The 2nd-most irritating thing* about being a Victorianist is having to deal with our modernist colleagues who appear to believe that modernist claims about Victorian culture were simply true, and not at all artifacts of generational conflict or artistic brand-building.Â Â I’m happy to admit that, say, James Joyce or Virginia Woolf could write a hell of a sentence, and that the kind of psychological realism they could achieve is incredibly valuable.
But that doesn’t make claims like this–found in The Cambridge Companion to the Modernist Novel–any truer:
For Portrait announces from its first page Joyce’s radical break with the conventions of the ninteenth-century realist novel.Â There is no omniscient narrator here, who directs the reader’s response.Â Instead the narrative focuses on a particular consciousness, and is articulated through the kind of language such a consciousness would use.Â If we compare the passage with the opening lines of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (1861), another novel concerning a young man’s coming of age, the difference is striking.Â Great Expectations begins: “My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip.”Â The sentence immediately announces that this is not the voice of a child; the grammatical complexity of the opening clause, the use of the distinctively adult words “infant tongue” and “explicit,” tell us that the narrator is an older man looking back at his childhood, not a child telling his own story.Â In contrast, Joyce’s use of simple words, baby-talk, and childish diction erases this overseeing, distancing narrative presence from the text, leaving us in intimate relation to Stephen’s consciousness alone.
Joyce was not the first writer to move from omniscient narration to a narrative style shaped by the interior life of his character . . . .Â (102-03)
Is there any way of construing this paragraph that doesn’t imply, first, that Great Expectations is a realist novel, and second, that it has an omniscient narrator?Â And does anyone who actually teaches this novel agree with either implication?
Of course it’s true that the opening page of Portrait seems more like a child’s perspective than Great Expectations‘s does. (Although is that a Dante allusion I see near the end of that page? My five year old’s read the Iliad and the Odyssey, both more than once, but I’m not sure I’ve ever heard him quote them.)
But it simply cannot be true that the point of the adult narrator’s recollection in this novel is oversight and distance, any more than it is in, say, Jane Eyre or Villette . . . or even David Copperfield.Â Victorian literary culture was capable of playing complex games with self-presentation, as the dramatic monologue ought to make clear, and these and other first-person novels probably deserve to be read with some care.Â In *none* of these novels does the narrator act like an omniscient one–instead, fictional autobiographies tend formally to point up the limits of one’s insight into one’s own life.
Great Expectations is a novel of adulthood, written from someone who is trying to make sense of his life, and trying desperately to convince us that things will work out for the best.Â He returns to his past, neither because he is distanced from it nor to demonstrate his mastery of it, but precisely because he is not distanced at all, not a master at all.Â That’s the rush of the book–and it’s a rush that most fictional auobiographies deliver in spades.
*The most irritating thing is having, every single semester, to explain, “Yes, we’re going to read the whole book.Â I know it’s 1000 pages.”