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  • Writer's pictureТимофей Милорадович

Cambridge Student's Essay on The narrative voice in English Literature


The narrative voice


A key factor of the presentation of the narrative voice is 'how writers and readers imagine each other-the difficult balance of identification and differentiation involved in the process of communication or understanding." Thus, the narrative voice is crucial to the art of communication with the reader. Another role that the narrative plays is to strengthen the structural boundaries of a piece of writing. In the hope of illustrating these points, I have chosen to look at Part II of Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in order to illustrate the role of narrative in relation to the audience, and Chapter 41 of Jane Austen's Emma, in terms of narrative as it relates to structure.


The 'growth of scientific attitudes in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries' meant that poets were no longer 'society's bardic representative, giving back to his fellows a heightened version of their own beliefs and aspirations,' as had been the case for centuries. Whilst previously the tradition of the Ballad form-short, relatively simple poetic structures dealing with everyday or commonplace occurrences - had to a large extent sufficed, now poets were increasingly 'interested in certain aspects of human behaviour which eluded control by the rational powers." Romanticism grew into a new genre and focused on the theme of Nature, 'particularly those aspects...which transcended or escaped the ordered patternings of mathematical form.' The Ancient Mariner is a perfect example of this, as Coleridge himself described it as 'a poem of pure imagination.' (John Beer, Introduction 'Coleridge: Poems' U.K. Everyman, 1991, From J. Beer, 'Coleridge: Poems' U.K. Everyman, 1991)


The study of Boehme's work led Coleridge to the idea that 'there existed in the universe a threefold correspondence between nature, the human heart, and the divine." In The Ancient Mariner, nature plays a key role in the unfolding of the events, as can be seen in Part II with Coleridge's frequent references: 'Sun,' 'sea,' 'mist,' 'wind,' 'breeze,' 'fog,' and 'sky." Similarly, the 'Human Heart' significant, as can be seen in the Ancient Mariner's own crippling guilt and the reaction of the shipmates, who 'would fain throw the whole guilt' on him. The 'Divine' is perhaps the most significant of all, leading some, including J. Beer, to argue that the sun in The Ancient Mariner can be seen to represent God; it is certainly true that the Sun is linked to the Divine in Coleridge's own words: (pg 1 All quotes from S. T. Coleridge, Part II, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. S. T. Coleridge, Marginalia, line 137, Part II, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. “Nor dim nor red, like God's own head, The glorious Sun purist”: S. T. Coleridge, lines 95-96, Part II, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.)


Similarly, it is this 'Sun' which appears with every change in the ship's fortunes throughout Part II: both good weather and bad are issued in by the rising of the sun, and as things grow hard on the ship, the sun goes from 'glorious' in line 96 to 'bloody' in line 110, showing the punishing nature of this 'divine' sun.


The pace of the narrative changes dramatically with the changing fortunes of those on the ship. With the opening of stanzas one and two, the narrative is fast-paced, created by the use of predominantly monosyllabic words. As the ship enters the Pacific Ocean, repeated alliteration and uplifting words such as 'flew' and 'burst' generate the image of the ship racing through the waves. However, with the sudden 'becalming' of the ship comes a different sound to the narrative altogether; slow assonance in 'The bloody Sun, at noon,' the repetition of 'dropt,' and the infertile rhyme of 'speak' and 'break' create a sense of lethargy that echoes that of the shipmates.


This use of repetition continues through stanzas eight and nine, reinforcing this feeling of lassitude and weariness until the first mention of the supernatural in the poem, with the 'slimy things...upon the slimy sea." J. Beer refers to The Ancient Mariner as 'a poem on delirium, confounding its own dream scenery with external things,' and this delirium can be seen in the Mariner's increasingly delirious visions of 'death fires' and green burning water. (S. T. Coleridge, lines 101 and 103, Part II, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Ibid, line 110. Ibid, lines 105 and 107; Ibid pg 2, lines 123 and 124. J. Beer, pg 169, Coleridge: Poems, U.K. Everyman, 1991. S.T Coleridge, lines 126 and 128, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner).


Coleridge was known to hold 'contempt for the reading public." Indeed, the 'consistency with which Coleridge denounced the reading public has led Paul Hamilton to conclude that he was incapable of a generous engagement with his audience." This contempt can be seen in the repeated and stressed morality of the poem. 'The implied philosophy of The Ancient Mariner [is that] men act evilly because they don't know what they're doing." It is this ignorance that Coleridge criticized in the novel-reading public: L. Newlyn, 'case study ( I ): (Coleridge,' Reading, writing and romanticism, U.S. Oxford university Press, 2000 ; J. Beer, Coleridge: Poems, U.K. Everyman, 1991), "The habit of receiving pleasure without any exertion of thought, by mere excitement of curiosity and sensibility, may be justly ranked among the worst effects of habitual novel reading."


