Narration

In our second Lit Cut after the first one on metaphors, we will be studying the art of narration and the many different ways we can analyse the narrator. In the first half, we’re split hairs on what or who an omniscient narrator, limited narrator, first-person narrator, unreliable narrator all mean. Once our voices are hoarse with these literary terms, we’ll progress to analysing examples of Austen’s narrator from Pride and Prejudice.

 

The simplest way of telling a story is in the voice of the storyteller, which may be the anonymous voice of folk-tale (“once upon a time there was a beautiful princess”) or the voice of the epic bard or the confiding, companionable, sententious authorial voice of classic fiction from Henry Fielding to George Eliot.

David Lodge, The Art of Fiction

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Analysing the Narrator

The narrator is the single most identifiable feature of any novel or prose piece, guiding the reader through action, dialogue, thoughts and exposition. Taking on the gender of the writer by convention (e.g. Austen’s narrator is female), he or she directs the reader’s attention, caters knowledge, omits information, devises suspense, triggers surprise, and maintains the ‘illusion of life’ within the narrative world.

Narration may not seem ever-present, but it is. Where there isn’t direct discourse (i.e. character dialogue within quotation marks), there is indirect discourse (i.e. narration), even where we read about a character’s manner of speech (e.g. “she screamed”, “he shouted”) or enter a character’s thoughts. Given the pre-dominance of the narrator, we will have to equip ourselves with an analytic vocabulary.

In a prose excerpt, short story, novella or novel, a “narrative voice” can be characterised in several ways at once:

  • Point of view: most narrative texts take on a third-person narrator, while a significant minority of novels are narrated in the first-person (‘I’) by their protagonist (e.g. Jane Eyre). Modern novels may sink the reader into one or more characters’ consciousness, forming a “polyphonic medley of styles, or voices”; we can realistically expect different points of view to come with their own peculiar tone and diction.
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  • Access: most third-person narrators, such as Austen’s narrator in Pride and Prejudice, are omniscient narrators who are all-knowing and can access any element in the world of the text at will. In other words, they can “dive into private thoughts, narrate secret or hidden events, jump between spaces and times” (Felluga). Be that as it may, narration is always already selective, so the reader only ever learns what the writer/narrator desires the reader to learn. Otherwise, there never would be any suspense or mystery!
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    The first-person narrator on the other hand typically holds limited knowledge and access to the world, and the reader instinctively empathises with the narrator-protagonist. A third-person limited narrator has greater freedom and access than a first-person narrator, but possesses only some knowledge (often of one character) to maintain the reader’s uncertainty or curiosity. The Harry Potter series uses this device to create a sense of discovery.
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  • Reliability: narrators are rarely “one hundred per cent unreliable”. Even as the reader enters a fictional universe, he or she has to invest some trust in the narration to reap the joys and sorrows of the “story” and characters.
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    The unreliable narrator is used to “reveal in an interesting way the gap between appearance and reality, and to show how human beings distort or conceal the latter” (Lodge). The unreliable narrator may deceive himself like Stevens in Remains of the Day, or simply be naive / ignorant of his own situation; in either mode, the reader is inclined to sympathise. More often than not, unreliable narrators are used in popular fiction to create “plot twists”, misleading the readers with false or subjective information and revealing a more objective, unexpected truth. Notable examples of unreliable narrators in films and novels include The Great Gatsby, Fight Club, Memento and The Catcher in the Rye. Urgh, okay, we’ll add Gone Girl into the list as well.
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    According to Lodge, the unreliable omniscient narrator is “almost a contradiction in terms and could only occur in a very deviant, experimental text”. That is to say, unreliable narration arises more naturally from a first-person, limited point of view.
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  • Objectivity: the omniscient objective narrator, as you would expect, relates the story from a rather distant point of view. Most if not all Ernest Hemingway novels embody this mode of narration.
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    On top of “reporting” the events and action of the novel, the omniscient “intrusive narrator” offers his or her own subjective commentary / opinions on the action or characters. It is typical for the intrusive narrator to directly address the reader (thereby breaking the illusion of a “fourth wall”) and to reinforce a code of behaviour or set of social or moral norms. Austen’s narrator is mostly objective, and “appears” on occasion to balance the various perspectives within Pride and Prejudice, as we will now analyse.

