Studying Omniscient POV: Pride and Prejudice, Part 1 Chapter 1

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This series could be subtitled the long retyping of the soul. This is the first time I’ll ever have tried to retype an entire novel. I’ve done this type of exercise before, only on a short story (Doyle’s “Adventure of the Speckled Band”).

These days I think retyping is less about physical motion (if at all) and more about getting neck-deep intimate with a particular text.

Anyways, this is a figure-things-out-as-I-go series, because frankly I know nothing about omniscient POV that isn’t really skimpily covered in my plethora of writing books.

Getting on with the motley:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of someone or other of their daughters.

Perhaps, with omniscient POV, it’s best to start out with a bird’s eye view so as to signal to the reader that hey, this isn’t third-person limited. And after all, such an introduction gives the omniscient narrator a chance to establish voice (I’d go so far as to even call it character). If you’re going to be visible to the reader, perhaps you’d best introduce yourself?

Preferably you’re not introducing yourself via actually saying, “Hello, dear reader, I am the narrator for this piece”; the narrator’s responsibility is first and foremost to the story, so the introduction should be about the story. First-person POV narrators have it easier; they are part of the story. Omniscient POV narrators might need to be a bit more philosophical, or at least let on that they have a bigger view of the story from the get-go.

So that’s a key: clearly indicate the narrator has a bigger view than a single character. That cues the reader and also allows showing the narrator’s character and setting up the world.

“My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?”

Mr. Bennet replied that he had not.

Not about POV, but: I like how a very subtle conflict is being set up here between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet.

“But it is,” returned she; “for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it.”

Mr. Bennet made no answer.

“Do you not want to know who has taken it?” cried his wife impatiently.”

You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it.”

This was invitation enough.

This would be told quite differently if it were third-person limited. We’d clearly be in the head of one person; here, we’re in the head of no one in particular. We’re not even doing the confusing thing of head-hopping, or head-dipping, or whatever you’d like to call it. We’re very, very clearly outside of it all.

And snarking, of course.

“Why, my dear, you must know, Mrs. Lon says that Netherfield is taken by a young man of large fortune from the north of England; that he came down on Monday in a chaise and four to see the place, and was so much delighted with it, that he agreed with Mr. Morris immediately; tht is to take posession before Michaelmas, and some of his servants are to be in the house by the end of next week.”

Unleash the gossip flow! Thank gods there are short paragraphs after.

“What is his name?”

“Bingley.”

“Is he married or single?”

“Oh! Single, my dear, to be sure! A single man of large fortunte; four or five housand a year. What a fine thing for our irls!”

“How so? How can it affect them?”

“My dear Mr. Bennet,” replied his wife, “how can you be so tiresome! You must know that I am thinking of his marrying one of them.”

“Is that his design in settling here?”

“Design! Nonsense, how can you talk so! But it is very likely that he may fall in love with one of them, and therefore you must visit him as soon as he comes.”

I want to mention here that the dialogue is quite wonderful. Not only do you get a real sense of the nature of the participants, but every utterance is a volley in a little war. They’re not even really arguing here; it’s just that Mr. Bennet is lying about not understanding what his wife is referring to, and his wife is eagerly taking the bait.

You might ask what the point is of having one character so “badly” lie to another. The point is to draw out a little exposition that might not otherwise come (and not via “As you know, Bob” dialogue), establish character, and to amuse the reader.

“I see no occasion for that. You and the girls may go, or you may send them by themselves, which perhaps will be still better, for as you are as handsome as any of them, Mr. Bingley may like you the best of the party.”

“My dear, you flatter me. I certainly have had my share of beauty, but I do not pretend to be anything extraordinary now. When a woman has five grown-up daughters, she ought to give over thinking of her own beauty.”

“In such cases, a woman has not often much beauty to think of.”

This isn’t bickering, which implies a sort of two-way hate-on. Mr. Bennet is downright trolling Mrs. Bennet.

“But, my dear, you must indeed go and see Mr. Bingley when he comes into the neighbourhood.”

“It is more than I engage for, I assure you.”

“But consider your daughters. Only think what an establishment it would be for one of them. Sir William and Lady Lucas are determined to go, merely on that account, for in general, you know, they visit no newcomers. Indeed, you must go, for it will be impossible for us to visit him if you do not.”

“You are over-scrupulous, surely. I dare say Mr. Bingley will be very glad to see you; and I will send a few lines by you to assure him of my hearty consent to his marrying whichever he chooses of the girls; though I must throw in a good word for my little Lizzy.”

“I desire you to do no such thing. Lizzy is not a bit better than the others; and I am sure she is not half so handsome as Jane, nor half so good-humoured as Lydia. But you are always giving her the preference.”

Note to self: argument can lead to exposition, because of course we’re going to ennumerate points and harp on them when we’re so involved.

“They have none of them much to recommend them,” replied he; “they are all silly and ignorant like other girls; but Lizzy has something more of quickness than her sisters.”

“Mr. Bennet, how can you abuse your own children in such a way? You take delight in vexing me. You have no compassion for my poor nerves.”

“You mistake me, my dear. I have a high respect for your nerves. They are my old friends. I have heard you mention them with consieration these last twenty years at least.”

Note to self: argument-as-exposition should be amusing in at least some parts, or else it would just get tiring.

“Ah, you do not know what I suffer.”

“But I hope you will get over it, and live to see many young men of four thousand a year come into the neighbourhood.”

“It will be no use to us, if twenty such should come, since you will not visit them.”

“Depend upon it, my dear, that when there are twenty, I will visit them all.”

Mr. Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three-and-twenty years haad been insufficient to make his wife understand his character. Her mind was the less difficult to develop. She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented, she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.

The last paragraph is the gift of the omniscient narrator. The first sentence has been shown more than well enough; but to keep the secondary interpretation of “perhaps Mrs. Bennet, too, was messing with him,” the narrator explains her to us in the rest of the paragraph. What is explained has been previously supported by evidence, so it’s not being pulled out of the blue—but nor is it, in this case, redudnant, because of the perspective being offered.

I quite like this first chapter. There is so much established here: characters, conflict, setting, motivations, tone. Also, it did not take so long to type out.

Italics for the win.

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8 thoughts on “Studying Omniscient POV: Pride and Prejudice, Part 1 Chapter 1

  1. I had never thought to retype parts of a novel to study it in more depth. It makes sense, really, as an exercise. Thank you for sharing–very interesting!

  2. I didn’t know re-typing was ever about physical motion. That’s where it’s different from copying Old Masters in painting. I thought re-typing was all about focusing one’s attention on every little bit of the story, particularly the things that are designed to be smoothly transparent to a mind in reading mode.

  3. Go, you!

    I think the best way to sort this out, since it is covered so little, is to take it apart bit by bit the way you’re doing it. Sort of like taking the alarm clock apart to see how it works…

    For another good set of examples, try Tolstoy. I wonder if teh reason people are so allergic to omniscient now is that it was so common in 19th century Western fiction.

    • Thank you!

      Omniscient is so thorny that I might have started this exercise regardless of whether it was covered well or not.

      Hm… will I be brave enough to tackle… War and Peace? *shudder*

  4. I’ve been struggling to explain omniscience and your post helped. My problem is separating true omniscience from head-hopping.

    • Yeah, it’s a fine line and easily screwed up. Doesn’t help that many examples of omniscient can masquerade quite well as third-person limited until you hit the switch.

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