When thinking about the infinite or the unknown, the human mind is sometimes challenged to comprehend things beyond the limits of our words and imaginations. American writer Ambrose Bierce once defined “genius” as “[the ability] to know without having learned; to draw conclusions from unknown premises; to discern the soul of things.” (qtd. Bierce). Human nature strives to know, to understand, and to discern that which is hidden from our intellect. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s sonnet “Ozymandias,” deals with the concepts of time, permanence of art, and emotional truth. In Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte also explores the reader’s ability to find the capital “truth,” but from a completely distinct angle. Both Shelley and Bronte use different literary forms to obscure the truth with the unknown, as well as to empower language with the ability to expose true knowledge.
Interestingly, both writer and poet use an intricate narrative structure to communicate their stories. For instance, the speaker in the poem “Ozymandias” is incredibly far both in space and time from the actual subject of his story. The first-person poetic persona states that he met a “traveller” who had been to “an antique land.” He learns from the traveler about a giant ruined statue that lay broken and eroded in the desert. The traveler is able to describe the great work of the sculptor, who was supposedly able to capture the king’s “passions” and give meaningful expression to the otherwise “lifeless thing.” Thus, the perspective on the statue given to the reader is coming from an unknown traveler, who is speaking about a half-destroyed statue of an unknown king, made by an unknown sculptor. If the speaker was the only anonymous narrative voice, this would already be enough to cast a mysterious light onto his story. However, the story is related by a poet, who uses a persona, who heard it from a traveler, who might or might not have actually seen this statue, and surely has not seen the actual king. The “frown and wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command” on the statue’s face is expressed by a sculptor who may or may not have truly captured the passions and emotions of the king. (Damroch 782). The web of unspecified, nameless characters and abundance of uncertain details pervades the poem with an air of mystery and legend. Consequently, the reader does not have enough access to the story to feel full connection, satisfaction, and trust in the authenticity of the account.
In Wuthering Heights, Bronte also uses a multi-layered narrative structure; nontheless, she achieves a notably different result. There are two clear narrators – Lockwood and Nelly, but the novel becomes almost a drama because the language and dialogue connect the reader to the narrative. Different levels of narration construct the story, not by telling events from different perspectives, but by the combined participation of the characters to relate the “truth.” For instance, as Nelly is relating the incident of Catherine’s arrival at the Heights to Mr. Lockwood (who is relating the story to the reader), the reader is informed that Nelly “has not seen her [Catherine] since she left.” Nelly says, “Zillah has told me something of the way the go on, otherwise I should hardly know who was dead, and who living.” This shows that almost nothing of what she is about to tell has been witnessed by Nelly herself, making her an unreliable narrator. In addition, the person Nelly hears Catherine’s experiences from “thinks Catherine is haughty and does not like her.” Who is to say then, that Zillah’s story is not flowered up in accordance with her preconceived opinions about Catherine. After all, Nelly even admits that Catherine has “enlisted my informant among her enemies, as securely as if she had done her some great wrong.” (Bronte 259). Because Zillah is limited by her prejudices, the reader can even dare to imagine that he/she has a better understanding of Catherine than Zillah does herself. Clearly, Bronte’s narrators are usually just eyewitnesses, and even then they neither have an absolute, unbiased knowledge about the events, nor do they know the depths of thought and inner life of the other characters. Thus, certainty and valid truth escape the reader and ensure he/she will never truly achieve complete knowledge of what is purposefully made unknown.
Evidently, both Bronte and Shelley effectively employ various narrative techniques to cloud potential knowledge in unreliability. Meanwhile, they manage to use the avenue of language to endow the very same hidden truth with the attribute of lasting certainty. In, “Ozymandias,“ the reader’s best access to the story and the mysterious king himself ends up being the medium of language. The king’s words, “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair,” are the only lines of the poem in which the reader can feel like he/she is getting somewhat verifiable or at least indirectly quotable information. The inscription is powerful, lasting, and withstands even the test of time, though the king and even the statue itself has withered away. Surely, the sculptor’s work will “survive, stamped on lifeless things,” and the statue still stands “round the decay of that colossal wreck,” but there is a sense that even though the statue has outlasted its “boundless and bare” surroundings, it will eventually decay with time. (Damroch 782). The inscription of words, however, seems more true and even eternal because the words survived the wear of time, and once spoken or written remain forever. Whether or not the rest of the details are accurate takes a second place priority to the knowledge that the supposed truth which the reader is exposed to will be certain and lasting. Perhaps Shelley chose the medium of poetry because poetry itself creates “truth” that lasts. After all, poetry is meant to be reread over and over again, and is likely to stay suspended in one’s imagination longer than sentences of a novel or short story.
Bronte, however, uses language to explore the elasticity of knowledge with a completely different approach. Although her narrative technique seemingly prevents the reader from obtaining certain truth, the technique is ultimately the best way to connect the reader to the text and involve him/her in the knowledge that already exists – perhaps even making the reader accept the story as true knowledge. The intricate narration creates dialogue, and the magnetic detail of colloquial language soon engages the reader’s attention. As Nelly dramatizes most of her narrative, the story is given energy and immediacy. For instance, when she relates Zillah‘s dialogue – ‘“The first thing Mrs. Linton did,“ she said, “on her arrival at the Heights, was to run upstairs without even wishing good-evening to me and Joseph” ‘ – the reader can practically hear Zillah talking, making the words more believable than if they were related through the comments of an author or the sophisticated diction of an omniscient narrator. (Bronte 259). Now, language brings the action to life as if it happened 3 hours ago, making the characters more vivid, real, and the reader practically overlooks the complex narration to focus on knowing the fascinating plot. The complicated frame of narrative voices thus actually makes the story more believable.
Both Wuthering Heights and “Ozymandias” are works that provide powerful examples of an author’s or poet’s ability to use literary form – specifically, narrative techniques – to both conceal and at the same time empower knowledge. Although Bronte and Shelley use different methods to show the strengths and weaknesses of narration and language, they might both agree with Bierce on the saying that knowledge might actually be drawn even from the very same “unknown” that hides it from view. Perhaps knowledge does not always need to be complete “truth,” and perhaps truth resists simplicity.
Percy Bysshe Shelley: “Ozymandias” (1818)
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”. (Damroch 782).
Emily Bronte: Wuthering Heights (1847)
I have paid a visit to the Heights, but I have not seen her since I left. […] Zillah has told me something of the way the go on, otherwise I should hardly know who was dead, and who living.
She thinks Catherine haughty, and does not like her, I can guess by her talk. My young lady asked some aid of her, when she first came, but Mr. Heathcliff told her to follow her own business, and let his daughter-in-law look after herself, and Zillah willingly acquiesced, being a narrow-minded selfish woman. Catherine evinced a child’s annoyance at this neglect; repaid it with contempt, and thus enlisted my informant among her enemies, as securely as if she had done her some great wrong.
I had a long talk with Zillah, about six weeks ago, a little before you came, one day, when we foregathered on the moor: and this is what she told me.
“The first thing Mrs. Linton did,” she said, “on her arrival at the Heights, was to run upstairs without even wishing good-evening to me and Joseph; she shut herself into Linton’s room, and remained till morning – then, while the master and Earnshaw were at breakfast, she entered the house and asked all in a quiver if the doctor might be sent for? Her cousin was very ill.” (Bronte 259).