Essays in English by J-P Lembeye
Deux essais litéraires (en anglais) sur la narratologie et le réalisme dans deux classiques de la littérature anglaise.
Narrative Perspectives in Pride and Prejudice
(Please see text analyzed at the end).
In this passage from Pride and Prejudice, at the end of chapter 1, volume III, Jane Austen uses different narrative perspectives to describe Elizabeth Bennet’s second great opportunity to recognise that she has failed to fully appreciate Darcy’s true personality. She became aware of her prejudices for the first time when a letter from Darcy made her realize her ill-grounded judgement ‘Til this moment, I never knew myself’ (p. 159). In this dense passage, the narrator alternates direct speech, to show, and indirect speech, to tell, as the heroine is experiencing intense emotional turmoil that is propitious for sharpening her insight into Darcy’s real character.
In this novel, third person narration is used as it allows a great deal of flexibility for telling and showing. Here, the omniscient narrator tells in the first paragraph how a mixture of embarrassment and bewilderment plunges Elizabeth into a dream-like perception of reality. Expressions such as ‘She wanted to talk, but’, ‘At last she recollected’ are used to describe the scene through the eyes of Elizabeth, who is the main focalizer in the novel. The narrator then emphasizes her slightly altered state of consciousness by using two different subjects for the same verb (a zeugma): ‘Yet time and her aunt moved slowly’.
Elizabeth is then confronted with her previous prejudices by her aunt and uncle. The narrator allows them to voice their astonishment to show how wrong she has been in expressing her subjective opinion about Darcy. This offers a different point of view than the one the reader is accustomed to from the main focalizer, so it is more interesting to hear it verbatim in direct speech. Above all, this dialogic narrative helps the reader to form a personal judgment.
For instance, at the beginning of volume III, the narrator casually illustrates Mr. Gardiner’s interpersonal skills with Mrs. Reynolds: ‘Mr. Gardiner, whose manners were very easy and pleasant, encouraged her communicativeness by his questions and remarks;’ (p. 187). Later, when the same gentleman states of Darcy that ‘he might change his mind another day, and warn me off his grounds.’ one might argue that this is a rather surprising and unrefined judgement from the mouth of a ‘sensible, gentlemanlike man, greatly superior to his sister, as well by nature as education.’ (p. 108). In a novel where a lot of characters seem to be prone to self-deception, the Gardiners stand out in the crowd. They have been characterized as highly perceptive and display a great deal of common sense. But as the statement is made in direct speech, the narrator does not feel compelled to give any clue as to how this statement should be construed. Does Mr. Gardiner sincerely think that Darcy could act in such a way as to warn him off his grounds after such a warm welcome? Or is he already suspecting something (‘there was no necessity for such attention.’) and is he trying to probe the inner thoughts of his niece one step further? Here the narrator does not tell, but clearly shows and beckons the reader to decide.
In any case, the result is that in the antepenultimate paragraph, Elizabeth needs to initiate a lengthy explanation in order to clarify the situation, and to put an end to the Gardiners’ gentle quizzing. The reader is already acquainted with all the details, so indirect speech is essential here to quickly summarize in order to keep up the pace. Elizabeth speaks ‘in as guarded a manner’ as she can. She certainly does not want to divulge that she has received a letter from Darcy, but she may also not want to repeat the same past mistake in distorting reality. Therefore, she probably tries to be as objective as possible. And in telling so, the omniscient narrator chooses the words with circumspection, aiming at a high level of reliability. We are far from the unreliable ‘moments of necessary non-disclosure’ highlighted by Pam Morris (The Realist Novel, p. 59), where free indirect discourse is disguised as authorial narrative, misleading the first time reader (e.g.: ‘Elizabeth was now to see Mr. Wickham for the last time’, p. 178). If this was a contract, the focalizer, the narrator and even the reader on a second reading, would be likely to agree on the terms of the cautious wording. This ‘dual mode of vision’ (Hernadi, 1972, p. 36) gives a certain solemnity to this crucial paragraph. In mimicking the focalizer in such a fashion, the narrator may wish to attract attention to the fact that Elizabeth is sharpening her objective perception of Darcy (a central theme in this novel). This refined insight is no longer confined to her inner thoughts or to the sphere of Jane Austen’s confidence, but is freely shown to the outside world. After having been so openly critical of Darcy, her willingness to vindicate him signals clearly the formalization of the heroine’s psychological evolution and confirms her as a round character.
