One aspect of Anthony Trollope’s first two books in the Chronicles of Barsetshire series, The Warden and Barchester Towers, is the shifting and playful point of view that the author presents. Both novels are written mostly in third-person point of view. However, at times in the narrative, the prose shifts into first-person. Trollope actually uses at least two different forms of first-person. Very occasionally, he puts himself into the story and recounts conversations that he has had with various characters. At other times, quite often in fact, he actually refers to himself as a novelist and refers to the story as something that he has created. He also directly addresses the reader, calling him or her, “reader”.
One of my favorite instances of this occurs in Barchester Towers. The widowed Eleanor Bold is beginning to be wooed by several men, including the scheming and manipulative Mr. Slope and the buffoonish and narcissistic Bertie Stanhope. These attempted courtships become a major narrative thread that weaves itself around much of the balance of the novel. At this early stage, Trollope reveals the ultimate outcome,
But let the gentle-hearted reader be under no apprehension whatsoever. It is not destined that Eleanor shall marry Mr. Slope or Bertie Stanhope.
Why does Trollope reveal this milestone in the plot so far advance? The reader has no need to speculate. Trollope explains exactly why he does this.
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?
Trollope goes on for several additional paragraphs, explaining why he eschews this form of literary suspense. He even mentions Ann Radcliffe by name, as well as several of Jane Austin’s characters, as he playfully criticizes books that rely too much upon suspense as a plot technique. Within this digression, he also creates a mini comedy as an example. A loose-lipped girl named Susan reveals vital plot details to her sibling, Kitty. Susan and Kitty are not characters in the main narrative. They are just a duo that Trollope creates to make his not so serious point. After the secret is revealed, he presents us with a dialog between the two,
"How very ill-natured you are, Susan," says Kitty with tears in her eyes: "I don't care a bit about it now."
Trollope next directly addresses Kitty,
Dear Kitty, if you will read my book, you may defy the ill-nature of your sister. There shall be no secret that she can tell you. Nay, take the third volume if you please— learn from the last pages all the results of our troubled story, and the story shall have lost none of its interest, if indeed there be any interest in it to lose.
I find this marvelously inventive and amusing. I think that Trollope does succeed in creating a certain intimacy with his readers here. It is insightful as well as fun the way that he is letting us in a little on the details of his writing process. Though these variations and digressions seem to be presented in a tongue in cheek and ironic style, I do think that they are meant to say something about writing. Before reading the above, I thought that I was the only one that thought that sometimes too much suspense can actually mar a story that includes very strong and aesthetically pleasing characters.
There is another passage included in the book that once again cleverly plays this game. At one point, Eleanor is speaking to a much more honorable love interest, Reverend Francis Arabin. A misunderstanding occurs and Eleanor is angry, essentially because Arabin does not explain the situation,
Everything would have been explained, and Eleanor would have gone back to Barchester with a contented mind. How easily would she have forgiven and …had she but heard the whole truth from Mr. Arabin. But then where would have been my novel?
That last line is priceless.
There are many additional examples of all this sprinkled throughout the narrative.
Without a doubt Trollope’s unconventional twists in his point of view liven up these novels. I tend to be a hound for innovation and variation in storytelling as I think that such experiments add diversity and spice to literature. As I continue to read Trollope I will be persistently watching for more of these intriguing digressions in his prose.
My commentary on The Warden is here.
My commentary on Barchester Towers is here.
My commentary on Doctor Thorne is here.
That's a very interesting technique, Brian. I agree about suspense - for me it's a balancing act. You need some, of course, but not so much that it feels manipulative. If it feels as if the writer is deliberately holding back information or trying to trick the reader, it creates a bad effect. Most writers try to do these things all the time, of course, but it should be well hidden! And Trollope's aside does a lot to build trust and credibility with the reader. Also intimacy, as you say - he's letting you in on his secrets, and that makes you feel closer to him, and to the story. Nice post!
I would add that I am glad that not every author gave things away in this way. Here of course it was refreshingly different.
