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Innovative Narrative Techniques in the British and American Novel of the 20th

Century
Prep. Maria Elisabeta MUREAN
Universitatea 1 Decembrie 1918 ALBA IULIA
The present paper is the result of our interest in the problems of reading literature - novels
especially in the great variety of approaches to this literary form. We emphasize the changes
brought about by modern criticisms growing interest in rhetoric at the expense of plot and
character, the novel being conceived as a large field in which the characters and the narrators act
directly and indirectly, providing the reader with multiple, contradictory perspectives over the same
problem. We stress as well the great importance of perspective or point of view in narrative
transmission and try to discuss the most common types of narrative art.
In modern fiction the essence of narrative art lies especially in the relationship between the
teller and the tale, on the one hand, and between the author and his audience, on the other hand. In
his work The Rhetoric of Fiction. Wayne Booth shows that in any reading experience there is an
implied dialogue among author, narrator, the other characters and the reader. Each of the four can
range in relation to each of the others, from Identification to complete opposition on the axis of
values, moral, intellectual and even physical1.
And later he insists upon the fact that in any novel there is an "implied author, also called
undramatized narrator2"(anonymous, reticent about himself) and the novelist's second self, the voice
who communicates directly or indirectly his vision of the world. The author's presence is
unavoidable in the sense that it is he who selects and organizes the narrative material and from this
point of view the book is after al l an expression of his personality. Even the interior monologue
technique admits the presence of the author acting as a kind of mediator between the characters'
mind and the reader, and at the same time keeping control over the whole story, in its progress.
Among the so-called "dramatized narrators" the most outstanding are the third person ("center of
consciousness" in modern fiction = observers) and narrator agents (those who produce some effect
upon the events described in the book). Narrators may be aware or not of themselves as writers and
they may or may not discuss the creative process. The writer usually tries to achieve a balance
between "telling" and "showing" using exposition for purposes of compression and maintaining the
focus on the principal action. At the same time he uses dialogue and action to involve the reader by
showing him what happens rather than simply telling him.
Another essential aspect refers to the great importance of perspective or of point of view. It is one of
the devices by which the story's meaning is communicated to us, providing us with a particular
narrative focus by means of which we observe what happens. The modern writer rarely speaks
directly to the reader. More often he creates a figure who tells the story for him or through whom
are view the action. This device has the effect of removing the author from the scene, creating and
maintaining an increasing illusion of reality.

1
2

Wayne Booth, Retorica romanului, Editura Univers, Bucureti, 1967, pp. 200-201
Ibidem, p. 302.

The reader is put into a direct relationship with the story itself from the opening lines through a
figure who operates within the narrative but who is not its author (the reflection -character narrator).
The point of view also provides the writer with a tense he can focus to clarify details, discover new
facts, to examine relationships. Points of view can be divided in two kinds: participant (or first
person) and non-participant (or third person). Each of these two divisions can be subdivided in:
a) participant point of view with the narrator as a major character or a minor one;
b) non-participant point of view including omniscient, selective omniscient and objective narrator.
If the narrator is a participant in the story, he is very involved in the events and he may influence in
a subjective way his report of what happens. But a first-person narrator is not always a major
character. In this case his involvement may be very slight, or he stand completely outside the main
action.
In a non-participant point of view the narrator does not introduce himself as a character. If the point
of view is omniscient the teller relates what he wishes about the thoughts and deeds of his
characters. He can comment and interpret the events in his own way. A selective omniscient point o
view also brings the reader into the story; the author more or less effaces himself and the reader sees
everything through the eyes of one or two filtering consciousnesses. This "eye" a central
intelligence may also penetrate into the mind of the characters, revealing us their innermost
thoughts and emotions; in this case the story is told in the third person and narrator and narrative
focus are no longer one and the same.
In the reflector-character narration, the narrator is also within the story sharing an internal
perspective, just as in the first-person narration. But in this case there is no introductory thinking
close, no reporting verbs, past tense and third person pronouns being some of the method's
peculiarities. In the use of the so-called "free indirect speech technique" or narrated monologue a
difficulty arises when we must distinguish between what a narrator says and the character
verbalizes. This technique is extremely use in the modern novel and gives the fiction writer an
enormously flexible tool to mix or alternate the narrator perspective and the stream of character
consciousness in an inobtrusive way.
So, considering perspective an essential element in the narrative transmission, Nicolae Manolescu
in his work, Arca lui Noe, distinguishes among four types of narration.3
In the first type the perspective is external to the facts narrated and the voice is unpersonified and
unpsychological that is to say, it is not assigned to visible person, a character in the novel, but to an
author fulfilling the fiction of a transcendental instance compared to God.
In the second, the perspective being still external the comment is impersonal, objective or
distributed to an invisible narrator, who makes the effort of remaining neutral, hidden, detached.
In the third case the perspective is internal, psychological, personified, the narrator becoming the
predominate authority and adopting the point of view of a character such as in the Ambassadors,
The Portrait of a Lady or Lord Jim.
In the fourth case the perspective is internal or psychological but it's also multiple or multipersonal;
the author leaves the initiative to his characters, as happens in To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway,
Ulysses, or The Sound and the Fury.
Another important critic, Franz Stanzel, in his work, Towards a Grammar of Fiction, speaks of
three basic situations which are reflected in their interdependence, continually combining and
flowing into one another. According to his theory variability and transition also characterizes the
narrative process in a novel, its strategy often shifting from chapter to chapter or from scene to
scene, occasionally from sentence to sentence4
These three basic narrative situations are: authorial narration; teller-character narration and
reflector-character narration.
3

