Point of View Matters and We Have Always Lived in the Castle

How often when reading a story do you think about the point of view? You’re familiar with some of the terms, I’m sure, especially as educators. If you’re an SLP or special educator working on reading comprehension, you may even be wondering how important it really is for student’s to understand point of view. I’ll admit I don’t always think of it as vital. But reading We Have Always Lived in the Castle changed that.

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what is point of view?

Let’s start by briefly touching on point of view. Put simply, we can identify the point of view of a story by determining who is telling the story.

First person point of view indicates that the protagonist or main character of a story is also the narrator. Sometimes, the narrator is very, very close to the main character rather than being the character themselves (peripheral).

Books like The Hunger Games and Sherlock Holmes are written in first person.

Second person point of view indicates that the reader is the protagonist or main character of a story. It’s hard and weird and not used all that often.

I’ve never knowingly read a book in second person, but  NK Jemisin wrote The Broken Earth series this way.

Third person point of view indicates that the narrator of the story is a bit of an all-knowing entity. A third person narrator has no limits (omniscient), very few limits (limited omniscient), or neutrality (objective).

Many, many authors have written books in third person, especially omniscient and limited omniscient. These include Stardust (omniscient) and Harry Potter (limited omniscient). Objective is more rare, but Ernest Hemmingway was something of a pro at it.

we have always lived in the castle

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson was one of my top reads of 2022. The story itself isn’t the most unique. The main storyline tells the story of sisters tainted by the murder of their family and ostracized by the village. However, it’s the point of view Shirley Jackson chose that changes the entire dynamic.

Why? Spoilers ahead.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is written from the first person point of view of Mary Blackwood. She lives with her sister, Constance, and their Uncle Julian in the big house. Six years before the start of the story, Mary and Constance’s family died of arsenic poisoning that left their Uncle Julian an invalid and only themselves untouched.

Suspicion falls on Constance, who eventually hides herself away from the society of the village in shame. We watch as Mary obsessively tries to protect Constance from the outside world by contriving to hem her into their life in the house.

In the end, you learn that it was Mary who poisoned her family and did so in a way that she knew wouldn’t endanger Constance.

Nothing terribly new, except that we’re learning of all of this from Mary’s point of view. The point of view of a girl who doesn’t think she did anything wrong. The perspective of someone whose delusions have overtaken reality to the point of reckless violence. A girl who truly believes she’s protecting her sister by holding her too tightly. And a girl who, ultimately, succeeds.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle open book

why point of view matters

While students may not need to name the point of view being used outside of an assignment, they need to recognize it. That is, they need to recognize who the narrator is and their relationship to the story. This ability is important for interpreting meaning.

And that, of course, is important for comprehension!

Comprehension of a story is based on being able to recognize and understand the narrative features or elements—the characters, setting, events, problem, and resolution—of a story. A student’s ability to recognize and name story elements is an important first step to comprehension, but they’ll only recognize a story’s true meaning when they interpret the interaction of those elements.

How do we interpret them? We begin by identifying who is telling us the story and what their relationship is to the characters and the narrative. And that’s where point of view comes in.

Let’s look at how it works.

point of view in popular stories

If an author writes a story in first person, we know the narrator has a very close, but limited, view of the events. The story they tell us is likely going to be biased because of their own experiences and opinions, as well as limited insight into the mindset of other characters.

As an example, when we read most of the Sherlock Holmes’s books, we’re looking at Sherlock’s genius through the eyes of his friend and admirer, John Watson. The stories would be quite different indeed if we were to read them from the perspective of Sherlock himself or Inspector Lestrade.

In contrast, if an author writes a story in third person, we know the narrator has an overarching, bird’s eye view of events, with insights into (potentially) multiple character’s midnsets. Opinions are less likely to be tainted by the characters themselves but may still carry the judgment of an outsider.

For example, we read Harry Potter from the perspective of an outsider who has limited insight into Harry’s thoughts. To tell the story from the first person point of view of Draco Malfoy or the third person point of view with insight into all of the characters thoughts would be very different!

questions to ask students

If you want to get your students thinking about how point of view impacts their understanding of a story, consider asking these questions:

  • Who is telling the story? What is their relationship to the main character?
  • How much insight does the narrator have into the mind of the characters?
  • What feelings or emotions do you notice about the characters? About the narrator?
  • How does the narrator’s relationship to the characters impact how the story is told? How would it change if the narrator was a different character or had insight into a different character’s thoughts?
  • What information could we be missing based on who the narrator is? How would that change the story?

Distinguishing the point of view of a story is a skill that students begin learning early in their reading comprehension journey. For SLPs and special education teachers it may seem like a more strictly academic skill. However, it’s actually a vital piece of students learning to really understand and interpret stories.

I hope thinking about how narrator’s shape the stories they tell us inspires you to incorporate point of view lessons into your reading comprehension activities.

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