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The Nature Of Narrative

( Originally Published 1918 )

Transition from Material to Method—The Four Methods of Discourse—1. Argumentation; 2. Exposition; 3. Description; 4. Narration, the Natural Mood of Fiction—Series and Succession —Life Is Chronological, Art Is Logical—The Narrative Sense—The Joy of Telling Tales—The Missing of This Joy—Developing the Sense of Narrative—The Meaning of the Word "Event"—How to Make Things Happen—The Narrative of Action—The Narrative of Character—Recapitulation..

Transition from Material to Method.—We have now considered the subject-matter of fiction and also the contrasted attitudes of mind of the two great schools of fiction-writers toward setting forth that subject-matter. We must next turn our attention to the technical methods of presenting the materials of fiction, and notice in detail the most important devices employed by all fiction-writers in order to fulfil the purpose of their art.

The Four Methods of Discourse-1. Argumentation.—Rhetoricians, as everybody knows, arbitrarily but conveniently distinguish four forms, or moods, or methods, of discourse: namely, narration, description, exposition, and argumentation. It may be stated without fear of well-founded contradiction that the natural mood, or method, of fiction is the first of these,—narration. Argumentation, for its own sake, has no place in a work of fiction. There is, to be sure, a type of novel, which is generally called in English "the novel with a purpose," the aim of which is to persuade the reader to accept some special thesis that the author holds concerning politics, religion, social ethics, or some other of the phases of life that are readily open to discussion. But such a novel usually fails of its purpose if it attempts to accomplish it by employing the technical devices of argument. It can best fulfil its purpose by exhibiting indisputable truths of life, without persuasive comment, ex cathedra, on the part of the novelist. In vain he argues, denounces, or defends, appeals to us or coaxes us, unless his story in the first place convinces by its very truthfulness. If his thesis be as incontestable as the author thinks it is, it can prove itself by narrative alone.

2. Exposition.—Exposition, for its own sake, is also out of place in fiction. The aim of exposition is to explain, —an aim necessarily abstract; but the purpose of fiction is to represent life, -a purpose necessarily concrete. To discourse of life in abstract terms is to subvert the natural mood of art; and the novelist may make his meaning just as clear by representing life concretely, without a running commentary of analysis and explanation. Life truly represented will explain itself. There are, to be sure, a number of great novelists, of whom George Eliot may be taken as the type, who frequently halt their story to write an essay about it. These essays are often instructive in themselves, but they are not fiction, because they do not embody their truths in imagined facts of human life. George Eliot is at one moment properly a novelist, and at the next moment a discursive expositor. She would be still greater as a novelist, and a novelist merely, if she could make her meaning clear without digressing to another art.

3. Description.—Description also, in the most artistic fiction, is used only as subsidiary and contributive to narration. The aim of description—which is to suggest the look of things at a certain characteristic moment—is an aim necessarily static. But life—which the novelist purposes to represent—is not static but dynamic. The aim of description is pictorial: but life does not hold its pictures; it melts and merges them one into another with headlong hurrying progression. A novelist who devotes two successive pages to the description of a landscape or a person, necessarily makes his story stand still while he is doing it, and thereby belies an obvious law of life. Therefore, as writers of fiction have progressed in art, they have more and more eliminated description for its own sake.

4. Narration, the Natural Mood of Fiction.-Since, then, the natural mood, or method, of fiction is narration, it is necessary that we should devote especial study to the nature of narrative. And in a study frankly technical we may be aided at the outset by a definition, which may subsequently be explained in all its bearings.

A narrative is a representation of a series of events. This is a very simple definition; and only two words of it can possibly demand elucidation. These words are series and event. The word event will be explained fully in a later section of this chapter: meanwhile it may be understood loosely as synonymous with happening. Let us first examine the exact meaning of the word series.

Series and Succession.—The word series implies much more than the word succession: it implies a relation not merely chronological but also logical; and the logical relation it implies is that of cause and effect. In any section of actual life which we examine, the events are likely to appear merely in succession and not in series. One event follows another immediately in time, but does not seem linked to it immediately by the law of causation. What you do this morning does not often necessitate as a logical consequence what you do this afternoon; and what you do this evening is not often a logical result of what you have done during the day. Any transcript from actual life that is not deliberately arranged and logically patterned is therefore likely not to be a narrative. A passage from a diary, for instance, which states events in the order of their happening but makes no attempt to present them as links in a chain of causation, is not, technically speaking, narrative in method. To illustrate this point, let us open at random the diary of Samuel Pepys. Here is his entry for April 29, 1666:

"To Church, where Mr. Mills, a lazy sermon upon the Devil's having no right to anything in this world. To Mr. Evelyn's, where I walked in his garden till he come from Church, with great pleasure reading Ridley's discourse, all my way going and coming, upon the Civil and Ecclesiastical Law. He being come home, he and I walked together in the garden with mighty pleasure, he being a very ingenious man; and, the more I know him, the the more I love him. Weary to bed, after having my hair of my head cut shorter, even close to my skull, for coolness, it being mighty hot weather."