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The Omniscient Narrator

The omniscient narrator is everywhere in Pride and Prejudice almost by default, rendering the action, information about characters, well as the thoughts of society, those of individual characters and her own quite seamlessly. Observe our introduction to Mr Darcy in Chapter 3 (pg 12):

…but his friend Mr. Darcy soon drew the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien, and the report which was in general circulation within five minutes after his entrance, of his having ten thousand a year. The gentlemen pronounced him to be a fine figure of a man, the ladies declared he was much handsomer than Mr. Bingley, and he was looked at with great admiration for about half the evening, till his manners gave a disgust which turned the tide of his popularity; for he was discovered to be proud; to be above his company, and above being pleased; and not all his large estate in Derbyshire could then save him from having a most forbidding, disagreeable countenance, and being unworthy to be compared with his friend.

As we should expect, the omniscient narrator is in the command of the entire scene, describing Darcy’s appearance, how it attracts the eyes within “room”, and the topic of discussion within it (“his having ten thousand a year”). The narrator serves to broadly report the gentlemen, ladies and general audience’s varied observations of Darcy in that order, later entering their thoughts – “for he was discovered to be his proud” – and amplifying their revised opinion of his appearance as “most forbidding, disagreeable” and “unworthy”.

This assessment of the omniscient narrator is vital insofar as we are always aware of whose speech and thoughts are being painted for us and by whom these are painted, never confusing se the gentlemen’s initial subjective evaluation of Darcy as a “fine figure of a man” for an objective truth. In our analysis of Austen’s narration, we re-employ the same two questions we can apply to any poetic or prose text:

  • Who is speaking, exactly?
    – The narrator, on behalf of the “ladies and gentlemen” at the assembly
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  • In what tone, supported by which words?
    – Fulsome with praise at first (“fine figure”, “much handsomer”, great admiration”)
    – Subsequently scathing (“disgust”, “forbidding, disagreeable, unworthy”) in a superlative manner (“most”, “not all… could then save him”)

Moving forward, you should be answering the questions when you encounter any passage-based question on Pride and Prejudice or indeed, any unseen prose in Paper 3. As plain and predictable as this exercise seems, you’re better off referring to point of view, tone and diction than simply, well, re-narrating what is already narrated to you.

 

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The Intrusive Narrator

Austen is perhaps made more interesting if we encounter the rare appearance of the intrusive narrator – that anonymous voice, whom we should not conflate with the author herself, who tells us her own opinions on the characters to shape the reader’s own opinion. In the following excerpt, we can see how the intrusive narrator is used to deliberately mislead the reader into seeing Darcy a certain way:

What a contrast between him and his friend! Mr. Darcy danced only once with Mrs. Hurst and once with Miss Bingley, declined being introduced to any other lady, and spent the rest of the evening in walking about the room, speaking occasionally to one of his own party. His character was decided. He was the proudest, most disagreeable man in the world, and everybody hoped that he would never come there again. Amongst the most violent against him was Mrs. Bennet, whose dislike of his general behaviour was sharpened into particular resentment by his having slighted one of her daughters (Ch 3).

After describing Darcy’s further participation (or non-participation, if you will) at the assembly, the narrator speaks with certainty, for “his character was decided“, to add to the collective revulsion of the crowd. The superlative (“proudest”, “most disagreeable”) is now used by the narrator herself to the same effect, to be intensified by reiterating “everybody’s” hope that he never returns and Mrs. Bennet’s “resentment” (P.S. the reference to the foolish Mrs. Bennet here clues us in that Darcy is quite misrepresented and misunderstood).

