"Point of view" is an element of fiction that, it seems to me, is often invoked but seldom really appreciated. In our haste to get to the "story," or to ascertain what the work in question has "to say," we acknowledge that the narrative is presented in "third-person" or "first-person," but don't appropriately consider how both of these modes of presentation--as well as their many subtle if less recognized variations--affect the terms of our encounter with both the story told and what is said. This goes well beyond the usual distinctions made between "reliable" and "unreliable" narrators (although this distinction remains important), "omniscience" and "central consciousness," or stories told by the main character and those told by a secondary observer. My reading experiences convince me that point of view is not simply a flourish added to the underlying "content" of fiction, nor a way of establishing "voice," not just a way of providing stability while the story unfolds, but fundamentally conditions our perception of all of the other "elements" of fiction we otherwise might think take precedence: plot, character, setting, etc.
The centrality of point of view in determining the nature of the fictional "world" we are entering in a particular work of fiction became only more obvious to me while reading Jeffrey Eugenides's The Virgin Suicides, a novel I had not previously read because I had assumed, mistakenly I must now say, it was written primarily to become a movie, as is the case with so much current "literary fiction." I both admired and enjoyed the novel, and mostly for the same reason. I admired the way in which Eugenides was able to maintain his experiment in first-person plural narration--"we" rather than "I" as the origin of the narrator's voice--and I enjoyed the collective invocation of the Lisbon sisters and the story of their early deaths that the narrative embodies. Much of what I enjoyed in the novel--the detached view of the sisters, the baffled way in which the stand-in narrator attempts to comprehend both the sisters' behavior and the love-trance induced in him and his confederates by their charms, the ultimate mystery of the sisters' decision to do themselves in--have been singled out by some reviewers and commentators as flaws, however, and it does seem to me that this results from an unwillingness to allow the novel's adopted point of view to create the sort of effects it is most naturally inclined to produce.
It is true that we don't ever really get very close to the Lisbon sisters, so that as characters, indeed, as the ostensible protagonists of the story, they don't quite come into focus as much as we might like. They remain wispy, uncertain figures in a novel that inevitably leads us to seek more definition, more certainty. We are just as bewildered by the Lisbon sisters, and just as unclear about what might be going on in that house across the street--the perspective we are forced to assume--as the narrator, but this is not a problem with "characterization." Since there is no satisfactory answer to the question "Why?"--not even the narrator's assiduous efforts to compile "evidence" and interview the Lisbon parents can provide such an answer--or since Eugenides wants to suggest that getting to "know" the Lisbon sisters by taking us inside their heads will leave us no more enlightened, their role as characters in this novel is necessarily limited to the external observations given. To complain about this is to deny the novel its enabling source of expression in the inquiring "we".
It is tempting to say that the narrator(s) become the main characters, but this isn't quite right either. Only occasionally does one of the boys emerge from behind the verbal curtain to assume an active role vis-a-vis one of the sisters--most notably "Trip Fontane," who attempts to court Lux Lisbon--and the narrator's role ultimately is really to testify to the enduring spell cast by the sisters, to give us access to them through a concerted act of memory from which they have never departed:
Our own knowledge of Cecilia kept growing after her death, too, with the same unnatural persistence. Though she had spoken only rarely and had had no real friends, everybody possessed his own vivid memories of Cecilia. Some of us had held her for five minutes as a baby while Mrs. Lisbon ran back into the house to get her purse. Some of us had played in the sandbox with her, fighting over a shovel, or had exposed ourselves to her behind the mulberry tree that grew like deformed flesh through the chain link fence. We had stood in line with her for smallpox vaccinations, had held polio sugar cubes under out tongues with her, had taught her to jump rope, to light snakes, had stopped her from picking her scabs on numerous occasions, and had cautioned her against touching her mouth to the drinking fountain at Three Mile Park. A few of us had fallen in love with her, but had kept it to ourselves, knowing that she was the weird sister.
The Virgin Suicides could thus be called a novel without conventional characters (the closest to a rounded, "sympathetic" character might be Mr. Lisbon, who almost becomes compelling in his cluelessness) and, since the sisters' fate is more or less known from the beginning, not much plot aside from the filling-in of details. If plot and character are what you must have, these no doubt must seem to be irremediable deficiencies, but the narrative method Eugenides employs invites us to cultivate a different relationship with the characters, one that emphasizes wonder over intimacy, and assume a more relaxed attitude toward plot, one that allows for meditation on what happened, not just a serial record of what did happen. The point of view in The Virgin Suicides works to shape a particular kind of fictional space, one that accentuates distance and concealment. Narrating it from some other perspective would have produced a wholly different, in my opinion much more ordinary novel.
Many readers and critics approach The Virgin Suicides for its thematic implications, its depiction of stifling suburbia, a morally unhinged middle class, the decline of the industrial Midwest, etc., but I think even these concerns gain the prominence they do because of the way the narrative is related to us. The near-mythic quality the story takes on, its rendition of decline-and-fall, the implication of the whole community in the unfolding of its collective trauma provide the tale of the Lisbon suicides a heightened drama that substitutes for the lesser drama of mere plot and gives the tale a kind of allegorical resonance. A less well-calibrated narrative strategy would not have accomplished the same effect.