December 8, 2003

In Defense of the Middlemarch Narrator

Ever since its publication in 1871-72, many critics have viewed the omniscient and intrusive narrator of Middlemarch as a major weakness. Most of these criticisms have hinged upon the belief that mimesis, or “showing,” is superior to diegesis, or “telling.” (Gerard Genette observed in Narrative Discourse that the distinction between “showing” and “telling” was first articulated in the third book of Plato’s Republic, when Plato defined diegesis as the act in which the poet speaks as himself and mimesis as the act in which the poet speaks through someone else.)[i] The author, it has been claimed, must not intrude into the text and tell readers what they ought to think or how they ought to interpret the story; rather, the author must merely tell the story and allow readers to interpret it themselves.

Examples of authors who do not allow their narrators to intrude into the text and tell readers what to think are Gustave Flaubert, Henry James, and James Joyce. David Lodge makes the following observations about each of these authors:
[I]n [Flaubert’s] Madame Bovary the narrator is omnipresent, but it is impossible to discover what he thinks about the story he is telling. In James, the narrator is either a created character of doubtful reliability (e.g. the governess in The Turn of the Screw) or an authorial narrator who deliberately restricts himself to the limited perspective of a character (such as Lambert Strether in The Ambassadors) entangled in circumstances he does not fully understand. In Joyce, the author is progressively ‘refined out of
existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.’[ii]

The narrator in Middlemarch, on the other hand, frequently intrudes into the text, making “judgements on characters, remarks on how the story is being told, direct addresses to the reader, and generalisations and miscellaneous observations on a variety of subjects.”[iii] Kerry McSweeney divides these intrusions into three groups. First, the narrator makes “direct comments on the characters.”[iv] An example of this can be found in chapter 75 when, after telling us that Rosamond is sad because Lydgate has not visited her recently, he comments, “Poor Rosamond lost her appetite and felt as forlorn as Ariadne—as a charming stage Ariadne left behind with all her boxes, full of costumes and no hope of a coach.” Second, the narrator makes various “discursive generalisations and aphorisms.”[v] For example, in chapter 21, he writes, “Mortals are easily tempted to pinch the life out of their neighbour’s buzzing glory, and think that such killing is no murder” and in chapter 53, he writes, “the egoism which enters into our theories does not affect their sincerity; rather, the more our egoism is satisfied, the more robust is our belief.” And third, the narrator of Middlemarch often directly addresses the reader.[vi] An example of this is found in chapter 23, when, in the middle of describing Caleb Garth, he interjects, “pardon these details for once, you would have learned to love them if you had known Caleb Garth.”

In the following paper, I will examine two arguments that have been made against the narratorial intrusions in Middlemarch, both of which presuppose that mimesis is superior to diegesis. We will refer to the first argument as the postmodern argument and the second as the artistic argument.

The Postmodern Argument Against the Narrator of Middlemarch
The first argument against the narrator of Middlemarch is distinctive of our postmodern times. The argument basically states that it is wrong for any author to tell his or her readers what they ought to think; rather, an author should construct his or her text in such a way that allows for different interpretations. Such an argument is made by Colin MacCabe in James Joyce and the Revolution of the Word. MacCabe argues that Joyce’s writings are superior to Eliot’s because they do not favor the “discourse of the narrator” (i.e., diegesis) over the “discourse of the characters” (i.e., mimesis). For example, “[n]one of the discourses which circulate in Finnegans Wake or Ulysses can master or make sense of the others and there is, therefore, no possibility of the critic articulating his or her reading as an elaboration of a dominant position within the text.”[vii] To the contrary, Middlemarch gives the narrator the final, authoritative, controlling voice. “Whereas other discourses within the text are considered as materials which are open to reinterpretation, the narrative discourse functions simply as a window on reality.”[viii] To put this argument into distinctively postmodern terms, Middlemarch is inferior because (through its diegetic passages) it purports a metanarrative, while Joyce’s works are superior because (by minimizing diegesis) they refuse to purport a metanarrative.

