Authorial Divinity in the Twentieth Century: Omniscient Narration in Woolf, Hemingway, and Others.
In this slim volume (Of 122 pages, not including notes and bibliography) Barbara K. Olson explores the links between an author's theological views and his or her preferred narrative style. The work opens with a laborious introductory chapter in which the author cites all of the "right" names in narrative theory, including Roland Barthes, Susan Lanser, Mikhail Bakhtin, and Michel Foucault. The dogged prose here reads too much like the review of not-quite-digested literature with which many of us opened our dissertations.
The second-chapter, with the promising tide "'I Don't Like to Write Like God': Hemingway's Omniscient Narration," is arguably the strength of the book. Olson argues, intriguingly, that Hemingway's changing narrative style reflects his changing attitude toward God. She notes the narrator's omissions in the stories of In Our Time ("Out of Season" in particular) and contends, "The early Hemingway mimed the God he hated, feared, and wanted to ignore, the God in whom he had lost confidence during World War I.... It is a God who hides himself, who withholds the meaning we long for" (39). By the time he wrote For Whom the, Bell Tolls, however, Olson believes Hemingway had changed: "He mimed the God he hoped for--a God who reveals himself, who provides the meaning we need, an immanent God who identifies with us in our distress" (39).
Many of Hemingway's stories--including "The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife," "The Killers," and "Hills like White Elephants"--are told by an omniscient narrator who deliberately withholds information from reader. According to Olson, Hemingway's later stories--such as "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place"--indicate a transitional period from that remote, disdainful narrator to a more disclosing, empathetic one.
She also notes what she calls "the wrenching ambivalence that spawned Hemingway's own relatively faithful practice of Catholicism and alternately flippant rhetoric about God and Christ" (50). She contends that it is this tension which informs "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" And To Have and Have Not, which she describes as a Ulysses-like "battle of points of view" in which the God-like narrator triumphs by having the last word (51). Similarly, she somewhat improbably sees "The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber" as a parable about human fallibility and our need for the authority of divine wisdom.
That longing for God culminates in For Whom the Bell Tolls, the novel which prompted Hemingway to write Maxwell Perkins, "I don't like to write like God. It is only because you never do it, though, that the critics think you can't do it" (quoted in Olson 37). Olson sees the longing for God's consolation as one of the novel's central concerns. She also offers a brief defense of Across the River and Into the Trees and concludes with a discussion of the resurrection of Santiago, a suffering Christ figure, in The Old Man and the Sea.
In contrast, Olson's next chapter opens with the sentence, "Virginia Woolf spent most of her professional life trying not to write like God" (64). Through quotations from the letters and diaries, Olson documents Woolf's growing discomfort with authorial omniscience. Woolf's first two novels, The Voyage Out and Night and Day, were written in the tradition of the omniscient, God-like narrator, but in her third, the "protopostmodernist" Jacob's Room (67), she moved to a different, inconsistently omniscient perspective, in which the narrator feigns ignorance about the novel's central character while simultaneously making omniscient pronouncements about the characters who surround Jacob.
Olson implausibly cites Woolf's flippant profanities and relentless mockery of Christianity as evidence of an underlying belief, although, to be fair, Olson does also quote some of Woolf's more disgusted remarks about religious faith--e.g., of T.S. Eliot, "A corpse would seem to me more credible than he is. I mean there's something obscene in a living person sitting by the fire and believing in God" (quoted in Olson 69).
Nevertheless, despite Woolf's avowals of atheism or at least agnosticism, Olson draws on Woolf's diaries to substantiate her contention that Woolf was a closet panentheist: "Unlike pantheism, which regards God and the world as identical, affirming God's complete immanence, panentheism instead sees God as including the world, the world as existing within God" (79). She suggests that Woolf's views parallel those of process theologians such as Alfred North Whitehead and that these views are reflected in Woolf's novels, especially Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse. Olson explains, "by the time of The Waves and Between the Acts she had to admit again that narration of a more authoritative sort was finally at least psychologically necessary and technically never fully avoidable" (99). But, Olson adds, it made Woolf "profoundly uncomfortable" (99).
Of Woolf, Olson writes, "Most of her work in its troubled self-consciousness reflects her dual discomfort with posing as a God she did not believe in and posing as a God at all, since to her conscious understanding such a stance bespoke an authorial arrogance she despised" (106). In that respect, Woolf prefigured such self-reflexive, postmodernist writers as Muriel Spark and John Fowles, who want readers to participate in creating their fictions so that they can avoid the manipulative falsity of behaving like a God in a world that no longer genuinely believes in God.
Olson draws on religious history to note a movement in the 19th century from the image of God as transcendent to a much more personal, immanent figure. She links this change to the movement in narration from a distanced, omniscient style to free indirect discourse, in which boundaries between writer and character dissolve, and argues that Flannery O'Connor, Muriel Spark, and Graham Greene began to redress that imbalance by moving away from free indirect discourse toward an omniscient narration suggestive of the transcendent God all three believed in.
Olson's dose readings are intriguing, if not entirely persuasive, and she is unusual, even daring, in her willingness to treat modernist writers' religious beliefs, seriously. It is finally difficult, however, to accept her underlying premise that all narrative styles necessarily imply theological faith.
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|Publication:||The Hemingway Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1998|
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