“There are no facts, only interpretations.” So said the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Each person sees the world from a slightly (or extremely) different point of view, so every time you read a story (or listen to music for that matter) it’s like you’re walking a mile in someone else’s shoes.
Perspective can be all kinds of things:
1) An omniscient observer looking at an encapsulated world
This may be the typical third-person narrative voice that tells you what all the characters are thinking, knows what’s going to happen, and/or can see how the characters are part of a bigger picture. The person (or even thing) telling the story could also be unbiased and detached from the characters’ emotions, or he/she/it could have specific opinions about the story that influence the interpretation (i.e. if I was on the wolf’s side, I might tell Little Red Riding Hood differently).
2) Switching from one character to another
There is no rule that the same character must tell the whole story. Consider Frankenstein: first we have Walton, then Frankenstein, and even the monster telling parts of the story. Your characters can play “popcorn” storytelling as much as they want.
3) Character’s social position
There would be a difference if Mrs. Reed were telling the story of Jane Eyre’s childhood vs. Jane herself. Likewise, there would be a difference if Heathcliff were to tell the story of Catherine’s childhood instead of Nelly. Whether the storyteller is a friend or enemy, rich or poor, these epithets influence how the story is told.
4) Inner feelings
Can you guess what I’m thinking right now? Probably not. You might come close but there’s no way one person can understand all the subtleties in someone else’s mind. So when the storyteller talks about how another character is feeling, you know there’s some sort of gap between what they say and what’s 100% true.
But you can also become the storyteller. No one else will see a book and its characters exactly the way you do, because (you guessed it!) you have your own perspective. As a result, you become the interpreter of the characters’ inner emotions. How much of Hamlet’s madness is genuine and how much is feigned? What were Briar Rose’s feelings when she awoke from 100 years of sleep to a beautiful prince’s kiss? The story can influence your judgments by the details it provides, but ultimately you can push against the boundaries and decide if something is good or bad, real or fake, omniscient or limited.
5) When the story is told
Hindsight is 20-20 as they say—a storyteller may understand and interpret events differently if much time has passed between the story and its events. Alice’s story about Wonderland told right after she woke up would necessarily be different than Alice’s story told in a week, or years after, to the same person. (Coincidentally, the story would probably be different if she were telling it to different people, as well!)
Of course, if the character is telling the story at the same time he/she/it is experiencing it, we’ll have another perspective altogether. Perhaps the best example of this is the detective story. Some characters may seem guilty at first–clues seem to indicate one thing–but after the mystery is solved, everyone has been revealed in their true colors with the clues in their place, often revealing quite a different story than was at first apparent.
All of these perspectives affect how we perceive stories in books. But then music (including classical music) tells stories, too! So why shouldn’t those stories come from different perspectives? It’s always interesting thinking about classical music in particular and imagining who the storyteller might be or if there’s something the music isn’t saying…
Have you ever heard a piece of music that seems to be telling only one side of the story? Have you heard a piece of music that seems to tell a story from multiple perspectives?? I want to hear about it in the comments!!
Thanks for reading!
You might also like: The Weirdness of Time in Classical Music (And Books, Too)