Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Puzzle (my dissertation's film trailer/preview)

At the heart of the English novel there's a formal puzzle. The puzzle is: Where did the third person narrative voice come from?

In some ways, of course, the third person narrative voice has always been with us. For as long as we have related our own lives in narrative we have imagined and related the lives of others, so it would be disingenuous of me to point to the eighteenth century and say ‘here! This is where it began!’ And yet the third person narrative voice in a novel is something without which one cannot imagine nineteenth century literature, and something which rarely appears in the first fifty years of prose fiction printed after the restoration of Charles II in 1660. It has come from somewhere other than the Bible, and yet it is neither common, nor a prerequisite in early works of extended prose fiction. An avid reader will notice that the third person narrative voice draws on techniques developed from spiritual autobiographies and partisan news-papers in the mid-to-late seventeenth century, and is deeply indebted to the conduct books of the seventeenth century, specifically to their ‘improving’ stories of model children and servants, but that's not the whole story. So what do I think? I think that the third person narrative voice develops and proliferates in the single essay periodical that dominates print culture in the first twenty years of the eighteenth century, and this is absorbed from the voices of the Tatler and the Spectator into the later periodicals written by Johnson, and the novels of Fielding, Haywood, Sterne, Burney and Austen. That's my big claim, and that's why I'm going sit at a desk and write for the next twelve months.

I've always been fascinated by the flips between narrative and discursive voices, the moments when you can tell the narrator has moved from relating the story, to talking about the story. I've always felt a strong interest in questions of voice and authority in prose fiction, and the eighteenth century was the first place (reading backwards, as a kid) that I noticed the third person narrator flicker and twist like fish in a shoal. Sometimes it's there, sometimes it isn't - unlike the sturdy leviathan forms of the nineteenth century, sometimes the eighteenth century's narrative voice groups together in one direction for a moment, to scatter completely the next. I see shoals, I see Venn diagrams, and I see patterns that aren't quite emergence and aren't quite rises, but are tried and dropped and sometimes tried again. At the end of the century, there is a third person narrative voice, and at the start of the century there isn't, quite. So it has to happen somewhere.

The problems with writing narrative about the origins of the third person narrator are many, but I am chiefly concerned with this one: I just can't know what it was like to read English in a time when the third person narrative voice was not a prevalent form of storytelling. Just as a contemporary music fan can't know what music sounded like before rock and roll, however passionate about baroque music she may be, so I can't tell what reading was like before the third person narrative voice came to dominate realist fiction.

It is helpful to consider the century between 1660 and 1760 as a liminal period for extended prose fiction in English, during which time many different types of narrative voice struggled for prevalence in print, so I plan to pay attention to some of the failed narrative voices which now read as quirks and oddities of the time. It is interesting to speculate what English Literature might look like had some of them caught on, but at this stage it is more important to note that literature altered in meaningful ways when the third person narrative voice was the most successful formal feature of eighteenth century prose fiction. The eventual success of the third person narrative voice altered literature and literary studies so completely that it is worth examining why and how this particular narrative voice emerged as dominant.

Also, while a detailed discussion of narratology will follow, that school of thought seems caught between two poles. In this project is not invested in privileging the story at the expense of the storyteller, nor the storyteller at the expense of the story. My interest lies in the postures and voices that the storyteller uses to tell the story. This conversation is about the act of narrating, rather than individual narratives or narrators. In fact, this conversation hangs on a story.


dave mazella said...


I liked the way you laid out this generic argument. Have you considered the "letter" (which can be inserted/incorporated into either periodicals or novels) as one of the earlier generic models or sub-units?

I think your intuition to focus upon inconsistency or discontinuity seems exactly right to distinguish long 18c writing from what comes after. You might also want to think about how to similarly distinguish the pre-1660 writings from post-1660 ones.

Incidentally, I saw that the Long 18th link on your blogroll is misspelled. You can find us at the url I provided with this post.

Best wishes, DM

Anonymous said...

In The Oresteia that third person makes an appearance. For a succinct overview see Tony Tanner's soon to be published Prefaces to Shakespeare, Harvard UP, March 2010

Kathryn McCullough said...

Some research do need explaining to do, and I think your dissertation can really help a lot, especially for those people who doesn’t know how to write a phd dissertation with their ideas. Anyway, I hope that your dissertation can help make some things clear for people to understand.