Therefore, it can be argued that Coleridge found it difficult to connect with his audience, and thus used his narrative form to instruct and condemn. In Emma, on the other hand, Austen is not known to have any such contempt for her audience, which can be said to be the ambitious middle classes. Instead, the purpose of Austen's novels is to delight her reader with subtle use of humour, irony and satire, all of which can be seen in chapter 41.


That is not to say that she does not have a strict moral code, as R. Williams argues: 'what happens in Emma... Is the development of and everyday, uncompromising morality which is in the end separable from its social basis." This 'domestic and moralizing fiction which is highly patterned' is particularly visible in chapter 41 in which the word game played by the characters is a direct instruction from Austen to the reader on how to read her novel and in particular this scene.


The first word to be discovered in the Charades' scene is the word 'blunder' which obviously and superficially relates to Frank Churchill's blunder by almost revealing his and Jane Fairfax's correspondence. However, it is a theme central to the plot: Emma blunders with Harriet's feelings, and when she insults Miss Bates. Mr Elton blunders in his proposal to Emma, and Harriet blunders in her feelings for Mr. Knightly.


Therefore, we can see that this scene is highly structured, with Austen using the game to heighten the irony. It is also interesting to note the positions of the characters as they engage in the game: Emma and Frank, the liveliest characters in the novel, are the protagonists in producing the game: 'no one seemed so much disposed to employ as their two selves." Miss Fairfax is drawn in almost against her wishes, and Mr Knightly is 'so placed as to see them all." This can be said to be representative of their characters and behaviour throughout the plot - Emma and Frank being enthusiastic, Jane quiet, and Mr Knightly overseeing the whole affair. 'The responses of the characters to each other are orchestrated in conversations which combine incongruity and complexity of feeling with the greatest possible clarity."


This careful structuring of the narrative-using the character's voices to further the plot - is one of Austen's strengths in Emma. She 'promotes intimacy between her readers and characters by creating characters who are intimate with each other and whose speech reflects this intimacy." The novel is 'outstandingly face-to-face;' rather than the bold supernatural of Coleridge's work, 'its crises, physically and spiritually, are in just these terms: a look, a gesture, a stare, a confrontation.' (The Jane Austen Handbook ed. J. David Grey, U.K. Macmillan, 1986 . Raymond Williams, pg 116, The country and the city, London, Chatto & Windus Ltd, 1973. J. Fergus. Pg 121, Jane Austen and the Didactic novel, U.K. Macmillan, 1985. Pg 306, Emma J. Fergus. Pg 122, Jane Austen and the Didactic novel, U.K. Macmillan, 1985. R. Williams, pg 166, The country and the city, London, Chatto & Windus Ltd, 1973). This scene in Emma is deeply significant to the narrative of the novel, as many truths are revealed within it, and it is representative in style of the novel as a whole.


In this excerpt, we are given the first real hint of Frank and Jane's attachment with his blunder over the carriage. We are also shown Austen's irony at its best as Mr. Knightly and Emma discuss Frank and Jane's relationship, with Emma insisting that Mr. Knightly, the more sensible of the two, has made the idea of an attachment up. 'There is no admiration between them, I do assure you." Two of the silliest characters in the novel, Miss Bates and Mr. Woodhouse are also present in this scene, and are vital for Austen's development of the narrative. These foolish characters 'flatter the reader' by including one in the joke of poking fun at them, and are used critically to highlight the intelligence of other key characters, specifically Emma and Mr. Knightly. (Pg 309, Emma J. David Grey, pg 66, The Jane Austen Handbook, U.K. Macmillan, 1986).


The typical components of Austen's comedy are the comic heroine; the animating powers of mind and triviality, stupidity, and actual or potential immorality; a clear set of values; the use of speech and conversation for satirical and witty effects; a distinctive and habitual irony; and the movement toward rational love and fitting unison. (R.M Polhemus, pg 60, The Jane Austen Handbook, U.K. Macmillan, 1986).


All these elements can be seen in this chapter of Emma, and it is this set of guidelines which 'give tension to her art.' Therefore, it is clear that the differences in the way poems and novels organize their stories lies mainly in the narrative structures. Whilst both Coleridge and Austen use dialogue to further their plots, the wider scope of the novel allows Austen greater use of the tools of irony and satire, whilst Coleridge's work relies much more on the supernatural. Both works are deeply psychological, with Coleridge's emphasis on the damaged psyche with the Ancient mariner, and Austen's on the psychology of everyday life. 'She provided the emphasis which only had to be taken...into a different social experience to become not a moral but a social criticism.' (R. Williams, pg 117. The country and the city, London, Chatto & Windus Ltd, 1973)

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