Nineteenth-century authors wrote lengthy narratives with numerous characters, weaving their lives together or creating parallel lives in the same landscape. Nineteenth-century fiction, more often than not, reads like an endless morality tale, because “literature” served to develop the moral character of the reader while being couched in an entertaining and adventurous narrative. The majority of fiction today, however, being genre based, is nowhere as lengthy and does not intricately develop characters’ lives; they lack a multitude of layers. This is because the goal of genre fiction seems to be plot-centered and to evoke a larger theme at the expense of exploring the individual human experience. Genre fiction seems to be plot rather than character driven, in other words. I prefer narrative fiction because the characters’ many dimensions are forged in the crucible of real life with all its ugly, crippling truth about human nature, in which the existential truths and mysteries of our lot and place in the universe is naked before me in language and imagery that I cannot erase from my memory, and which exhibits a romance for life and for the art of writing, creating the same in me.
But now to the question of technique. The fiction of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is mainly a third-person-omniscient art form. It was only with the birth of modernism and intimate psychological character portrayal that narrative began to find a different voice in storytelling. Third-person narrative continued on in the hands of the modernists but became limited. Austen, as an example of a nineteenth-century author, uses a narrator to tell the story of her characters’ lives and the situations they find themselves in. Yet in constructing her narratives this way, her narrators do the work, they do a lot of talking, the action is minimal, and the characters’ inner experiences and psychology are addressed from outside; we rarely get a glimpse inside their minds. Periods of their lives go by in a handful of sentences. How then do we know these characters? How many of their experiences do we read about in detail? The daily ins and outs of their lives are briefly glimpsed, mostly glossed over, to get to a greater end, a more important purpose in introducing them to us. Are they just puppets doing their author’s bidding? How human are these men and women? Are they just mere expressions of themes the author wished to write about in fictional terms? The function of nineteenth-century fiction is social, even domestic, seeing as reading was a domestic affair that many young women engaged in. Deeply human characters seem to be secondary to the novel’s goals in this period into the early twentieth century.
Once Freud became a household god, if you will, and the modernists began to write against the grain of their forebears in the Victorian and Edwardian periods, the structure of the novel began to rapidly change in ways the Victorians would have balked at. The moderns began to rebel against the constraints of their ancestors in various facets of society and culture, not just literature, breaking with traditions they felt stifling and stale and which no longer served a purpose or had tangible meaning. One of these traditions was the third-person-omniscient narrator who told the story from a distance, mainly limiting the action to externals rather than opening up the internal lives of the characters in great detail; these narratives kept character introspection to a minimum, which the moderns believed did not realistically display the human experience of life in its infinite variety. Instead of just glossing over and briefly stating what the characters were thinking or feeling, the modernists sought to take their readers straight into the character’s heart, mind, body, and soul, creating for us fully formed humans who are concrete and natural, whom we could plausibly meet in our own lives.
Tolstoy was a precursor in this type of narrative in the latter half of “The Death of Ivan Illyich.” For the moderns, the psychological portrait of characters in their daily lives was paramount, depicting how they see the world around them, from within and without, and interact with it, revealing their perspectives and motives not just through their actions but through a great deal of internal psychological action as well. Third-person fiction continued to flow from the modernists’ pens, but now the narrator began to be less of a presence; he or she became limited. It seems the puppet master went into semi-retirement, cutting the strings so that their characters could reveal themselves to their readers on their own terms. We become acquainted with a main character’s thoughts and emotions through their dialogue with others, their internal monologues, and through their actions, which expose their beliefs, motives, and desires. Modern authors and their narrators show rather than tell, which is a key instrument in the writer’s toolbox.
The narrator of modern fiction sets the scene, creates an atmosphere, describes the physical appearances of the characters and the landscape, and offers an occasional perspective on the state of the world or that of the characters, without intruding on the characters’ lives. The modernist author lets their characters find their way through the hollow, tempestuous void of the human condition and experience. The modernist narrator brings readers into the internal space of the characters rather than just the external space they live in. The view is primarily from the characters’ minds not the narrator’s. Rather than straightforward third-person omniscience to move the story forward there is more dialogue and psychological action, which allows the narrative to progress and develop toward its denouement. It is the internal clock of man’s thought and emotion with which the author keeps time rather than the monotonous succession of days and nights set by the rise and fall of the sun and the change of seasons through the years.
For modern writers it is individual human nature and its condition that take precedence in narrative. For the modernists, exploring a character’s conscious and unconscious selves puts the story on its course, creating internal as well as external conflict as that character moves about in his or her world, engaging with and reacting to others, who also have internal selves that produce conflict within and out in the world. The moderns saw that each human being’s needs and wants cause a struggle not just within but also in the wider context of the domestic and public spheres, and that the dynamic between self and other, self and society, generates strife and a constant search for balance between the needs and wants of each individual and those of society itself. The substantial difference between Victorian and modern fiction is in the perspective from which the narrative is told, moving away from a third-person-omniscient narrator’s grip on the story, to the modern narrator who allows the characters to exist and speak for themselves as free humans in a chaotic world, without passing judgment or intending to tell the reader how they should reach to the characters.
We get to see the inner agony and ecstasy of the characters in modern fiction and only hear about it in any detail in nineteenth-century fiction when the narrator deigns to let us into the character’s life because he or she has a moral, didactic message to get across. It is no wonder then why the moderns rebelled and gutted narrative perspective, for the purpose of fiction is to tell the story of human lives in the turmoil of everyday thought and emotion, everyday action and reaction, not to preach a lesson on how we should behave as humans. We are meant to relate to the characters on the fundamental level of human nature and feel for them, not hold ourselves in greater esteem because we would seemingly know better and not do what the tragic characters we often find in nineteenth-century novels doing.