The Art of Storytelling: Women’s Nineteenth Century Fictional Narration

The relationship between narrator and author is often a complicated one in which caution and creative liberty are balanced harmoniously. Setting the stage for a novel is no simple task and the narrator often serves as a liaison between reader and writer. As new ideas and techniques were coming to fruition in nineteenth century novel writing, female authors broke free from the constraints of old methods of storytelling and pursued new avenues in which to give merit to their voice. Going beyond mere narrative technique, women such as Mary Shelley, Emily Brontë, and George Eliot cleverly sought to attain social power through their patterns of narrative. In order to find and claim a voice for themselves, they had to rebel against their own cultural exclusion while at the same time presenting their work with full intent in order to gain authority.

The obtrusiveness of the author in many earlier novels served to assure the author’s creditability and reliability during the course of the story. There are many ways in which a narrator can serve as a mediator and authority in a novel and the most widely used vantage points are the first person, third person limited, and third person omniscient, as we see in Frankenstein, Wuthering Heights, and The Mill on the Floss, respectively. Each of these techniques was used, in some way or another, to further the author’s personal agenda, claim her own individual voice, and “publicly challenge the terms of [her] own domination” (Lanser 26). Female authors were able to transform authority by asserting their own ideas, thereby disengaging themselves from the conventional subordination they would normally experience as women.

Mary ShelleyMary Shelley’s Frankenstein is recounted to us by a few different characters, with Victor Frankenstein’s view making up the majority of the novel. What is slightly confusing about this is that Frankenstein’s first-person narrative is actually told through the letters of Robert Walton who serves as primary narrator. This epistolary form serves to set a realistic stage for the reader, framing both believability and drama in the reality of changing perspectives. Scattered throughout this narrative method are additional points of view, such as the monster’s first-person narrative quoted by Frankenstein and the narratives of Elizabeth Lavenza and Alphonse Frankenstein as told through their letters to Victor. By shifting the narrative point of view, Shelley gives us critical insight into the characters by allowing us to see the story unfold through their eyes. If there were only one first-person narrator in Frankenstein, we would be left with an incomplete understanding of each character and would have to read between the lines in order to fill in these additional gaps.

As the story of Victor Frankenstein unfolds, readers are corralled into believing the very fantastical world of creation, science, and monsters. Almost unknowingly, we are led from doubt to faith as Shelley morphs her novel into its own monstrous creation, just as Frankenstein’s monster goes through its phases of life and death. Dealing with the motif of morality, Shelley extends beyond conventional limits by placing herself front and center as embodying the aspects of God himself. She successfully manipulates a story of creation and assuming the role of God, she has transferred male power to female power, all with a slight of hand. While reading Frankenstein, one is quick to forget the author is a woman, since the main narratives are by male characters engaged in typical masculine behavior and study, such as science and exploration. It’s easy to forget that the wizard behind the curtain is, in fact, a woman. Shelley is largely successful at this due to the distancing caused by each narrative pass, separating her from the overall responsibility that a controversial novel may hold and the implication that her novel could be, in any way, autobiographical or a “roman à clef.” Also,as a sociological criticism, Frankenstein “warn[s] against the inevitable moral consequences of an unchecked experimental Prometheanism and scientific materialism.” (Zwickel 30-31). The narrative structure Shelley uses in her novel prevents the assumption that these are Shelley’s own opinions while, at the same time, cleverly criticizing and deconstructing the status quo. By “subverting male control over narratorial authority Mary Shelley does not allow her audience to read the novel in comfortable submission to male authority” (Patrick 41). By utilizing distanced and male voiced narrative, Shelley explores and exposes the many different aspects of male authority addressed in the content of her novel.

Emily BronteIn a parallel vein to Frankenstein, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights includes a distanced narrative technique but, uniquely, through the use of diary entries and oral storytelling. We are first introduced to Lockwood, who assumes to be the main narrator as he relays the story in his diary, only to find that it is through Nelly’s voice and the oral tradition that we are to witness the events. Nelly’s point of view is the only one in which we are afforded, forced to rely solely on her memories, interpretations, and biases. The only other filter is Lockwood’s transcription of Nelly’s words, but we trust they are written true to form. As an unreliable and obtrusive narrator, Nelly has a limited view of the events. Since she was directly involved, or at least present, during the course of the events at Wuthering Heights, there is no way for her to separate her partiality from an objective point of view. Along with the story, we are also subjected to Nelly’s own distortions and opinions. While this makes the story’s validity questionable, it is also the only way for us to witness the story. It’s also important to note that as a woman and a servant, we are offered a unique perspective on the course of events, as opposed to the narration coming from a traditional male authoritative view point.