Before evaluating this criticism, we should make sure we do not exaggerate the amount of diegesis in Middlemarch. As David Lodge points out, Middlemarch “often indistinguishably and inextricably” mixes mimesis and diegesis together by employing free indirect speech—in which “the narrator, without absenting himself entirely from the text, communicates the narrative to us coloured by the thoughts and feelings of a character.” By speaking in the past tense and referring to characters in the third person, free indirect speech implicitly recognizes “the existence of the author as the source of the narrative.” However, “by deleting the tags which affirm that existence, such as he said, she wondered, she thought to herself, etc., and thus by using the kind of diction appropriate to character rather than to the authorial narrator” the narrator allows “the sensibility of the character to dominate the discourse” and, therefore, subdues his “own voice, his own opinions and evaluations.”[ix] Lodge provides the following passage as an example of the narrator’s discourse becoming “permeated with Dorothea’s discourse, but without wholly succumbing to it.”[x]
She felt sure that she would have accepted the judicious Hooker, if she had been born in time to save him from that wretched mistake he made in matrimony: or John Milton when his blindness had come on; or any of the other great men whose odd habits it would have been glorious piety to endure; but an amiable handsome baronet, who said ‘Exactly’ to her remarks even when she expressed uncertainty—how could he affect her as a lover? The really delightful marriage must be that where your husband was a sort of father, and could teach you even Hebrew, if you wished.[xi]

Lodge notes that such “colloquial phrases” as “that wretched mistake” and “when his blindness had come on” seem to be Dorothea’s own words. However, it does not seem that she would have uttered the phrase “odd habits,” as it would have been odd for her to use such an irreverent phrase after she had just been so reverently speaking of these “great men.”[xii]

But, even if we make sure not to exaggerate the amount of diegesis in Middlemarch, the fact remains that a great deal of diegesis exists. How are we to respond to this fact? Some respond by claiming that the Middlemarch narrator is just another fallible character and, therefore, no more authoritative than any other character. If this claim is true, it follows that Middlemarch does not favor its diegetic passages over its mimetic ones. Such an argument has been made by K.M. Newton. Newton claims that, given her “rejection of metaphysical ideas,” George Eliot would not have chosen an omniscient narrator “with its implication that the narrator has godlike powers to penetrate the minds of the characters as well as being able to range with supernatural knowledge over past, present, and future.” All of Eliot’s novels, Newton notes, “present the narrator as someone who is writing a novel about events and characters that the narrator regards as real, with the narrator being generally referred to as a historian and the novel as history.” Because the narrator is an actual historical person and, therefore, limited in knowledge, it follows that he does not have godlike powers. His knowledge of the characters’ “inner minds,” then, results, not from “a metaphysical penetration of the consciousnesses,” but from “the historical novelist’s reconstruction and interpretation of their intentions, desires, motivations.” Because the narrator is merely a “constructor and interpreter,” it follows that “the narrative makes it clear to the reader that other viewpoints and interpretations are possible.”[xiii] Elizabeth Ermarth holds a view similar to Newton’s and claims that, although the narrator is more sophisticated than the novel’s other characters, he is just “one voice among many.”[xiv]

Two things can be said in response to this argument. First, it is undoubtedly correct in claiming that the narrator is not godlike. As J. Hillis Miller notes, such can be said of virtually all Victorian narrators. As he writes, Victorian narrators are not “standing outside the time and space of the action, looking down on the characters with the detachment of a sovereign spectator who sees all, knows all, judges all, from a distance.” Rather, they “move within the community. They identify themselves with a human awareness which is everywhere at all times within the world of the novel.”[xv] The Middlemarch narrator undoubtedly views himself as a historical person personally acquainted with the book’s characters. As we saw earlier, he refers to Caleb Garth as though he personally knows him: “pardon these details for once—you would have learned to love them if you had known Caleb Garth.”[xvi] It is also clear that the narrator is not a detached spectator. Rather, he has certain prejudices, as can be seen in the fact that he favors certain characters. For example, he clearly favors Dorothea, as the following passages makes evident:
One morning, some weeks after her arrival at Lowick, Dorothea—but why always Dorothea? Was her point of view the only possible one with regard to this marriage? I protest against all our interest, all our effort at understanding being given to young skins that look blooming in spite of trouble.[xvii]
As McSweeney writes, this intrusion suggests, not only the narrator’s “commitment to a comprehensive and impartial depiction of the inner life of both characters,” but also his awareness of “the special bond between himself and Dorothea.”[xviii]

