Static and Kinetic Characters.—But there is yet another reason why it is often more valuable for the reader to meet fictitious characters than to meet people of the same class in actual life; and this reason is that during the day or two it takes to read a novel he may review the most significant events of many years, and thus get to know a fictitious character more completely in a brief space of time than he could get to know him, if the character were actual, in several years of continuous acquaintanceship. We meet two sorts of characters in the pages of the novelists,—characters which may be called static, and characters which may be called kinetic. The first remain unchanged throughout the course of the story: the second grow up or down, as the case may be, through the influence of circumstances, of their own wills, or of the wills of other people. The recurrent characters of Mr. Kipling's early tales, such as Mrs. Hauksbee, Strickland, Mulvaney, Ortheris, and Learoyd, are static figures. Although they do different things in different stories, their characters remain always the same. But Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are kinetic figures; they grow and change throughout the novel; they are, each in his own way, bigger and wiser people when we leave them than they were when first we met them. To show a character developing under stress or ripening easily beneath beneficent influences is one of the greatest possibilities of fiction. And to exhibit the gradual disintegration of a character, as George Eliot does in the case of Tito Melema, is to teach us more of the tragedy of life than we might learn in many years of actual experience.
Direct and Indirect Delineation.—Only after the process of creation is completed, and a character stands living in the mind of the novelist, need he consider the various technical expedients which may be employed to make the reader conscious of the character as a personal presence. These technical expedients are many; but they may all be grouped as phases of one or the other of two contrasted methods of delineating character, which may be called, for convenience, direct and indirect. According to the first method, traits of character are conveyed directly to the reader through some sort of statement by the writer of the story: according to the second method, characteristics are conveyed indirectly to the reader through a necessary inference, on his part, from the narrative itself. In employing the first, or direct, method, the author (either in his own person or in that of some character which he assumes) stands between the reader and the character he is portraying, in the attitude, more or less frankly confessed, of showman or expositor. In employing the second, or indirect, method, the author seeks to obliterate himself as much as possible from the reader's consciousness; and having brought the reader face to face with the character he desires to portray, leaves the reader to make his own acquaintance with the character. The indirect method is of course more difficult, and, when successfully employed, is more artistic, than the direct method. But seldom is either used to the exclusion of the other; and it would be possible to illustrate by successive quotations from any first-rate novel, like "The Egoist" for example, how the same characteristics are portrayed first by the one and then by the other method.
Subdivisions of Both Methods.—Each of the two methods shows itself in many different phases. There are several distinct ways of delineating character directly, and also several distinct means of indirect delineation. It is perhaps serviceable for the purposes of study to distinguish them somewhat sharply one from another; but it must always be remembered that the masters of fiction usually employ a commingling of them all, without conscious awareness of any critical distinction between them. Bearing this ever in mind, let us venture on a critical examination of some of the most frequently recurrent phases, first, of the direct, and secondly, of the indirect, method.
I. Direct Delineation: 1. By Exposition.—The most obvious, and at the same time the most elementary, means of direct portrayal is by a deliberate expository statement of the leading traits of the character to be portrayed. Thus, at the outset of "The Vicar of Wakefield," the author, writing in the person of the Vicar, thus expounds the traits of Mrs. Primrose:—
"I was ever of opinion, that the honest man who married and brought up a large family, did more service than he who continued single, and only talked of population. From this motive, I had scarce taken orders a year before I began to think seriously of matrimony, and chose my wife as she did her wedding-gown, not for a fine glossy surface, but such qualities as would wear well. To do her justice, she was a good-natured notable woman; and as for breeding, there were few country ladies who could show more. She could read any English book without much spelling; but for pickling, preserving, and cookery, none could excel her. She prided herself also upon being an excellent contriver in housekeeping; though I could never find that we grew richer with all her contrivances."
This elementary means of portrayal has the obvious advantage of succinctness. The reader is told at once, and with a fair measure of completeness, what he is to think about the character in question. For this reason the expedient is highly serviceable at the outset of a story. So excellent an artist as Stevenson, in the "New Arabian Nights," began each tale in the collection with a paragraph in which he expounded the main traits of the leading character. But the expedient has also several disadvantages. In the first place, being expository, it is not narrative in mood; it savors of the essay rather than the story; and if it be used not at the outset but during the course of a narrative, it halts the progress of the action. In the second place, it is abstract rather than concrete; it does not bring the reader into the presence of a character, but merely into the presence of an explanation; and it leaves the reader in an attitude exactly like that which he holds toward certain actual people, concerning whom he has been told a great deal by their friends, but whom he has never met himself. The whole first chapter of "The Vicar of Wakefield" is a series of little essays on the various members of the Primrose family. Nothing happens in the chapter; the characters never step bodily into view; and we feel at the end that we have heard a great deal of talk about people whom we should like to meet but whom as yet we have not seen.
2. By Description.—It is therefore in certain ways more satisfactory to portray character directly through a descriptive, rather than an expository, statement. Thus, in the second chapter of "Martin Chuzzlewit," we are told of Mr. Pecksniff:—
"His very throat was moral. You saw a good deal of it. You looked over a very low fence of white cravat (whereof no man had ever beheld the tie, for he fastened it behind), and there it lay, a valley between two jutting heights of collar, serene and whiskerless before you. It seemed to say, on the part of Mr. Pecksniff, 'There is no deception, ladies and gentlemen, all is peace, a holy calm pervades me.' So did his hair, just grizzled with an iron-gray, which was all brushed off his forehead, and stood bolt upright, or slightly drooped in kindred action with his heavy eyelids. So did his person, which was sleek though free from corpulency. So did his manner, which was soft and oily. In a word, even his plain black suit, and state of widower, and dangling double eye-glass, all tended to the same purpose, and cried aloud, 'Behold the moral Pecksniff!'"
This statement, being in the main concretely descriptive rather than abstractly expository, brings us face to face with the character at the same time that it tells us what to think of him. And whereas we feel that we have merely heard about Mrs. Primrose, we feel that we have really seen Mr. Pecksniff.
[Gradual Portrayal.]—It was the custom of Sir Walter Scott, at the introduction of a character, to furnish the reader with an elaborate set portrayal, partly expository and partly descriptive, of the traits and features of the character; and to allow this initial direct statement to do duty through the remainder of the novel. The trouble with this off-hand expedient is that the reader inevitably forgets the set statement of the author before the narrative has very far progressed. It is therefore more effective to make a direct portrayal of character, whether expository or descriptive, little by little rather than all in a lump; and to present at any one time to the reader only such traits or features as he needs to be reminded of in order to appreciate the scene before him. Thus, in Mr. Kipling's masterpiece, called "They," we catch this initial glimpse of Miss Florence:—
"The garden door—heavy oak sunk deep in the thickness of the wall—opened further: a woman in a big garden hat set her foot slowly on the time-hollowed stone step and as slowly walked across the turf. I was forming some apology when she lifted up her head and I saw that she was blind.
"'I heard you,' she said. 'Isn't that a motor car?'"
And it is only after five pages of narrative that the writer deems it the proper time to add:—
"She stood looking at me with open blue eyes in which no sight lay, and I saw for the first time that she was beautiful."
3. By Psychological Analysis.—The point that a direct statement of characteristics should preferably be delivered to the reader little by little rather than all in a lump is particularly patent when the statement is not external and objective like those already quoted, but internal and subjective. In a certain type of fiction, which is commonly called "the psychological novel," the usual expedient for delineating character is a statement partly narrative and partly expository of what is taking place within the mind of the fictitious person, based upon an analysis of his thoughts and his emotions, at important moments of the story. This expedient of portraying character by mental analysis is George Eliot's favorite technical device. Here is a typical passage, from "The Mill on the Floss," Chapter V:—
"Maggie soon thought she had been hours in the attic, and it must be tea-time, and they were all having their tea, and not thinking of her. Well, then, she would stay up there and starve herself—hide herself behind the tub, and stay there all night; and then they would all be frightened, and Tom would be sorry. Thus Maggie thought in the pride of her heart, as she crept behind the tub; but presently she began to cry again at the idea that they didn't mind her being there. If she went down again to Tom now—would he forgive her?—perhaps her father would be there, and he would take her part. But then she wanted Tom to forgive her because he loved her, not because his father told him. No, she would never go down if Tom didn't come to fetch her. This resolution lasted in great intensity for five dark minutes behind the tub; but then the need of being loved, the strongest need in poor Maggie's nature, began to wrestle with her pride, and soon threw it. She crept from behind her tub into the twilight of the long attic, but just then she heard a quick footstep on the stairs.
"Tom had been too much interested in his talk with Luke, in going the round of the premises, walking in and out where he pleased, and whittling sticks without any particular reason, except that he didn't whittle sticks at school, to think of Maggie, and the effect his anger had produced on her. He meant to punish her, and that business having been performed, he occupied himself with other matters, like a practical person."—
And so on. It is only after four hundred words more of this sort of analysis that the author tells us: "It was Tom's step, then, that Maggie heard on the stairs." This is George Eliot's way of portraying the characters of two children who have quarreled.
