Autobiographical Novel | Definition and Examples in Literature

Autobiographical Novel | Definition and Examples in Literature

Autobiographical Novel

In the autobiographical novel, the narrative technique is that of the first person. The writer identifies himself with one of his characters (generally, though not always, the hero or the heroine).

The first person narrative technique has been adopted by Defoe in Robinson Crusoe, Goldsmith in his Vicar of Wakefied and has produced a good many masterpieces; Jane Eyre, Great Expectations, David Copperfield, Moby Dick, etc. In Robinson Crusoe, the story is told by the chief participant. The point of view offers few narrative difficulties, for little of importance happens in which Robinson does not personally share. The story told him by the Spaniard upon his return to the island is the single noteworthy exception. And here there is no technical difficulty, for the incidents are narrated to Robinson Crusoe in the most natural fashion and by him reported.

There are some restrictions imposed on the first person narrative technique. The hero must himself see or hear almost everything that happens. In David Copperfield, the readers learn only what has been experienced i. e., undergone, observed or learnt by the narrator, himself a character within the tale. The hero must be present in all that happens. David speaks of those characters whom he has met and those incidents in their life in which he himself was a participant. It raises little technical difficulty because nothing is reported in which the writer is not a participant.

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The presence of the writer (who is generally the hero or heroine) binds up the apparently rambling plot of the novel into a coherent patter. The first person narrative technique has no singular advantage that it looks at the characters and incidents from a single point of view. Thus it gains in dramatic vividness and structural coherence. This method has been eminently successful in a novel like David Copperfield Here the plot is complicated and the readers’ interest is sometimes diverted to characters and incidents that have apparently no bearing on the course of the story. Because of this method, such characters as Micawber and Uriah Heep who are autonomous characters become credible in the novel. Dr. Strong’s relationship with his wife has a slender relation with David’s life it focusses David’s ‘undisciplined heart’ by contrast. Its long digressive narration is tedious. The first person narrative method makes this digression credible.

The technique, however, raises certain problems which make the position of the narrator shockingly unreal. The scene where David overhears Roosa Dartle’s tirade against Little Emily affords a good example of the disadvantage of the first person narrative technique. This scene in which the narrator is not himself fully involved is further removed from actuality than a story told in the third person, David who must be at the heart of the action which is to record goes on some pretext to Yarmouth where he is witness to the shipwreck in which Steerforth is drowned in the very sight of the home from which is seduced Little Emily. This is a horrible use of coincidence which springs from the exigencies of the point of view.

The difficulties of an author employing this point of view in a story of complicated action are demonstrated in The Vicar of Wakefield. The Vicar is no fit person to tell the story. He relates the account of his sufferings and his resignation amusingly. But no sooner does he conduct a plot and recount the fortunes of his family then he is in difficulties. The story gets out of hand and the original point of view proves inadequate to its control. Its plot becomes a tangle of inconsistencies and coincidences. The elaborate stories employing this point of view inevitably share in greater or less degree the difficulties and failures of the Vicar of Wakefield.

Percy Lubbock distinguishes two types of novels- the scenic or dramatic in which the story acts itself out before the readers such as a play does: or the pictorial or panoramic in which the author tells the readers about the story as he goes on. The former is vivid but limited in time and space: the latter is less vivid but more free. In the third person narrative method, what the writer says seems to be an intrusion. He supplies all the information about the characters and incidents although he is not a participant. In the first person narrative, there is a legitimate relation between the story and the narrator. In the first person narrative, he calls up the recollections and this effort may be given the value of a sort of drama on its own account. We see the characters and incidents from the hero’s point of view.

In an autobiographical novel, the art of James and Flaubert is not appropriate. It would be too orderly, too patterned to convey the richness and variety of episodes needed to suggest the events of half a life time. In David Copperfield, Dickens has ordered his materials so, that for all their skillful appearance of artlessness give meaning to his interpretation of his experience. In David Copperfield he has not merely recorded the painful experiences of his childhood and youth: he has so surrounded them with life itself as to make them part of a larger world.

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