Friday, February 22, 2013

witnesses to greatness

Perhaps a lit expert could help me out, here.

A couple weeks ago, I saw, via Instapundit, that The Complete Works of Sherlock Holmes (with an Introduction by Robert Ryan) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle* was being made available for free Kindle download, so I seized the opportunity and downloaded that puppy onto my phone. I've just finished reading the first-- and relatively short-- novel, A Study in Scarlet, which introduces us both to Dr. James Watson and to Mr. Holmes himself. Watson narrates the book's first part, which takes place in London; the story then shifts radically to Utah in a protracted flashback that occupies most of the rest of the book. The flashback offers insights into the characters that were involved in the London-based murder mystery, and often sounds like an extended diatribe against the evils of Mormonism. The novel ends by shifting us back to London and Dr. Watson.

This is the second old novel I've read on my phone. The first novel was a translation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (reviewed here). What 20,000 Leagues and Scarlet have in common is narration by the second fiddle: Aronnax's thoughts on Nemo and Watson's thoughts on Holmes, respectively. So my question for the lit scholars is this: was it common storytelling practice, especially in the 1800s, to tell a story of greatness through the eyes of a humble narrator? Is this a literary genre of some sort? Or am I merely picking up on a tried-and-true narrative technique that was in use thousands of years ago and is still in use today?**

*I could be very mistaken, but the AC Doyle byline appears to be part of the collection's title (think: "Monty Python's The Holy Grail" and not "Monty Python's The Holy Grail"), which is why I've italicized it here.

**I can think of other second-fiddle narrations: "Farewell to the King," starring Nick Nolte, comes to mind; as does "Amadeus," starring the brilliant Tom Hulce as Mozart and the stupendous F. Murray Abraham as forever-inferior Salieri.



Charles said...

Not making any claims to being a lit expert, but I'm going to go with the "tried-and-true" narrative technique as opposed to "genre" per se. I don't believe it was a particular characteristic of the 1800s, but at the same time I don't think it goes back thousands of year. It strikes me as a relatively recent invention, as most ancient and classical literature was told from the point-of-view of an omniscient narrator. Having an actual character in the story tell that story is something that developed later, although I don't know exactly when. My gut says that it probably coincided with the age of the novel.

But I would have to do more research for that to be anything other than something I just pulled out of my butt, so take it for what it's worth.

Also, "Amadeus" is awesome.

SJHoneywell said...

The classic example of second-fiddle narration is The Great Gatsby. Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot novels are told in the vein of Doyle, through the voice of Poirot's friend, Captain Hastings.

Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

"[T]o tell a story of greatness through the eyes of a humble narrator"?

I've been doing that on my blog for years now.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *