Another great discussion last Friday! We’re ready to embark on our first novel, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. For next class (September 28), please read the first half of the novel. In the recommended Penguin edition, that means up to page 101, up to the lines where Woolf writes, “But Rezia Warren Smith cried, walking down Harley Street, that she did not like that man.” (If you’re reading a different edition, the page number may be quite different.)
What follows is an expansion on our (too brief) discussion of different narrational styles, particularly the kind of narration we saw in Mansfield’s “The Garden Party” (figural or focalized third-person narration, also called reported monologue). Knowing all these terms is not essential, but they really do help give you more insight and and critical insight into what authors are doing.
- Objective (or dramatic) third-person narration (as in Hemingway’s story). In this form of narration the narrator is a bit like a movie camera: it (he? she?) can report things that are visible and audible, but not read minds or emotions. This kind of narrator withholds comment, makes no (or few) subjective or moral statements.
- Omniscient third-person narration (as in the Book of Job and George Eliot’s Middlemarch). This kind of narrator can read minds, but what makes a narrator omniscient is his or her authority and knowledge to make moral judgments, report the future and play the rule of detached, wiser arbiter in conflicts between characters. This kind of narration is generally associated with the 19th century, though this is definitely an oversimplification.
- Figural (or focalized) third-person narration (as in Mansfield’s story) is not fully distinct from omniscience; there’s spectrum from omniscience all the way to fully focalized narration (where the narrator reports only what one character thinks and feels). Figural narration is also called reported monologue because it’s as if the narrator was reporting or translating the focal character’s inner thoughts. In this kind of narration, there can be an ironic gap between what the narrator and what the focal character knows or believes; this is called “double vision.” A good example of double vision is a passage from George Eliot’s 1861 novel Silas Marner. In this passage, a drug-addicted single mother collapses on a winter’s night on the roadside, with her baby in arms:
complete torpor came [over the mother] at last: the fingers lost their tension, the arms unbent; then the little head fell [of the child] away from the bosom, and the blue eyes opened wide on the cold starlight. At first there was a little peevish cry of “mammy”, and an effort to regain the pillowing arm and bosom; but mammy’s ear was deaf, and the pillow seemed to be slipping away backward. Suddenly, as the child rolled downward on its mother’s knees, all wet with snow, its eyes were caught by a bright glancing light on the white ground, and, with the ready transition of infancy, it was immediately absorbed in watching the bright living thing running towards it, yet never arriving. That bright living thing must be caught; and in an instant the child had slipped on all-fours, and held out one little hand to catch the gleam. (Eliot 91)
This is a clear example of “double vision” because it is so easy to see that the perspective we are getting is that of the baby, but that the language used to report that perspective is definitely not the language of a baby! The narrator is wiser, smarter and more articulate; and her description of the light (actually a light in a nearby cottage) as a “bright living thing [that] must be caught” is evidently ironic: the narrator knows, and the reader knows, that the light is not really a living, moving thing; but the baby thinks it is.
I want to point out one more feature of the passage above. Although I said the language is that of the narrator and not that of the child, there is one exception:
there was a little peevish cry of “mammy”, and an effort to regain the pillowing arm and bosom; but mammy’s ear was deaf…
The first “mammy” is a quotation–that’s the baby actually saying the word. But the second one (not in quotation marks) is the narrator adopting the language of the baby in her own narration. The narrator could be doing this for a number of reasons, including an ironic or mocking mimicry of the child (but this is unlikely given the narrator’s sympathy in this case) or an attempt to communicate the immediacy and emotion of the moment. Another way to think of it is that the character’s mind and language has briefly infected the narration! In either case, it’s as if the narrator and the character briefly merge. This is called free indirect discourse, or FID.
