Description

Description is a narrative mode that represents objects in space, that is to say existents of the story, things that can be seen, heard or felt in some way. Traditional rhetoric distinguishes between

the description of place,
the description of time,
the description of character.

Place:

On one side of this broad curve in the straight seaboard of the Republic of Costaguana, the last spur of the coast range forms an insignificant cape whose name is Punta Mala. From the middle of the gulf the point of the land itself is not visible at all; but the shoulder of a steep hill at the back can be made out faintly like a shadow on the sky. (Conrad, Nostromo, ch.1),


Time
:

Five o'clock had hardly struck on the morning of the nineteenth of January [...] (Brontë, Jane Eyre, ch. 5)


Character
:

One of these boxes was occupied [...] by a stern-eyed man of about five-and-forty, who had a bald and glossy forehead, with a good deal of black hair at the sides and back of his head, and large black whiskers. He was buttoned up to the chin in a brown coat; and had a large seal-skin travelling cap, and a great-coat and cloak lying on the seat beside him. (Dickens, Pickwick Papers, ch. 35)


Obviously, these elements are normally combined:

I have read of men who, when forced by their calling to live for long periods in utter solitude [...] have made it a rule to dress regularly for dinner in order to maintain their self-respect and prevent a relapse into barbarism. It was in some such spirit, with an added touch of self-consciousness, that, at seven o'clock in the evening of 23rd September in a recent year [description of time], I was making my evening toilet in my chambers in Pall Mall [description of place]. I thought the date and the place justified the parallel, [...] I – well, a young man of condition and fashion, who knows the right people, belongs to the right clubs, has a safe, possibly brilliant future in the Foreign Office – may be excused for a sense of complacent martyrdom, when, with his keen appreciation of the social calendar, he is doomed to the outer solitude of London in September [description of character]. (Childers, The Riddle in the Sands, ch. 1)


Comment

In the narrative mode of comment one notices the mediator (i.e. the narrator) most. In this mode we find evaluations of the story's events and characters, general observations or judgements. Such evaluations can be quite explicit:

In the absence of any precise idea as to what railways were, public opinion in Frick was against them; for the human mind in that grassy corner had not the proverbial tendency to admire the unknown, holding rather that it was likely to be against the poor man, and that suspicion was the only wise attitude with regard to it. (Eliot, Middlemarch, ch. 56)

But evaluations can also be made less explicitly. The choice of pejorative diction, a hint of irony or the use of modifiers (such as 'unfortunately') also work as comment. In the following example the narrator of a Dickens novel manages to present Sir Leicester Dedlock as a rather ridiculous man, mainly through irony when describing Sir Leicester's estimate of his own value, which is completely out of proportion, and the mixture of negative and positive characteristics which the narrator gives without any attempt at reconciliation:

Sir Leicester Dedlock is only a baronet, but there is no mightier baronet than he. His family is as old as the hills, and infinitely more respectable. He has a general opinion that the world might get on without hills, but would be done up without Dedlocks. [...] He is a gentleman of strict conscience, disdainful of all littleness and meanness, and ready, on the shortest notice, to die any death you may please to mention rather than give occasion for the least impeachment of his integrity. He is an honourable, obstinate, truthful, high-spirited, intensely prejudiced, perfectly unreasonable man. (Dickens, Bleak House, ch. 2)


Mixed Narrative Modes

In practice, narrative modes are mixed:

Cedric crossed the threshold into the room. [report of action] It was a very large and splendid room, with massive carven furniture in it, and shelves upon shelves of books; [description] [...] On the floor, by the armchair, lay a dog, a huge tawny mastiff with body and limbs almost as big as a lion's [description]; and this great creature rose majestically and slowly, and marched towards the little fellow, with a heavy step [report with comment, 'majestically', 'little fellow'].
Then the person in the chair spoke. [report and inquit formula] 'Dougal,' he called, 'come back, sir.' [direct speech and inquit formula]
But there was no more fear in little Lord Fauntleroy's heart than there was unkindness - he had been a brave little fellow all his life. [report with comment] (Burnett, Little Lord Fauntleroy, ch. 5)


Historical Change in Narrative Modes

Preferences for certain narrative modes change over time. Twentieth-century narratives for instance tend to use less comment, especially moral judgements that claim general validity of the kind so frequently found in earlier narratives. Modern narratives also favour the use of direct speech or direct representation of consciousness. Generally, the tendency since the late nineteenth century, especially since Henry James' emphatic advocacy of the 'showing' mode, has been towards those modes that create the illusion of mimesis and disguise the voice of the narrator.

This does not mean that one type of mode is better and that another is worse. It does indicate that readers have, at different times, different tastes and possibly different expectations and reading habits. A comparison of narrative modes can thus be fruitful when comparing narratives which were written at different times. It is also useful to bear in mind the changing preferences for different modes when examining narratives from times other than our own.



Key-Terms:

description
  • place
  • time
  • person
comment
mixed modes
historical change