Blog Post

Narrators, Part 2 -- The Cess of Omniscience

At the end of a work of fiction, the ideal reader knows as much as the author. How could it be otherwise? There is nothing else to know.

This means that the end of the work is the end of omniscience.

The author has what we could call fiat omniscience: anything she says goes as long as the work goes. The reader has to accept the author's omniscience. But once the work is over, there's nothing more the author as author can say to correct a reader. The end of omniscience is a return to reality: not only the conclusion of the fiction but the conclusion of authorial transcendence.

I find I really like narratives that thematize this well. (They form one of those interesting categories you can take pleasure in constructing.) The end of Northanger Abbey might be a good example:

The anxiety, which in this state of their attachment must be the portion of Henry and Catherine, and of all who loved either, as to its final event, can hardly extend, I fear, to the bosom of my readers, who will see in the tell–tale compression of the pages before them, that we are all hastening together to perfect felicity. The means by which their early marriage was effected can be the only doubt...

Once she's told us that, divulged the final event, she'll have told us everything.

Austen of course is arch -- the arch-archist, and Trollope (and to some extent Thackeray) follow in her footsteps. Mostly, however, such narratives have a melancholy strain, which is what I want to concentrate on here. Take, as a relatively simple example, Hemingway's "Indian Camp."

When Nick, at the end, feels "quite sure that he would never die" we get the only moment that breaks off (with extreme tact) from the close third person style that the story has been using. We know that Nick is wrong: we know it because, like Hemingway, we're adults. We know that Nick will die because we've learned that we will, even though we once felt as Nick does. The last line of the story distances itself from Nick, and now reader and author exit the story as mortal beings, beings aware of their mortality. Omniscience is over, and it is fitting that that the story ends with a reference, however subtle, to the end of belief in one's own immortality.

I think we can get a sense of what Hemingway is doing by comparing it to Tobias Wolff's near-great story "Hunters in the Snow," which like much of Wolff channels Hemingway (Hemingway's announced visit to the prep school in Wolff's novel Old School is one of the most important supporting narrative beams of the book). The penultimate line of Wolff's story makes explicit what's implicit in Hemingway. Not wanting to spoil it I'll only quote that line. A character is desperately trying to reassure himself that things will work out, but the narrator finally steps in, in propria persona, to tell us : "But he was wrong." (The last sentence tells us why.)

You'll note (I note) that I wanted to talk about Hemingway as an author and Wolff's narrator as a narrator. I think this corresponds to the difference between the delicately implicit nature of the end of omniscience in Hemingway compared to the omniscient assertion that the story is over in Wolff. Both stories are about characters who are wrong, but Wolff's narrator doesn't give up his own authority the way Hemingway's does. Both reader and teller are left a little more detached in Wolff: our omniscience is over but we're not quote brought back to earth . We know what will happen to Kenny in Wolff's story, but not from our own experience so much as because Wolff tells us so: Kenny is wrong about a particular narrative incident, but one that doesn't apply directly to our own lives. The story doesn't quite set us down back in our own lives, and we don't feel it quite sets Wolff down in his either. We're both adults now, Wolff and ourself, and we know what's happened in the story and that there's nothing more to be said. Our omniscience can't do anything, and so is over. But we're not quite returned to our mortality (the narrator and narratee are not quite returned to their mortality) at the end of "Hunters in the Snow."

That's the difference between Wolff and Hemingway, and what makes Wolff fall just a touch short. It's not that omniscience inevitably reasserts itself in a narrator who gets to tell how it is, as Wolff does and Hemingway doesn't. Not all such authoritative pronouncements, even when explicit, allow the narrator the attractive false step by which he continues to dwell apart in his tranquility.

If Wolff is channeling Hemingway, he's also probably thinking of the great ending of Beckett's story "Dante and the Lobster," the first story in his first completed book, More Pricks Than Kicks, which does what Wolff does, but without Wolff's residual superiority of tone. While out earlier in the day, Belacqua Shuah has picked up a lobster for his aunt:

"They assured me it was fresh" said Belacqua.