Now let’s look at a more ambiguous, modernist example of figural narration in “The Garden Party.” Like the passage from Silas Marner, it is told entirely by the narrator, but focalized through Laura (or perhaps her mother but I think it’s Laura):
[T]he little cottages were in a lane to themselves at the very bottom of a steep rise that led up to the house. A broad road ran between. True, they were far too near. They were the greatest possible eyesore, and they had no right to be in that neighbourhood at all. They were little mean dwellings painted a chocolate brown. In the garden patches there was nothing but cabbage stalks, sick hens and tomato cans. The very smoke coming out of their chimneys was poverty-stricken. Little rags and shreds of smoke, so unlike the great silvery plumes that uncurled from the Sheridans’ chimneys. (Mansfield 250, emphases added)
The description of the poor neighbourhood is the narrator’s, but the moral evaluations are Laura’s. The italicized passages are, as I see them, moments of free indirect discourse, where Laura’s thoughts and way of speaking sneak into the narration. The narrator passes on these moral evaluations without judgment, but in doing so allows us to see how prejudice and naivety are not far below the surface of Laura’s romantic vision of the working classes. This is a more sophisticated version of double vision than Eliot’s narration of the baby’s adventure in Silas Marner. It’s also more ambiguous: once you start to see that some passages are closer to Laura’s language than the narrator’s, it becomes clear that drawing the line between the two is quite arbitrary. Who is responsible for the word “poverty-stricken,” for example? Is it the narrator, or Laura? How about the description of the smoke (“rags and shreds” versus “great silvery plumes”)? Are those objective descriptions by the narrator, or more evidence of Laura’s poetic but slightly naive mind?
So, there is a weird similarity between objective and figural narration, even though they are so technically different: both leave a lot of interpretation of what’s happening, why and what it means to the reader.
Mrs Dalloway is largely made up of figural narration (the second paragraph is a good example). But it also includes a feature we have yet encountered: interior monologue.
- Unlike figural narration, which is an indirect transcript of the character’s mind, interior monologue is a direct transcript, in present tense, of the character’s thoughts. It’s sometimes called stream-of-consciousness narration, but I’ll explain why I don’t like that term in lecture.
For having lived in Westminster — how many years now? over twenty — one feels even in the midst of the traffic, or waking at night, Clarissa was positive, a particular hush, or solemnity; an indescribable pause; a suspense (but that might be her heart, affected, they said, by influenza) before Big Ben strikes. There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. Such fools we are, she thought, crossing Victoria Street. For Heaven only knows why one loves it so, how one sees it so, making it up, building it round one, tumbling it, creating it every moment afresh… (Woolf 4, emphases added)
The figural narrator, using past tense and third-person, is repeated interrupted by the present-tense, first-person thoughts of Clarissa Dalloway, her immediate sensations and the digressions of her mind as she walks down the street. Woolf’s use of inner monologue is relatively easy to follow, partly because she helps us out by having her narrator say things like “she thought.” Other authors of the time, notably James Joyce, was not as accommodating. Here is a brief excerpt from the beginning of the third episode of Ulysses, which transcribes the thoughts of the protagonist Stephen Dedalus:
Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot. Snotgreen, bluesilver, rust: coloured signs. Limits of the diaphane. But he adds: in bodies. Then he was aware of them bodies before of them coloured. How? By knocking his sconce against them, sure. Go easy. Bald he was and a millionaire, maestro di color che sanno. Limit of the diaphane in. Why in? Diaphane, adiaphane. If you can put your five fingers through it it is a gate, if not a door. Shut your eyes and see. (Joyce 34)
This is the mind of a pretentious young man who has read a lot. (By the way, the “he” in this passage does not refer to Stephen but to Aristotle, the author whose theories Stephen is rehearsing here.)
Eliot, George. Silas Marner. Mineola: New York, 1996 .
Joyce, James. Ulysses: The 1922 Text. Ed. Jeri Johnson. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1996 .
Mansfield, Katherine. “The Garden Party.” The Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield. Toronto: Penguin, 2001 .
Woolf, Virginia. Mrs Dalloway. Toronto: Penguin, 2016 .