There is no logical continuity in the worthy diarist's faithful chronicle of actuality. What occasioned the weariness with which he went to bed? It could not have been the company of Mr. Evelyn, whom he loved; it could hardly have been the volume on the civil and ecclesiastical law, though its title does suggest the soporific. Was his strength, like Samson's, shorn away with the hair of his head; or can it be that that lazy sermon of Mr. Mills' got in its deadening effects at bed-time? We notice, at any rate, that the diarist's remarks need considerable re-arrangement to make them really narrative.

Life Is Chronological, Art Is Logical: Yet it is just in this way that commonly event succeeds event in the daily life of every one. It is only in the great passionate crises of existence that event treads upon event in uninterupted sequence of causation. And here is the main formal difference between life as it actually happens and life as it is artistically represented in history, biography, and fiction. In every art there are two steps; first, the selection of essentials, and secondly, the arrangement of these essentials according to a pattern. In the art of narration, events are first selected because they suggest an essential logical relation to each other; and they are then arranged along the lines of a pattern of causation. Let us compare with the haphazard passage from Pepys a bit of narrative that is artistically patterned. Here is the conclusion to Stevenson's story of "Markheim." The hero, having slain a dealer in his shop on Christmas day, spends a long time alone, ransacking the dealer's effects and listening to the voice of conscience. He is interrupted by a ringing of the door-bell. The dealer's maid has returned from holidaying.

"He opened the door and went downstairs very slowly, thinking to himself. His past went soberly before him; he beheld it as it was, ugly and strenuous like a dream, random as a chance-medley—a scene of defeat. Life, as he thus reviewed it, tempted him no longer; but on the further side he perceived a quiet haven for his bark. He paused in the passage, and looked into the shop, where the candle still burned by the dead body. It was strangely silent. Thoughts of the dealer swarmed into his mind as he stood gazing. And then the bell once more broke out into impatient clamor.

"He confronted the maid upon the threshold with something like a smile.

" `You had better go for the police,' said he: `I have killed your master.'

The last sentence of this passage is an effect which is logically led up to by many causes that are rapidly reviewed in the preceding sentences. Stevenson has here patterned a passage of life along lines of causation; he has employed the logical method of narration: but Pews, in the selection quoted, looked upon events with no narrative sense whatever.

The Narrative Sense.—The narrative sense is, primarily, an ability to trace an event back to its logical causes and to look forward to its logical effects. It is the sense through which we realize, for instance, that what happened at two o'clock to-day, although it may not have resulted necessarily from what happened an hour before, was the logical outcome of something else that happened at noon on the preceding Thursday, let us say, and that this in turn was the result of causes stretching back through many months. A well-developed narrative sense in looking on at life is very rare. Every one, of course, is able to refer the headache of the morning after to the hilarity if the night before; and even, after some experience, to foresee the headache at the time of the hilarity: but life, to the casual eye of the average man, hides in the main the secrets of its series, and betrays only an illogical succession of events. Minds cruder than the average see only a jumble of happenings in the life they look upon, and group them, if at all, by propinquity in time, rather than by any deeper law of relation. Such a mind had Dame Quickly, the loquacious Hostess in Shakespeare's "Henry IV." Consider the famous speech in which she accuses Falstaff of breach of promise to marry her:

"Thou didst swear to me upon a parcel-gilt goblet, sitting in my Dolphin-chamber, at the round table, by a sea-coal fire, upon Wednesday in Wheeson week, when the prince broke thy head for liking his father to a singing man of Windsor, thou didst swear to me then, as I was washing thy wound, to marry me and make me my lady thy wife. Canst thou deny it? Did not goodwife Keech, the butcher's wife, come in then and call me gossip Quickly? coming in to borrow a mess of vinegar; telling us she had a good dish of prawns; whereby thou didst desire to eat some; whereby I told thee they were ill for a green wound? And didst thou not, when she was gone down stairs, desire me to be no more so familiarity with such poor people; saying that ere long they should call me madam? And didst thou not kiss me and bid me fetch thee thirty shillings? I put thee now to thy book-oath: deny it, if thou canst."

There are, of course, many deficiencies in Dame Quickly's mental make-up; but the one for us to notice here is her utter lack of the narrative sense. She would never be able to tell a story: because, in the first place, she could not select from a muddle of events those which bore an intelligible relation to one another, and in the second place, she could not arrange them logically instead of chronologically. She has no sense of series. And although Dame Quickly's mind is an exaggeration of the type it represents, the type, in less exaggerated form, is very common; and everybody will agree that the average man, who has never taken pains to train himself in narrative, is not able in his ordinary conversation to tell with ease a logically connected story.

