The Narrative Structure of Elizabeth Gaskell's, Cranford and Charles Dickens', Great Expectations

The Narrative Structure of Elizabeth Gaskell's, Cranford and Charles Dickens', Great Expectations

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Compare and contrast the narrative structure of Elizabeth Gaskell’s
Cranford and Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations

Compare and contrast the narrative structure of any two nineteenth-century novels.
The narrative structure of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford and Charles Dickens’s
Great Expectations can be compared and contrasted in many ways.

Firstly it is important to note that both of the narrators are looking back on certain
times in their lives, however Pip’s narrative reflects on a larger span of time and
perhaps more significant events in his life whereas Mary Smith reflects as an observer
on her visits to Cranford. Pip asserts himself as both a narrator and character from the
start as he informs us that ‘my father’s name being Pirrip, and my Christian name
Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit

than Pip’. ‘Pip’ is repeated at the beginning of the novel and it is the repetition of this that asserts him as the narrator. It also informs us of his age, at this point, as he is unable to pronounce his name. We are also made aware of his family background as
he is standing at the graves of his parents and states that their family’s was ‘the marsh
country, down by the river’. Thus we have an idea of the narrator’s background.

In contrast, in Cranford, Mary Smith makes no assertion of herself. We are given
no information about the narrator in the beginning as she begins by informing us that
‘in the first place, Cranford is in possession of the Amazons’ and so nthe setting is
given priority over the identity of the narrator. The reference to the ‘Amazons’ relates
to the reference to the ‘Spartans’, which are both ironic in that the women of Cranford
that she goes on to talk about are nothing like these strong women.

Also in comparison to Great Expectations, we are informed of the name of the narrator not
from the start but in chapter fourteen, towards the end. Therefore the narrative
structure here, informs us of the importance of the narrator as it is evident that Pip is
more important as a narrator and character than Mary here as we are somewhat
acquainted with him from the start.

The voice of the narrator in Cranford is feminine as opposed to the masculine
voice of Pip. This feminine voice is evident throughout the novel as clearly, the ladies
of Cranford are described and the narrator is one of these ladies as she constantly
refers to the ladies and herself as ‘we’. Also there are not many men in the novel and

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this is due to the lack of men in their social circle. This is evident when she states ‘the ladies of Cranford were already rather moaning over the invasion of
their territories by a man’. The feminine voice gives the novel a calm tone. This is
also because the novel is predominantly about a calm little town. It is also important
that critics have conceived the novel as being feminine. Pip’s effeminate tone is
evident when he speaks of Joe and states that Joe was ‘a mild, good-natured, sweet
tempered, easy going, foolish dear fellow’. The listing emphasises Joe’s good nature
although it may be argued that ‘foolish dear fellow’ is contradicting that and that
Pip is looking down on Joe. However his masculine tone is evident in when he speaks of
business. Moreover in contrast to Cranford, the novel focuses largely on men as there are a fewer number of women.

Letters are used and spoken of in the narrative structure of both novels but are
given more importance in Cranford as a whole chapter is devoted to Miss Matty’s
‘old letters’. In my opinion, the novel is largely about the life of Miss Matty and the
chapter on letters are important in informing us about her family history. Moreover
the narrator is described as a ‘stranger’ to Cranford by Miss Matty, and when away
from Cranford, it is letters that inform her of the goings on in the town. This differs
from Great Expectations as letters are not as important in this novel
and only short letters are sent by Biddy and Miss Havisham. However these are of
significance as Pip receives them when he is in London, living a new life and has not
thought of Joe or Biddy. This shows the extent to which Pip has changed, as he has
not been in touch with his family. Also important is the letter from Mr Trabb that
informs Pip of his sister’s death.

Conversations are imbedded into the narrative structure to inform us of other
characters’ opinions and personality. In Cranford, these are particularly significant as
they emphasise the dominance of the other characters and the passivity of the narrator,
as these conversations do not tell us a lot about the narrator, only of her observant
nature. When we do begin to find out about her character it is only a little towards the
end when we discover her to be quite determined when she wishes to find out about
Aga Jenkyns, who may be ‘Poor Peter’ and when she is in the situation where she
must help Miss Matty.

The narrative structures of both novels are similar in the way that they both move
in a chronological order. This allows us to follow the life of Pip, his progression from
a child to an adult. Similarly we are able to follow Mary on her trips to Cranford.
However we see a development in the character of Pip in this chronological narrative
whereas there is a lack of this in Mary’s narrative. In addition the narrative structure
focuses on time so that we are aware of what time in their lives certain events were
occurring, for example we are made aware that Pip is ‘three-and-twenty years of age’
when he discovers Magwitch to be his benefactor. Likewise some of the chapters in
Cranford begin with ‘a few days later’, ‘early the next morning’ or ‘soon after the
events of which I gave account’. Moreover it is evident that more time is spent in the
novel, discussing the issues that are important to the narrator, or issues important to
the development of the narrative. For example more time is spent developing the
character of Miss Matty and the theme of the home and domesticity in Cranford than
the development of the narrator herself. Likewise Pip spends more time in the novel discussing certain characters, for example in the beginning he tends to describe Joe in much of the narrative but the narrative structure shows that later on the novel, other
characters play a greater role in his life and he turns to describing his relationship with Jaggers, Herbert and Wemmick.

