Wednesday, February 18, 2009

My friend the omniscient narrator (Books - Middlemarch by George Eliot)

The assurance of George Eliot's authorial voice, which begins every chapter of Middlemarch like a film voice over, could be thought to create an enormous distance. Nearly each chapter begins, to continue with the filmic similes, with a long shot.

An eminent philosopher among my friends, who can dignify even your ugly furniture by lifting it into the serene light of science, has shown me this pregnant little fact. Your pier-glass or extensive surface of polished steel made to be rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun.

But their accretion begins, contrary to my initial certainty that the omniscient narrator is always a cold narrator, to accumulate intimacy. Now, well into Book Three, I am smiling as each chapter begins, saying to myself 'Oh, it's my friend again!" Book Three features a particularly gripping sub-plot concerning Fred Vincy, the too-indulged son of a well-to-do but not extravagantly rich Middlemarch family. To continue on the theme of chapter openings, one could read them alone to follow the plot:
Fred Vincy, we have seen, had a debt on his mind, and though no such immaterial burthen could dpress that buoyant-hearted young gentleman for many hours together, there were circumstances connected with this debt which made the thought of it unusually importunate...

I am sorry to say that only the third day after the propitious events at Houndsley Fred Vincy had fallen into worse spirits than he had known in his life before...

Fred Vincy wanted to arrive at Stone Court when Mary could not expect him, and when his uncle was not down stairs: in that case she might be sitting alone in the wainscoated parlour...

But Fred did not go to Stone Court the next day, for reasons that were quite peremptory...

But plot is not the point. Certainly the remainder of each chapter fills in the rough outline of action provided by the first sentence, but the treats I look forward to from Eliot are the description of her characters and their inner thoughts which my dearest friend, the omniscient narrator, knows so well.

Fred knew, to bully one about expenses: there was always a little storm over his extravagance if he had to disclose a debt, and Fred disliked bad weather within doors. He was too filial to be disrespectful to his father, and he bore the thunder with the certainty that it was transient; but in the meantime it was disagreeable to see his mother cry, and also to be obliged to look sulky instead of having fun; for Fred was so good tempered that if he looked glum under scolding, it was chiefly for propriety's sake...

Point of view is everything in the vast narrative that is Middlemarch, the telling of this story is not simply happening after happening but who it happened to and why it happened to them and, most of all, what we think of that. Although I had been struggling to get through more than a chapter or two a night with all of my reading for class, last night I sailed through about fifty pages. I am beginning to catch the rhythm of this epic of small town social psychology.

2 comments:

C. B. James said...

I adore Middlemarch. I fully intend to read it once a decade as long as I live. I've done 20's, 30's and 40's so far and have only grown to appreciate it more.

It's the best novel ever.

Ted said...

I guess you could say I am reading it every other decade - once in my 20s, while travelling in Germany and once in my forties. Just so we stay in step, C. B., I'll tackle it again in my sixties.