However, even though the Middlemarch narrator is not godlike, it does not follow that he is just “one voice among many.” Rather, the narrator is the most authoritative voice in the novel. Just as MacCabe complains, his discourse carries far more weight than the discourses of other characters. First of all, the narrator regards himself as having such authority. He confidently and authoritatively speaks of “unravelling certain human lots, and seeing how they were woven and interwoven”[xix] and rarely prefaces his comments with such phrases as “In my opinion” or “It seems to me.” As Isobel Armstrong puts it, his sayings are “sage-like,” emerging “from the narrative with a delicate, oracular dogmatism.”[xx] Second, the text undoubtedly makes the narrator out to be more authoritative than the book’s other characters. In other words, the text’s mimesis bears out its diegesis. For example, the narrator is proven right in his sympathies towards Dorothea, as, like him, we come to like Dorothea because of her thoughts, words, and actions. Also, the narrator is proven right in his criticisms of Bulstrode and Rosamond, as, like him, we become critical of them because of their thoughts, words, and actions. The vast majority of scholars over the years have viewed the Middlemarch narrator as an authoritative voice, and the claims made by such critics as Newton and Ermarth seem to be motivated, not by a desire to do justice to the text, but simply by a desire to impose a postmodern structure onto it—even though, as the data suggests, Middlemarch is clearly not a postmodern text.

Jeanie Thomas attributes the narrator’s authority and wisdom to his being experienced, “having passed that way” himself. The narrator, she writes, speaks with “the authenticity that is earned through long engagement with the world.”[xxi] Whatever the reason for his authority, it is undeniable that the narrator is an authoritative voice and that we must deal with this fact. But must we accept MacCabe’s view and conclude that this authoritative voice makes Middlemarch inferior to such works as Finnegans Wake and Ulysses? I think not. If the latter are superior, it is not because they lack an intrusive and dogmatic narrator. For, while MacCabe assumes that a piece of literature that purports a metanarrative is inferior to one that does not, this assumption is itself based on a faulty assumption—the assumption that it is possible for a piece of literature to avoid purporting a metanarrative. Every work of literature, whether it realizes it or not, cannot help but articulate a metanarrative. Even a piece of literature that does not have an intrusive, omniscient narrator to tell us “the way things are” and instead leaves itself “completely open to interpretation” is itself purporting a metanarrative—namely, the metanarrative that there are no metanarratives. For to say that there are no metanarratives is to purport a metanarrative; in other words, one is making a grand claim about reality when he or she says that reality is such that one cannot make a grand claim about it. This claim, of course, is self-refuting: for one refutes his or her own argument if he or she, first, says that metanarratives do not exist and then goes on to make one.

In conclusion, then, MacCabe’s argument fails. For there seem to be no good reasons for favoring a piece of literature that denies the existence of metanarratives to one that admits their existence. If anything, there seem to be good reasons for favoring the latter over the former. First, unlike the former, the latter do not refute themselves by denying the existence of metanarratives and then proceeding to purport them. Second, the latter are far more honest than the former. Works like Middlemarch tip their hands to us, admitting to us what they are doing, what metanarratives they are advancing; on the other hand, works that try to limit or even eliminate diegesis are lying to us, pretending that we are not being preached to when nothing could be further from the truth.