cf. Nicolae Manolescu, Arca lui Noe, Editura Gramar, Bucuresti, 2000, p. 32.
Franz Stanzel, Towards a Grammar of Fiction in Ileana Galea & Virgil Stanciu, Studies in the English Novel of the
First Half of the Twentieth Century, Cluj-Napoca, 1987, p. 99.
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a) Authorial narration
In this narrative mode the teller or the narrator plays a crucial role, because of his authorial
intervention in the story. He does not introduce himself as a character but he can go into the minds
of characters and reveal their thoughts and deeds. An omniscient writer has god-like powers and
privileges. He can take the reader back and forth in time and space, evaluating the motives and the
behaviour of the characters, commenting approvingly or disapprovingly on their deeds and actions.
His personalized visible and outside the fictional world. The omniscient writers, such as Fielding,
Sterne, Thackeray, Trollope etc. give a personal tone to the narrative and the reader has to see it
through their eyes.
Some critics such as E.M. Forster, for example, consider that 5 it is a bad thing for a story-teller to
intrude upon his story passing comment on the characters and their actions, addressing the reader
in a jocular or predicatory manner, inviting him to think, and sometimes telling him what to think.
According to the literary critic for a writer to take the reader into this confidence about
characters ... is devasting, it is bar-parlour chatliness and nothing has been more harmful to the
novels of the past. To take your reader into your confidence about the universe is a different thing6.
Other critics find the very presence of the story teller obviously standing between the reader and the
story and annoying distraction because it forces him to become aware that it is just a story he is
reading, not the truth. Ford Madox Ford complained that the trouble with the English novelist from
Fielding to Meredith is that not one of them cares whether you believe in their characters or not.7
Authorial or omniscient narration inherited from the previous centuries is in general a characteristic
of the realistic Victorian novel, based especially on the chronological presentation of the
protagonist's life from childhood to maturity or old age within an episodic or well-knit plot. This
type of narration supposes the author's unique perspective over the events and the continuous flow
of the epic on a single temporal axis: past - present - future.
b) Teller-character narration
In this type of narration the narrator is one of the characters taking part in the story, either as a
major character or as a minor one who tells the story in the first person singular. So, he is
personalized, visible as a character and within the fictional world. If the narrator is the center of
interest, the narration is, of course, autobiographical. If he is on the periphery of the action, telling a
story that focuses on someone else than himself, the narrator is largely a witness to the action and
we get the story filtered through his eyes and mind.
There are certain advantages of the narrator being present in the world of fictional characters, such
as reliability and a greater vividness of his report. But at the same time we must accept certain
limitations: the eye-witness cannot see everything. The eye-witness in narrative can be protagonist
or observer or both. He can be limited to what he has actually seen or he can supplement this by
what he can find out or even by what he can confidently imagine. This type of literature was
extremely frequent in literature; consider as examples: Gulliver's Travels, David Copperfield, Great
Expectations, Wuthering Heights. Lord Jim etc.
In modern fiction its frequent use points out the author's desire to make the reader participate in the
act of creation. This is how it is done8:

cf. E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel, Cambridge, 1974, p. 186


