The a narrator separate from the story

The Victorian novel is one of observation; it recites the remembered acts of small, unfamous individuals. Because of its observatory nature, it assumes the necessity of a third-party judge to tell the story. Having a narrator separate from the story itself establishes a power dynamic, similar to Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon in Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. The panopticon allows a warden to see his prisoners from a single tower, also visible to all of the prisoners, but they never know when the warden is observing them (Foucault 5). According to Foucault, the permanent visibility establishes inescapable authority (Foucault 6). The third-person omniscient narrator might be the most appropriate scheme for a Victorian novel because of its panoptic separation from the characters that grants it objectivity and reliability in observation. Though not all Victorian novels adhere to a completely third-person omniscient scheme, the complex structures of Emma and The Woman in White make us question narrative authority and reliability. Jane Austen is successful in establishing an omniscient narrative voice in Emma to guide the plot panoptically, yet fails in clearly differentiating Emma’s conscience versus the narrator’s, which can affect readers’ ability to pick up on social commentary. On the other hand, The Woman in White’s epistolary structure makes it difficult for the reader to identify reliable narrators, but Collins succeeds at stylistically differentiating his narrators, unlike Austen.Primarily, even though Emma’s third-person omniscient narrator clearly dictates the plot, Austen’s use of free indirect discourse can cause the unaware reader to miss out on important themes of the novel. The third-person narrative structure allows the reader to see what Emma cannot, advancing the theme of the power of imagination preventing Emma from seeing what is right in front of her.  In the scene where Emma draws Harriet for Mr. Elton, the narrator indicates that Mr. Elton is more focused on Emma than Harriet, unbeknownst to Emma: “But there was no doing any thing, with Mr. Elton fidgeting behind Emma and watching every touch.”(Austen 45). Because of Emma’s preoccupation with matching Harriet and Mr. Elton, the omniscient narrative tells the reader that Emma’s imagination clouds her ability to pick up on social cues. At the same time, Austen presents a lot of the story through Emma’s psyche, which sometimes makes it challenging to distinguish her values from the narrator’s. An example of Austen’s free indirect discourse is when Emma meets Harriet Smith for the first time, and the narration goes from describing Emma’s initial impression to venturing into Emma’s conscience: “…Harriet must have good sense, and deserve encouragement. Those soft blue eyes, and all those natural graces, should not be wasted on the inferior society of Highbury and its connexions.” (Austen 24). The scrutinizing reader can tell this is Emma’s conscience because the narrator’s description of Harriet reflects Emma’s superficiality and social IQ. Thus, Austen’s combination of free indirect discourse with an omniscient narrator makes the novel difficult to understand for the unaware reader, and can cause readers to miss the arguments that she makes about Victorian people and society.However, Emma’s third-person narrative voice is successful because of Austen’s use of irony to implore the reader to look at the language more closely. As a result, Austen’s social commentary becomes more discernible. One could argue that Austen named Emma after her protagonist because even though the narrator and Emma’s thoughts overlap numerous times, they are two completely different entities. In other words, the complex narrative structure intends to confuse readers and direct their focus to the specific language. At the end of the novel when Mrs. Elton criticizes Emma’s wedding, the narrator responds in the final sentence: “But, in spite of these deficiencies, the wishes, the hopes, the confidence, the predictions of the small band of true friends who witnessed the ceremony, were fully answered in the perfect happiness of the union.” (Austen 453). The irony behind the word, “deficiencies,” is that the, “very few white satin, very few lace veils,” were not truly deficiencies, and Austen is actually satirizing Victorian materialism. The densely-ironic language paired with omniscient looks into the lives of Highbury’s elite shows Austen’s dissension from conformity as she satirizes high society’s values. Similarly, the first sentence of Chapter 22 reads, “Human nature is so well disposed towards those who are in interesting situations, that a young person, who either marries or dies, is sure of being kindly spoken of.” (Austen 170). If not read closely enough, the reader could take this sentence literally and completely miss the humorous aspect of the phrase. The irony behind the words, “kindly spoken of,” satirizes how much Victorian people love to gossip, and how those words are typically not kind. Irony allows Austen to freely express her criticisms of Victorian society in a subtle manner. Though Austen adheres to a conventional third-person omniscient structure in Emma, her use of free indirect discourse and irony adds artistic merit to the novel and pushes the reader to think about the idiosyncrasies of language in order to fully understand the novel as a social satire. By contrast, The Woman in White’s epistolary structure fails to establish a central reliable narrator, making it difficult for the reader to identify which of the several contributors are credible. By nature, the epistolary novel reveals plot information piece by piece, leaving it unto the reader to make judgments