Erik Gray, “Miss Marjoribanks’s Pronouns; or, the General, the Particular, and the Novel” (pp. 223–252)

The novel as a genre is always concerned with questions of the general and the particular: it details the particulars of everyday lives as representatives of general truths and characteristics. Margaret Oliphant’s Miss Marjoribanks (1866) not only reflects on this familiar binary but also reveals how easily the distinction between its two terms collapses. The tendency of the heroine, Lucilla Marjoribanks, to refer to all men as “They” illustrates this phenomenon. She uses the pronoun, with no antecedent, to refer either to a particular group of men or to men in general; her doing so both demeans men, by grouping them into an indiscriminate mass, and exalts them, by treating them as so significant as to need no introduction. By the same token, Lucilla’s various suitors are at the same time generalized—they appear as nearly interchangeable functions of the marriage plot—and particularized, since marriage itself involves a form of “particular” (Oliphant’s word) attention. And in the election plot that dominates the final volume of the novel, Lucilla’s chosen candidate, Mr. Ashburton, is singled out precisely for being so typical. Miss Marjoribanks thus demonstrates how the very building blocks of narrative, like those of language, effectively confound the distinction between general and particular. In its elucidation of this tendency of the novel genre, and of art in general, lies the genius and importance of Oliphant’s novel.

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