Saturday, February 20, 2016
Romantic Realism–Why Telling A Story From Beginning To End Is So Important
Late 19th and early 20th century romantic novels like those of Walpole, Du Maurier, Dreiser, and Sinclair Lewis all tell start-to-finish stories, rare in modern fiction. Peter Wescott, the main character in Walpole’s Fortitude, manages to escape a brutally abusive father and the isolation of the Cornish moors to seek his fame and fortune in London. Clyde Griffiths of Dreiser’s American Tragedy is the son of itinerant preachers. Humiliated, angered, and resentful at an enforced life of street corner hymns, prayers, and religious tracts, he leaves home to find fame and fortune.
Mary Yellan in Du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn leaves home after her mother dies; but finds herself trapped in the home of her aunt’s husband – a murderous ‘wrecker’ who causes and profits from booty taken from the wrecks of vessels on the Cornish coast. Carol Milford in Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street, marries a small town doctor, moves to his isolated rural community in Minnesota, and becomes quickly disillusioned, unhappy, frustrated, and angry.
These stories about families, ambition, frustrated romance, hardship, and the struggle to survive if not profit are not new. Fiction is all about human nature, the will to survive and surmount, and the struggle against fate and environment. What makes them distinct from the modern novel is the uninterrupted story of the lives of their characters. There are no flashbacks or stream-of-consciousness blurring of past and present. These characters are born, make difficult and bad decisions; are willful and determined, flawed in their understanding of human nature and their own, and are fated to end badly.
Because the conventions of Victorian literary fiction no longer apply, and since modern authors can reconfigure, refocus, and re-attribute a lifetime’s, there is no need to follow a slow, real-time trajectory.
The story of Clyde’s distorted American ambitions for status and wealth and his tragic end could just as easily been told from back to front – an ending predetermined by the predictability of human nature, the familiar alignments of genes, environment, historical antecedent, and the billiard ball randomness of human history. It could have been Freudian, Jungian, post-modernist in its description of the boy’s social alienation, resentment, and hostility. It could have set forth the contradictions between personality and morality, and challenged as forthrightly as Dos Passos and Lewis the degrading influence of capitalism. His story could have been interspersed with existentialism, nihilism, and determinism. A modern novel would be less concerned with Clyde’s end than the personal dynamics of his fall.
Du Maurier, Walpole, and Dickens before them were as interested in the environmental factors which determined outcome as they were character and personality. Peter Westcott and Mary Yellan did indeed suffer at the hands of abusive men, but their stories were less about psychological trauma, the nature of 19th century misogyny and male dominance, and the indignities of poverty than they were about individual courage and defiance.
Richard Ford is a novelist who, in his Frank Bascombe trilogy, tells the story of a man who has been neutered if not emasculated by his existential depression. His nihilism in the face of tragedy is a sorry, frustrating story of philosophical acceptance. There can be no struggle for someone who has given in to a fate which is not so much unjust as arbitrary and familiar. To survive, Bascombe retreats into a world of routine. He renounces his intelligence, his insight, and his creative energy feeling that any attempt at understanding, insight, and revelation will cause him even more pain.
Bascombe’s life as a real estate agent in New Jersey is boring, uninteresting, and depressing. He is a man who is deliberately without ambition, goals or enterprise. We know little more about Bascombe than his depressive angst. He is never angry or accusatory. Life has dealt him a bad hand, and Ford sees his intellectual and emotional lethargy as a necessary and even positive reaction to life’s arbitarariness and indifference.
The stories of Carol Milford, Mary Yellan, Clyde Griffiths, or David Copperfield are anything but tales of inner psychological drama. These characters are propelled in part by their trouble pasts, but more because of a unique individualism and determination. Although Peter Wescott can never forget his past and in fact spends his whole life trying to expunge all memories of his father and his Cornish childhood, he cannot.
His story, however, is as much about fortitude – the courage to deny the past, to confront the present, and to risk all for the future – than it is about relief from the torments of damaged psyche. Both he and Frank Bascombe have their demons and the legacy of physical, psychological, and emotional trauma; but Westcott fights. He becomes as destitute and hopeless as any character of Dickens’ London, yet he never gives up. His is a compelling story of the best of human nature, not the worst – the capitulated, nihilistic attitude of Bascombe.
It is easy to put Ford’s Bascombe novels aside. We may not know how Bascombe will finally resolve the problems that have come to define his life, but we lose interest. At best, he will come to some metaphysical understanding about the nature of things; but we cannot empathize with him. The best of human nature is the rebellious, defiant part.
Konstantin Levin, a principal character in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, searches for the meaning of life and can never get past its seeming meaningless. We were created with intelligence, creativity, insight, and energy; live for a few decades, and then are consigned for all eternity in the cold, hard ground of the steppes, he reasons, so why go on living? Yet he does and finally has his own epiphany.
The story of Levin is compelling not because of its psychological dimension but because of his determined effort to find answers. He struggles, advances and retreats, looks for practical investments in society and family, and never can be happy. We admire Levin not because of his final epiphany – it is stock and predictable – but because of his determination, drive, and desire.
