- The Omnicompetent Narrator from George Eliot to Jonathan Franzen
In April of 1873, four months after the publication of the final volume of Middlemarch, a glowing appraisal of George Eliot appeared in the Atlantic Monthly. Whether her latest novel was a “success or a failure,” the reviewer, Arthur George Sedgwick, hesitated to say. Rosamond and Mr. Brooke, he thought, were less memorable than Becky Sharpe or the members of the Pickwick Club, and Eliot’s portrait of a provincial society was less “beautiful” than her portrait of sibling dynamics in The Mill on the Floss. Still, Middlemarch established Eliot as a novelist whose “erudition” was unprecedented: “History, science, art, literature, language, she is mistress of” (493). Along with her keen moral insight, one of Eliot’s great gifts as a novelist, according to Sedgwick, was the sheer range of her knowledge.
It is often said that the realist novel, relative to other literary modes (epic or romance) and genres (poetry or drama), orients itself toward the empirical realm, studding its plots with information about the natural and social world.1 But certain realist novelists repeatedly get singled out for how much they seem to know.2 Reviewers have praised, for instance, Goethe, Balzac, or Melville in the terms that Sedgwick applied to Eliot—whereas those terms are rarely applied to, say, Austen, Flaubert, or James. This holds true of contemporary fiction as well: novelists like Marilynne Robinson or Joseph O’Neill are hailed for their taut prose or control of mood, while Richard Powers and Jonathan Franzen are more often championed for their encyclopedic intellects. One 2002 reviewer of The Corrections marveled that the novel’s author seemed to know everything, from “the names of the flowers chosen by corporate gardeners (mums, begonias, liriope)” to “the wear and tear—both natural and malign—suffered by the signalling systems of branch railway lines in the rural Midwest” to “the depredations suffered by Brezhnev-era power generators in Soviet satellite countries” (Lezard).3 Of course, not all critics find such knowledge praiseworthy. In 2001, James Wood famously denounced what [End Page 236] he called the “hysterical realism” infecting contemporary fiction, exemplified by novelists such as David Foster Wallace and Zadie Smith, who showcase a “wealth of obscure and far-flung social knowledge” by peppering their plots with information about everything from “the sonics of volcanoes” to “how to make a fish curry in Fiji” to “terrorist cults in Kilburn! And about the New Physics! And so on” (n.p.).
While Wood credits (or rather faults) Don DeLillo for this trend in its recent iteration, the hyper-informed narrator is part of a long novelistic tradition, one that was crucially shaped, I argue, by George Eliot. By the end of her career, Eliot had become associated with a certain type of omniscient narrator—I will call it the omnicompetent narrator—that would be adopted by several novelists in her immediate wake (including Trollope, Howells, and Dreiser), and would be revitalized by Smith, Franzen, and their peers. One factor that provoked Eliot to experiment with the omnicompetent narrator, I claim, was her fear that a specializing division of labor was leading to the extinction of the generalist. Some of Eliot’s contemporaries attributed the rapid pace of specialization, in the late nineteenth century, to an accelerating pace of knowledge production: “Formerly, all science could be grasped by a single mind,” remarked William Dean Howells in 1891, “but now the man who hopes to become great or useful in science must devote himself to a single department” (144). But specialization, Eliot recognized, was not simply an organic effect of there suddenly being more to know. The notion that an individual needed to “devote himself” to a single field in order to be credible was also an ideological product of professionalization. Striving to establish “monopolies of competence” (Larson 15) over fields of knowledge, nineteenth-century professional organizations needed to persuade the public to distrust nonprofessionals: to distrust, that is, practitioners who had not been through their systems of training and credentialing.
The discrediting of the nonprofessional, Eliot worried, might discourage the pursuit of generalist knowledge: it might pressure laypersons, when confronted with unfamiliar...