Much is to be said in favor of this expedient of depicting character by analysis. It is the only means by which the reader may be informed directly of those thoughts and emotions of a character which are the mainsprings of his acts. And since we cannot feel that we know a person intimately unless we understand the workings of his mind at characteristic moments, we derive a great advantage from this immediate presentation of his mental processes. On the other hand, the use of the expedient destroys the very desirable illusion that the reader is an observer actually looking at the action, since the details depicted do not happen to the eye but rather to the analytic understanding. The expedient has the disadvantages of being exceedingly abstract, and of halting happenings while the author tells us why they happened. It is certainly unfortunate, for instance, that it should take Tom a whole long page to get to Maggie after she has heard his "quick footstep on the stairs." Furthermore, this expedient tends to destroy the illusion of reality by forcing the reader into a mental attitude which he seldom assumes in looking on at actual life. During actual occurrences people almost never pause to analyze each other and seldom even analyze themselves. They act, and watch other people act, without a microscopic insight into motives. And surely the purpose of narrative should be to represent events as they seem to occur in actuality, rather than to present a dissertation on their causes in the manner of an essay.
An important point, however, remains to be considered. Events are of two kinds, external and internal; things happen subjectively as well as objectively: and in representing the sort of occurrence which takes place only inside a person's mind, the expedient of analysis is by far the most serviceable means of making clear the elements of character that contribute to it. But if the same expedient be employed habitually in the depiction of external events as well, it is likely to give the impression of unwarrantable vivisection. There is a certain falsity of mood in giving an objective event a subjective rendering.
4. By Reports from Other Characters.—When, therefore, it is desired to depict a character by direct comment on his actions or his personality, there is a great advantage in allowing the comment to be made by one of the other characters in the story, instead of by the author himself in an attitude of assumed omniscience. Jane Austen deftly exhibits this subtler phase of the expedient in many admirable passages. For instance, in Chapter XXXIII of "Emma," Mrs. Elton thus chatters to Emma Woodhouse:—
"'Jane Fairfax is absolutely charming, Miss Woodhouse. I quite rave about Jane Fairfax—a sweet, interesting creature. So mild and lady-like—and with such talents! I assure you I think she has very extraordinary talents. I do not scruple to say that she plays extremely well. I know enough of music to speak decidedly on that point. Oh! she is absolutely charming! You will laugh at my warmth—but upon my word, I talk of nothing but Jane Fairfax.'"
In Chapter XXI the same character has been thus commented on by Emma Woodhouse and Mr. Knightley. Emma speaks first:—
"'Miss Fairfax is reserved.'
"'I always told you she was—a little; but you will soon overcome all that part of her reserve which ought to be overcome, all that has its foundation in diffidence. What arises from discretion must be honored.'
"'You think her diffident. I do not see it.'"
These passages not only serve to portray, more or less directly, the personality of Jane Fairfax, but serve also at the same time to portray indirectly the personalities of the people who are talking about her. Mrs. Elton, in particular, is very clearly exhibited. And this point leads us to an examination of one of the most effective means of indirect delineation.
II. Indirect Delineation: 1. By Speech.—If the mere speech of a fictitious figure be reported with sufficient fidelity to truth, it is possible to convey through this expedient alone a very vivid sense of character. Consider the following bits of talk:—
"'You're not a gun-sharp? I am sorry. I could have surprised you. Apart from my gun, my tale don't amount to much of anything. I thank you, but I don't use any tobacco you'd be likely to carry.... Bull Durham? Bull Durham! I take it all back—every last word. Bull Durham—here! If ever you strike Akron, Ohio, when this fool-war's over, remember you've Laughton O. Zigler in your vest pocket. Including the city of Akron. We've a little club there.... Hell! What's the sense of talking Akron with no pants?'
"'Did I talk? I despise exaggeration—tain't American or scientific—but as true as I'm sitting here like a blue-ended baboon in a kloof, Teddy Roosevelt's Western tour was a maiden's sigh compared to my advertising work.'
"'But the general was the peach. I presume you're acquainted with the average run of British generals, but this was my first. I sat on his left hand, and he talked like—like the Ladies' Home Journal. J'ever read that paper? It's refined, Sir—and innocuous, and full of nickel-plated sentiments guaranteed to improve the mind. He was it. He began by a Lydia Pinkham heart-to-heart talk about my health, and hoped the boys had done me well, and that I was enjoying my stay in their midst.'"
These passages are taken from Mr. Kipling's story called "The Captive." The action is laid during the South-African war. Is it necessary to add that the speaker is an American gun-inventor who has fought upon the Boer side and has been captured by the British?
One point must be considered carefully. The art of these passages lies mainly in the fact that we learn more about Zigler indirectly, from his manner of talking, than directly, from the things which he tells us of himself. His statement that he comes from Akron, Ohio, is less suggestive than his fondness for Bull Durham. Any direct statement made by a character concerning himself is of no more artistic value than if it were made about him by the author, unless his manner of making it gives at the same time an indirect evidence of his nature.
The subtlest phase of indirect delineation through speech is a conveyance to the reader, through a character's remarks about himself, of a sense of him different from that which his statement literally expresses. Sir Willoughby Patterne, in "The Egoist," talks about himself frequently and in detail; but the reader soon learns from the tone and manner of his utterance to discount the high esteem in which he holds himself. By saying one thing directly, the egoist conveys another and a different thing indirectly to the reader.
2. By Action.—But in fiction, as in life, actions speak louder than words: and the most convincing way of delineating character indirectly is by exhibiting a person in the performance of a characteristic action. If the action be visualized with sufficient clearness and if its dominant details be presented to the reader with adequate emphasis, a more vivid impression of character will be conveyed than through any sort of direct statement by the author. As an instance of characterization through action only, without comment or direct portrayal, let us consider the following passage from the duel scene of "The Master of Ballantrae." Two brothers, Mr. Henry and the Master, hate each other; they fall to altercation over a game of cards; and the scene is narrated by Mackellar, a servant of Mr. Henry's:—
"Mr. Henry laid down his cards. He rose to his feet very softly, and seemed all the while like a person in deep thought. 'You coward!' he said gently, as if to himself. And then, with neither hurry nor any particular violence, he struck the Master in the mouth.
"The Master sprang to his feet like one transfigured; I had never seen the man so beautiful. 'A blow!' he cried. 'I would not take a blow from God Almighty.'
"'Lower your voice,' said Mr. Henry. 'Do you wish my father to interfere for you again?'
"'Gentlemen, gentlemen.' I cried, and sought to come between them.
"The Master caught me by the shoulder, held me at arm's length, and still addressing his brother: 'Do you know what this means?' said he.
"'It was the most deliberate act of my life,' says Mr. Henry.
"'I must have blood, I must have blood for this,' says the Master.
"'Please God it shall be yours,' said Mr. Henry; and he went to the wall and took down a pair of swords that hung there with others, naked. These he presented to the Master by the points. 'Mackellar shall see us play fair,' said Mr. Henry. 'I think it very needful.'
"'You need insult me no more,' said the Master, taking one of the swords at random. 'I have hated you all my life.'
"'My father is but newly gone to bed,' said Mr. Henry. 'We must go somewhere forth of the house.'
"'There is an excellent place in the long shrubbery,' said the Master.
"'Gentlemen,' said I, 'shame upon you both! Sons of the same mother, would you turn against the life she gave you?'
"'Even so, Mackellar,' said Mr. Henry, with the same perfect quietude of manner he had shown throughout."
It is not necessary for Mackellar to tell us that, whereas Mr. Henry is phlegmatic and deliberate, the Master is impulsive and mercurial. It is not necessary for him to attempt analysis of the emotions and thoughts of the leading characters, since these are sufficiently evident from what they do and say. The action happens to the eye and ear, without the interpretation of an analytic intellect; but the reader is made actually present at the scene, and can see and judge it for himself. The method is absolutely narrative and not at all expository,—entirely objective and concrete. Surely this is the most artistic means of portraying those elements of character which contribute to external, or objective, events: and even what happens inside the mind of a character may often be more poignantly suggested by a concrete account of how he looks and what he does than by an abstract analytic statement of the movements of his mind. When Hepzibah Pyncheon opens her shop in the House of the Seven Gables, her state of feeling is indicated indirectly, by what she does and how she does it.
3. By Effect on Other Characters.—Perhaps the most delicate means of indirect delineation is to suggest the personality of one character by exhibiting his effect upon certain other people in the story. In the third book of the "Iliad," there is a temporary truce upon the plains of Troy; and certain elders of the city look forth from the tower of the Scaean gates and meditate upon the ten long years of conflict and of carnage during which so many of their sons have died. Toward them walks the white-armed Helen, robed and veiled in white; and when they mark her approach, they say to each other (old and wise and weary with sorrows though they be):—
"'Small blame is theirs, if both the Trojan knights And brazen-mailed Achaians have endured So long so many evils for the sake Of that one woman.'" —(Bryant's Version.)
Perhaps the most remarkable instance in modern literature of the use of this expedient is Mr. Kipling's tale of "Mrs. Bathurst." The story is all about the woman from whom it takes its title; but she never for a moment appears upon the scene of action, and is portrayed entirely through her effect upon several different men. Here is a bit of conversation concerning her. Note her effect upon the humorous and not especially sensitive Pyecroft.—
"Said Pyecroft suddenly:—
"'How many women have you been intimate with all over the world, Pritch?'
"Pritchard blushed plum color to the short hairs of his seventeen-inch neck.
"''Undreds,' said Pyecroft. 'So've I. How many of 'em can you remember in your own mind, settin' aside the first—an' per'aps the last—and one more?'