Suddenly he saw the creature move, this neuter creature. Definitely it changed its position. His hand flew to his mouth.

"Christ!" he said "it's alive."

His aunt looked at the lobster. It moved again. It made a faint nervous act of life on the oilcloth. They stood above it, looking down on it, exposed cruciform on the oilcloth. It shuddered again. Belacqua felt he would be sick.

"My God" he whined "it's alive, what'll we do?" The aunt simply had to laugh. She bustled off to the pantry to fetch her smart apron, leaving him goggling down at the lobster, and came back with it on and her sleeves rolled up, all business.

"Well" she said "it is to be hoped so, indeed."

"All this time" muttered Belacqua. Then, suddenly aware of her hideous equipment: "What are you going to do?" he cried.

"Boil the beast" she said, "what else?"

"But it's not dead" protested Belacqua "you can't boil it like that."

She looked at him in astonishment. Had he taken leave of his senses?

"Have sense" she said sharply, "lobsters are always boiled alive. They must be." She caught up the lobster and laid it on its back. It trembled. "They feel nothing" she said.

In the depths of the sea it had crept into the cruel pot. For hours, in the midst of its enemies, it had breathed secretly. It had survived the Frenchwoman's cat and his witless clutch. Now it was going alive into scalding water. It had to. Take into the air my quiet breath.

Belacqua looked at the old parchment of her face, grey in the dim kitchen.

"You make a fuss" she said angrily "and upset me and then lash into it for your dinner."

She lifted the lobster clear of the table. It had about thirty seconds to live.

Well, thought Belacqua, it's a quick death, God help us all.

It is not.

Notice the orchestration of the close third person free indirect style. "The aunt simply had to laugh" both gives her point of view and takes a step back from it, partly by using a standard first person narrative utterance -- "I simply had to laugh" -- in the third person. The free indirect mode of "Had he taken leave of his senses?" (for "Have you taken leave of your senses?") works more or less in the same way. Belacqua's perspective is far more subtle, but it's still free indirect style: "In the depths of the sea...." The author only steps in to tell us the Truth which Omniscience knows in the very last sentence, which contrasts with the "truth" that the aunt believes when she assures Belacqua that "They feel nothing." How would she know? But the author knows, and this knowledge is knowledge of our life and suffering and death. We are returned to mortality here, fully and completely.

It's not the return to mortality per se that's of interest to me here, though. Rather it's the resolution through the equalizing of author and reader, the writer's resignation of authority. But I guess that's what mortality is. I suppose this is an element of catharsis. The time of narrative fatality is now over.

I find the same dynamic in Paradise Lost. (Well, I would, wouldn't I?) From the start, we know the story will tell us how death came into the world and all our woe, that our comprehending the omniscient narrator as well. He is omniscient, but the story is about the end of human privilege, the end of our quasi-divinity, so when the story is over, so will his omniscience be (unless an age too late, or cold climate, or years, damp his aspiration even before he finishes telling it). So here's a moment that haunts me. After Adam and Eve eat the fruit, the rebel angels are turned into serpents for a time -- condign punishment -- and this story makes its way into mythology. Thus some later traditions:

Fabl'd how the Serpent, whom they calld
Ophion with Eurynome, the wide-
Encroaching Eve perhaps, had first the rule
Of high Olympus. (10.580-84)

Ophion is another name for Satan, and perhaps Eurynome is a name for Eve ("Eurynome" means "wide-encroaching"). Perhaps. Eve is no longer at his command, at his story's command. It's not just that he's not sure that the tradition is really referring to Eve. Rather it's that the real Eve, by which I mean the real fictional Eve, is not his alone. His omniscience can tell the story of Eve by fiat, but only for a while. Now she's gone to other fictions, other traditions, other histories. She's our mother but she's gone, despite all of Milton's attempts, in Paradise Lost, to keep some mother present to him, and to us (Calliope and Ceres being other leading examples). Paradise Lost allows us a space to sit in judgment on God himself -- we get to decide whether his ways are justifiable and justified. But only a space. His ways are just, and once that's established we humans, including Milton, lose our temporary authority to judge. We are judged in our turn, and found wanting, and are no longer as either author or reader, the presiding omnisciences of the story.

