In narrative theory,

A third person omniscient narrator conveys information from multiple characters, places, and events of the story, including any given characters' thoughts, and a third person limited narrator conveys the knowledge and subjective experience of just one character.

I have been trying to find out who coined the term and in which publication but I have had no success so far. My first searches on Google Books and Google Scholar provided no answers, or at least none in publications that I can access online.

However, after discovering that Wayne C. Booth coined the term unreliable narrator in The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961), I found that Booth also mentions the term "omniscient narrator" in the same publication. Footnote 4 in the chapter "Telling as Showing" says,

"In novels we identify with the omniscient narrator" (Goodman, Structure of Literature [Chicago, 1954], p. 153. (…)

Unfortunately, a search using the terms "omniscient narrator" goodman "structure of literature" provides no results from Paul Goodman's book, which is out of print, so this turned out to be a dead end.

E. M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel, published in 1927, looked like another candidate. In a Google Books preview I find the following quote:

The novelist, he [Percy Lubbock, author of The Craft of Fiction] says, can either describe the characters from the outside, as an impartial or partial onlooker; or he can assume omniscience and describe them from within; (…).

Percy Lubbock published The Craft of Fiction in 1921. The book contains the following statement in a discussion of a Thackeray's Vanity Fair (page 115):

Who is disposing the scattered facts, whose is this new point of view? It is the omniscient author, and the point of view is his—such would be the common answer, and it is the answer we get in Vanity Fair. By convention the author is allowed his universal knowledge of the story and the people in it.

Is this then the origin of the term or can older instances be found elsewhere?


Here’s a selection of citations prior to Lubbock (1921):

In the epic or the novel, one omniscient narrator tells the story of his characters, and talks about their inward thoughts; the dramatist, on the other hand, develops his meaning by the action and emotion of a group of characters who influence each other, working out the story of their passions, as in real life, without the apparent intervention of the author.

Juliet Pollock (1874). ‘Art in its Dramatic Aspects’. The Critical Review (February 1874), p. 372.

The point of view as a narrative device: […] (7) Of the omniscient author limiting himself to a special phase of a situation.

Herbert Vaughan Abbott (1904). ‘Syllabus of a Collegiate Course in English Composition’. In Teachers College Record 4 (September 1904), p. 63.

With the services of an omnipresent and omniscient narrator the epic writer may, as in Paradise Lost or in the Aeneid by a skilful use of metaphor and allusion, present a striking picture to the reader’s imagination of what could not be presented in any way upon the stage.

Marianna Woodhull (1907). The Epic of Paradise Lost: Twelve Essays, p. 34. London: G. P. Putnam.

Most of [Dostoievsky’s The Double] is a brilliantly ordered account of disorder, of hallucination seen from within. But the real world is there in an apparently omniscient narrator who deals, for example, with the schizophrenic state by distinguishing between Golyadkin Senior and Golyadkin Junior.

W. J. Harvey (1916). Character and the Novel, p. 75. London: Chatto & Windus.

In the epic we have the omnipresent, omniscient narrator, who can see not only through walls and doors, but through minds and hearts and motives, even those of deity and fate; he is present at and beholds every action and has entry to every public council and knows every secret thought of Olympus.

William Stuart Messer (1918). The Dream in Homer and Greek Tragedy, p. 56. Columbia University Press.

The 1904 syllabus entry suggests that it was already a standard term in collegiate English courses at that time.

  • 1
    while these uses are interesting, I don't think the phrase is meant in them exactly as it is in "narrative theory". we can be reliably informed of any action that takes place and not think the narrator is literally "omniscient"
    – a_person
    Dec 8 '21 at 4:52

After some more searching, I found the following comment in Jonathan A. Kruschwitz's Interludes and Irony in the Ancestral Narrative (Wipf & Stock, 2020):

Jean Louis Ska traces the use of the term “omniscient” back to Percy Lubbock's The Craft of Fiction (first published in 1921). There Lubbock suggests that the “omniscient author” should remain impersonal and unobtrusive, as this mode of narration retains the effect of objectivity and reliability.

A footnote tells us that Jean Louis Ska is the author of “Lour Fathers Have Told Us”: Introduction to the Analysis of Hebrew Narratives (Pontificio Istituto Biblico, 1990). Google Books also allows me to access the relevant passage in Ska's book:

Note. The term “omniscient” stems from P. Lubbock, The Craft of Fiction (London 1921) 115, 120, 197-198-255 (“omniscient author”). But one can find examples of an omniscient narrator in novels like Vanity Fair (W. M. Thackeray) published in London in 1847-1848. (…)
Today the notion of “omniscient narrator” is under discussion (cf. for instance Genette, Nouveau discours, 49; he prefers the term “complete information”). One reason is that omniscience can vary from one story to another. (…)

So Ska finds that the term “omniscient” with reference to narrators was introduced in Percy Lubbok's book The Craft of Fiction in 1921. Percy Lubbock has been largely forgotten, but The Craft of Fiction was very influential in the 1920s.

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