Narrative voice is an essential element throughout any novel. At its core, this literary element is often used as a tool of persuasion, or dissuasion, that can encourage a reader to be compassionate toward one character and judgmental depending on the overall goal of the author. This blog post will examine the similarities and differences in the use of narrative voice in Shelley’s Frankenstein, Eliot’s Mill on the Floss, and Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles.
In her novel Frankenstein, Shelley seems to play a game of telephone through her use of narrative voice. Although the narrative voice can be confusing at times, it’s important to remember that the story is being told through the lens of Robert Walton, who is retelling the stories told to him by both Victor and the creature. This leads the reader to question the accuracy of the narrative itself. Walton points this out himself, stating “Frankenstein discovered that I made notes concerning his history: he asked to see them, and then himself corrected and augmented them in many places…” (pg. 243). Rather than the narrator exhibiting qualities of omniscience, Shelley makes her narrator much more personable and involved in the story. The consequence to this, it seems, results in the narrator being more unreliable.
Contrast this with the narrator in Eliot’s Mill on the Floss, who has both an omniscient yet intimate presence in the novel. Eliot uses the narrative voice as a tool for argument. In some cases, she gives the narrator a more personable voice to advocate for sympathy. This is shown in the first chapter of Book 1 when the narrator describes Maggie for the first time, “Now I can turn my eyes toward the mill again, and watch the unresting wheel sending out its diamond jets of water. That little girl is watching it too; she has been standing on just the same spot at the edge of the water ever since I paused at the bridge.” In other cases, the narrator’s voice has an omniscient quality to it – providing the narrator with the ability to provide the reader with insight into the character’s motives. This is seen in chapter five of Book 5 when the narrator warns the reader to “not think too hardly of Phillip” because people with his condition “have great need of unusual virtues, because they are likely to be extremely uncomfortable without them.”
Similar to the narrative voice presented in Mill on the Floss, the narrative voice in Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles also encourages compassion for some of the characters, particularly that of Tess and Angel. However, the narrative voice seems to provide more insight into the thoughts and feelings of the characters when compared to the other two novels. Among the most interesting examples in the novel is when Tess sees a group of birds suffering after being shot by hunters. The narrator elaborates on the inner thoughts in Tess’s mind, stating:
“With the impulse of a soul who could feel for kindred sufferers as much as for herself, Tess’s first thought was to put the still living birds out of their torture, and to this end with her own hands she broke the necks of as many as she could find, leaving them to lie where she had found them till the gamekeepers could find… ‘Poor darlings – to suppose myself the most miserable being on earth in the sight o’ such misery as yours!’ she exclaimed, her tears running down as she killed the birds tenderly.”
The narrator gives us allows us to peer into Tess’s most intimate thoughts regarding her rape. She identifies with other animals who are experiencing pain, we are given stronger insight into her thought processes regarding her decision to kill the birds out of compassion. When considering how Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles differs from the other two novels, it seems that the narrative voice used in Hardy’s novel provides insight into the psychological experiences of the characters, particularly Tess, and uses that to encourage the reader to have sympathy for her. The other two novels, however, comment more on physical occurrences in the novel as opposed to elaborating on the characters’ thoughts and feelings.