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Through A Cracked Mirror: The Irrational Narrator in Nineteenth Century Fiction


The later Nineteenth Century, also called the Victorian Age, was a period of rigid social mores. Every aspect of one's life was regulated by the social customs and courtesies of polite society, which were drilled into one's psyche from the cradle. Society was sharply delineated by socio-economic lines, as well, with the rich associating only with their own kind, the poor huddled in slums, and the middle class carving out a niche in neighborhoods between the two extremes.

In a society as orderly and regimented as Victorian society, the idea of chaos and lawlessness was oddly appealling. Writers and artists explored the darker side of human nature, and newspapers and "penny dreadfuls" recounted horrific true crime to the delighted shivers of the audience. The Victorian reader was fascinated with the idea of loss of control, of disorder, of the dark and atavistic side of human nature.Writers such as Edgar Allan Poe, Guy de Maupassant and Charlotte Perkins Gilman explored these dark, atavistic urges in their fiction, through the eyes of the irrational narrator. The irrational, or insane, narrator is oddly appealling, even to the modern 21st century reader; afterall, look at the popularity of books by Stephen King, John Saul and other writers of first-person horror fiction. To the 19th century reader, the irrational narrator was as delightfully ghoulish as a spooky jack-o-lantern on Halloween night: a safe way to feel a thrill of fright.

The interesting thing about a story told through the eyes of the irrational narrator is that the reader has to decide what is real and what is fantasy, what is sane and what is insane, what is happening and what the narrator thinks is happening. This puts the reader in a position of actively participating in the story because the reader has to analyze what the narrator is saying. The reader is the confessor to whom the narrator reveals his or her experiences and inner emotion, and as such the reader is in a unique position to know both action and reaction, cause and effect, in a way not always possible when the narrator is reliable and the story is straight-forward and orderly.

And so, my friend, here is your opportunity to step inside the minds of the irrational narrators of 19th century fiction and look at their world through the cracked mirrors of their minds...if you have the nerve!

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