The omniscient narrator has long been out of fashion, but research by Jonathan Leavitt and Nicholas Christenfeld has shown that reader enjoyment can be increased with spoilers. Narrators are also not all equal. Narrators in Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire novels, Jane Austen’s Emma, and Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Blue Carbuncle have three different styles of presenting information, which might be described as maximalist, medial, and minimalist.
Narration itself has long been divided into ‘showing/imitation/mimesis’ and ‘telling/pure narration/diegesis’. Since Plato, showing the audience rather than telling the audience was seen as preferable, or more sophisticated:
If Homer started as he does by saying Chryses came with a ransom for his daughter to supplicate Achaeans, especially the kings, but after that went on not by becoming Chryses but remaining Homer, you’ll see at once that it wouldn’t any longer remain imitation [mimesis] but pure narrative [diegesis]. (Plato and Rowe, 2012: 89)
Conan Doyle perhaps embodies Plato’s ideas of mimesis. Conan Doyle doesn’t ‘narrate’ for his characters—Watson is a character and he uses his ‘voice’ in a minimalist style of narration.
Watson the narrator observes actions, ‘To my surprise the question provoked a burst of anger from the salesman’, or ‘The salesman chuckled grimly’, or ‘Sherlock Holmes looked deeply chagrined. He drew a sovereign from his pocket and threw it down upon the slab, turning away with the air of a man whose disgust is too deep for words. A few yards off he stopped under a lamp-post, and laughed in the hearty, noiseless fashion which was peculiar to him.’ The verbs are all actions: looked, drew, threw, turning, stopped, laughed. The adjectives: chagrined, hearty, noiseless, are masculine and describe the doing. Even the description of the ‘air of a man’ is ‘too deep for words’ shows the limits of words. Words are secondary to the actions and images.
Watson knows less than Sherlock Holmes; the insight Watson can provide is not omniscient. This leads to a gap in the reader’s knowledge. Sherlock Holmes says, ‘My name is Sherlock Holmes. It is my business to know what other people don’t.’ Reader access to thoughts and feelings in Sherlock Holmes is restricted to character speech.
Watson’s observations do not include what Holmes is thinking. This is a deliberate part of Watson’s and Holmes’ characterisation. Watson is a military man. Holmes himself tells us his reasoning and his thinking, ‘When you see a man with whiskers of that cut and the “pink Un” protruding out of his pocket, you can always draw him by a bet,’ said he. ‘I dare say that if I had put a hundred pounds down in front of him that man would not have given me such complete information as was drawn from him by the idea that he was doing me on a wager.’ Watson is the doer; Holmes is the thinker.
The narrator in Austen’s Emma uses a medial level of narration—relating self-deception or misunderstanding to the reader, but still leaving gaps in our knowledge. Our unlikeable heroine is repeatedly told the ‘reality’ of the situation by Mr Knightly—Mr Elton will never marry Harriet, Mr Churchill is unreliable, immature, and has an ‘understanding’ with Miss Fairfax. The narrator doesn’t explicitly tell us that Mr Knightly is in love with Emma. There is still a shard of doubt until the moment he asks Emma to marry him. The narrator in Emma tells us what the characters ‘know’ and ‘think’. But, the narrator doesn’t tell us that Mr Churchill is engaged. We must learn that with Emma. We readers are expected to do our own work.
What makes the level of narration medial is that the narrator presents people’s opinions: ‘Mrs Elton, from the particulars detailed by her husband, thought it all extremely shabby, and very inferior to her own.—“Very little white satin, very few lace veils; a most pitiful business!—Selina would stare when she heard of it.”—But, in spite of these deficiencies, the wishes, the hopes, the confidence, the predictions of the small band of true friends who witnessed the ceremony, were fully answered in the perfect happiness of the union’. Readers who feel a sense of connection with the narrator will especially enjoy Mrs Elton’s thoughts. It is as though the narrator winks at the reader and we share pleasure in the knowledge of Mrs Elton’s trumpery.
A maximalist style is employed by Trollope in Barchester Towers and Framley Parsonage. The narrator helpfully tells us (most of) the story in advance. There is an abundance of ‘pure narrative’ rather than ‘mimesis’. Although it is said that the more ‘mimetic’ a story is, the closer the story feels to reality, you could also say that the more the narrator has his (or her) own distinct voice, then the more the narrator becomes a ‘real’ character in his or her own right. This opens the way for readers to feel that the narrator himself or herself is mimetic of reality. For readers, there are two levels of imitation—the narrator, and the narrator’s presentation of the characters.
In Trollope, the narrator is the friendly neighbour telling you a story over a cup of tea and a biscuit.
But let the gentle-hearted reader be under no apprehension whatsoever. It is not destined that Eleanor shall marry Mr Slope or Bertie Stanhope. And here perhaps it may be allowed to the novelist to explain his views on a very important point in the art of telling tales. He ventures to reprobate that system which goes so far to violate all proper confidence between the author and his readers by maintaining nearly to the end of the third volume a mystery as to the fate of their favourite personage. Nay, more, and worse than this, is too frequently done. Have not often the profoundest efforts of genius been used to baffle the aspirations of the reader, to raise false hopes and false fears, and to give rise to expectations which are never to be realized? Are not promises all but made of delightful horrors, in lieu of which the writer produces nothing but most commonplace realities in his final chapter? And is there not a species of deceit in this to which the honesty of the present age should lend no countenance?”
Barchester Towers, Chapter XV: The Widow's Suitors
Dear, affectionate, sympathetic readers, we have four couple of sighing lovers with whom to deal in this our last chapter, and I, as leader of the chorus, disdain to press you further with doubts as to the happiness of any of that quadrille.”
Framley Parsonage, Chapter XLVIII: How They Were All Married, Had Two Children, and Lived Happy Ever After
Narrators went out of fashion in the last century, yet a feeling of listening to the narrators talking to us, and the pleasure of processing gaps in the information, arguably makes these texts (even more) enjoyable. Fashions change, styles come and go, perhaps it’s time for more maximalist omniscient narrators (and narratorial spoilers) to make a come back.