Narrative Voice in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Mill on the Floss, and Frankenstein

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.

The Power Struggle in Lady Audley’s Secret

Throughout her novel Lady Audley’s Secret, Mary Elizabeth Braddon explores the theme of power through the use of several tools. In some situations, Braddon uses non-physical, abstract means to communicate power — charm, manipulation, blackmail, secrets, etc. In other cases, the reader might notice more concrete forms of power such as physical evidence, gender, money, or social status. Although these are all effective sources of power, I would like to propose yet another form of power I have noticed throughout the novel: the power of choice.

Braddon makes it clear that Lady Audley’s origins did not offer her much choice in her life. This is shown in her response to Sir Michael’s proposal, “…you ask too much of me! Remember what my life has been; only remember that! From my very babyhood I have never seen anything but poverty” (Volume 1, Chapter 1, pg. 52). Up until Sir Michael’s proposal, Lady Audley seemed to lack the amount of choice the upper class was given. In her life prior to becoming Lucy Graham,  Lady Audley was caught between abandoning her family for a new life or suffering a life of poverty. By marrying Sir Michael, Lady Audley inherits more choice. She’s free to live the life she wants, free of the discomforts of poverty. It is, perhaps, in this “bargain” that Lady Audley gains her power.

As the novel progresses, the power seems to shift from Lady Audley to Robert. Despite Lady Audley’s ability to charm those around her, Robert manages to collect concrete knowledge about her secrets and stores them in his pocketbook. It is only once he has compiled all the information he needs to connect the dots between Lady Audley’s lives that he realizes his power, “My duty is clear enough… not the less clear because it is painful – not the less clear because it leads me step by step, carrying ruin and desolation with me, to the home I love” (Volume 2, Chapter 9, pg. 258). On one hand, Robert feels his duty is to tell Sir Michael, his dear uncle, the truth. On the other hand, Robert knows telling his uncle the truth means he will be taking away his uncle’s happiness and sentencing a woman to a life of poverty and a lack of autonomy.

As Robert gets closer to exposing her secrets to Sir Michael, Lady Audley’s choices begin to narrow. This is best shown in Chapter 1 of Volume 3:

Perhaps it would be wiser in me to run away, to take this man’s warning, and escape out of his power forever… But where could I go? what would become of me? I have no money; my jewels are not worth a couple of hundred pounds, now that I have got rid of the best part of them. What could I do? I must go back to the old life, the old, hard, cruel, wretched life—the life of poverty, and humiliation, and vexation, and discontent (pg. 328).

In this moment, Lady Audley is faced with a powerful choice – should she run away and let go of the only power she’s ever known, or should she continue to try to hide her true identity in hopes of holding onto the power she has gained throughout the novel?

The characters in Lady Audley’s Secret use several tools to gain power over one another; however, the concept of choice as a weapon of power is among the most interesting. Although I believe every character is responsible for his or her actions, both George and Lady Audley are equally at fault for choosing to abandon their family, it is true that some characters have a larger variety of choices to make than others.

Omniscience vs. Intimacy: The Narrator’s Role in Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss

George Eliot once said, “The only effect I ardently long to produce by my writings, is that those who read them should be better able to imagine and to feel the pains and the joys of those who differ from themselves in everything but the broad fact of being struggling erring human creatures.” Although she accomplishes this in several ways throughout her novel The Mill on the Floss, I believe the most interesting way in which she does so is through the use of the narrator.

The characteristic that intrigued me the most about the narrator is her intimate, yet omniscient, presence in the novel. Although we as readers do not have a strong idea who the narrator is – who she is, how she came to know so much about St. Ogg’s, etc. – we are given several clues that the narrator was involved in Maggie and Tom’s lives, which gives her an air of authority over the reader. This is evidenced early on in the first chapter of Book 1 when the narrator first describes one of her memories of Maggie as a child, “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 on the bridge.”

In addition to making the narrator more personable, Eliot also appears to have given the narrator an omniscient presence during some points of the novel. The narrator’s omniscience serves as a tool to slow down the reader’s judgment of certain characters, such as Tom, Philip, and Maggie. This allows the narrator to guide the readers toward having compassion for these characters. The narrator best demonstrates this in chapter five of Book 5 when the narrator comments:

“Do not think too hardly of Philip. Ugly and deformed people have great need of unusual    virtues, because they are likely to be extremely uncomfortable without them… Does not the Hunger Tower stand as the type of the utmost trial to what is human in us?”

