Omniscience for Atheists: Or, Jane Austen's Infallible Narrator
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Narrative 14.2 (2006) 118-131



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Omniscience for Atheists:

Or, Jane Austen's Infallible Narrator

The comparison of the traditional novelist to God has received many memorable formulations. While Flaubert and Joyce emphasize the author's ubiquity, invisibility, or silence, the quality usually adduced for comparison is omniscience, as in Sartre's complaint about Mauriac: like God, he "is omniscient about everything relating to his little world" (15). For Sartre, of course, this is a bad thing: "God is not an artist. Neither is M. Mauriac" (25). As Meir Sternberg has demonstrated, the god being compared in these formulations is specifically the God of the Old Testament: "Homer's gods," he notes, "like the corresponding Near Eastern pantheons, certainly have access to a wider range of information than the normal run of humanity; but their knowledge still falls well short of omniscience, concerning the past and present as well as the future" (88). Sternberg explicitly includes Jane Austen's narratives within this biblical model: "Surely . . . one assumes that, like all novelists, she enjoys the privilege of omniscience denied to tellers in everyday life. She invokes different rules, we say. But if it is convention that renders Jane Austen immune from all charges of fallacy and falsity, it is convention that likewise puts the Bible's art of narrative beyond their reach. For the biblical narrator also appeals to the privilege of omniscience—so that he no more speaks in the writer's ordinary voice than Jane Austen does in hers, but exactly as a persona raised high above . . ." (34). J. Hillis Miller explains how "This immanent omniscience is . . . like the knowledge traditionally ascribed to God. It is an authentic perfection of knowledge. The omniscient narrator is able to remember perfectly all the past, to foresee the future course of events, and to penetrate with irresistible insight the most secret crevice in the heart of each man. He can know the person better than the person knows himself . . ." (64).1 [End Page 118]

But in the twenty years since Sternberg's book—and in significant measure because of the interest sparked by his book—the premise that all heterodiegetic narrators exercise Godlike omniscience has been questioned.2 Sternberg argues that "omniscience is a qualitative and therefore indivisible privilege. . . . The superhuman privilege is constant and only its exercise variable" (183). While this logic would doubtless be true of "real" omniscience, it does not seem compelling with regard to "pretend" omniscience, which might readily be imagined as divisible. The "demand for a God's Eye View or Nothing" (Putnam viii) may be a limiting dichotomy that prevents us from exploring alternative models.3 Omniscience might instead be thought of as a toolbox, with different novelists using the different tools within it in distinctive ways. My own survey of discussions of omniscience identifies four primary tools in that box: omnipotence, omnitemporality, omnipresence, and telepathy. To get ahead of myself for a moment, I'll argue that Austen's narrators are more accurately described as "infallible" than "omniscient": at least on the basis of these four features, the infallible narrator as defined here is not a type of omniscient narrator. I take no position on the larger question of whether "omniscience" is always a misnomer; Austen's narrators, however, utilize so few of these standard tools so sparingly that the label is not useful for discussing her practice. Indeed, it seems to have hampered prior analyses of Austen's method.

Austen's career, at least in her handling of point of view, has long been treated as the exemplification of Haeckel's Law that "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny," as her novels rehearse in perfect sequence all of the evolutionary stages of the genre. She begins with the early epistolary drafts, in which the novels have no omniscient narrators at all. Later, she revises them into third-person omniscient novels with engaging and judgmental narrators, effectively rendering extinct the earlier genre of the epistolary novel. During the course of writing these novels she gradually weans herself from what Marvin Mudrick calls her "early tendency to assert an...