So here I am, finally, down to the last of my 5 favorite narrators. Back when I started this list with Huck Finn, I had no idea who the other four would be. And now that I’ve reached my last one, I’ve been sifting wildly through the remaining possibilities.
The prior four have all been first-person narrators, each with a distinctive voice. There are, of course, plenty of other first-person narrators with distinctive voices. My list includes Claudius of I, Claudius, Quentin Compson of Absalom, Absalom!, the man who tells us to call him Ishmael in Moby Dick, and Humbert Humbert from Lolita. And, of course, any number of vivid detective voices from American mystery novels.
But to focus on first-person narrators is to overlook the majority of great works of literature, all narrated in that third-person omniscient voice. While David Copperfield is a helluva narrator for the novel of that name, Charles Dickens outshines him in Bleak House. So, too, while Nick Carraway does a fine job narrating The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald does an even finer one as the narrator of large portions of Tender Is the Night.
I am, of course, hardly alone. While her novels sparkle with dialogue from an unforgettable cast of characters, it is those sly and witty asides from our narrator that have cast their charms over generations of readers, including many of our most celebrated authors.
This is what Virginia Woolf had to say in comparing Jane Austen to two other celebrated authors of that century:
“Charlotte Brontë, with all her splendid gift for prose, stumbled and fell with that clumsy weapon in her hands. George Eliot committed atrocities with it that beggar description. Jane Austen looked at it and laughed at it and devised a perfectly natural, shapely sentence proper for her own use and never departed from it. Thus, with less genius for writing than Charlotte Brontë, she got infinitely more said.” (A Room of One’s Own, Chapter 4)
So, too, here is W.H. Auden’s take on Jane, at lines 113-119 of Letter to Lord Byron (1936):
You could not shock her more than she shocks me;
Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass.
It makes me most uncomfortable to see
An English spinster of the middle class
Describe the amorous effects of “brass,”
Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety
The economic basis of society.
Indeed, while the witty banter between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice has entranced so many of us (including the motion picture and television industries, who cut-and-paste those exchanges into the scripts for their big screen and little screen adaptations), it is Jane (in the role of third-person narrator) who so famously opens that novel: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
Here are a few of my favorite asides from that wonderful narrator:
- “Marianne was silent; it was impossible for her to say what she did not feel, however trivial the occasion; and upon Elinor therefore the whole task of telling lies when politeness required it, always fell.” (Sense and Sensibility)
- “To look almost pretty is an acquisition of higher delight to a girl who has been looking plain for the first fifteen years of her life than a beauty from her cradle can ever receive.” (Northanger Abbey)
- “A woman, especially if she has the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.” (Northanger Abbey)
And every novelist’s favorite Austen quote (which, alas, she puts into the mouth of one of her characters): “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel must be intolerably stupid.” (Northanger Abbey)