First, if you enjoy this narrator this much, I direct your attention to Vanity Fair. Trollope is almost writing an homage to Thackeray in Barchester Towers.
The meta-fiction gets tamped down eventually, or else Trollope runs out of jokes. I somehow wrote about the issue over and over again.
Second, Trollope holds back less information than any writer I can think of. He is omniscient and uses his position to make the reader omniscient, or close to it - there are a few curious exceptions.
Tony of Tony's Reading List thinks this deliberate destruction of conventional does real damage to Doctor Thorne; I think it makes the novel much more interesting.
The POV shifts sound interesting and would need to be well done. It seems as if Trollope thinks and cares about his readers, and wants to give them reassurance about various matters, in a charming way. Thoughtful post about a playful writer!
Hi Tom - I really must get to Vanity Fair sooner rather then later.
I loved the meta fiction in these books and I feel it is good for another go or two but I think that eventually it would become tired.
Dr. Thorne is next on my list. i will check out Tony's commentary and I will be on the watch for it.
Hi Suko - indeed id done clumsily this all could have been a disaster. I feel that Trollope is a master of this stuff however.
I'm very surprised that I didn't get any Trollope in my college literature classes. This would have made marvelous class analysis. I have never paid much attention to narrative and it never enters into my book reviews on my blog unless it is a first person narrative using a bratty teenager that is given adult-like wisdom. It drives me bananas. Jodi Picoult is famous for it.
Trollope probably wouldn't be much of a crime reader then if he disliked the use of suspense. Personally I like the intimacy Trollope creates between himself and the reader--it's as though we are co-conspirators in a way.
Hi Belle - I am beginning to pay more and more attention to POV. I am finding that it is one of the things that makes reading interesting.
Ha, Ha Guy, you made me laugh about the crime writer stuff. Thinking about it, I believe that Trollope does create suspense in various places. He choose not to do so here. I think that the tradeoff was worth it.
Where did that word go? "Conventional suspense" is what I meant to write.
Orley Farm is written in response to the new-fangled sensation novels, so it is based on a Big Secret, but Trollope cannot stand it for the length of an entire novel and spills the secret about halfway through. And dramatically, he is right. He is interested in the mysteries of human behavior, not secrets.
Your analysis of Trollope's use of point of view is fascinating. It is likely a significant part of what makes his novels so enjoyable, along with his great story-telling ability.
Hi James - The POV is indeed one of the components that make him a great writer.
I have enjoyed Trollope's comments to the reader and they don't put me off at all. He and I are in it together.
I remember a passage in one of his books (which?) in which the heroine has various romantic complications. Trollope asks himself what should be done and answers "marry the man" and then settle down. He goes on to observe that she may not take his advice.
Brian - It's really past time for me to read Trollope, and your post puts me right over the edge. Those quotations are wonderful - and having recently read Ann Radcliffe, I know exactly to what the narrator is referring. This is exactly the thing that drove me nuts when reading Jules Verne recently - this building of suspense concerning an inevitability long foreseen by the reader - so it's tremendously refreshing to see an author dispense with it in so straightforward and transparent a manner.
Hi Nancy - that is great passage that you describe. I wonder which book it is from.
Hi Scott - Sometimes suspense can be so distracting. Especially when one would rather focus on the characters.
I love the sound of the different narrative stances used, interesting to read about his style. Apologies I haven't commented for a while Brian, I apprecaite your comments on my blog, I've been spending a bit less time blogging, I hope you are well.
I haven't read any Trollope but your review makes me want to.
I agree that suspense has its place and can sometimes be overdone. I never felt that way when reading Jane Austin or any of the other classical readers but I think certain mediocre writers employ it because they know they'd lose the reader otherwise.
I know that I've read certain books where the only thing that kept me going was to see how everything was going to resolve.
Hi Sharon - Without a doubt suspense can be a great device. Of course Trollope is just taking another route here.
I would love to know what you thought if you read these books.