The Artistic Argument Against the Narrator of Middlemarch
Beginning with Henry James, it has been popular for critics to claim that a work of literature is artistically flawed if it “tells” things that it ought to “show.” Applying this criterion to Middlemarch, many critics have found the book deficient. As George Steiner writes, “By interfering constantly in the narration George Eliot attempts to persuade us of what should be artistically evident…It should be noted that omniscience is an author’s most lazy approach and that personal interference in the action must be compared to what occurs in a Chinese theatre when the manager comes on during the play to change props.”[xxii]

This criticism seems to assume that George Eliot used so much diegesis because she was either incapable of effectively using mimesis or just plain lazy. Now it is clear that Eliot was not incapable of effectively using mimesis. For example, many of her comments state truths that are made obvious through dialogue. For instance, we hardly need the narrator to tell us that Mr. Brooke speaks with a kind of “scrappy slovenliness” to know that such is the case, as the following comments by Mr. Brooke make this plain:
“Young ladies don’t’ understand political economy, you know,” said Mr Brooke, smiling towards Mr Casaubon. “I remember when we were all reading Adam Smith. There is a book, now. I took in all the new ideas at one time—human perfectibility, now. But some say, history moves in circles; and that may be very well argued; I have argued it myself. The fact is, human reason may carry you a little too far—over the hedge, in fact. It carried me a good way at one time; but I saw it would not do. I pulled up; I pulled up in time. But not too hard. I have always been in favour of a little theory: we must have Thought; else we shall be landed back in the dark ages. But talking of books, there is Southey’s ‘Peninsular War.’ I am reading that of a morning. You know Southey?”[xxiii]

It also seems clear that Eliot was not lazy. A lazy writer does not spend his or her life producing one massive eight-hundred-page book after another.

So why, then, does Eliot so often resort to diegesis? Why, when she was so gifted at mimesis, did she use so much diegesis? In order to answer this question, we need to set aside our Jamesian presuppositions and question whether it is really inartistic to mix a fair amount of degesis with mimesis. We need to ask ourselves if a non-Jamesian narrator can be just as valid as a Jamesian one. There are many different ways to tell a story and that many of these ways are equally valid. Just as apples and oranges are different yet both tasty, so, too, many different narrative techniques are different yet equally artistic. If all stories were written the same way, the world of literature would be a dull place. Luckily, there are different types of narratives, and we should, therefore, appreciate each type of narrative for what it has to offer and not waste our time arranging them in a hierarchy. When we change our focus in this manner, we can begin to appreciate the peculiarities and strengths of different narrative types. When we turn to Middlemarch, we see that there are a number of benefits to the intrusive narrator. In order to better appreciate these benefits, let us briefly consider three of them.

First, these intrusions help draw readers into the story. As Isobel Armstrong puts it, “the authorial comment creates bridges…between the world of the novel and our world.”[xxiv] Among other means, the narrator does this by often asking questions, obtaining “an assent, a corroboration from the reader” before proceeding.[xxv] For example, in chapter 37, the narrator writes, “Poor Mr. Casaubon felt (and must not we, being impartial, feel with him a little?) that no man had just cause for disgust and suspicion than he.” Also, in chapter 47, the narrator writes, “Do we not shun the street version of a fine melody?—or shrink from the news that the rarity…is really not an uncommon thing, and may be obtained as an everyday possession?” Armstrong claims that most of the narrator’s questions are not rhetorical; rather, he truly expects readers to answer. By encouraging readers to answer these questions about the text, the narrator is encouraging them to engage the text, to think about it, to enter into it.

Second, these intrusions often enable readers to better understand the characters. An example of this can be found in the following aphorism: “Solomon’s Proverbs, I think, have omitted to say, that as the sore palate findeth grit, so an uneasy consciousness heareth innuendoes.”[xxvi] This aphorism—which is given after Lydgate is, first, scolded by Mrs. Blustrode for leading on Rosamond and, then, irritated by Mr. Farebrother’s jokes—shows both the “comedy and awkwardness of Lydgate’s situation.” Moreover, by “generalizing his feelings,” it enlarges his predicament,” coming to “indicate not only Lydgate, but a common human situation—it might include us all.” Specifically, by appealing to their own experiences, the narrator helps readers to relate to Lydgate. As Armstrong puts it, “Once one has assented to this proverbial saying one cannot but go on to recognize the uneasiness of Lydgate’s position. By moving out of the world of the novel, this saying actually consolidates an imaginative involvement with the characters.”[xxvii]