The chapter ends smoothly with normal daily life taking over. Indirect discourse allows here to compress several hours into a few lines, highlighting the time Elizabeth spends in deep meditation.
In conclusion, this decisive section prepares – with a great degree of psychological realism – an event, which would have been previously considered as unlikely. A few pages after this passage, Elizabeth will realize that she is falling in love with Darcy: ‘and never had she so honestly felt that she could have loved him, as now, when all love must be vain’ (p. 210). Here Jane Austen employs dialogic narrative skilfully in order to tell and show in great detail how Elizabeth is disconcerted by Darcy’s genial behaviour and to what extent it affects her. The narrator sheds lights from different angles and solicits the reader’s attention and involvement so that the impending change in sentiment of the heroine towards her perseverant admirer will appear as credible as possible.
Austen, J., Pride and Prejudice (1813) Oxford University Press
Hernadi, P., Dual Perspective: Free Indirect Discourse and Related Techniques, Comparative Literature, Vol. 24, No. 1 (Winter, 1972), pp. 32-43,
http://www.jstor.org (Accessed 19 October 2009).
Walder, D. (ed.), The Realist Novel (1995) Open University
They now walked on in silence, each of them deep in thought. Elizabeth
was not comfortable; that was impossible; but she was flattered and
pleased. His wish of introducing his sister to her was a compliment of
the highest kind. They soon outstripped the others, and when they had
reached the carriage, Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner were half a quarter of a
He then asked her to walk into the house–but she declared herself not
tired, and they stood together on the lawn. At such a time much might
have been said, and silence was very awkward. She wanted to talk, but
there seemed to be an embargo on every subject. At last she recollected
that she had been travelling, and they talked of Matlock and Dove Dale
with great perseverance. Yet time and her aunt moved slowly–and her
patience and her ideas were nearly worn our before the tete-a-tete was
over. On Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner’s coming up they were all pressed to go
into the house and take some refreshment; but this was declined, and
they parted on each side with utmost politeness. Mr. Darcy handed the
ladies into the carriage; and when it drove off, Elizabeth saw him
walking slowly towards the house.
The observations of her uncle and aunt now began; and each of them
pronounced him to be infinitely superior to anything they had expected.
“He is perfectly well behaved, polite, and unassuming,” said her uncle.
“There _is_ something a little stately in him, to be sure,” replied her
aunt, “but it is confined to his air, and is not unbecoming. I can now
say with the housekeeper, that though some people may call him proud, I
have seen nothing of it.”
“I was never more surprised than by his behaviour to us. It was more
than civil; it was really attentive; and there was no necessity for such
attention. His acquaintance with Elizabeth was very trifling.”
“To be sure, Lizzy,” said her aunt, “he is not so handsome as Wickham;
or, rather, he has not Wickham’s countenance, for his features
are perfectly good. But how came you to tell me that he was so
Elizabeth excused herself as well as she could; said that she had liked
him better when they had met in Kent than before, and that she had never
seen him so pleasant as this morning.
“But perhaps he may be a little whimsical in his civilities,” replied
her uncle. “Your great men often are; and therefore I shall not take him
at his word, as he might change his mind another day, and warn me off
Elizabeth felt that they had entirely misunderstood his character, but
“From what we have seen of him,” continued Mrs. Gardiner, “I really
should not have thought that he could have behaved in so cruel a way by
anybody as he has done by poor Wickham. He has not an ill-natured look.
On the contrary, there is something pleasing about his mouth when he
speaks. And there is something of dignity in his countenance that would
not give one an unfavourable idea of his heart. But, to be sure, the
good lady who showed us his house did give him a most flaming character!
I could hardly help laughing aloud sometimes. But he is a liberal
master, I suppose, and _that_ in the eye of a servant comprehends every
Elizabeth here felt herself called on to say something in vindication of
his behaviour to Wickham; and therefore gave them to understand, in
as guarded a manner as she could, that by what she had heard from
his relations in Kent, his actions were capable of a very different
construction; and that his character was by no means so faulty, nor
Wickham’s so amiable, as they had been considered in Hertfordshire. In
confirmation of this, she related the particulars of all the pecuniary
transactions in which they had been connected, without actually naming
her authority, but stating it to be such as might be relied on.