Ibidem, p. 192.
7
cf. Michael Tolley, The Teller and the Tale in John Colmer, Approaches to the Novel, London, 1967, p. 19.
8
Liviu Cotrau & Jack Ratbun, English Practical Course. Two Approaches to Literature, Editura Didactica i
Pedagogica Bucuresti, 1983, p. 28.
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It is assumed that teller-character narration preserves the temporal meaning of pastness. When the
teller-character tells the story, the reader knows that two different time schemes are operative. There
is the "here" and "now" which is the act of story telling the time of narration. And there is the
"there" and "then" when the characters are involved in various actions, and that is the narrated time.
Some typical teller-character narrations arc Conrad' novels: Lord Jim or Heart of Darkness.
c) Reflector-character narration
In this type of narration the narrator is invisible and his place is taken by one or more reflectorcharacters, a figural mediums, such as Stephen Dedalus and Clarissa Dalloway etc. They are the
focal points, all the action being centered round them. It is a third person point of view, in which the
"he" or the "she" participates in the story and responds to the original situation; in this case there are
two or several filtering consciousnesses besides the narrative voice, that is also thinking about and
responding to the original situation, as shown in the following illustration:9

The traditional narrator having disappeared the reader is put face to face with the character's mind,
his innermost thoughts, memories and sensations. It is a matter of rendering consciousness in itself,
as it flows from moment to moment since consciousness does not appear to itself chopped up in
9

Ibidem, p. 28.

bits ... as Virginia Woolf puts it: is nothing pointed, it flows ... Let us call it stream of thought, of
consciousness or of subjective life10.
Dorothy Richardson, James Joyce and later Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner used this method
with varying degrees of identity, their distant forerunner being Lawrence Sterne with his wellknown Tristram Shandy, full of digressions and interior monologues.
It is a well-known fact that the "stream of consciousness" school revolutionized the art of the novel
writing. Bu there we must carefully distinguish between the interior monologue and the stream of
consciousness technique.
An internal monologue necessarily implies the use of language, by means of which a character's
thoughts, taking the form of a well-ordered and coherent conversation with himself are
recommunicated to us. This technique refers to representation of pre-speech levels of
consciousness, of all pure mental activity as it reflects the total spectrum of thought from highly
conscious level, characterized by order and awareness of thought processes, to the edge of the
unconscious level where mental activity is impulsive, fragmentary, and tends to relate emotions
rather than ideas.
Virginia Woolf made a wide and skillful use of such an indirect interview monologue in Mrs.
Dalloway, To the Lighthouse and so did James Joyce in Ulysses (in some episodes) or A Portrait of
the Artist as a Young Man.
Linked with a mode of narration is the author's control of aesthetic distance. A literary work must be
neither "over-distanced" nor "under-distanced" as Booth has put it. 11 If it is over-distanced it will
seem improbable and artificial; yet if it is under-distanced, the work becomes too personal and can't
be enjoyed as art. But distance is never an end in itself; it is thought as a system of controlling the
reader's involvement and the detachment along various lines of interest.12
Closely related to the foregoing issues is that of language. Whether a narrator is formal or
colloquial, for example, depends a lot upon whether we are to assume that it is spoken, written or
thought. Language in one sense is the actual medium of the novel. But the text of a novel need not
always represent language, it could represent a state of mind, a sequence of events and experiences
that have not necessarily been verbalized by anyone but which are translated into words for the
reader by the novelist13.
Source and medium affect the selection, the authority and the attitude of the reader towards what is
recounted of the narrative, and thus, the effort on the reader or the listener.
In conclusion, we may assert that the process of narrative transmission is extremely complex and
there aren't very strict rules separating the basic narrative situations. We must consider them in their
interdependence, combination and transition, nothing changes not only from chapter to chapter but
even within the same scene or sentence, due to the inexplicable rhetoric interference. As readers, we
should notice the meaning of change of the modern English novel which seem to be a world of
contradictions and paradox, a world of everything and nothing.14
In order to assimilate this world of contradictions what remains for a novel to do is to exalt the
narrative subject. But the subject is saved by the very act of narrating - which can be considered one
of the most important categories or systems by which man is able to understand and give form to
his or her own reality.15

10

See Walter Allen, The English Novel. A Short Critical History, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1965, p. 29.
Wayne Booth, op. cit., p. 230
12
Ibidem, p. 231
13
Jeremy Hawthorn, Studying the Novel, edited by Edward & Arnold Publisher, London, p. 36.
14
Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narration, London, vol. II, p. 80.
15
Ibidem, p. 81.
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