Sometimes, the narrator helps readers to better understand the book’s characters by anticipating readers’ thoughts and then going on to correct them. An example of this can be found after Casaubon learns of his imminent death and makes it difficult for Dorothea to lock arms with himself.
You may ask why, in the name of manliness, Mr. Casaubon should have behaved in that way. Consider that his was a mind which shrank from pity…Besides, he knew little of Dorothea’s sensations, and had not reflected that on such an occasion as the present they were comparable in strength to his own sensibilities about Carp’s criticism.[xxviii]

The narrator anticipates that readers will be alarmed by Casaubon’s behavior and most likely judge it harshly. Realizing this, the narrator quickly comes to Casaubon’s defense and explains his action. Mary De Jong notes that his “self-absorption is not excused, but the reader is expected to understand it.”[xxix]

Third, these intrusions encourage moral growth among readers. As De Jong points out, the intrusions inform readers that much is expected of them—“not just engagement with the dramatized experience, not just a sympathetic yet judicious evaluation of the characters’ ideals and behavior, but also the willingness to take correction, to learn and change.”[xxx] His intrusions achieve this end in a number of ways. For instance, he sometimes seeks “sympathy and assent by characterizing an experienced, intelligent, humane reader so that the flesh-and-blood reader—bringing actual or imagined experience to the text—may assume the indicated role.” For instance, in chapter 42, he says the following about Casaubon:
To a mind largely instructed in the human destiny hardly anything could be more interesting than the inward conflict implied in his formal measured address, delivered with the usual sing-song and motion of the head. Nay, are there many situations more sublimely tragic than the struggle of the soul with the demand to renounce a work which has been all the significance of its life—a significance which is to vanish as the waters which come and go where no man has need of them?

In this passage, the narrator is able to make the reader feel sympathy for Casaubon by, more or less, flattering him. De Jong notes that few readers would resist such flattery; who, after all, would resist being called “a mind largely instructed in the human destiny”? She continues: readers “are persuaded by their own self-regard to sympathize with the struggling characters. If we are what we do, playing the sympathetic observer develops our awareness of the perspectives of people unlike ourselves—and possibly changes our behavior as well as our outlook.”[xxxi]

The narrator often encourages readers to be more sympathetic by peppering his sayings with such personal pronouns as “we” and “our.” An example of this is found in the following discussion of Casaubon in chapter 29:
For my part I am very sorry for him. It is an uneasy lot at best, to be what we call highly taught and yet not to enjoy: to be present at this great spectacle of life and never to be liberated from a small hungry shivering self—never to be fully possessed by the glory we behold, never to have our consciousness raptuously transformed by the vividness of a thought, the ardour of a passion, the energy of an action, but always to be scholarly and uninspired, ambitious and timid, scrupulous and dim-sighted.
In this passage, the narrator encourages readers to have understanding and sympathy for Casaubon by, first, assuming that they have “a privileged experience”—i.e., they possess the glory of enjoying life. After being reminded of their privileged experience, readers are then able to better “grasp a negative and impoverished state of mind.” As Armstrong puts it, “What one may not know—or may not feel sympathy with—is approached through what one knows.”[xxxii]

As we have seen, the intrusive, omniscient narrator of Middlemarch stands up to the fiercest of criticisms. First, he stands up to the criticism that his dogmatic authority renders Middlemarch inferior to works that supposedly do not tell readers how they ought to think but instead simply encourage them to make their own interpretations. For, as we saw, no piece of literature can avoid speaking with such dogmatic authority. Second, the Middlemarch narrator stands up to the criticism that his presence renders Middlemarch less artistic than works that contain less diegesis and more mimesis. For an intrusive narrator is not inherently inferior to a Jamesian narrator, but simply different; as such, we should not spend our time criticizing an intrusive narrator, but instead appreciating his many distinctive benefits.

