Comment on Woolf’s narrative technique in ‘The Duchess and the Jeweller’.

‘The Duchess and the Jeweller’.

In order to get the compression necessary for a short story, Woolf uses a narrative technique as the story opens that summarizes in brief snippets the repeated thoughts and beliefs Oliver Bacon has about his past. The idea that these are repetitive thoughts, a subjective story Bacon has told about himself until it has become his truth, is conveyed through the use of the conditional tense, as indicated by the use of the word “would”:

“Behold Oliver,” he would say, addressing himself. “You who began life in a filthy little alley, you who . . .” and he would look down at his legs, so shapely in their perfect trousers; at his boots; at his spats.

The “would” shows that this is a habitual way of his addressing himself and telling his story.

Later, as we are brought into the immediacy of a particular event in Oliver’s life, Woolf stops summarizing his typical thoughts and conveys his specific thoughts as he is having them, using a stream-of-consciousness technique. We are directly inside his head below, as he paints a mental picture in response to the Duchess’s offer of a weekend at her country estate:

He looked past her, at the backs of the houses in Bond Street. But he saw, not the houses in Bond Street, but a dimpling river; and trout rising and salmon; and the Prime Minister; and himself too, in white waistcoat; and then, Diana. He looked down at the pearl in his hand. But how could he test it, in the light of the river, in the light of the eyes of Diana? But the eyes of the Duchess were on him.

We have an unmediated encounter with Oliver’s imagination until he looks down at the pearl in his hand. He then has to decide how to determine to test whether it is real or fake. We witness his struggle as he realizes the real barter he had been offered: the Duchess expects him to lend her a large sum of money against the assurance of fake pearls (in other words, with no real collateral to secure the loan) in exchange for the aristocratic weekend he covets.

By using stream of consciousness, Woolf leaps over the need for an omniscient narrator to stand between us and Oliver and interpret his thoughts for us. Instead, she gives us the immediacy of his mental struggle as he subjectively experiences it, with no intermediary. To Woolf, this technique more accurately reflects how people think and experience life, as raw thoughts that are not shaped and interpreted by a narrator.

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