Mrs. Gardiner was surprised and concerned; but as they were now
approaching the scene of her former pleasures, every idea gave way to
the charm of recollection; and she was too much engaged in pointing out
to her husband all the interesting spots in its environs to think of
anything else. Fatigued as she had been by the morning’s walk they
had no sooner dined than she set off again in quest of her former
acquaintance, and the evening was spent in the satisfactions of a
intercourse renewed after many years’ discontinuance.
The occurrences of the day were too full of interest to leave Elizabeth
much attention for any of these new friends; and she could do nothing
but think, and think with wonder, of Mr. Darcy’s civility, and, above
all, of his wishing her to be acquainted with his sister.
Psychological Realism in Dickens’ Great Expectations
In order to assess the realism of Dickens’ Great Expectations, it could be interesting to examine this work in the light of Ian Watt’s essay ‘Realism and the novel form'(The Realist Novel, pp. 207-223). Watt has identified several key points pertaining to the realism of the novel. In this essay, I intend to demonstrate that although Great Expectations abides by some, though not all, of those points, it is the emphasis put on its deep psychological realism that may account for the lasting success of this novel.
Dickens did not take his plot ‘from mythology, history, legend or previous literature’ (The Realist Novel, p. 217), an important point according to Watt in measuring the extent of a novel’s realism. However, certain aspects of the plot may not be considered as realistic examples of ‘a close correspondence between life and art’ (The Realist Novel, p. 223). ‘The problem of the correspondence between the literary work and the reality which it imitates’ (The Realist Novel, p. 215) starts at the beginning of the novel when the reader is shown the astonishing memory of the mature narrator, as he remembers his thoughts as a boy of seven ‘on a memorable raw afternoon’ (p. 3). ‘At such a time I found out for certain … that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing was the sea’. This is a very factual observation that Pip makes before he gets attacked by his convict. Pip is twenty-three in chapter XX (p. 285), and returns to Satis House eleven years after his departure for the Middle East, so as a narrator he is at least thirty-four. How could a man claim such accurate memories (twenty-seven years later), when he was a boy of seven, just before a sudden attack totally unrelated to his reflections? This raises the question of the narrator’s reliability, which seems important in terms of realism in the case of a first-person autobiographical narrative fiction.
It may be argued that too many coincidences happen as we progressively discover the interconnectedness of the various characters. Indeed, Orlick being on the point of killing Pip when the latter is rescued at the very last minute by his friends (p. 392) does not add to the level of verisimilitude of the plot. A good illustration that in this novel, the targeted level of ‘realism does not reside in the kind of life it presents, but in the way it presents it.’ (The Realist Novel, p. 215). Clearly Dickens is more concerned with the psychological characterization of the characters and a detailed description of the settings, as this will enable him to show how Pip – a realistic and not too perfect hero – reacts to various stimuli on his way to adulthood.
Regarding the names of the protagonists, Watt posits that non-particular and unrealistic names may denote particular qualities attributed to characters that are not completely individualized entities (therefore excluding any suggestion of real or contemporary life), whereas complete and realistic names suggest that characters should be regarded as particular individuals. Great Expectations contains both categories of names. Pip, the name of the main protagonist is also a seed that needs to shed its old form in order to grow. (Mr. Pumblechook, ‘that detested seedsman’ (p. 93), taking credit for Pip’s evolution as a budding gentleman, seems to confirm Dickens’ polysemic intent). A pip is also one of the dots showing the value on dice and dominos. This introduces an element of chance and suits the fact that a pip can grow, to begin with, in any direction depending to surrounding conditions (like a palindrome that can be read in either direction), but will eventually point upwards. Indeed, Pip is very lucky that a rich benefactor intervenes in his life and changes his destiny. The palindromic value is extended to the surname Pirrip, and to a lesser extent (if it were not for the letter ‘h’) to Philip. Although his Christian name and surname may sound authentic, the nickname Pip, rich in symbolism, matches the didactic intention of this bildungsroman as Philip Pirrip is in search of his identity and wants to become a gentleman.