* * * * *
Works Cited

Armstrong, Isobel. “‘Middlemarch’: A Note on George Eliot’s ‘Wisdom’.” Critical Essays on George Eliot. Ed. Barbara Hardy. New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 1970. 116-132.

De John, Mary G. “Taking the Reader’s Part: On Arguing with George Eliot. CEA Critic, no. 51 (Fall 1988): 88-101.

Eliot, George. Middlemarch. 1871-72. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000.

Ermarth, Elizabeth. “Method and Moral in George Eliot’s Narrative.” Victorian Newsletter, no. 47 (Spring 1975): 5-7.

Harvey, W.J. The Art of George Eliot. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969.

Lodge, David. “The Classic Realist Text.” Middlemarch. Ed. John Peck. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. 45-64.

MacCabe, Colin. James Joyce and the Revolution of the World. London: Macmillan Press, 1979.

McSweeney, Kerry. Middlemarch. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1984.

Newton, K.M. “Narration.” Oxford Reader’s Companion to George Eliot. Ed. John Rignall. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. 280-82.

Thomas, Jeanie. Reading Middlemarch: Reclaiming the Middle Distance. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1988.

* * * * *


[i] David Lodge, “The Classic Realist Text”; quoted in John Peck, Middlemarch (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992), 49.
[ii] Ibid., 51.
[iii] Kerry McSweeney, Middlemarch (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1984), 66.
[iv] Ibid., 67.
[v] Ibid., 69.
[vi] Ibid., 67.
[vii] Colin MacCabe, James Joyce and the Revolution of the Word (London: Macmillan Press, 1979), 14.
[viii] Ibid., 15.
[ix] Lodge, “The Classic Realist Text,” 52.
[x] Ibid., 53.
[xi] George Eliot, Middlemarch (1871-72; reprint, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000), chapter 1.
[xii] Lodge, “The Classic Realist Text,” 54.
[xiii] K.M. Newton, “Narration”; quoted in John Rignall, Oxford Reader’s Companion to George Eliot (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 281-82.
[xiv] Elizabeth Ermarth, “Method and Moral in George Eliot’s Narrative,” Victorian Newsletter, no. 47 (Spring 1975): 7.
[xv] J. Hillis Miller, The Form of Victorian Fiction (Notre Dame/London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1958); quoted in McSweeney, Middlemarch, 60.
[xvi] Eliot, Middlemarch, chapter 23.
[xvii] Ibid., 29.
[xviii] McSweeney, Middlemarch, 68.
[xix] Eliot, Middlemarch, chapter 15.
[xx] Isobel Armstrong, “‘Middlemarch’: A note on George Eliot’s ‘Wisdom’”; quoted in Barbara Hardy, Critical Essays on George Eliot (New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 1970), 116.
[xxi] Jeanie Thomas, Reading Middlemarch: Reclaiming the Middle Distance (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1988), 88-89.
[xxii] George Steiner, “A Preface To Middlemarch,” Nineteenth Century Fiction, no. 9 (1954): 262-79; quoted in W.J. Harvey, The Art of George Eliot (New York: Oxford University Press, 1969), 65.
[xxiii] Eliot, Middlemarch, chapter 2.
[xxiv] Armstrong, “‘Middlemarch’: A note on George Eliot’s ‘Wisdom’,” 118.
[xxv] Ibid., 120-21.
[xxvi] Eliot, Middlemarch, chapter 31.
[xxvii] Armstrong, “‘Middlemarch’: A note on George Eliot’s ‘Wisdom’,” 124.
[xxviii] Eliot, Middlemarch, chapter 42.
[xxix] Mary G. De Jong, “Taking the Reader’s Part: On Arguing with George Eliot,” CEA Critic, no. 51 (Fall 1988): 88.
[xxx] Ibid., 96.
[xxxi] Ibid., 95.
[xxxii] Armstrong, “‘Middlemarch’: A note on George Eliot’s ‘Wisdom’,” 126.


chloedavies92 said...

what is the author's name of this paper?

peace, etc. said...

I'm the author. Don Emmerich.