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Charles Dickens' Narrative Styles

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 2414 words Published: 18th May 2017

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As the voice of a fictional and, sometimes, nonfictional literary work, the narrator is often the central feature in literary works and is given a number of responsibilities. Depending on how the narrator is attached to the particular story or book, these roles include helping to lend a voice to the author’s thoughts as well as frame the story and ensure focus, deliver the plot, and provide perspective. Narration can be delivered by either indirect discourse or omniscient narration based on the author’s intent, providing a range of techniques that add credibility to the story or lead the reader to question or distrust the narrator, depending on the characterisation, language, and plot line that is being utilised. The narrator can be the main character but they can also be a minor character, a combination of characters, or even serve an omniscient role as a storyteller who is not part of the story.

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On a simple and straightforward level, both books utilise the narrator as a way of reminding the reader about the plot, framing the story and focusing the action due to their serialised nature. In this way, both narrators explain gaps in time and action, speaking to the reader and helping elicit their thoughts of what had previously happened. Both serve as directors in terms of guiding the reader through the story and uncovering what they want to be seen or what they want the reader to ponder in terms of the ‘intention of meaning’ whilst still being able to establish boundaries around what is to be inferred from reading the narrative (Brooks, 503). On a deeper level further explored within this paper, both narrators represent the overriding theme of Victorian literature that Dickens has made famous in terms of the weak supporting the strong as well as the poor satiating the wealthy (Bloom, 155). In this way, the narrator also serves as a device to hold up and guide the reader through the construction of the story but also a construction of the human self.

As the narrator of Great Expectations, Pip takes on a number of roles as he moves from a young child to mature man, providing a humanistic touch to Dickens’s often bleak and despairing tales. The reader can then relate to in these terms of following his expectations and doubts about how he will fare in life as well as ascertaining his sense of values set against those of society by reflecting on what he is learning about himself. Overall, as a narrator, it is Pip who serves to connect the concepts of character and event within the plot, linking these together in a manner that helps the reader stay meaningfully connected to the story (Gissing, 95). In this way, Dickens uses Pip as a way of making a commentary about society, morality, and class struggles with an overriding narrative that experiences greed, wealth, and power whilst trying to remain hardworking, ethical, and caring. Instead of making the commentary directly, Dickens establishes the narrator as a way of disassociating himself as the author in the reader’s mind from the story so that Pip becomes the translator for what Dickens is trying to communicate to the reader (Miller, 249).

What sets the narrative apart in Great Expectations is the complex form in terms of Mr. Pirrip, the grown Pip, reflecting on his life as a poor boy and doing so from the perspective of a mature and somewhat successful businessperson. He seems to tell the story in a calm and reflective tone that does not appear to be angry with his childhood despite having expectations in youth that went unfulfilled. Even in retelling situations that were rather traumatic and cruel, Pip remains detached. This illustrates how Dickens uses this tone to build sympathy and create a distinction between the bad society and the good nature of some human beings. He provides a matter-of-fact tone to what could be considered a serious commentary on society of the day. This can be seen as he states, “I tell this lightly, but it was no light thing for me” (Dickens, 235).

This sense of detachment and isolation from previous events illustrates how a narrator can be positioned in a way that shows how all human relationships are not logical and rational in terms of communication, interaction, and level of meaning but that life is a much more complex and illusive set of actions and mindsets (Vande Kieft, 325). There are also times where the limitation of what the narrator chooses to relay or how it is being relayed will greatly impact on the reader’s reaction to what the narrator has to say, thereby influencing the reader to potentially draw certain conclusions. This can especially be the case for Pip as Dickens tries to use the narration to explain the movement from self-awareness to self-acceptance that expectations are often replaced by doubt when society has the power and cruelty to control one’s existence (Dessner, 436). Throughout all of his novels, including Hard Times and Great Expectations, Dickens makes it clear that he would like to remain detached from the story and the narrator he has created, somewhat inferring his own distrust of the narrator but acknowledgement that the device helps him achieve his intent as a writer (Daldry, 99).

The fact that he seems to change from making assumptions about his childhood to a defensive tone that illustrates confidence in his memory and his feelings positions Pip as a more trustworthy narrator in terms of making him more human and akin to the reader (Daldry 1987,141). Yet, even the desire to trust Pip’s perspective is taken off-balance when the reader discovers later on in the story that they have been intentionally deceived about certain episodes. In this way, Dickens is able to put the reader in the same frame of mind as the innocent and naïve Pip who, as a child, had considered certain people trustworthy only to find that he had been deceived. In this way, the narrative becomes a reflective device that Dickens uses to make the reader feel what he is trying to explain about society and the lack of morality and integrity in the world. This is also carried out through Pip’s sense of that helplessness over his situation based on how overwhelmed the other characters make him feel. This adds to the mood and emotion of the novel which is emitted through Pip and to the reader (Woloch, 178). This sense of being overwhelmed may lead Pip to be somewhat unreliable as the other characters dominate him and tend to shape his self and the reader’s sense of his personality and character (Woloch, 178).

The continued focus of Dickens on the concept of how personality forms (Morgentaler, 1) is also explored through the narrative techniques of Hard Times. Like Pip, the anonymous narrator in Hard Times is also used as a device to help the reader feel a sense of isolation of self set against a harsh society (Miller, 251) as well as express an individual’s sense of self in relation to society and in relation to other individuals (Miller 1958, 225). There is a similar realisation with this narrator in terms of explaining what he had perceived as reality that, upon further existence and exploration, was not correct nor was it logical, leading him to re-examine himself and his life (Dickens, 29).