Hi lindsay - No need to apologize. Life gets so busy. I comment on your blog because it is interesting :)
Though I have only read two of Trollope's books, this aspect of his style is so very unique :)
That sounds like fun stuff, Brian. I'm a sucker for the narrator addressing the reader directly like that--especially if he's taking the time to rag on other writers or his characters. Unamuno has a fun twist on this in his 1914 novel Niebla or Snow: he gets in an argument with one of the main characters in the book over whether the character should get killed off or not. The character naturally claims he's more than just a "fictional entity"!
Hi Richard - This stuff can indeed be fun to read. That passage in Niebla sounds priceless.
I applaud you for finding humor in these two books. Do I recall humor? No... they were required,very fast reads....
Hi Harvee - I thought that Barchester Towers was a lot funnier then The Warden. Unfortunately, sometimes these required reading that we devour quickly lose most of their charm. I also think that I would not have appreciated this book nearly as much during my High School and collage years.
I can't think of any other author who has used this particular form of conversation with his readers. There are of course varying degrees of aesthetic distance that authors generally maintain, but this seems truly unique, and even more so because you say it works!
Hi Gautam- Trollope's style is indeed unique. Since he wrote a relatively long time ago I am surprised that more authors have not imitated him.
I've only read 3 of Trollope's dozens of novels, but based on those 3 I think he would be a delightful dinner companion. I love his intrusions as a narrator, and he is funny and sweet at the same time.
Hi Jane - He would indeed be very interesting to talk to. He amazingly well liked too. I have not encountered anyone who has read him who dislikes him.
Oh, what an interesting, delightful post, Brian! I had no idea that Trollope was this much fun! It was very innovative of him indeed to have used such unconventional narrative techniques in his time.
The fact that he addresses the reader directly is not unique to him, though. Charlotte Bronte does the same thing in her novel -- my most treasured classic, by the way -- "Jane Eyre". These two writers were contemporaries, too, although Bronte tragically died at a much younger age.
You're right about Trollope creating some intimacy with his readers though the use of his techniques. On the other hand, the paragraph you quoted, on the excessive use of suspense in novels, seems to me more appropriate for a book of literary criticism, rather than a novel. Still, I find myself becoming more and more intrigued by Mr. Trollope, and more determined to read his works, which I think I should have gotten to by now!
Thanks for your terrific commentary!! : )
Hi Maria - I find Trollope to be both fun and funny. I find myself laughing out loud in various points when reading his books.
I surmised that other writers that I have not read used this technique also. I do want to read Jane Eyre sooner rather then later. You have given me several addition reasons to do so. Since it is a book that you value so much I would love to have a discussion with you when I have done so.
The Literary Criticism that Trollope engages really enhances the meta - fictional experimentation here. I do get a sense that it is light hearted and not meant to be taken with over seriousness.
I've been long overdue to come by and read your replies to my comments, as well as write some new comments....but well, better late than never, right?
I do want to make it a point to read Trollope, although I don't know when. But I definitely must!!
As for "Jane Eyre", I need to re-read it! Of course, I know the whole plot, but there are some details I don't remember. I'd also like to review it for my blog. I can't believe I haven't already done that! So I'd love to compare notes with you, for sure!
Ironically, I have reviewed "Wuthering Heights" on my blog. Oh, how I HATE that novel!! And yet, there are people who love it.....it is very well-written, of course, but very, very depressing to read.... It also gives me a feeling of impending doom....I wonder what was going through Emily Bronte's head when she wrote it... Incredible, isn't it, how two sisters could write two such very different novels?
You know, maybe we could have a joint read-along or something. Let me know what you think!
Hope you and your family are having a GREAT weekend!! : )
Hi Maria - No worries on the comments. I myself sometimes fall behind especially on follow up comments. Life is just so busy.
The thing is, there are a couple of books that depress me and disturb me terribly. With that said I would not say that I hate perhaps the fact that they upset me so much is a testament to just how well written they are?
I want to read Jane Eyre, I would love to compare notes with you on it or do some other read along. I will message you.
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