Mary Yellan’s story of struggle against patriarchy and evil brutality is less one of understanding of the nature of human depravity and distorted ambition, than one of personal courage, strength, and fearlessness. The story of her forced displacement from a comfortable home and familiar surroundings has little to do with the unfortunate hand of fate and the psychological displacement of a young girl and much more with a woman of indomitable will.
Her story cannot be told from an interior perspective, one of reflection, remorse, and intellectual despair. It can only be related as a trajectory of a life suddenly disrupted, unplanned, and unfortunate. Not only must she live with distant relatives, but her uncle is mean, corrupt, and criminal. Although Du Maurier does indeed reflect on the culture, law, and society of late 19th century England, she is interested only in telling the story of a remarkable woman who has defied fate and its arbitrary injustice and survived.
Carol Milford is also a child of a traditional bourgeois society and has too little experience to square it with her own independent, willful personality. She finds herself in a bad marriage, in a hopelessly bourgeois and isolated small town, and without hope of escape. The reader, far more than Carol, understands her future; and while frustrated with her complaisance and accommodation, urges her to resist, revolt, and find herself. While Lewis was indeed writing critically about bourgeois America, he is more interested in her moral and ethical struggles. How can she free herself from a seemingly hopeless situation while retaining dignity and responsibility? The story is less about her internal conflicts than her determined actions to act well but selfishly. We cannot put the book down.
Peter Wescott ends up badly. He cannot free himself from the demons of his past; but we empathize with his struggle and sympathize with his plight. We hope that he will be able to put all behind him and make a new start, and we are saddened by his depressing end; but we have been unable to put him aside.
Clyde Griffiths loses his way, murders his pregnant girlfriend in order to free himself from obligation and marry the upper class woman to whose status he has aspired since leaving home, and is caught, tried, convicted and executed. Although we suspect the worst outcome for this very unattractive man and anticipate his deserved fate, his story – one of ambition, enterprise, will, and absolute conviction – is compelling. It would not have been so if told in bits and pieces, and in flashbacks and flash-forwards. His story deserves a beginning and and end.
Most novels of the 19th century tell long stories. Hardy, Hawthorne, Balzac, and Flaubert develop the lives and characters of their heroes and heroines. The Scarlett Letter is not the simple story of adultery that most readers assume; but one of complex moral convictions set within the context of environment, history, and fate. Emma Bovary manages to escape Salem and its Puritanical sanctimony, but only because of will, determination, and a fierce sense of moral responsibility.
Her story, like all others, cannot be told sporadically or intermittently. We need to know what happens to her and her daughter every day, month and year. The whole story matters as much as its beginning or ending.
This is not to dismiss the modern novel. Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom is perhaps the greatest American novel ever written; and Ulysses, with which it has much in common is equally deserving of acclaim. Both these novels have no uninterrupted storyline, and yet, especially Absalom, are brilliant tales of character, fate, history, psychology, and culture.
Yet the 19th century narrative in many ways more compelling. Our lives are long, uninterrupted narratives. While we may reflect on past, present, and future; and while our actions may be exclusively determined by history, on consideration our lives are unique and assembled.
In this modern era when life is fragmented, disassembled, and episodic, it is a pleasure to read old novels. Not only because they are familiar narratives or are a return to a simpler way of life, but because they represent individual integrity and enterprise, perhaps the two most telling aspects of human existence.
It is through their actions that we know the characters of Du Maurier, Lewis, Walpole, and Dreiser. We empathize with them because of what they endured and respect them for what they have overcome. The Cornish moors are dark, windy, brooding and threatening; and are as much a character in Jamaica Inn as Mary, her uncle, or her aunt. Mary is frightened by them, but is not afraid to walk on them in the dark. She does not deliberate nor stops to consider social mores, the dangers of being a woman alone in a lawless land, or her chances of success. There is no need for interior reflection, flashbacks to childhood, psychological analysis of the sexual tension in the house of her brutal uncle, nor explorations of her feelings for her mother, aunt, and dead father. The characters, the moors, the sea, and the inn of Jamaica Inn are all essential dramatic elements which define and describe Mary Yellan.
Some critics have commented that Mary Yellan is simply not a complex character. It is easy to know her and her motivations. While one might like her pluck, will, and resolve, she is nothing like Thomas Sutpen, the main character in Absalom, Absalom or even the morally complex Frank Bascombe. In other words it is easy to tell her story.
The same criticism would have to leveled at Charles Dickens whose character Pip in Great Expectations follows somewhat the same trajectory - a difficult boyhood, chance encounters, ambition, fate, environment, and eventual resolution. Yet by the end of the novel we know Pip in a way they we never could if Dickens had not shown us his boyhood and explained through the episodes of his young life who he was and where he came from. The complete, front-to-back ,narrative was a way for Dickens to complete his character without psychological dissection. Every action - his choice of clothes and friends, his disavowal of his family, his airs and pretensions, his romances and disappointments - displays Pip in a more convincing, compelling, and troubling way than if Dickens had made him think.
The 19th century novel, then, is not an archaic and now irrelevant literary form. It is as complex, complete, and engaging as any written in later times. The stories of Mary, Peter, Carol, and even Clyde are our own.