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“The Tenth of January”: Narration and the Line Between Fact and Fiction

September 16, 2013

I’ve recently read a short story by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps called “The Tenth of January” (2nd story in that collection).  Phelps’ story is about two things, really.  The first is the story of a hunchbacked girl named Asenath Martyn, who ends up on the losing side of a love triangle.  The second is the real-life, 1860 collapse of the Pemberton Mill, one of the worst industrial disasters in American history.

Both the love triangle and the mill collapse–which of course intersect–are well handled, and I’d say the story is worth reading.  However, what most stood out to me about “The Tenth of January” was neither the romance nor the calamity.  It was the narrator.

The narrator of “The Tenth of January” is not a character, in the sense that she does not impact the events of the tale.  That said, the narrator repeatedly interrupts her own tale to comment on the process of writing a narrative.  I find this fascinating, and I think it bears some scrutiny.

Let’s start right at the beginning of the story.  The narrator sets out to describe the town of Lawrence, Massachusetts, home of the Pemberton Mill.  In the book from which I read the story, the narrator’s description–really a long, poetically repetitive list of minutiae–goes on for over 17 lines, and it appears that there is no end in sight.

Then, the paragraph breaks, and the narrators says, “I believe, when I commenced that sentence, I intended to say that it would be difficult to find Lawrence’s equal” (305).  In this sentence, the narrator has broken the fourth wall and acknowledged that the story is, in fact, written.  The author has put the process in public view.

Granted, Phelps is not unique in commenting on the writing process.  She’s not even unique in doing so on page 1.  In A Christmas Carol, for instance, Charles Dickens’ narrator spends a paragraph pondering the origin of the phrase “dead as a door-nail” before proceeding with the story.  And I know there are other instances of this device that I just can’t think of off the top of my head.

But I think Phelps has a particular reason for using this device, more-so than Dickens or other contemporary writers.  Since “The Tenth of January” is based on a real-life event but the characters are not, Phelps may find it necessary to acknowledge her interventions.  She actively draws attention to the line between fact and fiction–and, more importantly, how writing the story blurs it.

In some respects, “The Tenth of January” reads like a journalistic account, especially when the mill collapses on the title day.  At times Phelps breaks out of a narrative voice and waxes philosophical, such as when she points the finger at the mill’s builders:

What to that architect and engineer who, when the fatal pillars were first delivered to them for inspection, had found one broken under their eyes, yet accepted the contract, and built with them a mill whose thin walls and wide, unsupported stretches might have tottered over massive columns and one flawless ore?

This passage has a ripped-from-the-headlines quality, and there’s no need for Phelps to point out that, yes, the Pemberton Mill collapsed.  But when it comes to the main character, as opposed to the main event, the narrator is compelled to step in.

Now, at first blush, it may appear that the narrator is actually saying that Asenath Martyn existed, as described in the book.  In commenting on Asenath’s behavior, and how it doesn’t fit the romantic ideal for a heroine, the narrator says that she is “not writing a novel” and is “biographer of this simple factory girl.”

Obviously, if Asenath is a product of Phelps’ imagination, then she can make her however she wants.  However, maybe not.  Phelps wants to attach a narrative to the Pemberton Mill disaster: industrialization is a destructive force.  It’s easier to get across that message if the victim is as pitiable as possible.  And Asenath is plenty pitiable: hunchbacked, unlucky in love, and of course, a simple factory girl.  She is real in the sense that she represents the victims of 19th century industrialization, and in a loose sense, this makes Phelps a biographer.

So given the odd position of the narrator in “The Tenth of January”, how does this affect one’s reading of the story?  Is it a work of historical fiction?  Is it a form of journalism?  Something in between?  I personally would tend toward that last position, but I really don’t know.  If I had an answer I doubt this aspect of the story would stick out to me so much.  If you’ve got time to read the story, I would love to hear what other people think of it.

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From → Literature

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