(The end of Pope's "Eloisa to Abelard" does something similar in a very different way, with the omniscient Pope writing lines for Eloisa in which she predicts that poets who are joined "in sad similitude" to griefs like hers, will write lines for her: now he very movingly becomes part of her poor and mortal omniscience, rather than her being part of his.)

There are several amazing modern versions of this resignation of omniscience and all that it implies of mortality. And such resignation (as the example from Milton shows) need not come at the end. In Jacob's Room Woolf (the bigger, badder Woolf!) makes this gesture on practically every page. Eliot does it a lot too, in her reflective castigations of the reader, for example her empathy for Casaubon in Middlemarch.
Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night has some wonderful sentences that explore the same dynamic. I'll just quote this passage:

One writes of scars healed, a loose parallel to the pathology of the skin, but there is no such thing in the life of an individual. There are open wounds, shrunk sometimes to the size of a pinprick, but wounds still. The marks of suffering are more comparable to the loss of a finger, or of the sight of an eye. We may not miss them, either, for one minute in a year, but if we should there is nothing to be done about it.

Really what's happening here is that the omniscient narrator is becoming an essayistic author. (It's what Woolf does too, but in a modernist style that still allows us to see the resemblance to Joyce, who [practically] never does this.) The essayistic is the opposite of omniscience: it tries things out, rather than determining them by fiat (so that both senses of "determining" are telescoped into each other.) "One writes" says Fitzgerald, and then he reflects on his own writing, and its relation to the truth. This is his version of Milton's "Perhaps."

To show the range of this phenomenon (see the tags list!) we can add that paragon of serene omniscience, Henry James. In The Golden Bowl, we could say, Maggie (in conformity with Henry James's great narrative mode) achieves omniscience -- at least as much omniscience as James has. But there is a limit to this: the mystery of the opacity of Adam Verver: "There was much indeed in the tone in which Adam Verver spoke again, and who shall say where his thought stopped?" This is the final question that Maggie cannot answer, the omniscience she fails at. Of course the final (penultimate, anyhow) drama of the book is in the way Maggie plays her cards so that everything she says and does would reassure a knowledgeable Adam while not alarming an ignorant one. Were we to know, we would know which half of the game it mattered that Maggie was playing. So for the narrative game to be worth it (compare, of course, The Turn of the Screw, The Other House, and The Sacred Fount) it's a technical fact about narrative that we musn't be told.

But not only a technical fact. It may be very tempting to imagine Adam Verver as a stand-in for James, charismatically bland about telling us only what we need to know. But there's an amazing moment where James breaks frame in a way that he never does in his fiction, near the end of The Golden Bowl. Amerigo is pressing Maggie (we are attending to the narrative from Maggie's point of view), "and the warmth of his face -- frowning, smiling, she mightn't know which; only beautiful and strange -- was bent upon her with the largeness with which objects loom in dreams." James never appeals to private experience like this, and we'd expect him to say "with which objects sometimes loomed in her dreams" or some such. His business is to describe private experience, but here he asks us to understand what Maggie is feeling, asks us to understand what he is trying to convey, by referring us to our own inwardness, not his exposition of someone else's. The trade in omniscience in James's third person narratives (compare too The Awkward Age) is always between a graciously omniscient, mildly amused third narrator and an equally capable, mildly amused third person narratee. But not at this moment. Here James acknowledges himself as a human being, someone who cannot count himself a king of infinite space because he too has bad dreams.

It's like the end of the transference in psychoanalysis. The analyst who is supposed to know everything (Lacan's sujet supposé savoir) doesn't. She's just like us, another broken, mortal, uncertain, ordinary human being. "But song broke up in laughter."

William Flesch's picture

William Flesch is the author, most recently, of Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction (Harvard, 2008), and The Facts on File Companion to 19th Century British Literature.  He teaches the history of poetry as well as the theory of poetic and narrative form at Brandeis, and has been International Chair Professor at the National Taipei University of Technology (2012) and Old Dominion Fellow of the Humanities Council and Visiting Professor at Princeton (2014-15).