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Omniscience Incarnate: Being in and of the World in Nineteenth-Century Fiction


Current scholarship tends to understand omniscience as a point of view requiring disembodiment, clairvoyance, or omnipresence on the part of the omniscient narrator. In each of these paradigms, narrative omniscience circumvents the delimiting confines of a single character’s perspective. By contrast, “Omniscience Incarnate” grapples with the perplexing fact that the panoramic and synoptic expanse of omniscience often embraces character—even with its accompanying limitations—rather than refusing it. I trace how Victorian authors known for crafting narrators with sweepingly limitless perspectives—George Eliot, William Makepeace Thackeray, and Anthony Trollope—also repeatedly have these narrators materialize as characters within their storyworlds. Over and again, each narrator’s stance as a character—however brief, however delimited—paradoxically enables omniscient authority. These narrators reveal an epistemology that holds together the seeming contradiction of the embodied boundedness of character and the apparent unboundedness of narrative omniscience.

I historicize this formal technique of incarnated omniscience within the nineteenth century when the omnisciently narrated novel had become a dominant cultural form. When the narrator appears in the storyworld, he or she lays bare multiple capacities of the novel form, including its facility for representing both the vast scope of multinational and historical conflicts as well as the private inner life of the individual. I examine three major repeating effects that are thrown into relief by the appearance of an omniscient narrator: how the narrator roots his or her knowledge of the narrative universe in diegetic experiences rather than claims of divinity; how the narrator negotiates the authority (or lack thereof) over narrative time and the capacity to narrate the past; and how the narrator justifies rendering other characters’ emotional and mental inner lives. By urging readers to make sense of an expansive omniscient point of view that roots itself within rather than outside the story space, incarnated narrators envision not only the characterological platform from which omniscience springs but also how one might negotiate and understand one’s being both in and of the world.

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