Remember how in Tulkinghorn's office, the ceiling is painted with an image of an angry, contemptuous-looking guy pointing his finger down at something? Well, the novel doesn't really explain what this is all about, but Shmoop is thinking it's a pretty good image to keep in mind when thinking about the third-person narrator. This disembodied voice always sounds like it's coming down to us from way up on high, looking out over the horrible, idiotic, pathetic, and evil people who inhabit the world of the novel.
This narrator is judgmental, cynical, and always ready with a cruel dig at someone else's expense. The clincher – what really gives this third person its power – is that this voice narrates in the present tense. He is telling us the action at the very moment that it's happening, basically doing a newscast and an op-ed at the same time. Check out, for example, the third-person narrator's description of the Court of Chancery in the first chapter:
On such an afternoon some score of members of the High Court of Chancery bar ought to be--as here they are--mistily engaged in one of the ten thousand stages of an endless cause, tripping one another up on slippery precedents, groping knee-deep in technicalities, running their goat-hair and horsehair warded heads against walls of words and making a pretence of equity with serious faces, as players might. On such an afternoon the various solicitors in the cause [...] who made a fortune by it, ought to be--as are they not?--ranged in a line [...] (but you might look in vain for truth at the bottom of it) between the registrar's red table and the silk gowns, with bills, cross-bills, answers, rejoinders, injunctions, affidavits, issues, references to masters, masters' reports, mountains of costly nonsense, piled before them. [...] This is the Court of Chancery, which has its decaying houses and its blighted lands in every shire, which has its worn-out lunatic in every madhouse and its dead in every churchyard, which has its ruined suitor with his slipshod heels and threadbare dress borrowing and begging through the round of every man's acquaintance, which gives to monied might the means abundantly of wearying out the right, which so exhausts finances, patience, courage, hope, so overthrows the brain and breaks the heart. (1.6)
Here we've got it all. First, a straight-up description of what's actually happening – the members of the bar are talking, the solicitors are standing in a line, there are documents all over the tables.
Over this bottom foundation of factual description, we have several layers of criticism. First, there is the repetition of several key phrases that create very long list-making sentences: "on such an afternoon," "ought to be – as here they are," "in every," and "which has its." Repeating these words followed by another item in the list gives the reader the feeling of a fist being pounded on a table, or a pointing finger jabbing down. The repetition also lets the narrator slip some nasty items into a seemingly fact-based list: here "mountains of costly nonsense" has the same weight as the technical names of the legal documents that come before the phrase.
The next layer is comparison – of a highly unflattering sort. Some comparisons are through simile: the members of the bar are like actors ("players"), pretending to do serious business. Some is through a surreal slippage between the real and the metaphorical: legal mumbo jumbo is so slippery that the solicitors trip over it and so murky and muddy that they are in it knee-deep.
The final layer is just direct condemnation: "you might look in vain for truth" in the words and actions of all these lawyers.
It would be hard to imagine reading a novel entirely in that incredibly angry voice. It would be exhausting, not to mention really off-putting – and after all, Dickens did want to move his books off the bookstore shelves. So we get a little relief in the form of Esther. Her voice is soft, gentle, and all about feelings. Plus, she is writing in the past tense, from the point of view of someone looking back on things that are over, done, and dealt with. We can sense this in her voice, and even in the tensest moments there is a sense that everything will work out OK.
Unlike the third-person narrator, Esther comes across as a real person, whose voice evolves and changes as time goes on. It might be a little unrealistic that a person writing a memoir would recreate her early, more innocent voice and then slowly transform it into a more mature one. But whatever – that's what we've got here.
When we first meet Esther, her descriptions are really hedging her bets, and she doesn't trust herself or her own judgment about what's happening. Check out this section about Mrs. Jellyby:
Mrs. Jellyby, whose face reflected none of the uneasiness which we could not help showing in our own faces as the dear child's head recorded its passage with a bump on every stair--Richard afterwards said he counted seven [...] As if--I am quoting Richard again--they could see nothing nearer than Africa! [...] Mrs. Jellyby had very good hair but was too much occupied with her African duties to brush it. The shawl in which she had been loosely muffled dropped onto her chair when she advanced to us; and as she turned to resume her seat, we could not help noticing that her dress didn't nearly meet up the back [...] what principally struck us was a jaded and unhealthy-looking though by no means plain girl at the writing-table [...] I was so occupied with Peepy that I lost the letter in detail, though I derived such a general impression from it of the momentous importance of Africa, and the utter insignificance of all other places and things, that I felt quite ashamed to have thought so little about it. (4.23-42)
Esther is generally OK with just telling us the facts... but only kind of. Look at how she hides behind the "we" anytime she has to describe something negative about the Jellyby house: "we could not help noticing," "what struck us." And it's not just that. Every aside that she makes turns out to be a quotation from Richard: "Richard afterwards said he counted seven" [steps that Peepy hits his head on], "I am quoting Richard again" about how Mrs. Jellyby looks off into the distance instead of seeing her kids. When it's time for Esther herself to bust out some kind of opinion, she tries as hard as possible not to say anything mean or critical. Mrs. Jellyby's neglect is instead a lack of "uneasiness." Her gross personal hygiene doesn't hide her "very good hair." Even her clearly idiotic and ridiculous Africa malarkey somehow makes Esther feel guilty and "ashamed" for not caring about it. That's some hardcore pathological niceness right there.
Later, though, Esther starts to grow a spine and gets way less shy about telling us what's what. Here she is summing up things at the end of the novel:
It is difficult to believe that Charley (round-eyed still, and not at all grammatical) is married to a miller in our neighbourhood. [...] I hope the miller will not spoil Charley; but he is very fond of her, and Charley is rather vain of such a match, for he is well to do and was in great request. [...] Tom, Charley's brother [...] is a good bashful fellow, always falling in love with somebody and being ashamed of it. [...] I am reminded here of Peepy and old Mr. Turveydrop. [...] Old Mr. Turveydrop, very apoplectic, still exhibits his deportment about town, still enjoys himself in the old manner, is still believed in the old way. He is constant in his patronage of Peepy and is understood to have bequeathed him a favourite French clock in his dressing-room--which is not his property. (67.8-10)
Check out how much more relaxed and easygoing the voice is here. There is none of the hedging and hiding behind other people's ideas and words. Instead, Esther feels free to judge and even mock the people she's describing. Charley is vain about her marriage, Tom is a silly lovesick boy, and – on a darker note – Mr. Turveydrop is still the same old parasitic poser.