What can be said about Brontë’s structural and narrational experimentation is that it reveals “gender relationships and the impact that [they] have on the storytelling process” (Carlson 27). This is not so far off from Brontë’s own insight and interpretation into the gender power struggle of Victorian daily life. This is undoubtedly a narrative tension between Lockwood and Nelly, as they each attempt to formulate their own versions of events through their personal filtering process and storytelling methods. We would expect that as a servant, Nelly’s participation in the story would be limited and easily dismissive, yet she fluidly captures Lockwood’s attention and successfully strips him of his initial power and gains the full authority as the main narrator. This transference of power is not accidental, rather it is Brontë’s subversive attempt at dismantling the traditional male voice and it’s standard command. The involvement of two conflicting narrators also juxtaposes the complexity of duality and opposition when questioning point of view and the weight of a person’s authority. We are then forced to “re-evaluate their dependability, their ambiguous motives, and their connections with the stories they tell” (Carlson 32). This calls into question not only the very reliability of their narration, but also of the larger structures at work behind them. The reader is left to contend with the split between two personalities, two narrators, and, ultimately, two realms in which the world is seen, interacted with, and built upon. The additional importance of having the story narrated by a female servant is of further significance; a symbolic revolution through the use of literature. As Nelly is “condemned as servant narrator to have no story of her own, [her] desire’s work themselves out in longings for narrative endings of all kinds, to the stories of social superiors, that she, paradoxically may author (Fernandez 125). Brontë gives us an initial tease that the narrator would be Lockwood, but when his authority is ripped away and a lower-status woman claims the position of storyteller, the gender and class balance is upset – control and influence over the readers is in the hands of a character who would normally never enjoy the privileges of power in real life. Here in Brontë’s novel, Nelly enjoys the rare control that maybe even Brontë wasn’t able to assert in her own life.

George EliotFinally, through the technique of a third-person omniscient narrator, George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss succeeds in offering a view point from an all-knowing and unnamed person, as narrator and author are seen as one and the same. This method gives the impression that the story being told is an account of true events which the narrator/author has witnessed. Mysteriously, the narrator dives in and out of character’s thoughts and feelings without the slightest indication as to how they know any of this information. We get a few glimpses of the author when the text switches briefly into a first-person narrative, addressing the reader and speaking directly of herself.

The curious quality to Eliot’s narrative style is the almost secretive hiding of the narrator’s gender. While we can assume, at times, that Eliot is speaking as herself, we aren’t entirely sure and, therefore, question whether the point of view is from a female or a male perspective. Readers are only able to ascertain certain characteristics as they relate to gendered stereotypes and make speculations based on either the emotional traits assigned to women or on the intellectual traits assigned to men. As an omniscient narrator who delivers a masculine knowledge of the outside world and intellectual pursuits, we are further confused by the dichotomy of the possible male/narrator and female/author taking place at the same times. This complexity may have been necessary for Eliot to achieve her vision of gender-neutral storytelling as “the narrator’s wide “masculine” knowledge is the most important aspect of Eliot’s rewriting of gender difference in The Mill on the Floss, and works along with Eliot’s stress on her own relationship to “masculine” knowledges” (Sommerfeldt 50). Moving in and out of gender categories, the impersonal narrator seems to be making a compromise between traditionally masculine and feminine separations of knowledge. By narrating primarily in the exhibition of male “wide knowledge,” “deep insight,” and with her “narrator’s participation in the debate on useful knowledge, Eliot also makes a claim for herself and other women writers” (Sommerfeldt 62). As she carefully chose to use these particular knowledges, Eliot proves her mastery in the examination of the way in which “various kinds of knowledge are gendered in the first place and of the cultural boundaries which dictate that normally women possess one kind of knowledge, men another”. (Sommerfeldt 36). Taking a stance on capabilities, knowledge, and privileges, Eliot stakes a claim in politicizing gender, illustrating that both men and women would benefit from the acquisition of both character traits.

