A First Person Third Person Narrator

One of the most distinct stylistic elements of Middlemarch is its narrator, an omniscient being that slips into first-person narration on occasion.  It is the instinct of any reader to assume that a third-person omniscient narrator is reliable, although in Middlemarch this is clearly not a safe assumption.

Indeed, the fact that the narrator goes out of his or her way to clarify his or her impartiality is a sign of exactly the opposite.  On Page 353, the narrator sees fit to add an a parenthetical statement after beginning a description of how Mr. Casaubon feels about Will Ladislaw: “and must not we, being impartial, feel for him too?”  This small segment of text warrants further analysis for a number of reasons.  First, the use of the pronoun “we” intimately involves the reader with the text.  In other words, the narrator is talking directly to the reader.  Though this is not the first use of the word “we” by the narrator in Middlemarch, it stands out because of the rareness of the pronoun by third-person narrators in general.  Second, and perhaps more importantly, the narrator’s decision to reinforce his or her impartiality causes the reader to reconsider the narrator’s impartiality.  This narrator may be omniscient, but is clearly a “being.”

This idea of a third-person narrator with a personality is further reinforced on Page 320: “Whatever has been or is to be narrated by me about low people, may be ennobled by being considered a parable.”  The narrator is clearly self-aware of the shortcomings of his or her own writing.  Page 320 continues, stating that “Thus while I tell the truth about loobies, my reader’s imagination need not be entirely excluded from an occupation with lords.”  The use of the term “my readers” suggests that the novel itself has become self aware, addressing what it may see as its own faults and providing its readers with ways to remedy them.

All of this calls into question if the narrator can even be accurately called a third person narrator.  Strictly grammatically speaking, the answer would seem to be no–the use of the pronouns “I,” “we,” “my,” and “our,” certainly disqualify the notion that the narrator is un-involved in the plot of the novel.  This approach suggests that the narrator is some sort of supernatural being, narrating in the the first-person a Study of Provincial Life. In a contextual sense, the narrator knows the thoughts and actions of all key players in Middlemarch at all time, indicating that he is in fact a third-person narrator.  In the end, it seems prudent to simply identify the narrator as an omniscient being with a personality and self-awareness that is telling the stories of others in a distinctly third-person fashion.  In essence, he or she is a first person third person narrator.

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