Estella is shining and distant like an unreachable stellar body. ‘John Wemmick’ or ‘Joe Gargery’ look perfectly realistic as the names of protagonists. However, regarding the latter it seems ironic that his wife should bear both her husband’s surname and Christian name as she is only referred to as Mrs. Joe Gargery (or even Mrs. Joe), because she possesses such a domineering personality compared to her submissive husband. The sonorities of the names are also an interesting avenue to explore. ‘Havisham’ may sound realistic as a name with an ending in -ham, but it also sounds as if Miss Havisham may ‘have a shame’ problem, being left alone, without compassion and without Compeyson, on her wedding day, underlining the burden of her past. Dickens chooses playful names for some of his characters, and seems to use them beyond the scope of their nominal function in an attempt to convey an extra meaning to the reader.
In using such an unrealistic character as Miss Havisham who remains bedizened all her life in her wedding dress, keeping her bridal cake decaying and covered with cobwebs, Dickens does not necessarily forfeit his claim to realism. She is a caricature, albeit a very strong one, and this may appeal to readers who can draw a parallel to someone they know who remains, to a lesser degree, stuck in the past after an unresolved traumatic event or a bereavement. For them, she will remain a memorable character. This didactic bildungsroman points to the danger of such unhealthy excess. Her arrested development is contrasted to Pip’s wish for self-improvement.
Nevertheless, Dickens tries, in a meticulous manner, ‘to convey the impression of fidelity to human experience’ (The Realist Novel, p. 217).
He uses the language that his characters would really use. From Trabb’s boy ‘Don’t know yah’ (p. 225) and Joe’s ‘be it so or be it son’t, you must be a common scholar afore you can be a oncommon one’ (p. 65) to Jaggers’ sophisticated elocution, the spoken language of the dialogues intends to reflect reality.
When Pip is going through some important experience, Dickens allows the narrator to repeat the same expression at short intervals as if intent on breaking the speed of the reader, imposing his own rhythm in order to highlight the depth of Pip’s emotion or perception: ‘No need to take a file … no need to take the handkerchief … no need to hug himself’ (p. 288).
Dickens also succeeds in involving readers by picking up daily-life issues that they can easily relate to their own reality. ‘My sister had a trenchant way of cutting our bread and butter’ (p. 9) initiates a whole paragraph devoted to the topic, containing a wealth of details.
Some characters make their appearance in a very theatrical manner in order to capture the reader’s attention, as in the case of Jaggers. Dickens could have him knock on Joe Gargery’s door, but he prefers to stage him in a public place in such a way as to show his self-confidence, his purposefulness, while keeping a certain aura of mystery. Jaggers is shown taking his time correcting Wopsle, prior to attending to his business with Pip. At this point, the reader of the original weekly serialized novel will suspect that ‘The strange gentleman, with an air of authority not to be disputed, and with a manner expressive of knowing something secret about every one of us’ (p. 123) will have a role to play. He and his finger are not to be forgotten.
Dickens’ psychological mastery is highlighted when he links two characters like Havisham and Magwitch who are not directly connected, giving them both several features in common so that comparisons can be drawn. The effect is to deepen their psychological characterization in the eyes of the reader. Both are victims of Compeyson, both offer money to Pip several times, both are viewed as a benefactor (supposed or real), both use Pip as an object for their own purpose, Havisham to wreak revenge on the opposite sex, Magwitch to own a gentleman (his revenge on society as an outcast). Their freedom is limited, Havisham is impeded by her past, whereas Magwitch gets rid of his leg iron, both however are parented to Estella (as a foster or biological parent).
In conveying this ‘impression of fidelity’ to real life, Dickens seems to be in control of the psychological effects that his various techniques may have on his readers. Although it could be argued that the actual ‘commercial’ ending is less in tune with the psychological realism of the novel than its original ending, Dickens gets his point across by demonstrating that having been born in the lower classes does not preclude a strong-willed soul from rising above its predestined condition (despite a potential snobbish transitory period). The introspective reader of Great Expectations may benefit from the didactic value of this bildungsroman, and as a student stated: ‘We need to read Dickens’ novels because they tell us, in the grandest way possible, why we are what we are.’ (Varese).
(Word count 1532)
Dickens, C., Great Expectations (1861) Oxford University Press
Varese, J.M., ‘Why are we still reading Dickens? ‘ (Posted on 4 September 2009) The Guardian
http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2009/sep/04/why-reading-dickens (Accessed 19 November 2009)
Walder, D. (ed.), The Realist Novel (1995), Milton Keynes, The Open University