"'Few, wonderful few, now I tax myself,' said Sergeant Pritchard, relievedly.
"'An' how many times might you 'ave been at Aukland?'
"'One—two,' he began. 'Why, I can't make it more than three times in ten years. But I can remember every time that I ever saw Mrs. B.'
"'So can I—an' I've only been to Aukland twice—how she stood an' what she was sayin' an' what she looked like. That's the secret. 'Tisn't beauty, so to speak, nor good talk necessarily. It's just It. Some women'll stay in a man's memory if they once walked down a street, but most of 'em you can live with a month on end, an' next commission you'd be put to it to certify whether they talked in their sleep or not, as one might say.'"
4. By Environment.—Another very delicate expedient is to suggest a character through a careful presentation of his habitual environment. We learn a great deal about Roderick Usher from the melancholy aspect of his House. It is possible to describe a living-room in such a way as to convey a very definite sense of its occupant before he enters it. Notice, for example, how much we learn about Mr. and Mrs. Boffin (especially the latter) from this descriptive passage of Chapter V of "Our Mutual Friend." Silas Wegg has come to fulfill his engagement to read aloud to them the "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:"—
"It was the queerest of rooms, fitted and furnished more like a luxurious amateur tap-room than anything else within the ken of Silas Wegg. There were two wooden settles by the fire, one on either side of it, with a corresponding table before each. On one of these tables the eight volumes were ranged flat, in a row like a galvanic battery; on the other, certain squat case-bottles of inviting appearance seemed to stand on tiptoe to exchange glances with Mr. Wegg over a front row of tumblers and a basin of white sugar. On the hob, a kettle steamed; on, the hearth, a cat reposed. Facing the fire between the settles, a sofa, a footstool, and a little table formed a centrepiece devoted to Mrs. Boffin. They were garish in taste and color, but were expensive articles of drawing-room furniture that had a very odd look beside the settles and the flaring gaslight pendant from the ceiling. There was a flowery carpet on the floor; but, instead of reaching to the fireside, its glowing vegetation stopped short at Mrs. Boffin's footstool, and gave place to a region of sand and sawdust. Mr. Wegg also noticed, with admiring eyes, that, while the flowery land displayed such hollow ornamentation as stuffed birds, and waxen fruits under glass shades, there were, in the territory where vegetation ceased, compensatory shelves on which the best part of a large pie and likewise of a cold joint were plainly discernible among other solids. The room itself was large, though low; and the heavy frames of its old-fashioned windows, and the heavy beams in its crooked ceiling, seemed to indicate that it had once been a house of some mark standing alone in the country."
Neither Boffin nor Mrs. Boffin appears in this descriptive paragraph; yet many of the idiosyncrasies of each are suggested by the conglomeration of queer belongings that they have gathered round them.
The student of the art of fiction may find profitable exercise in practising separately the various means of portraying character which have been illustrated in this chapter; but, as was stated at the outset, he should always remember that these means are seldom used by the great artists singly, but are generally employed to complement each other in contributing to a central impression. The character of Becky Sharp, for instance, is delineated indirectly through her speech, her actions, her environment, and her effect on other people, and at the same time is delineated directly through comments made upon her by the author and by other figures in the story, through analysis of her thoughts and her emotions, through expository statements of her traits, and through occasional descriptions of her. In all of these ways does Thackeray exert himself to give the world assurance of a woman.
It would, however, be extremely difficult to imagine Becky Sharp divorced from her environment of London high society. She is a part of her setting, and her setting is a part of her. We have just noticed, in the case of that queer room of the Boffins', how the mere representation of setting may contribute to the delineation of character. But setting is important in many other ways; and it is to a special consideration of that element of narrative that we must next turn our attention.
1. What combination of traits makes a character worth knowing?
2. Distinguish between the method of allegory and the method of caricature.
3. Imagine a fictitious person; and, after you have become sufficiently acquainted with this imaginary character, write eight distinct themes, in each of which the selfsame figure is projected in accordance with a different method of delineation:—1. By Exposition, 2. By Description, 3. By Psychological Analysis, 4. By Reports from Other Characters, 5. By Speech, 6. By Action, 7. By Effect on Other Characters, and 8. By Environment.
BLISS PERRY: "A Study of Prose Fiction"—Chapter V, on "The Characters."
Read at greater length those passages of famous fiction from which have been selected the illustrative quotations cited in this chapter.
Evolution of Background in the History of Painting—The First Stage—The Second Stage—The Third Stage—Similar Evolution of Setting in the History of Fiction: The First Stage—The Second Stage—The Third Stage: 1. Setting as an Aid to Action—2. Setting as an Aid to Characterization—Emotional Harmony in Setting—The Pathetic Fallacy—Emotional Contrast in Setting—Irony in Setting—Artistic and Philosophical Employment—1. Setting as a Motive toward Action—2. Setting as an Influence on Character—Setting as the Hero of the Narrative—Uses of the Weather—Romantic and Realistic Settings—A Romantic Setting by Edgar Allan Poe—A Realistic Setting by George Eliot—The Quality of Atmosphere, or Local Color—Recapitulation.
Evolution of Background in the History of Painting: The First Stage.—In the history of figure painting it is interesting to study the evolution of the element of background. This element is non-existent in the earliest examples of pictorial art. The figures in Pompeiian frescoes are limned upon a blank bright wall, most frequently deep red in color. The father of Italian painting, Cimabue, following the custom of the Byzantine mosaicists, whose work he had doubtless studied at Ravenna, drew his figures against a background devoid of distance and perspective and detail; and even in the work of his greater and more natural pupil, Giotto, the element of background remains comparatively insignificant. What interests us in Giotto's work at Padua and Assisi is first of all the story that he has to tell, and secondly the human quality of the characters that he exhibits. His sense of setting is extremely slight; and the homely details that he presents for the purpose of suggesting the time and place and circumstances of his action are very crudely depicted. His frescoes are all foreground. It is the figures in the forefront of his pictures that arrest our eye. His buildings and his landscapes are conventionalized out of any real reference to his people. These are examples of the first stage of evolution—the stage in which the element of background bears no significant relation to the main business of the picture.
The Second Stage.—In the second stage, the background is brought into an artistic, or decorative, relation with the figures in the foreground. This phase is exhibited by Italian painting at its period of maturity. The great Florentines drew their figures against a background of decorative line, the great Venetians against a background of decorative color. But even in the work of the greatest of them the background exists usually to fulfil a purpose merely decorative, a purpose with immediate reference to art but without immediate reference to life. There is no real reason, with reference to life itself, why the "Mona Lisa" of Leonardo should smile inscrutably upon us before a background of jagged rocks and cloudy sky; and the curtains in Raphael's "Sistine Madonna" are introduced merely as a detail of composition, and are not intended as a literal statement that curtains hung upon a rod exist in heaven.
The Third Stage.—In the third stage, which is exhibited by later painting, the background is brought into living relation with the figures of the foreground,—a relation suggested not merely by the exigencies of art but rather by the conditions of life itself. Thus the great Dutch genre painters, like the younger Teniers, show their characters in immediate human relation to a carefully detailed interior; or if, like Adrian van Ostade, they take them out of doors, it is to show them entirely at home in an accustomed landscape.
This stage, in its modern development, exhibits an absolutely essential relation between the foreground and the background—the figures and the setting—so that neither could be imagined exactly as it is without the presence of the other. Such an essential harmony is shown in the "Angelus" of Jean-Francois Millet. The people exist for the sake of giving meaning to the landscape; and the landscape exists for the sake of giving meaning to the people. The "Angelus" is neither figure painting nor landscape painting merely; it is both.
Similar Evolution of Setting in the History of Fiction: The First Stage.—In the history of fiction we may note a similar evolution in the element of setting. The earliest folk-tales of every nation happen "once upon a time," and without any definite localization. In the "Gesta Romanorum," that medieval repository of accumulated narratives, the element of setting is nearly as non-existent as the element of background in the frescoes of Pompeii. Even in the "Decameron" of Boccaccio the stories are seldom localized: they happen almost anywhere at almost any time. The interest in Boccaccio's narrative, like the interest in Giotto's painting, is centred first of all in the element of action, and secondly in the element of character. But his stories are all foreground. When the scene is out of doors, it is set vaguely in a conventional landscape: when it is indoors, it is set vaguely in a conventional palace. Because of this, his narrative is lacking in visual appeal. Most of his novelle read like summaries of novels,—setting forth an abstract synopsis of the action rather than a concrete representation of it. He tells you what happens, instead of making it happen before the eye of your imagination. His characters are drawn in outline merely, instead of being livingly projected in relation to a definite environment. The defect of his narrative, like the defect of Giotto's painting, is mainly lack of background.
The Second Stage.—Somewhat later in the history of fiction, as in the history of figure painting, we find instances in which the element of setting is used for a decorative purpose, and is brought into an artistic relation with the elements of action and character. Such a use is made of landscape, for example, in the "Orlando Furioso" of Ariosto and the "Faerie Queene" of Spenser. The settings depicted by these narrative poets are essentially pictorial, and are used as a decorative background to the action rather than as part and parcel of it. If we seek an example in prose rather than in poetry, we need only turn to the "Arcadia" of Sir Philip Sidney. In this again the setting is beautifully fashioned, but is employed merely for a decorative purpose. The background of pastoral landscape bears no necessary relation to the figures in the foreground. It exists for the sake of art rather than for the sake of life. This employment of the element of setting for a purpose essentially pictorial subsists in many later works of fiction, like the "Paul and Virginia" of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre. In this the setting is composed and painted for the sake of its own sentimental beauty, and is obtruded even at the expense of the more vital elements of character and action. The story is, as it were, merely a motive for decorative composition.
