Essay Non-Fiction posted June 12, 2015


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Two novels, a hundred years apart

The Naive Narrator

by kiwisteveh


Having recently splurged rather more than I should have on purchasing a tablet (the electronic, not the medical kind) I tinkered with the thing trying to determine what use I could best make of this gadget for our times. I played a few games, loaded up various apps, smirked at my own cleverness at making text and photos change their orientation, even logged in to FanStory and tried, not terribly successfully to write reviews on it.

Eventually I tried it as an e-reader. The first free 'book' I came across was Charles Dickens' 'David Copperfield.' Remembering that my only previous encounter with this classic novel was in comic-book format many years ago, I downloaded it and plunged in. Almost immediately I was swept away by the power of Dickens' words, the unforgettable characters, the vivid description of people, places and events and the interweaving story lines as well as the remarkable humour that pervades the book.

As I read, I couldn't help marvelling at the skill of the author in using what I shall term 'the naive narrator.' The story is told through the eyes of David Copperfield himself. Although he is a mostly perceptive and honest chronicler of what he observes, his youth, his rather simple nature and his lack of experience of the world, means that he frequently fails to appreciate the subtleties and complexities of the events unfolding around him.

One simple example will suffice for now. As a young boy, David sometimes travels on the cart of the bluff carrier, Barkis. In conversation, Barkis enquires about the cooking skills of the servant, Peggotty and asks David to relay the message, 'Barkis is willing.' Although David gladly carries out this go-between errand, he doesn't realise the man's true intentions and is mystified by the cryptic nature of the message.

The true value of this narrative technique is that it provides a steady stream of dramatic irony. The reader, especially one skilled at reading between the lines, understands motives and feelings much more clearly than the youthful narrator. This enhances both the drama and the humour of many situations such as when a 'helpful' waiter manages to scoff vast quantities of David's food and unwittingly earn him a reputation as a gargantuan eater.

As I read on and appreciated more and more Dickens' skill in using the naive narrator, my mind turned to another novel published just over 100 years later which employs the same method. Harper Lee's 'To Kill a Mockingbird' is narrated by the young 'Scout' Finch, who tells a tale of life in small-town Alabama in the 1930s, involving bigotry and racial division.

Like David, Scout faithfully recounts what she sees and hears, often without full understanding of the context, most spectacularly when she blunders into a tense stand-off between her father and a lynch mob. Fortunately the mob is brought back to sanity by her innocent questions.

David Copperfield's own lack of awareness has a more serious consequence, leaving the more knowing reader aghast. The dunderhead only goes and marries the wrong girl! Apparently blind to the virtues of the patient and sensible Agnes, whom he regards as his best friend, David weds the flighty and impractical Dora.

Meanwhile, back in Maycomb, Scout's innocence highlights the lockstep racial prejudice of a small town jury and illuminates the life lesson that courage means more than physical prowess on a football field. Above all, she, like the reader, discovers the novel's central truth, that there is value in kindness and respect and that even the fringe-dwellers of society are capable of upholding those values.

There are vast differences between the 19th Century novel and the 20th century one. Dickens revels in his own circumlocution, piling on the humour and the irony in confident, florid strokes, often pointing up the excesses and silliness of the class-based society of his time. Lee paints more from life, with a gentler humour that focuses on southern small-town doings. Scout is more an observer, mostly providing sideline commentary on unfolding events over a period of three years, while David is more directly involved in the intricate machinations of the plot and the story covers his life from before birth to adulthood. Yet each is skilfully used by the respective author to draw out important messages.

We, as authors, can learn much from these classic novels in terms of character creation, plot management and style. Perhaps most of all, we can appreciate the delicate art of using the naive narrator.



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