based on testimonies. Referring back to panopticism, the narrators are the prisoners in The Woman in White, and the reader is the warden, watching each character and judging them. In this position of judgment, the reader can decide who is a reliable narrator and who is not, starting with Walter Hartright. The introduction to Walter’s narrative tells the reader that the story mainly centers around his perspective until, “his experience fails,” (Collins 9) and passes the narrative to someone else. This disclaimer indicates that though the novel is a conglomerate of testimonies, Walter assumes narrative authority. However, we cannot immediately assume that Walter is a reliable narrator because he knows his account will be read by many, and can add or withhold information accordingly (Collins 9). Marian Halcombe’s narrative, on the other hand, comes from diary entries. Initially, one might think that diaries are private domain, and that Marian is a more reliable narrator because as she records her day-to-day life, she can freely express her feelings because she is under the impression that her diary is private. She writes with immense emotion, uncharacteristic of Walter and Mr. Gilmore’s preceding narratives: I miss something when I look at her — something that once belonged to the happy, innocent life of Laura Fairlie, and that I cannot find in Lady Glyde. There was, in old times, a freshness, a softness, and ever-varying and yet ever-remaining tenderness of beauty in her face, the charm of which it is not possible to express in words — or, as poor Hartright used to often say, in painting, either. That is gone. (Collins 211) The poignance of Marian’s words as she laments the loss of her sister’s identity to marriage indicates that Marian feels a sense of mental comfort and security in her diary. As such, the reader might infer that Marian is the most reliable narrator because of her vulnerability and honesty. Yet it seems incongruous that Walter would use personal diary entries for legal purposes until Count Fosco violates Marian’s privacy when she falls ill and he reads her diary (Collins 336). Fosco’s mockery of Marian’s account as  “unexpected intellectual pleasure” discredits her as a narrator (Collins 336), and the reader can infer from this violation that perhaps Marian’s account was not as private as we thought it was. Ultimately, the oversight of personal accounts by Walter and Fosco inhibits narrative reliability. Nevertheless, Collins may be praised for his stylistic differentiation of each of his narrators, as it gives each character a unique voice and provides insight into each character’s relation to the plot. The novel depicts Marian, for example, as having a very manly physique and heavily alludes to her as a lesbian (Collins 34-35). Yet the passionate and eloquent language in her narratives, as mentioned earlier, ascribes her to a femininity that the reader does not get from third-person accounts of her character. Marian’s elegance in prose starkly contrasts with Mr. Gilmore’s narrative, which is quite bland by comparison. Collins does an excellent job at using narrative structure to characterize Mr. Gilmore as a professional yet banal lawyer: I wrote by that day’s post and put the case before Mr. Fairlie exactly as it stood; not only urging every argument I could think of to induce him to maintain the clause as I had drawn it, but stating to him plainly the mercenary motive which was at the bottom of the opposition to my settlement of the twenty thousand pounds. (Collins 151). Mr. Gilmore writes in plain English with very little personal details or opinions about the marriage settlement. Collins’ boring yet erudite characterization of Mr. Gilmore conveys that the lawyer is a grounding force in the novel as a legal document, but that he does not possess the emotional proximity to the plot that Marian and Walter have. Finally, Collins characterizes Walter as very observant and detail-oriented as the main narrator. When Walter first meets Anne Catherick on the road to London, his reaction accounts for every detail about the mysterious woman dressed in head-to-toe white in his narrative (Collins 24). Though such descriptive language does not seem out of the ordinary in the beginning of the novel, Collins’ decision to give Walter such a keen eye in his narrative reveals itself as intentional as the novel progresses. Over the course of the novel, the reader gradually comes to understand that the plot focuses on the identities of Laura Fairlie and Anne Catherick, and the crimes of Sir Percival and Count Fosco; Walter has little relevance to the plot itself, but he simply observes everything as it unfolds. By differentiating the ways in which each character narrates the plot, Collins compensates for the lack of a universal narrator by using style to distance each character from the plot appropriately. Ultimately, the narrative structures of Emma and The Woman in White are complex in their own ways, and in stretching the bounds of literary conformity, Collins and Austen demonstrate how critical narrative structure is in understanding a novel’s plot and themes. Austen’s combination of third-person omniscience and free indirect discourse allows her to subtly satirize Victorian society, and Collins’ epistolary structure makes the plot slightly more challenging to follow but lends him creative license for character development. In comparing these two novels’ narrative structures, generalizing the narrative voice of a Victorian novel is no easy task. Nonetheless, the Victorian novel uses narrative structure as a vehicle to caution readers to take the plot with a grain of salt, and implore them to question narrators and make appropriate judgments.


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