The Third Stage: 1. Setting as an Aid to Action.—It is only in fiction of a more modern spirit that the element of setting has been brought into living relation with the action and the characters; and it is only in the last century that the most intimate possibilities of such a relation have been appreciated and applied. Of course the most elementary means of making the setting "part and parcel of the business of the story" is to employ it as a utilitarian adjunct to the action. Granted certain incidents that are to happen, certain scenery and properties are useful, in the novel just as in the theatre; and if these are supplied advisedly, the setting will, as it were, become a part of what is happening instead of remaining merely a decorative background to the incidents. The first English author to establish firmly this utilitarian relation between the setting and the action was Daniel Defoe. Defoe was by profession a journalist; and the most characteristic quality of his mind was an habitual matter-of-factness. Plausibility was what he most desired in his fictions; and he discerned instinctively that the readiest means of making a story plausible was by representing with entire concreteness and great wealth of specific detail the physical adjuncts to the action. The multitudinous particulars of Crusoe's island are therefore exhibited concretely to the reader one by one, as Crusoe makes use of them successively in what he does.
2. Setting as an Aid to Characterization.—But though in Defoe the element of setting is merged with the element of action, it is not brought into intimate relation with the element of character. The island is a part of what Crusoe does, rather than a part of what he is. But the dwelling-room of the Boffins, which was described in the paragraph from "Our Mutual Friend" quoted toward the end of the preceding chapter, is a part of what the Boffins are, rather than of what they do. The setting in the latter case is used as an adjunct to the element of character instead of to the element of action. Fielding and his contemporaries were the first English novelists to make the setting in this way representative of personality as well as useful to the plot; but the finer possibilities of the relation between setting and character were not fully realized until the nineteenth century. The eighteenth-century authors, in so far as they elaborated the element of setting, seem to have done so mainly for the sake of greater vividness. The appeal of setting being visual, the element was employed to illustrate the action and to make the characters clearly evident to the eye. By rendering a story more concrete, a definite setting rendered it more credible. This the eighteenth-century novelists discerned; but only with the rise of the romantic movement was the element applied to subtler uses.
Emotional Harmony in Setting.—A new and very interesting attitude toward landscape setting was disclosed by Rousseau in the "Nouvelle Heloise" and developed by his numerous followers in early nineteenth-century romance. The writers who advocated a "return to nature" spelled nature with a capital N and considered it usually as an anthropomorphic presence. As a result of this, when they developed a natural background for their stories, they established a sympathetic interchange of mood between the characters and the landscape, and imagined (to use the famous phrase of Leibnitz) a "pre-established harmony" between the shifting moods of nature and of man. Thus the setting was employed no longer merely to subserve the needs of action or to give a greater vividness of visual appeal, but was used rather to symbolize and represent the human emotions evoked in the characters at significant moments of the plot. When the hero was suffering with sadness, the sky was hung with heavy clouds; and when his mind grew illumined with a glimmering of hope, the sun broke through a cloud-rift, casting light over the land.
Dickens is especially fond of imagining an emotional harmony between his settings and his incidents. Consider for a moment the following well-known passage from the funeral of Little Nell ("The Old Curiosity Shop," Chapter LXXII):—
"Along the crowded path they bore her now; pure as the newly-fallen snow that covered it; whose day on earth had been as fleeting. Under the porch, where she had sat when Heaven in its mercy brought her to that peaceful spot, she passed again; and the old church received her in its quiet shade.
"They carried her to one old nook, where she had many and many a time sat musing, and laid their burden softly on the pavement. The light streamed on it through the coloured window—a window where the boughs of trees were ever rustling in the summer, and where the birds sang sweetly all day long. With every breath of air that stirred among those branches in the sunshine, some trembling, changing light would fall upon her grave....
"They saw the vault covered, and the stone fixed down. Then, when the dusk of evening had come on, and not a sound disturbed the sacred stillness of the place—when the bright moon poured in her light on tomb and monument, on pillar, wall, and arch, and most of all (it seemed to them) upon her quiet grave—in that calm time, when outward things and inward thoughts teem with assurances of immortality, and worldly hopes and fears are humbled in the dust before them—then, with tranquil and submissive hearts, they turned away, and left the child to God."
Here the mood of the scene is expressed almost entirely through the element of setting; and the human emotion of the mourners is realized and represented by the aspect of the churchyard.
The Pathetic Fallacy.—The excessive use of this expedient is deplored by John Ruskin in a chapter of "Modern Painters" entitled "The Pathetic Fallacy." His point is that, since concrete objects do not actually experience human emotions, it is a violation of artistic truth to ascribe such emotions to them. But, on the other hand, it is indubitably true that human beings habitually translate their own abstract feelings into the concrete terms of their surroundings; and therefore, in a subjective sense at least, an emotional harmony frequently does exist between the mood of a man and the aspect of his environment. The same place may at the same time look gloomy to a melancholy man and cheerful to a merry one; and there is therefore a certain human fitness in describing it as gloomy or as cheerful, according to the feeling of the character observing it. Doubtless to a man tremendously bereaved the very rain may seem a weeping of high heaven; and surely there are times when it is deeply true, subjectively, to say that the morning stars all sing together. What we may call emotional similarity of setting is therefore not necessarily a fallacy. Even when it subverts the actual, as in the fable of the morning stars, it may yet be representative of reality. In its commoner and less exaggerative phases it is very useful for purposes of suggestion; and only when it becomes blatant through abuse may it be said to belie the laws of life.
Emotional Contrast in Setting.—Frequently, however, emotional similarity between the setting and the characters is less serviceable, for the sake of emphasis, than emotional contrast. In the following passage from Mr. Kipling's "Without Benefit of Clergy," the serene and perfect happiness of Holden and Ameera is emphasized by contrast with the night-aspect of the plague-infested city:—
"'My lord and my love, let there be no more foolish talk of going away. Where thou art, I am. It is enough.' She put an arm round his neck and a hand on his mouth.
"There are not many happinesses so complete as those that are snatched under the shadow of the sword. They sat together and laughed, calling each other openly by every pet name that could move the wrath of the gods. The city below them was locked up in its own torments. Sulphur fires blazed in the streets; the conches in the Hindu temples screamed and bellowed, for the gods were inattentive in those days. There was a service in the great Mahomedan shrine, and the call to prayer from the minarets was almost unceasing. They heard the wailing in the houses of the dead, and once the shriek of a mother who had lost a child and was calling for its return. In the gray dawn they saw the dead borne out through the city gates, each litter with its own little knot of mourners. Wherefore they kissed each other and shivered."
Irony in Setting.—An emotional contrast of this nature between the mood of the characters and the mood of the setting may be pushed to the point of irony. In a story by Alphonse Daudet, entitled "The Elixir of the Reverend Father Gaucher," a certain monastery is saved from financial ruin by the sale of a cordial which Father Gaucher has invented and distilled. But the necessity of sampling the cordial frequently during the process of manufacturing it leads the reverend father eventually to become an habitual drunkard. And toward the end of the story an ironic contrast is drawn between the solemn monastery, murmurous with chants and prayers, and Father Gaucher in his distillery hilariously singing a ribald drinking-song.
Artistic and Philosophical Employment.—The uses of setting that have been thus far considered have been artistic rather than philosophical in nature; but very recent writers have grown to use the element not only for the sake of illustrating character and action but also for the sake of determining them. The sociologists of the nineteenth century have come to regard circumstance as a prime motive for action, and environment as a prime influence on character; and recent writers have applied this philosophic thesis in their employment of the element of setting.
1. Setting as a Motive Toward Action.—The way in which the setting may suggest the action is thus discoursed upon by Stevenson in his "Gossip on Romance":—
"Drama is the poetry of conduct, romance the poetry of circumstance. The pleasure that we take in life is of two sorts—the active and the passive. Now we are conscious of a great command over our destiny; anon we are lifted up by circumstance, as by a breaking wave, and dashed we know not how into the future. Now we are pleased by our conduct, anon merely pleased by our surroundings. It would be hard to say which of these modes of satisfaction is the more effective, but the latter is surely the more constant....
