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Sunday, June 9, 2013

Jane Austen's Omniscient Narrator....or Her Heroine's Subjective Projections & Imaginings

"Austen's approach to omnipresence, our third aspect of omniscience, is perhaps the most idiosyncratic aspect of her handling of point of view. Oddly enough, an Austen narrator can only read minds within a radius of three miles of her protagonist; this is specified as being precisely the distance from Longbourn to Netherfield (Pride and Prejudice 32) and also from Kellynch Hall to Uppercross Cottage (Persuasion 31). And even this level of privilege occurs rarely. Normally the narrator can only read the minds of characters within sight or hearing of the protagonist. Austen's narrator is under house arrest, and the protagonist of the novel is her ankle bracelet. Take Pride and Prejudice, for example: in Chapter IV the narrator first presents a scene between Jane and Elizabeth at Longbourn, then summarizes a parallel scene with Darcy and his party at Netherfield, three miles away; this is the absolute limit of an Austen narrator's range in shifting point of view (16-17). The three mile radius appears to always have Elizabeth as its fixed center. On three other occasions the narrator can read a character's mind when Elizabeth is in another part of the house, and once when she is walking in another part of the grounds. And even in some of these cases, the point of view is not shifted across space in the mode of "meanwhile back at the ranch," but "handed off" as it were, from Elizabeth to another character: "... Elizabeth soon afterwards left the room. 'Eliza Bennet,' said Miss Bingley, when the door was closed on her ..." (40). The narrator does not occupy all of space simultaneously like God, nor teleport herself through space like Captain Kirk--she simply stays behind to hear two speeches, after which Elizabeth returns to the room. In every other case of telepathy in Pride and Prejudice--and these are numerous--the character whose mind is being read is within Elizabeth's audiovisual field. This degree of spatial restriction hardly seems consonant with handbook definitions of omniscience. " --- Nelles, William. "Omniscience for atheists: or, Jane Austen's infallible narrator." Narrative Vol. 14 Issue 2 (May 2006): p. 118 et seq.

I don't recall now who was the first Austen scholar to point out the curious fact that William Nelles pointed out in the above quotation in his 2006 article, does anyone else? What I do vaguely recall is that it is an old interpretation, going back many decades.

In any event, I also can't recall whether I have ever pointed out publicly what I recognized about a decade ago, which is that there is one simple (and, in my opinion, compelling) explanation for the Three-Mile Rule in about 95+% of the relevant passages, which does not involve any sort of supernatural narratorial insight.

 I.e., it all works like a charm if we infer that Jane Austen intentionally wrote these narrative passages that way because they are a reflection of the heroine's (in this case, Elizabeth's) subjective projections and imaginings, i.e., what she believes the other characters are thinking, and not necessarily what they are actually thinking!

And the same is true in all of the novels.

Which makes that less than 5% of narrative passages when Elizabeth is not physically present, but where we are in the head of another character (mostly Charlotte Lucas and Darcy, I can't recall if this applies to any other characters) extraordinarily important and interesting, because they are not amenable to interpretation as Elizabeth's projections and imaginings. These rare passages are the closest thing we get from Jane Austen to some sort of objective triangulation of social reality, in terms of our understanding of the true motivations of those other characters. I.e., those are very rare occasions where we get to know the thoughts of characters other than the heroine without their being filtered, to some degree or another, through the mind of the heroine.

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