The narrator’s ability to peer into the lives of the characters makes it difficult for the reader to make quick, easy judgements about them. Additionally, the narrator’s omniscience forces us to apply her insight of the characters to our lives, forcing us to step into the shoes of the character and explore our motivations and desires.

Eliot uses many strategies to successfully foster sympathy in the reader for the main characters. However, I believe the narrator is one of the most effective methods. Her experience with the story makes the story feel that much more real, and her omniscience arms the reader with the necessary tools to feel compassionate toward the main characters.

Mary’s Development and Gaskell’s Call to Action

Written during a time of an intense economic downfall, many authors used the Industrial novel to inform the upper classes of the need for societal reform, and Gaskell is no different. In her novel, Mary Barton, Gaskell depicts the lives of a few members of the working class in an attempt to educate the upper classes of the issues the working class experiences throughout their lives. Although many of Gaskell’s characters endure dramatic transformations as the book progresses, I find Mary’s development to be the most intriguing because she ends up becoming a representation of the transformation Gaskell urges her audience to make.

Early on, it was clear that Mary was wrapped up in her own little world. Like her aunt Esther, she had ambitions of one day becoming rich. This is evidenced when the narrator states, “So with this consciousness she had early determined that her beauty should make her a lady; the rank she coveted the more for her father’s abuse; the rank to which she firmly believed her lost Aunt Esther had arrived” (Chapter 3, pg. 58). Mary’s desire to become “a lady” parallels that of the desires of the upper class. In a world where the working class struggles to maintain subsistence, the upper classes seem rather self-absorbed, consumed by a desire to either maintain their status or climb even further up the socio-economic totem pole.

Mary maintains her egocentricity until a pivotal point in the novel hits, which is when she realizes that she loves Jem, a member of the working class, and not Harry, a factory owner. In many ways, Mary’s newly recognized love for Jem has given her a reason to return to virtue. This love later allows Mary to serve others even when she is under fire. This is best depicted in a scene where Mary, after being kicked out of Mrs. Walton’s home, comes across a homeless young boy and decides to feed him:

“She stood an instant, diverted from the thought of her own grief by the sight of his infantine gladness; and then bending down and kissing his smooth forehead, she left him, and sought to be alone with her agony once more” (Chapter 20, pg. 297).

Despite her spirits being low, Mary moves from an egocentric mindset to a philanthropic mindset. Although a member of the working class, Mary gives up what little resources she has to provide for someone in need of her help.

Mary’s transition from a self-absorbed, materialistic character to a kind, loving one depicts the change Gaskell hopes to inspire in her readers. Gaskell’s decision to have Mary undergo the transition she does provides the reader with a clear message: although we may never be able to make every person in the working class rich, perhaps we owe it to them to help them make their lives more bearable by first having love in our hearts and compassion for their situation.

“I Ought to be Thy Adam”: The Theme of Lost Innocence in Frankenstein’s “Monster”

In Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, the themes of lost innocence and the acquisition of knowledge seem to be strategically interwoven throughout the majority of the book. Although this theme can be observed in many of the characters throughout the novel, I find the creature’s story to be the most interesting.

When I think of innocence, the first group of people that come to mind are children. Children come into this world knowing nothing, and the way they view the world is heavily influenced by their early experiences, their education, and the culture they live in. When we take a step back and look at this “monster” the way we would a young child, I think we at least achieve a better understanding of his perspective.

Like most newborns, Victor’s creature appears to have a benevolent side. This becomes clear in the creature’s testimony to Victor when he says in chapter 10, “I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend” (Chapter 10, pg. 114). The creature’s life began like any other child, with an innocent, benevolent outlook toward the world and the people around him. It was not until he gained experience with the outside world that he began to see himself as a monster.

The monster’s innocence is further evidenced by how he views himself as similar to others. It is not until he acquires the knowledge that he is different from others that he begins to identify himself as a monster. This is best shown in a scene where the creature sees his reflection for the first time when he says, “At first I started back, unable to believe that it was indeed I who was reflected in the mirror; and when I became fully convinced that I was in reality the monster that I am, I was filled with the bitterest sensations of despondence and mortification. Alas! I did not yet entirely know the fatal effects of this miserable deformity” (Chapter 12, pg. 133).

The creature’s moral decline parallels that of Adam and Eve’s eating from the fruit of the tree. As he gained knowledge about humanity, there was no turning back. While I find the creature’s decisions to be questionable, I feel they bring a few questions to mind: If the creature had been given the same opportunity to develop the way a healthy child would, how might the story be different? Although we would deem the creature’s actions as monstrous in nature, can we hold this “monster” completely accountable for his actions?