"One thing in life calls for another; there is a fitness in events and places. The sight of a pleasant arbour puts it in our mind to sit there. One place suggests work, another idleness, a third early rising and long rambles in the dew. The effect of night, of any flowing water, of lighted cities, of the peep of day, of ships, of the open ocean, calls up in the mind an army of anonymous desires and pleasures. Something, we feel, should happen; we know not what, yet we proceed in quest of it. And many of the happiest hours of life fleet by us in this vain attendance on the genius of the place and moment. It is thus that tracts of young fir, and low rocks that reach into deep soundings, particularly torture and delight me. Something must have happened in such places, and perhaps ages back, to members of my race; and when I was a child I tried in vain to invent appropriate games for them, as I still try, just as vainly, to fit them with the proper story. Some places speak distinctly. Certain dank gardens cry aloud for a murder; certain old houses demand to be haunted; certain coasts are set apart for shipwreck. Other spots again seem to abide their destiny, suggestive and impenetrable, 'miching mallecho.' The inn at Burford Bridge, with its arbours and green garden and silent, eddying river—though it is known already as the place where Keats wrote some of his "Endymion" and Nelson parted from his Emma—still seems to wait the coming of the appropriate legend. Within these ivied walls, behind these old green shutters, some further business smoulders, waiting for its hour. The old Hawes Inn at the Queen's Ferry makes a similar call upon my fancy. There it stands, apart from the town, beside the pier, in a climate of its own, half inland, half marine—in front, the ferry bubbling with the tide and the guardship swinging to her anchor; behind, the old garden with the trees. Americans seek it already for the sake of Lovel and Oldbuck, who dined there at the beginning of the "Antiquary." But you need not tell me—that is not all; there is some story, unrecorded or not yet complete, which must express the meaning of that inn more fully.... I have lived both at the Hawes and Burford in a perpetual flutter, on the heels, as it seemed, of some adventure that should justify the place; but though the feeling had me to bed at night and called me again at morning in one unbroken round of pleasure and suspense, nothing befell me in either worth remark. The man or the hour had not yet come; but some day, I think, a boat shall put off from the Queen's Ferry, fraught with a dear cargo, and some frosty night a horseman, on a tragic errand, rattle with his whip upon the green shutters of the inn at Burford."
In this way, the setting may, in many cases, exist as the initial element of the narrative, and suggest an action appropriate to itself. But it may do more than that. In certain special instances the setting may not only suggest, but may even cause, the action, and remain the deciding factor in determining its course. This is the case, for example, in Mr. Kipling's story, "At the End of the Passage," which opens thus:—
"Four men, each entitled to 'life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,' sat at a table playing whist. The thermometer marked—for them—one hundred and one degrees of heat. The room was darkened till it was only just possible to distinguish the pips of the cards and the very white faces of the players. A tattered, rotten punkah of whitewashed calico was puddling the hot air and whining dolefully at each stroke. Outside lay gloom of a November day in London. There was neither sky, sun, nor horizon—nothing but a brown purple haze of heat. It was as though the earth were dying of apoplexy.
"From time to time clouds of tawny dust rose from the ground without wind or warning, flung themselves tablecloth-wise among the tops of the parched trees, and came down again. Then a whirling dust-devil would scutter across the plain for a couple of miles, break, and fall outward, though there was nothing to check its flight save a long low line of piled railway-sleepers white with the dust, a cluster of huts made of mud, condemned rails, and canvas, and the one squat four-roomed bungalow that belonged to the assistant engineer in charge of a section of the Gaudhari State Line then under construction."
The terrible tale that follows could happen only as a result of the fearful loneliness and, more especially, the maddening heat of such a place as is described in these opening paragraphs. The setting in this story causes and determines the action.
2. Setting as an Influence on Character.—But in many other tales by recent writers the setting is used not so much to determine the action as to influence and mold the characters; and when employed for this purpose, it becomes expressive of one of the most momentous truths of human life. For what a man is at any period of his existence is largely the result of the interaction of two forces,—namely, the innate tendencies of his nature and the shaping power of his environment. George Meredith, and more especially Mr. Thomas Hardy, therefore devote a great deal of attention to setting as an influence on character. Consider, for example, the following brief passage from Mr. Hardy's "Tess of the D'Ubervilles":—
"Amid the oozing fatness and warm ferments of Froom Vale, at a season when the rush of juices could almost be heard below the hiss of fertilization, it was impossible that the most fanciful love should not grow passionate. The ready hearts existing there were impregnated by their surroundings."
Zola, in his essay on "The Experimental Novel," states that the proper function of setting is to exhibit "the environment which determines and completes the man"; and the philosophic study of environment reacting upon character is one of the main features of his own monumental series of novels devoted to the Rougon-Macquart family. His example has been followed by a host of recent writers; and a new school of fiction has grown up, the main purpose of which is to exhibit the influence of certain carefully studied social, natural, business, or professional conditions on the sort of people who live and work among them.
This incentive has been developed to manifest advantage in America by such novelists as Mrs. Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, Mr. George W. Cable, Mr. Hamlin Garland, Mrs. Edith Wharton, Frank Norris, Jack London, Mr. Booth Tarkington, and Mr. Stewart Edward White. Each of these authors—and many others might be mentioned—has attained a special sort of eminence by studying minutely the effect upon impressionable characters of a particular environment. The manifold diversity of life in the many different districts of the United States affords our fiction-writers a predestined opportunity to endeavor to make the nation acquainted with itself.
Setting as the Hero of the Narrative.—If the setting be used both to determine the action and to mold the characters, it may stand forth as the most important of the three elements of narrative. In Victor Hugo's "Notre Dame de Paris," the cathedral is the leading factor of the story. Claude Frollo would be a very different person if it were not for the church; and many of the main events, such as the ultimate tragic scene when Quasimodo hurls Frollo from the tower-top, could not happen in any other place. In Mr. Kipling's very subtle story entitled "An Habitation Enforced," which is included in his "Actions and Reactions," the setting is really the hero of the narrative. An American millionaire and his wife, whose ancestors were English, settle for a brief vacation in the county of England from which the wife's family originally came. Gradually the old house and the English landscape take hold of them; ancestral feelings rise to dominate them; and they remain forever after in enforced habitation on the ancient soil.
Uses of the Weather.—All that has been said thus far of setting in general applies of course to one of the most interesting of its elements,—the weather. In simple stories like the usual nursery tale, the weather may be non-existent. Or it may exist mainly for a decorative purpose, like the frequent golden oriental dawns of Spenser's poem or the superb and colorful symphonies of sky and sea in Pierre Loti's "Iceland Fisherman." It may be used as a utilitarian adjunct to the action: at the end of "The Mill on the Floss," as we have already noted, the rains descend and the flood comes merely for the purpose of drowning Tom and Maggie. Or it may be employed to illustrate a character: we are told of Clara Middleton, in "The Egoist," that she possesses the "art of dressing to suit the season and the sky"; and therefore the look of the atmosphere at any hour helps to convey to us a sense of her appearance. Somewhat more artistically, the weather may be planned in pre-established harmony with the mood of the characters: this expedient is wonderfully used in the wild and wind-swept tales of Fiona MacLeod. On the other hand, the weather may stand in emotional contrast with the characters: the Master of Ballantrae and Mr. Henry fight their duel on a night of absolute stillness and stifling cold. Again, the weather may be used to determine the action: in Mr. Kipling's early story called "False Dawn," the blinding sandstorm causes Saumarez to propose to the wrong girl. Or it may be employed as a controlling influence over character: the tremendous storm toward the end of "Richard Feverel," in the chapter entitled "Nature Speaks," determines the return of the hero to his wife. In some cases, even, the weather itself may be the real hero of the narrative: the great eruption of Vesuvius in "The Last Days of Pompeii" dominates the termination of the story.
Although the weather is a subject upon everybody's tongue, there are very few people who are capable of talking about it with intelligence and art. Very few writers of fiction—and nearly all of them are recent—have exhibited a mastery of the weather,—a mastery based at once upon a detailed and accurate observation of natural phenomena and a philosophic sense of the relation between these phenomena and the concerns of human beings. Perhaps in no other detail of craftsmanship does Robert Louis Stevenson so clearly prove his mastery as in his marshalling of the weather, always vividly and truthfully described, to serve a purpose always fitting to his fictions.
Romantic and Realistic Settings.—Let us next consider the main difference between the merits of a good romantic and a good realistic setting. Since the realist leads us to a comprehension of his truth through a careful imitation of the actual, the thing most to be desired in a realistic setting is fidelity to fact; and this can be attained only by accurate observation. But since the romantic is not bound to imitate the actual, and fabricates his investiture merely for the sake of embodying his truth clearly and consistently, the thing most to be desired in a romantic setting is imaginative fitness to the action and the characters; and this can sometimes be attained by artistic inventiveness alone, without display of observation of the actual. Verisimilitude is of course the highest merit of either sort of setting; but whereas verisimilitude with the realist lies in resemblance to actuality, verisimilitude with the romantic lies rather in artistic fitness. The distinction may perhaps be best observed in the historical novels produced by the one and by the other school. In the setting of realistic historical novels, like George Eliot's "Romola" and Flaubert's "Salammbo," what the authors have mainly striven for has been accuracy of detail; but in romantic historical novels, like those of Scott and Dumas pere, the authors have sought rather for imaginative fitness of setting. The realists have followed the letter, and the romantics the spirit, of other times and lands.
A Romantic Setting by Edgar Allan Poe.—As an example of a pure romantic setting, far removed from actuality and yet thoroughly truthful in artistic fitness to the action and the characters, we can do no better than examine the often-quoted opening of Poe's "Fall of the House of Usher":—
"During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher. I know not how it was—but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible. I looked upon the scene before me—upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain, upon the bleak walls, upon the vacant eye-like windows, upon a few rank sedges, and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees—with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveler upon opium: the bitter lapse into every-day life, the hideous dropping off of the veil. There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart, an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime.... It was possible, I reflected, that a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate, its capacity for sorrowful impression; and acting upon this idea, I reined my horse to the precipitous brink of a black and lurid tarn that lay in unruffled lustre by the dwelling, and gazed down—but with a shudder even more thrilling than before—upon the remodelled and inverted images of the gray sedge, and the ghastly tree-stems, and the vacant and eye-like windows."
