The Literature Book (Big Ideas Simply Explained) (2016)

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IN CONTEXT

FOCUS

The omniscient narrator

BEFORE

1749 Henry Fielding’s omniscient narrator in Tom Jones exposes the process of constructing a narrative.

1862 The omniscient voice in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables comments on politics, society, and the characters in the text.

1869 War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy includes an omniscient voice to enable “philosophical discussion”.

AFTER

1925 The omniscient narrator in Mrs Dalloway lets Virginia Woolf create characters with great “inner space” and depth.

2001 Third-person omniscient narration by Jonathan Franzen, in The Corrections, suggests that cultural commentary and authority is a revived function of literary fiction.

The omniscient (all-knowing) narrator writes from a perspective outside the story but knows everything about the characters and events in the story. This authorial voice was widely used by 19th-century novelists in the context of social realism. Many of the best-known writers of the period – Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, and Leo Tolstoy, for example – often wrote in the third-person omniscient, and the narrative device was ideal for George Eliot in Middlemarch, as it helped her to draw her readers into “watching keenly the stealthy convergence of human lots”.

Through the intertwining storylines of a large cast of characters – who live in the provincial English town of the title – Middlemarch explores tensions between marriage and vocation. In particular, it focuses on the dreams of two idealistic individuals, the intelligent and philanthropic heiress Dorothea Brooke, and the talented but naive doctor Tertius Lydgate.

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A world of hard choices

Eliot steers clear of conformist happy endings – a fantasy that she considered the territory of “silly” lady novelists. Her ambition was to create a portrait of the complexity of ordinary human life: minor flaws and failings, small tragedies, quiet triumphs, and moments of dignity. It is the omniscient voice that regularly turns our focus back to this ambition.

Eliot admired the German writer Johann Wolfgang van Goethe, and also shared his philosophy that the efforts of each single individual are essential to the overall progress of humankind. In Middlemarch she refines and fictionalizes this tenet, proposing that women play a unique and significant role in the trajectory of progress and change. In particular, Eliot (as omniscient narrator) poses the question of how to do this as a woman in the real and changing world.

An invitation to think

There are many discussions about the role of women, between the novel’s characters, as well as in the authorial asides. Male characters describe a range of qualities that are expected of women, from Dorothea’s husband Mr Casaubon’s ideal of “self-sacrificing affection” to Lydgate’s daydream of beautiful companionship, “reclining in a paradise with sweet laughs for bird-notes”. Yet there is a reluctance to promote a single, conclusive opinion regarding women’s lot in society. Instead, the authorial voice invites us to reach our own conclusions by posing questions such as, “Was [Dorothea’s] point of view the only possible one with regard to this marriage?”

Although Eliot has been accused by critics of authorial bullying – Henry James read the novel as “too clever by half” – she succeeds in sustaining a discursive tone, particularly in interjections by the omniscient narrator.

George Eliot remains faithful to her own conviction that we must concern ourselves with real-life issues by inviting readers to perceive their own interconnected web of complex and often opposing tendencies in all people, whether those people are fictional or real.

"What do we live for, if not to make life less difficult to each other?"


Middlemarch

GEORGE ELIOT

George Eliot was born Mary Ann Evans in 1819 in Warwickshire, England. Unusually for a girl, she was educated at private schools until the age of 16; after her mother died in 1836, she became housekeeper for her father. After his death, in 1849, Eliot travelled to Geneva, then London, where she settled and in 1851 became editor of John Bray’s journal, The Westminster Review.

She formed a number of unreciprocated attachments, including to philosopher Herbert Spencer, but found true love with fellow intellectual George Henry Lewes, who was separated but could not divorce. In 1854, they chose to live together openly, and Evans began writing her novels, using a male pseudonym to lend authority to her work. Her writing ended after Lewes died in 1878. In 1880 she married John Walter Cross, but died just seven months later.

Other key works

1859 Adam Bede

1860 The Mill on the Floss

1861 Silas Marner

1876 Daniel Deronda

See also: Pride and Prejudice • The Three Musketeers • Vanity Fair • Les Misérables • Crime and Punishment • War and Peace • Tess of the D’Urbervilles