The narrative structure of Dickens’s novel allows the narrative voice to change
even though the narrator is a mature Pip looking back at his life so far and ‘traces his
development through the events of his early life’[1]. The beginning of the novel is
written in a childlike voice to depict a child, for example he feels guilty for doing the
littlest of things when he steals from Mrs Joe as he hears voices shouting ‘a boy with
someone else’s porkpie- stop thief!’ and tells a sheep ‘I couldn’t help it sir! It wasn’t
for myself I took it!’. This reveals his innocence and creates humour for the reader as
well as revealing one of the novel’s predominant themes, guilt. The narrative voice
gradually changes as he begins to become discontent with his social position when he
tells Joe that Estella had said ‘I was common, and I knew I was common, and that I
wished I was not common’. The repetitive nature of ‘common’ emphasises the extent
to which Pip was now discontent with his social position. Gradually the tone and
narrative voice changes and develops as Pip as a character matures and develops,
when he learns of his new fortune, has great expectations and becomes educated.

When he has come of age he has developed a business-orientated mind and helps
Herbert work through his debts as well as his own and he recognises this when he
states ‘I established with myself, on these occasions, the reputation of a first rate man
of business- prompt, decisive, energetic, cool headed’. The extent to which he feels
himself to be developed is emphasised when he calls himself a ‘first rate’
businessman and the listing of the agreeable qualities also augment this.
In contrast, the tone of the narrator in Cranford remains the same throughout the
novel, her manner is observant and she assesses all that she sees. We do not see a
development in her character, as we do with Pip as she reveals little about herself and
more about the other characters such as Miss Matty. As the novel focuses so much on
Miss Matty we know more about her than the narrator herself. However it may be
argued that the narrator was not meant to be central to the novel like Pip is in Great
Expectations but that other issues, such as domesticity, the theme of home and the
belief that women must be kept in their place in order to keep the British Empire
alive, a notion which Gaskell has promoted were meant to be prevalent and that the
narrator was an onlooker. This may have been the reason for perhaps trivial issues
such as ‘dress’ and whether to call Lady Glenmire ‘your ladyship’ being discussed.

On the other hand we see developments in her character through her relationships
with other characters, particularly Miss Matty as she helps to find Peter and is there
for her after the death of her sister. In addition she begins to reveal more about herself as the narrative progresses as she informs us of her father and tells us that ‘in my own home, whenever people had nothing else to do, they blamed me for want
of discretion’. However it is only small details of information and so it
is manifest that Cranford focuses little on the narrator as a character and more on
other characters although everything we read is as she saw it. At one point when she
wishes to speak of herself, she states ‘I must say a word or two here about myself’.
Moreover chapters are dedicated to the development of other characters such as Captain
Brown, Miss Matty, Signora Brunoni and their histories. Miss Matty also takes on
the narrator’s role as she informs us of her family history. This gives importance to
other characters.

Similarly Pip’s narrative gives importance to other characters such as Estella, also the
narrative shifts for one chapter to Magwitch so he is able to reveal his side of the
story. Thus the narrative structure and narrative content of Cranford focuses more on
the development of other characters and themes.

Settings are also important in both novels and are described greatly. The settings in
Great Expectations vary from Pip’s own home to the homes of Miss Havisham, who
is of a higher class than him. The settings change as Pip’s circumstances change when
he travels to London and visits Newgate Prison. Whereas the settings in Cranford are
often restricted to the home.

The prevalent setting in both novels is the home and in my opinion is the
preponderant theme that the two novels share. Homely concepts are central to
Cranford and this is evident in the narrator describing the homes of characters, as well
as other domestic matters such as their economies. In addition, it is the home where
the ladies meet and hold parties. Also important is that names in the novel such as
Mary Smith are homely and ordinary. In the same way, in Great Expectations, the
home is described positively as it is home to which he returns after his encounter with
Magwitch in the beginning of the novel and thus it can be inferred that he feels safe
there. His relationship with Joe is described within the home, and a warm atmosphere
is created when he informs us that ‘Joe made the fire and swept the hearth’. The
warmth is created by the images of fire and is augmented when juxtaposed with ‘it
was a dry cold night, and the wind blew keenly, and the frost was white and hard’.

And so it is in the home where Pip feels warm and safe. However the home is
described negatively in many ways as it is here that Pip receives his beatings from
Mrs Joe. However it may be argued that other themes such as social class are
the predominant themes that are evident in both novels and thus link them. Pip wishes to
be of a higher class than he is and thus tries to improve himself throughout the novel.
Social class is also important in Cranford as words such as ‘poverty’ are repeated and
the fact that they are of aristocratic backgrounds is asserted when she states ‘our
aristocratic seclusion was respected by the group of shop keepers’. However it is the
theme of home that is prevalent as it plays a greater role in ‘both’ novels.

In my opinion there is also the implicit theme of bravery as Pip is brave when he
tries to help Magwitch to escape. Similarly Signora Brunoni is brave when she travels
from India through the jungles with her baby. Additionally, the theme of kindness is
evident, as it is out of kindness that Magwitch helps to make Pip a gentleman and it is
out of kindness that the ladies help Miss Matty when she loses her income. This
shows another thing they have in common as both parties bestow the money secretly,
without the people knowing.

In conclusion there are many similarities and differences in the narrative structure
of both novels. ‘Home’ is the preponderant theme that links both novels. Both
narrators are important but in different ways as Pip is important in providing
information about himself as well as others whereas Mary is more important in
informing us of the society and other characters.

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