Certainly this setting bears very little resemblance to the actual; but just as certainly its artistic fitness to the tale of terror which it preludes gives it an imaginative verisimilitude.
A Realistic Setting by George Eliot.—As an example of a realistic setting, closely copying the actual, let us examine the following passage from "Adam Bede" (Chapter XVIII):—
"You might have known it was Sunday if you had only waked up in the farmyard. The cocks and hens seemed to know it, and made only crooning subdued noises; the very bull-dog looked less savage, as if he would have been satisfied with a smaller bite than usual. The sunshine seemed to call all things to rest and not to labor; it was asleep itself on the moss-grown cow-shed; on the group of white ducks nestling together with their bills tucked under their wings; on the old black sow stretched languidly on the straw, while her largest young one found an excellent spring-bed on his mother's fat ribs; on Alick, the shepherd, in his new smock-frock, taking an uneasy siesta, half-sitting, half-standing on the granary steps."
There is no obvious imaginative fitness in this passage, since in the chapter where it occurs the chief characters are going to a funeral; but it has an extraordinary verisimilitude, owing to the author's accurate observation of the details of life in rural England.
The Quality of Atmosphere, or Local Color.—These two passages differ very widely from each other. In one thing, and one only, are they alike. Each of them exhibits the subtle quality called "atmosphere." This quality is very difficult to define, though its presence may be recognized instinctively in any work of graphic art, like a painting or a description. Without attempting to define it, we may discover the technical basis for its presence if we seek out the sole deliberate device in which these two passages, different as they are in every other feature, are at one. It will be noticed that in each of them the details selected for presentation have been chosen solely for the sake of a common quality inherent in them—the quality of sombreness and gloom in the one case, and the quality of Sabbath quietude in the other—and that they have been marshalled to convey a complete sense of this central and pervading quality. It is commonly supposed that what is called "atmosphere" in a description is dependent upon the setting forth of a multiplicity of details; but this popular conception is a fallacy. "Atmosphere" is dependent rather upon a strict selection of details pervaded by a common quality, a rigorous rejection of all others that are dissonant in mood, and an arrangement of those selected with a view to exhibiting their common quality as the pervading spirit of the scene.
This is obviously the technical basis for the "atmosphere" of a purely imaginary setting like that of the melancholy House of Usher. The effect is undeniably produced by the suppression of all details that do not contribute to the central sense of gloom. But the same device underlies (less obviously, to be sure) all such descriptions of actual places as are rich in "atmosphere." What is called "local color"—the very look and tone of a definite locality—is produced not by photographic multiplicity of details, but by a marshalling of materials carefully selected to suggest the central spirit of the place to be depicted. The camera frequently defeats itself by flinging into emphasis details that are dissonant with the informing spirit of the scene it seeks to reproduce: so also does the author who overcrowds his picture with multifarious details, however faithful they may be to fact. The true triumphs of "local coloring" have been made by men who have struck at the heart and spirit of a place—have caught its tone and timbre as George Du Maurier did with the Quartier Latin—and have set forth only such details as tingled with this spiritual tone.
Recapitulation.—We have studied the many uses of the element of setting, and have seen that in the best-developed fiction it has grown to be entirely cooerdinate with the elements of character and action. Novelists have come to consider that any given story can happen only in a given set of circumstances, and that if the setting be changed the action must be altered and the characters be differently drawn. It is therefore impossible, in the best fiction of the present day, to consider the setting as divorced from the other elements of the narrative. There was a time, to be sure, when description for its own sake existed in the novel, and the action was halted to permit the introduction of pictorial passages bearing no necessary relation to the business of the story,—"blocks" of setting, as it were, which might be removed without detriment to the progression of the narrative. But the practice of the best contemporary novelists is summed up and expressed by Henry James in this emphatic sentence from his essay on "The Art of Fiction":—"I cannot imagine composition existing in a series of blocks, nor conceive, in any novel worth discussing at all, of a passage of description that is not in its intention narrative."
1. Explain and illustrate the three historic stages in the evolution of the element of setting.
2. What did Ruskin mean by "the pathetic fallacy"?
3. What are the modern uses of the element of setting?
4. Explain the process of attaining atmosphere, or local color.
5. Adduce original instances of emotional harmony, emotional contrast, and irony in setting.
ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON: "A Gossip on Romance."
BLISS PERRY: "A Study of Prose Fiction"—Chapter VII, on "The Setting."
Read at greater length those passages of famous fiction from which have been selected the illustrative quotations cited in this chapter.
THE POINT OF VIEW IN NARRATIVE
The Importance of the Point of View—Two Classes, The Internal and the External—I. Subdivisions of the First Class: 1. The Point of View of the Leading Actor; 2. The Point of View of Some Subsidiary Actor; 3. The Points of View of Different Actors; 4. The Epistolary Point of View.—II. Subdivisions of the Second Class:—1. The Omniscient Point of View; 2. The Limited Point of View; 3. The Rigidly Restricted Point of View—Two Tones of Narrative, Impersonal and Personal: 1. The Impersonal Tone; 2. The Personal Tone—The Point of View as a Factor in Construction—The Point of View as the Hero of the Narrative.
The Importance of the Point of View.—We have now examined in detail the elements of narrative, and must next consider the various points of view from which they may be seen and, in consequence, be represented. Granted a given series of events to be set forth, the structure of the plot, the means of character delineation, the use of setting, the entire tone and tenor of the narrative, are all dependent directly on the answer to the question, Who shall tell the story?
For a given train of incidents is differently seen and judged, according to the standpoint from which it is observed. The evidence in most important murder trials consists mainly of successive narratives told by different witnesses; and it is very interesting to notice, in comparing them, how very different a tone and tenor is given to the same event by each of the observers who recounts it. It remains for the jury to determine, if possible, from a comparison of the various views of the various witnesses, what it was that actually happened. But this, in many cases, is extremely difficult. One witness saw the action in one way, another in another; one formed a certain judgment of the character of the accused, another formed a judgment diametrically different; each has his separate sense of the train of causation that culminated in the act; the accused himself would disagree with all the witnesses, if indeed he were capable of looking on the facts without conscious or unconscious self-deception; and we may be certain that an infallible omniscient mind, cognizant of all the hidden motives, would see the matter differently still. The task of the jury is, in the main, to induce from all these tragic inconsistencies an absolute outlook upon the real truth that underlies the facts so differently seen and so variously judged.
Such an absolute outlook is hardly possible to the finite mind of man; and though it is often assumed by the writer of fiction in the telling of his tale, it can seldom be consistently maintained. It is therefore safer to acknowledge that the absolute truth of a story, whether actual or fictitious, can never be entirely told; that the same train of incidents looks different from different points of view; and that therefore the various points of view from which any story may be looked upon should be studied carefully for the purpose of determining from which of them it is possible, in a given case, to approach most nearly a clear vision of the truth.
Two Classes, The Internal and the External.—The points of view from which a story may be seen and told are many and various; but they may all be grouped into two classes, the internal and the external. A story seen internally is narrated in the first person by one of its participants; a story seen externally is narrated in the third person by a mind aloof from the events depicted. There are, of course, many variations, both of the internal and of the external point of view. These in turn must be examined, for the purpose of determining the special advantages and disadvantages of each.
I. Subdivisions of the First Class: 1. The Point of View of the Leading Actor.—First of all, a story may be told by the leading actor in its series of events,—the hero, as in "Henry Esmond," or the heroine, as in "Jane Eyre." This point of view is of especial value in narratives in which the element of action is predominant. The multifarious adventures of Gil Blas sound at once more vivid and more plausible narrated in the first person than they would sound narrated in the third. When what is done is either strange or striking, we prefer to be told about it by the very man who did it. "Treasure Island" is narrated by Jim Hawkins, "Kidnapped" by David Balfour; and much of the vividness of these exciting tales depends upon the fact that they are told in each case by a boy who stood ever in the forefront of the action. The plausibility of "Robinson Crusoe" is increased by the convention that the hero is narrating his own personal experience: in fact Defoe, in all his fictions, preferred to write in the first person, because what he sought primarily was plausibility of tone.
This point of view is also of supreme advantage in recounting personal emotion. Consider for a moment the following paragraph from "Kidnapped" (Chapter X):—
"I do not know if I was what you call afraid; but my heart beat like a bird's, both quick and little; and there was a dimness came before my eyes which I continually rubbed away, and which continually returned. As for hope, I had none; but only a darkness of despair and a sort of anger against all the world that made me long to sell my life as dear as I was able. I tried to pray, I remember, but that same hurry of my mind, like a man running, would not suffer me to think upon the words; and my chief wish was to have the thing begin and be done with it."
Now, for the sake of experiment, let us go through the passage, substituting the pronoun "he" for the pronoun "I." Thus:—
"He was hardly what is called afraid; but his heart beat like a bird's, both quick and little; and there was a dimness came before his eyes which he continually rubbed away, and which continually returned. As for hope, he had none...." and so forth. Notice how much vividness is lost,—how much immediacy of emotion. The zest and tang of the experience is sacrificed, because the reader is forced to stand aloof and observe it from afar.