Eliot’s unique combination of narrative style “cannot be divorced from social discourse, because it is through the contending discourses of her narrative voice that her “style” emerges” (Oberman 80). If social discourse and narrative style are intertwined, then Eliot’s narrative point of view carries much more significant weight than mere storytelling. She is, in fact, carrying out a vision in which she challenges the status quo and forces others to see her as an equally capable, intelligent woman, just as any other man would be. As enthusiastically as she pursued learning, Eliot also pursued a political platform, as the narration in The Mill on the Floss seemed to mimic the control and behavior of Eliot outside the realm of literature. Eliot “reach[ed] out with a fastidious yet hungry ambition for all that life could offer the free and inquiring mind and confront[ed] her feminine aspirations with the real world of men”  (Woolf). Her literary role played into her own life, and vice versa. By stripping the narrator of gender and allowing the story to be told in both veins of authority, masculine and feminine, Eliot dismissed the conventions of authority, accomplishing her intent of blurring the gender lines.

As traditional standards in society were being questioned and female writers found an avenue in which to exercise their voice, women’s fiction incorporated not only the act of storytelling, but also challenged certain social discourses. The many ways of using a novel as a political platform was risky, yet not impossible. By utilizing narrators to cloak their intent, female writers would use the highly effective literary tool of distancing in order to keep their reputations secure. In writing text steeped in subversion, these three female writers “simultaneously harness{ed] the authority allocated to male speakers… and use[d] this authority to undermine misogynistic attitudes” (Patrick 6). The narrator is a character as well, and one which can be widely manipulated. As a character which seems almost independent of the author and novel itself, the narrator’s views and interpretations can be removed from that of the author, making this character highly desirable in which to use as a vehicle for challenging social construction. In harnessing their own power and finding their own voice in which to speak out with, their “individual voice[s] paradoxically offer[ed] a potential mediating ground for transforming “the sex” – a caste – into a “we,” a body politic” (Lanser 26). Women’s bodies of literature were then extended far beyond simplistic and whimsical fancy, it also offered a way to expose constructed views and values and lent authority, power, and privilege to a community of women would not have been able to attain it elsewhere.

Works Cited

Carlson, Laurie Beth.  Narrative experimentation in four mid-Victorian novels.  Diss. University of Kansas, 1994. Dissertations & Theses: A&I, ProQuest. Web. 19 Apr. 2010.

Fernandez, Jean Marie.  In service of narration: Servants, the rhetorics of class and narrational politics in nineteenth-century fiction and autobiography.  Diss. The University of Iowa, 2004. Dissertations & Theses: A&I, ProQuest. Web. 21 Apr. 2010.

Lanser, Susan Sniader. Fictions of Authority: Women Writers and Narrative Voice. New York: Cornell University Press, 1992. Print.

Oberman, Rachel Provenzano.  Inner voices: Narrated monologue and narrative voice in Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf.  Diss. City University of New York, 2007. Dissertations & Theses: A&I, ProQuest. Web. 19 Apr. 2010.

Patrick, Elena.  Framing marriage: Male narrators in romantic fiction by Mary Shelley, George Sand, and Mariia Zhukova.  Diss. Rutgers The State University of New Jersey – New Brunswick, 2006. Dissertations & Theses: A&I, ProQuest. Web. 20 Apr. 2010.

Sommerfeldt, Christina Mary.  Constructing the intellectual woman: Gender, culture, and narrative voice in George Eliot’s novels.  Diss. University of Alberta (Canada), 2000. Dissertations & Theses: A&I, ProQuest. Web. 22 Apr. 2010.

Woolf, Virginia. “George Eliot.” The Times Literary Supplement. 20 Nov. 1919. Print.

Zwickel, Marion Carol.  A narratological reading emphasizing the narrator/narratee relationships in Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”, Charles Robert Maturin’s “Melmoth the Wanderer”, and J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla”.  Diss. West Virginia University, 1995. Dissertations & Theses: A&I, ProQuest. Web. 20 Apr. 2010.


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