To some extent, we are unable to fully verify that the narrator is “intruding”, since her thoughts mirror those of general society. What we can do is make a reasonable estimation – the two sentences (“His character…”, “He was…”) are presented to us without being contextualised as other characters’ thoughts. The opening line in the excerpt shows us the narrator’s own exclamation – she herself remarks on the contrast between Darcy and the agreeable, likeable Bingley.

Perhaps more crucial to our cause is why the narrator intrudes when the reader can simply depend on the word of characters within the novel. Julia Prewitt Brown opines that narrative intrusion “establishes a stability in a world of fluctuating opinions and exaggerations” in Pride and Prejudice, precisely because it is “infrequent” and “highly concentrated” (in this case, the vitriol is quite intense!). Early in Chapter 3, the reader is still piecing together the characters and the society within the text; the entrance of the narrator’s “reliable” opinions draw the reader to conclude that Darcy can only be “the proudest, most disagreeable man” one has ever met. 

This impression however belies the true purpose of the intrusive narrator, who prescribes the reader a deliberately prejudiced view of Darcy early in the text. This achieves two narrative objectives: (i) first, the reader’s understanding can be transformed the way Elizabeth’s attitude towards Darcy changes, so the reader “grows” as Elizabeth does; (ii) this shared re-evaluation of Darcy and Darcy’s “pride”, reminds us to, as cliche as it sounds, the potential falseness of appearances. The novel presents to us the shedding of pride and prejudice, so the narrator is pivotal to illustrating both themes.

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Free Indirect Discourse

Rather more complicated than the intrusive narrator (and equally infrequent) is the use of free indirect discourse. By Ann van Sant‘s definition, free indirect discourse is a style of third-person narration that slips into reporting the thoughts, feelings or speech of characters without the use of quotation marks. At times, it is difficult to separate the narrator’s “voice” from the “voice” of the character.’ This device allows the writer to maintain a third-person, social point of view while moving into the interior life – the psychological reality – of her characters.

Free indirect discourse is labelled as such because it lies in between direct discourse (the unfiltered speech or thoughts of characters within quotation marks) and indirect discourse (basically the narrator speaking). In the following quotation, we come close to hearing Elizabeth’s stream-of-consciousness within the mode of the third-person omniscient narrator:

With a strong prejudice against everything he might say, she began his account of what had happened at Netherfield. She read with an eagerness which hardly left her power of comprehension, and from impatience of knowing what the next sentence might bring, was incapable of attending to the sense of the one before her eyes. His belief of her sister’s insensibility she instantly resolved to be false; and his account of the real, the worst objections to the match, made her too angry to have any wish of doing him justice. He expressed no regret for what he had done which satisfied her; his style was not penitent, but haughty. It was all pride and insolence (Ch 36).

The quotation begins clearly enough with a reference to Elizabeth’s “strong prejudice” towards Darcy as she opens and reads his letter; the third-person allusion to “she” confirms that the narrator is “speaking” throughout.

A spate of emotions — “eagerness”, “impatience”, “too angry” — follow, each riding in tandem with an idea about Darcy. What is interesting, and worth analysing, is the syntax. The clauses get shorter and shorter, as if mirroring Elizabeth’s emotions, ending on an emphatic “It was all pride and insolence”. That Darcy “expressed no regret…” and was “not penitent, but haughty” would appear more likely to be Elizabeth’s ideas rather than the narrator’s. Even as the narration remains distinctly third-person, the actual perspective is less certainly that of the third-person narrator. So coloured by prejudice and anger, the words and sentence structures would seem to belong to… Elizabeth.

Free indirect discourse may be rarely used in Pride and Prejudice but where it is used, we are able to dive into and uncover Elizabeth’s emotional landscape. Analysing the above quotation as free indirect discourse is important: we see the “style” of Elizabeth’s thoughts, discern how her prejudices towards Darcy unfurl and experience the same shock when we learn about the “extravagance and general profligacy” that Wickham is guilty of.

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