The narrative voice in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton is one of the main aspects that makes this novel stand out so much to me. I have always loved an omniscient narrator, and the narrator in this novel seems to know everything about everyone. From my point of view, the narration is pretty consistent throughout the novel in regards to viewpoint. Sometimes the narrator even gives her own opinion. For example, in chapter eight, the narrator seems to know everything that is going on in Mary’s head during an interaction with Jem, “She was very cunning, I am afraid. She pretended to read diligently, and not to listen to a word that was said, while in fact she heard all sounds, even Jem’s long, deep sighs, which wrung her heart” (Gaskell 79). In this passage, the narrator knows Mary through and through. She seems to be in Mary’s mind and knows her exact motivations and confusing thoughts about Jem. However, she definitely does not agree with Mary’s actions. Although this all-knowing, nameless narrator sees Mary, she is also quite critical of her, as seen by the fact that she calls her cunning and says it instills fear in her.
Although the narrator seems to be harsh on Mary in certain instances, she also shows understanding for her situation. “…how sorely Mary’s heart ached; for more and more the fell certainty came on that her father was the murderer! She struggled hard not to dwell on this conviction; to think alone on the means of proving Jem’s innocence…” (Gaskell 236). I get a more sympathetic vibe from the narrator at this point in the story. I think that the narrator is harsh on Mary when she is having conflicting thoughts about Jem, but once she decides to help him and feels more loving towards him, the narrator starts to be more positive towards her. This leads me to draw the conclusion that the narrator is subtly a pretty big fan of Jem and has been rooting for him.
Jem is a character who stirs up a lot of sympathy in me personally, and I think that is because of both how the narrator portrays him and also how she portrays Mary. Mary is so back and forth with Jem for awhile and it really makes me feel for him. The narrative voice in this novel is the main reason we can see just how indecisive Mary is. On the other hand, Jem loves Mary and always has. It seems to be more black and white for him, while for her it is just messy and confusing. “Her heart began to despair, too, about Jem. She feared he had ceased to love her; and she – she only loved him more and more for his seeming neglect” (Gaskell 188). Bringing my personal experiences into play here, I know what it is like to have someone want you more only when you stop wanting them. It is quite aggravating. This is one of the main reasons I am so sympathetic with Jem in his love story with Mary. The number one reason we as readers are able to see the raw emotions displayed in this love story is because of the narration technique. The narrator sees Mary’s raw thoughts, her confusion, and her indecisiveness about Jem and showcases it for the reader. Omniscient narration, in my opinion, is one of the best ways to tell a riveting story like this one.