The point of view of the leading actor makes for vividness in still another way. It necessitates an absolute concreteness and objectivity in the delineation of the subsidiary characters. On the other hand, it precludes analysis of their emotions and their thoughts. The hero can tell us only what they said and did, how they looked in action and in speech, and what they seemed to him to think and feel. But he cannot enter their minds and delve among their motives. Furthermore, he cannot, without sacrificing naturalness of mood, analyze to any great extent his own mental processes. Consequently it is almost impossible to tell from the hero's point of view a story in which the main events are mental or subjective. We can hardly imagine George Eliot writing in the first person: the "psychological novel" demands the third.
But the chief difficulty in telling a story from the leading actor's point of view is the difficulty of characterizing the narrator. All means of direct delineation are taken from him. He cannot write essays on his merits or his faults; he can neither describe nor analyze himself; he cannot see himself as others see him. We must derive our sense of who and what he is, solely from the things he does and says, and from his manner of telling us about them. And although it is not especially difficult, within a brief compass, to delineate a character through his way of telling things [Notice Laughton O. Zigler, in Mr. Kipling's "The Captive," whose speech has been examined in a former chapter], it is extremely difficult to maintain this expedient consistently throughout a lengthy novel.
Furthermore, an extended story can be told only by a person with a well-trained sense of narrative; and it is often hard to concede to the hero the narrative ability that he displays. How is it, we may ask, that Jim Hawkins is capable of such masterly description as that of "the brown old seaman, with the sabre cut," in the second paragraph of "Treasure Island"? How is it that David Balfour, an untutored boy, is capable of writing the rhythmic prose of Robert Louis Stevenson, master of style? And in many cases it is also difficult to concede to the hero an adequate motive for telling his own story. Why is it that, in the sequel to "Kidnapped," David Balfour should write out all the intimate details of his love for Catriona? And how is it conceivable that Jane Eyre should tell to any one, and least of all to the general public, the profound privacies of emotion evoked by her relation with Mr. Rochester?
The answer is, of course, that such violations of the hard terms of actuality are justified by literary convention; and that if the gain in vividness be great enough, the reader will be willing to concede, first, that the story shall be told by the leading actor, regardless of motive, and second, that he shall be granted the requisite mastery of narrative. But the fact remains that it is very hard for the hero to draw his own character except in outline; and therefore if the emphasis is to lie less on what he does than on the sort of person that he is, the expedient will be ineffectual.
The main structural advantage of telling the story through the person of the hero is that his presence as the central figure in every event narrated makes for coherence and gives the story unity. But attendant disadvantages are that it is often difficult to account for the hero's presence in every scene, that he cannot be an eye-witness to events happening at the same time in different places, and that it is hard to account for his possession of knowledge regarding those details of the plot which have no immediate bearing on himself. It seems always somewhat lame to state, as heroes telling their own stories are frequently obliged to do, "These things I did not know at the time, and found out only afterward; but I insert them here, because it is at this point in the plot that they belong."
2. The Point of View of Some Subsidiary Actor.—Many of these disadvantages may be overcome by telling the tale from the point of view, not of the leading actor, but of some minor personage in the story. In this case again, analysis of character is precluded; but the narrator may delineate the leading actor directly, through descriptive and expository comment. In stories where the hero is an extraordinary person, and could not without immodesty descant upon his own unusual capabilities, it is of obvious advantage to represent him from the point of view of an admiring friend. Thus when Poe invented the detective story, he wisely decided to exhibit the extraordinary analytic power of Dupin through a narrative told not by the detective himself but by a man who knew him well; and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, following in his footsteps, has invented Dr. Watson to tell the tales of Sherlock Holmes.
The actual instance of Boswell and Johnson substantiates the possibility of a minor actor's knowing intimately all phases of a hero's life and character. And since the point of view of the secondary personage is just as internal to the events themselves as that of the leading actor, the story may be told with an immediacy, a vividness, and a plausibility approximating closely the effect derived from a narrative told by the hero. And there is now less difficulty in accounting for the narrator's knowledge of all the details of the plot. He can witness minor necessary scenes at which the hero is not present; he can know things (and tell them to the reader) which at the time the hero did not know; and if his presence be withheld from an important incident, the hero can narrate it to him afterward.
Nevertheless, it is often very difficult to maintain throughout a long story the point of view of a minor actor in the plot. Thackeray breaks down completely in his attempt to tell "The Newcomes" from the point of view of Arthur Pendennis, the hero of a former novel. Stevenson assigns to Mackellar the task of narrating "The Master of Ballantrae": but when the Master disappears and Mackellar remains at home with Mr. Henry, it is necessary for the author to invent a second personage, the Chevalier de Burke, to tell the story of the Master's wanderings.
3. The Points of View of Different Actors.—This last instance leads us to consider the possibility of telling different sections of the story from the points of view of different characters, assigning to each the particular phase of the narrative that he is especially fitted to recount. Three quarters of the "Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" is narrated in the third person, externally; but the final intimate vividness of horror is gained by shifting to an internal point of view for the two concluding chapters,—the first written by Dr. Lanyon, and the last by Jekyll himself. Mr. Kipling has developed to very subtle uses the expedient of opening a story from the point of view of a narrator who is named simply "I" and who is not characterized in any way at all, and then letting the story proper be told to this impersonal narrator by several characters who are clearly delineated through their speech and through the parts that they have played in the tale that they are telling. This device is used in nearly all the stories of the "Soldiers Three." The narrator meets Mulvaney, Ortheris, and Learoyd under certain circumstances, and gathers from them bit by bit the various features of the story,—one detail being contributed by one of the actors, another by another, until out of the successive fragments the story is built up. It is in this way also, as we have already noted, that the tale of Mrs. Bathurst is set before the reader.
4. The Epistolary Point of View.—A convenient means of shifting the burden of the narrative at any point to a certain special character is to introduce a letter written by that character to one of the other people in the plot. This expedient is employed with extraordinary cleverness by George Meredith in "Evan Harrington." Most of the tale is told externally; but every now and then the clever and witty Countess de Saldar writes a letter in which a leading incident is illuminated from her personal point of view.
Ever since the days of Richardson the device has frequently been used of telling an entire story through a series of letters exchanged among the characters. The main advantage of this method is the constant shifting of the point of view, which makes it possible for the reader to see every important incident through the eyes of each of the characters in turn. Furthermore, it is comparatively easy to characterize in the first person when the thing that is written is so intimate and personal as a letter. But the disadvantage of the device lies in the fact that it tends toward incoherence in the structure of the narrative. It is hard for the author to stick to the point at every moment without violating the casual and discursive tone that the epistolary style demands.
Of course a certain unity may be gained if the letters used are all written by a single character. The chief advantage of this method over a direct narrative written by one of the actors is the added motive for the revelation of intimate matters which is furnished by the fact that the narrator is writing, not for the public at large, but only for the friend, or friends, to whom the letters are addressed. But a series of letters written by one person only is very likely to become monotonous; and more is usually gained than lost by assigning the epistolary role successively to different characters.
II. Subdivisions of the Second Class.—We have seen that, although the employment of an internal point of view gives a narrative vividness of action, objectivity of observation, immediacy of emotion, and plausibility of tone, it is attended by several difficulties in the delineation of the characters and the construction of the plot. It is therefore in many cases more advisable for the author to look upon the narrative externally and to write it in the third person. But there are several different ways of doing this; for though a story viewed externally is told in every case by a mind distinct from that of any of the characters, there are many different stations in which that mind may set itself, and many different moods in which it may recount the story.
1. The Omniscient Point of View.—First of all (to start with a phase that contrasts most widely with the internal point of view) the external mind may set itself equidistant from all the characters and may assume toward them an attitude of absolute omniscience. The story, in such a case, is told by a sort of god, who is cognizant of the past and future of the action while he is looking at the present, and who sees into the minds and hearts of all the characters at once and understands them better than they do themselves.
The main practical advantage in assuming the god-like point of view is that the narrator is never obliged to account for his possession of intimate information. He can observe events which happen at the same time in places widely separated. Darkness cannot dim his eyes; locked doors cannot shut him out. He can be with a character when that character is most alone. He can make clear to us the thoughts that do not tremble into speech, the emotions that falter and subside into inaction. He can know, and can convey to us, how much of a person's real thought is expressed, and how much is concealed, by the language that he uses. And the reader seeks no motive to account for the narrator's revelation of the personal secrets of the characters.
The omniscient point of view is the only one that permits upon a large scale the depiction of character through mental analysis. It is therefore usually used in the "psychological novel." It was employed always by George Eliot, and was selected almost always by George Meredith. It is, of course, invaluable for telling the sort of story whose main events are mental, or subjective. A spiritual experience which does not translate itself into concrete action can be viewed adequately only from the god-like point of view. But when it is employed in the narration of objective events, the writer runs the danger of undue abstractness. A certain vividness—a certain immediacy of observation—are likely to be lost, because of the aloofness from the characters of the mind that sees them.
This point of view is at once the most easy and the most difficult that the author may assume. Technically it is the easiest, because the writer is absolutely free in the selection and the patterning of his narrative materials; but humanly it is the most difficult, because it is hard for any man consistently to play the god, even toward his own fictitious creatures. Although George Eliot assumes omniscience of Daniel Deronda, the consensus of opinion among men of sound judgment is that she does not really know her hero. Deronda is in truth a lesser person than she thinks him; and her assumption of omniscience breaks down. In fact, unless an author is gifted with the god-like wisdom of George Meredith, he is almost sure to break down in the effort to sustain the omniscient attitude consistently throughout a complicated novel.
