

This is a contrast to my earlier entry on The Sparrow, because in that case I was looking at a segment that used a disembodied external narrator who knew everything about the story. On the other hand, the deeper you go into The Sparrow, the more you get this head-hopping thing, where the omniscient narrator dips into one character's viewpoint or thoughts after another.

The most common criticism I've heard of head-hopping is that you can never tell whose head you're in. So I thought I'd start churning through a piece of Dune and taking a look at where and how the POV switches happen.

"The Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam sat in a tapestried chair watching mother and son approach."

Here we have a sentence with three characters, but only one of them gets a name - the one who is currently the subject of the verb. This puts us in the Reverend Mother's viewpoint by keeping "mother and son" demoted to identities that are non-unique, defined relative to one another. Here's the next piece:

"Windows on either side of her overlooked the curving southern bend of the river and the green farmlands of the Atreides family holding, but the Reverend Mother ignored the view. She was feeling her age this morning, more than a little petulant."

I think the "windows" sentence is interesting because it describes a view that Reverend Mother is ignoring. Okay, so it could be the omniscient narrator pointing out the view to us, but it still makes the description relative to Reverend Mother's position, and gives her opinion on it. "She was feeling her age" definitely gives us privileged information that only she could know. So we're still with her point of view. Next piece:

"She blamed it on space travel and association with that abominable spacing Guild and its secretive ways. But here was a mission that required personal attention from a Bene Gesserit-with-the-Sight. Even the Padishah Emperor's Truthsayer couldn't evade that responsibility when the duty call came."

Blame is another POV-internal piece of information, and I love how Herbert takes us into a description of "that abominable spacing Guild and its secretive ways." The adjective "abominable" keeps us solidly in the Reverend Mother's point of view for the remainder of that sentence by showing us her judgment of the Guild as she describes it. Then when Herbert describes the mission, he says "here" was a mission. This again links the mission with the Reverend Mother, implying both that it's her mission, and that we're witnessing her thoughts about it. The "Padishah Emperor" sentence is the least aligned with the Reverend Mother, but it still uses the verb "came," implying that the call to the mission came toward her. So after a complete paragraph that uses the Reverend Mother's viewpoint and judgments, it's easy to accept the following:

"Damn that Jessica! the Reverend mother thought. If only she'd borne us a girl as she was ordered to do!"

Now, here's where it starts to shift:

"Jessica stopped three paces from the chair, dropped a small curtsy, a gentle flick of left hand along the line of her skirt. Paul gave the short bow his dancing master had taught - the one used 'when in doubt of another's station.'"

Here, suddenly Jessica and Paul both have names. Jessica's actions are of a type easily observable by outsiders, but though Paul's special bow may be something the Reverend Mother knows about, it seems less likely to me that she would know his dancing master had taught it to him. So in these two sentences, Paul is coming into sharper focus.

"The nuances of Paul's greeting were not lost on the Reverend Mother. She said: 'He's a cautious one, Jessica.'"

Okay, so here the Reverend Mother is noticing Paul's caution. Because we've had the Reverend Mother earlier, I think here we're probably inclined to think we're in the Reverend Mother's head, but consider this: what the Reverend Mother says can be considered externally observable evidence of what Herbert gives us in the sentence about nuances. Which is to say that we haven't landed solidly back in the Reverend Mother at this point. The next piece takes us still further away from her:

"Jessica's hand went to Paul's shoulder, tightened there. For a heartbeat, fear pulsed through her palm. Then she had herself under control. "Thus he has been taught, Your Reverence."

Though Jessica's action of tightening her hand is observable by everyone present, the fear pulsing through her palm is observable only by Paul, not by the Reverend Mother. The measurement of time, "a heartbeat," is very personal - it could be just a generically counted heartbeat, but it could also be Paul's heartbeat, given this context. Thus Herbert prepares us for the following:

"What does she fear? Paul wondered."

I find this interesting because Herbert doesn't just give us Paul's thoughts whenever he feels like it, but he subtly transitions us to his internal perceptions and judgments before he does it - making this point of view shift less of a "hop" and more of a glide.

It certainly worked for me.

1 comment:

  1. Writers as different as Tolkien and Tom Clancy use an omniscient POV. It's out of fashion at the moment; a "rule" to be broken if your story calls for it, and if you can pull it off. I've just dealt with critique comments on a client's story done in omni where the critter complained of tight POV viewpoint shifts...when it was more what you were describing. The writer in question had used omni instinctively: it was done in past tense and the story of someone who had ascended to a demigod status by the end of the piece. Omni made sense. My advice was to make the story more intentionally in omni. It's the right tool when called for.