Academic journal article Style

Intermental Thought and Mutual Focalization: Narrative Sympathy in North and South

Academic journal article Style

Intermental Thought and Mutual Focalization: Narrative Sympathy in North and South

Article excerpt

A fierce debate took place within the nineteenth-century novel in particular on the nature of social minds. It had two sides. One was epistemological: To what extent is it possible to have knowledge of the workings of other minds? The other side of the debate was ethical: To what purposes should our knowledge of other minds be put? (Alan Palmer, "Social Minds in Fiction" 197-98)

An ethical dilemma that the Victorians faced was the desire and yet impossibility of knowing the mind of another. The inability, or impossibility, for characters to read other characters' minds and actually know their thoughts is a situation that the realist novel explores as access to the mind of another was access to their identity. The use of different techniques to portray fictional minds links to the ethical deliberation that such access offers. Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South explores the instabilities created by this impossibility for characters to know each other's minds, and yet through a combination of focalization and consciousness representation attempts to overcome this impossibility. North and South makes the claim that focalization and knowledge are connected, or at least should be connected. Both techniques of fictional minds and focalization are crucial for understanding the ethical claims of the realist novel, which Mary-Catherine Harrison explores as including the possibility of creating "empathy across difference" ("How Narrative" 283) and the translation of the reader's emotional response into real-life action ("The Paradox" 259). These ethical claims are central to the social problem novel and specifically in North and South are grounded in shared thought. Ultimately, this article follows Alan Palmer's recognition of "the need for a rhetorical and ethical perspective on analyses of social minds" ("Social Minds in Fiction" 234). The Victorians' desire for sympathy between characters, and between authors and readers, is ultimately a desire for what Palmer has defined as "intermental" or shared, thought. Thus, situations of intermental thought become a crossover for narrative theory and ethics.

In North and South, Margaret Hale and Mr. Thornton experience frequent misunderstandings and differences of thought. Their interpretations of each other are frequently incorrect or misleading, or one character's mind is privileged over another. These instabilities and tensions arise when extensive inside views of Mr. Thornton are revealed through psychonarration and free indirect discourse while Margaret's thoughts remain strangely silent in response. This gap in exposure to their fictional minds is combined with an inequality of focalization. Their inability to achieve intermental thought is reflected by their misperception and misinterpretation of each other. The perception through focalization that the narrator of North and South prizes is more than just accurate looking; it is unity between seeing and knowing, or knowing because one sees. Thus, the narrator's attention to the gaze of one character upon another reveals an emphasis on the knowledge that can be gained from the body, and the possibility of accurate knowledge and mutual understanding. Palmer states, "Part of the work of decoding action statements involves readers following the attempts of characters to read other characters' minds" ("Social Minds in the Novel" 137). This mediated mind-reading makes use of a character's actions and dispositions with the understanding that the mind is embodied, and therefore can be known through observing a character's body and physicality.

In North and South, characters look at each other to read their bodies, and have their own bodies read. Significantly, face watching and face reading, with their link to focalization, are the key ways in which perception and thought are linked in the novel. Comments about seeing, watching, and observing create a platform for character-character communication that relies on how one character's bodily reaction demonstrates his or her interior thoughts, and how that message is read through another character's focalization. …

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