2. The Limited Point of View.—Therefore, in assuming a point of view external to the characters, it is usually wiser for the author to accept a compromise and to impose certain definite limits upon his own omniscience. Thus, while maintaining the prerogative to enter at any moment the minds of one or more of his characters, he may limit his observation of the others to what was actually seen and heard of them by those of whose minds he is omniscient. In such a case, although the author tells the story in the third person, he virtually sees the story from the point of view of a certain actor, or of certain actors, in it. The only phase of this device which we need to examine is that wherein the novelist's omniscience is limited to a single character.
This special point of view is employed with consummate art by Jane Austen. In "Emma," for example, she portrays every intimate detail of the heroine's thoughts and feelings, entering Emma's mind at will, or looking at her from the outside with omniscient eyes. But in dealing with the other characters, the author limits her own knowledge to what Emma knew about them, and sees them consistently through the eyes of the heroine. Hence the story, although written by Jane Austen in the third person, is really seen by Emma Woodhouse and thought of in the first. Similarly, in "Pride and Prejudice," Elizabeth Bennet is the only character that the author permits herself to analyze at any length: the others are seen objectively, merely as Elizabeth saw them. The reader is made acquainted with every step in the heroine's gradual change of feeling toward Mr. Darcy; but of the change in Darcy's thoughts and feelings toward Elizabeth the reader is told nothing until she herself discovers it.
Of course, in applying this device, it is possible for the author, at certain points in the narrative, to shift his limited omniscience from one of the characters to another. In such a case, although the story is told throughout consistently in the third person, one scene may be viewed from the standpoint of one of the characters, another from that of another character, and so on.
Imagine for a moment two adjacent rooms with a single door between them which is locked; and suppose a character alone in each of the rooms,—each person thinking of the other. Now an author assuming absolute omniscience could tell us what each of them was thinking at the selfsame moment: the locked door would not be a bar to him. But an author telling the story from the attitude of limited omniscience could tell us only what one of them was thinking, and would not be able to see beyond the door. Whether or not he would find himself at liberty to choose which room he should be cognizant of, would depend of course on whether he was maintaining the same point of view throughout his story or was selecting it anew for every scene. In the first case, the one character whom he could see would be determined in advance: in the other, he should have to decide from the point of view of which of them that special scene could be the more effectively set forth.
The attitude of limited omniscience is more easy to maintain than that of a god-like mind intimately cognizant of all the characters at once; and furthermore, the employment of the more restricted point of view is more likely to produce the illusion of life. In actual experience, we see only one mind internally,—our own; all other people we look upon externally: and a story, therefore, which lays bare to us one mind and only one is more in tune with life itself than a story in which many minds are searched by an all-seeing eye. Also, a story told in the third person from the point of view which has been illustrated from Jane Austen's novels enjoys nearly every advantage of a narrative told in the first person by the leading actor, without being encumbered by certain of the most noticeable disadvantages.
3. The Rigidly Restricted Point of View.—For the sake of concreteness, however, it is often advisable for the author writing in the third person to restrict his point of view still further, and, foregoing absolutely the prerogative of omniscience, to limit himself to an attitude merely observant and entirely external to all the characters. In such a case the author wears, as it were, an invisible cap like that of Fortunatus, which permits him to move unnoticed among his characters; and he reports to us externally their looks, their actions, and their speech, without ever assuming an ability to delve into their minds. This rigidly external point of view is employed frequently by Guy de Maupassant in his briefer fictions; but although it is especially valuable in the short-story, it is extremely difficult to maintain through the extensive compass of a novel. The main advantage of this point of view is that it necessitates upon the part of the author an attitude toward his story which is at all moments visual rather than intellectual. He does not give a ready-made interpretation of his incidents, but merely projects them before the eyes of his readers and allows to each the privilege of interpreting them for himself. But, on the other hand, the reader loses the advantage of the novelist's superior knowledge of his creatures: and, except in dramatic moments when the motives are self-evident from the action, may miss the human purport of the scene.
Two Tones of Narrative, Impersonal and Personal: 1. The Impersonal Tone.—In employing every phase of the external point of view except the one which has been last discussed, the author is free to choose between two very different tones of narrative,—the impersonal and the personal. He may either obliterate or emphasize his own personality as a factor in the story. The great epics and folk-tales have all been told impersonally. Whatever sort of person Homer may have been, he never obtrudes himself into his narrative; and we may read both the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey" without deriving any more definite sense of his personality than may be drawn from the hints which are given us by the things he knows about. No one knows the author of "Beowulf" or of the "Nibelungen Lied." These stories seem to tell themselves. They are seen from nobody's point of view, or from anybody's—whichever way we choose to say it. Many modern authors, like Sir Walter Scott, instinctively assume the epic attitude toward their characters and incidents: they look upon them with a large unconsciousness of self and depict them just as any one would see them. Other authors, like Mr. William Dean Howells, strive deliberately to keep the personal note out of their stories: self-consciously they triumph over self in the endeavor to leave their characters alone.
2. The Personal Tone.—But novelists of another class prefer to admit frankly to the reader that the narrator who stands apart from all the characters and writes about them in the third person is the author himself. They give a personal tone to the narrative; they assert their own peculiarities of taste and judgment, and never let you forget that they, and they alone, are telling the story. The reader has to see it through their eyes. It is in this way, for example, that Thackeray displays his stories,—pitying his characters, admiring them, making fun of them, or loving them, and never letting slip an opportunity to chat about the matter with his readers.
Mr. Howells, in Section XV of his "Criticism and Fiction," comments adversely on Thackeray's tendency "to stand about in his scene, talking it over with his hands in his pockets, interrupting the action, and spoiling the illusion in which alone the truth of art resides"; and in a further sentence he condemns him as "a writer who had so little artistic sensibility, that he never hesitated on any occasion, great or small, to make a foray among his characters, and catch them up to show them to the reader and tell him how beautiful or ugly they were; and cry out over their amazing properties." This sweeping condemnation of the narrative attitude of one of the best-beloved of the great masters sounds just a little bigoted. It is true, of course, that the strictest artists in fiction, like Guy de Maupassant, prefer to tell their tales impersonally: they leave their characters rigidly alone, and allow the reader to see them without looking through the author's personality. But there is a type of literature wherein the chief charm for the reader lies in the fact that he is permitted to see things through the author's mind. When we read Charles Lamb's essay on "The South Sea House," we read it not so much to look at the deserted and memorable building as to look at Elia looking at it. Similarly many readers return again and again to "The Newcomes" not so much for the pleasure of seeing London high society as for the pleasure of seeing Thackeray see it. The merit, or the defect, of the method in any case is a question not of rules and regulations but of the tone and quality of the author's mind. Whether or not he may safely obtrude himself into his fictions depends entirely on who he is. This is a matter more of personality than of art: and what might be insufferable with one author may stand as the main merit of another. For instance, the greatest charm of Sir James Barrie's novels emanates from the author's habit of emphasizing the personal relation between himself and his characters. The author's many-mooded attitude toward Sentimental Tommy is a matter of human interest just as much as anything that Tommy feels himself.
Let us admit, then, in spite of Mr. Howells, that the author of fiction has a right to assert himself as the narrator, provided that he be a person of interest and charm. It remains for us to consider the various moods in which, in such a case, the writer may look upon his story. The self-obliterating author endeavors to hide his own opinion of the characters, in order not to interfere with the reader's independence of judgment concerning them; but the author who writes personally does not hesitate to reveal, nor even to express directly, his admiration of a character's merits or his deprecation of a character's defects. You will seek in vain, in studying the fictitious people of Guy de Maupassant, for any indication of the author's approval or disapproval of them; and there is something very admirable in this absolute impassiveness of art. But on the other hand, there is a certain salutary humanness about an author who loves or hates his characters just as he would love or hate the same sort of people in actual life, and writes about them with the glow of personal emotion. Sir James Barrie often disapproves of Tommy; sometimes he feels forced to scold him; but he loves him for a' that: and we feel instinctively that the hero is the more truthfully delineated for being represented by a friend.
The Point of View as a Factor in Construction.—It will be gathered from the foregoing discussion of the various points of view in narrative that no one of them may be pronounced absolutely better than the others. But this much may be said dogmatically: there is always one best point of view from which to tell any given short-story; and although in planning a novel the author works with far less technical restriction, there is almost always one best point of view from which to tell a given novel. Therefore, it is advisable for the author to determine as early as possible, from a studious consideration of his materials, what is the best point of view from which to tell the story he is planning, and thereafter to contemplate his narrative from that standpoint and that only. Furthermore, the interest of art demands that the point of view selected shall, if possible, be maintained consistently throughout the telling of the story. This, however, is a very difficult matter; and only in very recent years have even the best writers grown to master it. The novels which have been told without a single violation of this principle are very few in number. But the fact remains that any unwarrantable breakdown in the point of view selected diseconomizes the attention of the reader. It is unfortunate, for instance, that Thomas Bailey Aldrich, in "Marjorie Daw," should have found it necessary, after telling almost the entire tale in letters, to shift suddenly to the external point of view and end the story with a few pages of direct narrative. Such an unexpected variation of method startles and to some extent disrupts the attention of the reader, and thereby detracts from the effect of the thing to be conveyed.