Using this technique in both books is also a way for Dickens to lend a deeper perspective for the reader in terms of providing what may seem like a confusion or fragmentation of views by the two narrators (Shires, 18). This fragmentation can be seen in how Pip and the anonymous narrator tend to change their minds about various actions or situations that they are relating as well as becoming more emotional at times whilst other situations are explained calmly and rationally, sending the reader through a kaleidoscope of perspectives about various events in the book. In this way, Victorian literature utilised the narrator as a device for moving away from Realist literature that was focused on reconciliation and wholeness. Instead, books by Dickens and others during the time pushed the boundaries of what the reader could handle by providing a narrator who could guide and frame the reader’s journey through which perspectives were ‘tested, altered, or replaced by another’ (Shires, 18).

This open sense of the world and society provides an omniscient sense to the narration within Great Expectations, which one critic described as a first-person narrator trapped within third person narrative world (Woloch, 178). In understanding the differences in narrative technique, first person narrative ‘makes a qualitative distinction between the human figure who narrates the story (and it is thus presented as an agent or subject of perception) and the characters he writes about (mere objects of perception)’ (Woloch, 178). In this case, Pip is narrating his perception of his own character or self, which leads him to continually attempt to detach himself. The reader then determines what the mature Pip is really thinking about in terms of his life, his connection to society, and his sense of self.

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However, it is within Hard Times where Dickens more loosely uses an alternative personality to cover up his direct communication to the reader in the form of an indirect discourse and the use of omniscient narration. In this manner, there is a framed structure because the narrator is telling a story that seemingly has a different protagonist than the narrator (Woloch, 178). This was a way to transmit his perspective on political and social issues of his time even though his intent was for the reader to focus on the creation of an omniscient narrator who is simply helping the reader look beyond the fictional world and draw conclusions about real society and the one within Hard Times (Watts, 135). As an omniscient narrator, there is also a vagueness that is pronounced in terms of how situations are described or what they are to symbolise in terms of making an inference to the political and educational systems of the day (Watts, 138).

Whilst there are many places in which it would seem as though the narrator would come out and direct the reader to a certain belief, such as destroying mills, it is never said; it is only inferred (Watts, 139). Hence, the conclusions based on the re-examination and evaluation of self through the omniscient narrator is left more up to the reader in Hard Times than the more direct, but still somewhat caged, responses of Pip in Great Expectations. Whilst seemingly left up to the reader, there is room to consider the possibility that, despite room for interpretation that an omniscient perspective allows the reader to draw their own conclusions, Dickens still seems to allow both narrators only enough license to review certain information by which to manipulate control of the reader’s point of view thereby inciting a certain sympathy or contempt for different groups of people within society (Boege, 90).

This same perspective was also noted by a researcher who said, ‘In a sense, the whole purpose of the novel is to convince us of a number of equivalences, most particularly that between the educational philosophy of Gradgrind and the economic theory and practice of the new industrialism’ (Bloom, 120). Leaving the narration to be conducted by a somewhat anonymous ‘voice’ is Dickens’s way of not focusing the reader on the actual elements of character of the narrator but keeping the reader solely set on understanding the purpose of the novel. In this way, the reader is connected to the information provided by the anonymous reader in an unemotional manner that does not bring personal interest into the controversial subjects of the novel, including ‘the grinding ugliness of industrial development; the abstract theory of Utilitarianism; shallow self-interest; the anti-social force of the capitalist; and trade unions’ (Hosbaum, 174). In many ways, information and perspectives about these subjects are provided in a detached manner somewhat similar to Pip who seemed, at times, to be narrating someone else’s life.

In both novels the narrators attempt in a personal and direct way with Pip in Great Expectations and with an omniscient manner in Hard Times to tell the reader about society and how what is ideal and moralistic is not necessarily what reality involves, especially in light of the individuals who seemingly are not able to make a difference in terms of overcoming society with their expectations of how things should be (Jordan, 70). Both transmit Dickens’s messages about the struggles of humanity against a powerful and greedy society (Jordan, 78). In both of Dickens’s texts, the narrators provide the tools by which the reader can receive the context of what Dickens wants to communicate so as to transmute the relevance of the social and political messages that appear in these books (Walsh, 36). Whilst the information within the texts is viewed as fiction, Dickens employs his narrators to provide a level of authenticity, honesty, and relevance to the fiction by which the reader can glean knowledge of specific events and issues that have occurred in the real world as opposed to just being viewed as fictional events (Walsh, 36).

As one critical analysis of narrative techniques noted, ‘The knowledge offered by fiction…is not primarily specific knowledge of what is (or was), but of how human affairs work, or,…how to make sense of them-logically, evaluatively, emotionally’ (Walsh, 36). Hence, through an omniscient presence as well as through the presentation of a sympathetic narrator like Pip, the reader can make connections to these books, which helps deepen the contextual effect that Dickens is trying to create. The narrators are a way to connect the cognitive processes of the author and the reader, thereby passing on knowledge of reality but doing so through a fictional process that is guided and controlled by the narrator. Throughout both books, Dickens attempts to take the reader into the mind of his characters, himself, and society as a way to connect the reader to the events and issues of his day whilst still trying to provide a number of perspectives by which to humanise the story and to build sympathy for the points he is attempting to make about the real world.


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