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Masks of reality : the rhetoric of narration in the eighteenth-century English novel Butler, Sydney

Abstract

The development of the English novel during the eighteenth century is illustrated in this thesis by the concept of the author's "mask of reality," or the rhetorical stance adopted by the novelist for the telling of his story. The novelist creates and populates a fictional world, or Kosmos, and the success of his work depends on his power to invest this illusory world with an air of reality. Through the medium of the printed word, he convinces the reader of the truth of his vision. My examination of the modes of narration in the major novels of the period clarifies their authors' use of the mask of reality. Defoe's novels seem to exclude the author from the life of the novel, allowing him to appear only on the title-page and in the editor's prefaces. Defoe uses his heroes and heroines as narrators to conceal his own presence as the creator of their world of perceptual experience. Nevertheless, the themes, images, syntactic patterns, and diction, which recur throughout the Defoe canon, enable the reader to discern, behind the mask, the existence of the author who controls and evaluates the fictional Kosmos. In Richardson's novels this authorial presence becomes more explicit in the critical prefaces and postscripts surrounding the fictional letters. Moreover, Richardson's correspondents themselves exemplify the process of fiction as they record and evaluate their fictional experiences through the medium of writing, while their letters, becoming a part of the action of the novel, bridge the gap between the fictional world of the Kosmos and the actuality of the printed text - the two realities of life and art. In Fielding's and Sterne's novels the role of the narrator becomes still more explicit with the result that the reader's attention is diverted from the contemplation of the imaginary life of the Kosmcis to the consideration of the work as a piece of fiction. The novelist's rhetoric involves the reader in the process of fiction by making him conscious of the novel as a created artifice rather than as the simple verbal representation of the world of imaginary or real experience. This pattern of development which shows the eighteenth-century English novel becoming increasingly self-conscious is examined in this thesis in relation to Cervantes' Don Quixote, which achieved renown during this period. Cervantes' influence is shown both in the minor and major works of English fiction. Charlotte Lennox, Smollett, and Richard Graves use the quixotic theme mainly to pit the presumed reality of their contemporary world against the literary fantasies of their protagonists. Fielding, however, emulates the perspectivism of his Spanish predecessor in the creation of his narrator-historian as his mask of reality, achieving a more complex, ironic view of the fictional Kosmos. Sterne, too, borrows many elements from Cervantes. His narrative mask of Tristram demonstrates the interaction between language and experience, as the novel displays its form in the dialogue between novelist and reader. The self-consciousness of Tristram Shandy as a work of narrative art results in a relativistic, ambiguous attitude to remembered experience, and shows many of the qualities that make Don Quixote an example of the art of mannerism. In Tristram Shandy Sterne emphasizes the narrative techniques by which Tristram re-creates the world of the Shandy family. Sterne's Shandean mask of reality fuses the self-conscious display of the art of the novelist with the fictional life of Shandy Hall.

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