The Joy of Telling Tales.—The better sort of narrative sense is not merely an abstract intellectual under-standing of the relation of cause and effect subsisting between events often disparate in time; it is, rather, a concrete feeling of the relation. It is an intuitive feeling; and, being such, it is possessed instinctively by certain minds. There are people in the world who are natural born story-tellers; all of us have met with them in actual life: and to this class belong the story-telling giants, like Sir Walter Scott, Victor Hugo, Dumas père, Stevenson, and Mr. Kipling. Narrative is natural to their minds.

They sense events in series; and a series once started in their imagination propels itself with hurrying progression. Some novelists, like Wilkie Collins, have nothing else to recommend them but this native sense of narrative; but it is a gift that is not to be despised. Authors with something important to say about life have need of it, in order that the process of reading their fiction may be, in Stevenson's phrase, "absorbing and voluptuous." In the great story-tellers, there is a sort of self-enjoyment in the exercise of the sense of narrative; and this, by sheer contagion, communicates enjoyment to the reader. Perhaps it may be called (by analogy with the familiar phrase, "the joy of living") the joy of telling tales. The joy of telling tales which shines through "Treasure Island" is perhaps the main reason for the continued popularity of the story. The author is having such a good time in telling his tale that he gives us necessarily a good time in reading it.

The Missing of This Joy.-But many of the novelists who have had great things to say about human life have been singularly deficient in this native sense of narrative. George Eliot and Anthony Trollope, for ex-ample, almost never evidence the joy of telling tales. George Eliot's natural habit of mind was abstract rather than concrete; she was born an essayist. But, largely through the influence of George Henry Lewes, she deliberately decided that fiction was the most effective medium for expressing her philosophy of life. There-after she strove earnestly to develop that sense of narrative which, at the outset, was largely lacking in her mind. To many readers who are not without appreciation of the importance and profundity of her understanding of human nature, her stories are wearisome and unalluring, because she told them with labor, not with ease. She does not seem to have had a good time with them, as evenson had with "Treasure Island," a story in other ways of comparative unimportance. And surely it is not frivolous to state that the most profound and serious of thoughts are communicated best when they are communicated with the greatest interest.

Developing the Sense of Narrative.—It could hardly be hoped that a person entirely devoid of the narrative sense should acquire it by any amount of labor; but nearly every one possesses it in at least a rudimentary degree, and any one possessing it at all may develop it by exercise. A simple and common-sensible exercise is to seize hold of some event that happens in our daily lives, and then think back over all the antecedent events we can remember, until we discern which ones among them stand in a causal relation to the event we are considering. Next, it will be well to look forward and imagine the sort of events which will logically carry on the series. The great generals of history have won their most signal victories by an exercise of the narrative sense. Holding at the moment of planning a campaign the past and present terms of a logical series of events, they have imagined forward and foreseen the probable progression of the series. This may perhaps explain why the great commanders, like Csar and Grant, have written such able narrative when they have turned to literature.

The young author who is trying to develop his narrative sense may find unending exercise in the endeavor to ferret out the various series of events which lie en-tangled in the confused and apparently unrelated successions of incidents which pass before his observation. When he sees something happen in the street, he will not be satisfied, like the casual looker-on, merely with that solitary happening; he will try to find out what other happenings led up to it, and again what other happenings must logically follow from it. When he sees an interesting person in a street-car, he will wonder where that person has come from and whither he is going, what he has just done and what he is about to do; he will look before and after, and pine for what is not. This exercise is in itself interesting; and if the result of it be written down, the young author will gain experience in expression at the same time that he is developing his sense of narra. tive.

The Meaning of the Word "Event."—It remains for us now to consider philosophically the significance of the word event. Every event has three elements: the thing that is done; the agents that do it, and the circumstances of time and place under which it is done; or, to say the matter in three words,—action, actors, and setting. Only when all three elements conspire can some-thing happen. Life suggests to the mind of a contemplative observer many possible events which remain unrealized because only one or two of the necessary three elements are present,—events that are waiting, like unborn children on the other side of Lethe, until the necessary conditions shall call them into being. We observe a man who could do a great thing of a certain sort if only that sort of thing were demanded to be done at the time and in the place in which he loiters wasted. We grow aware of a great thing longing to be done, when there is no one present who is capable of doing it. We behold conditions of place and time entirely fitted for a certain sort of happening; but nothing happens, because the necessary people are away. "Never the time and the place and the loved one all together!" sang Robert Browning; and then he dreamed upon an event which was waiting to be born,—waiting for the imagined meeting and marriage of its elements.

How to Make Things Happen.—It is the function of the master of creative narrative to call events into being.

He does this by assembling and marrying the elements without which events cannot occur. Granted the conception of a character who is capable of doing certain things, he finds things of that sort for the character to do; granted a sense of certain things longing to be done, he finds people who will do them; or granted the time and the place that seem expectant of a certain sort of happening, he finds the agents proper to the setting. There is a conversation of Stevenson's, covering this point, which has been often quoted. His biographer, Mr. Graham Balfour, tells us: "Either on that day or about that time I remember very distinctly his saying to me: `There are, so far as I know, three ways, and three ways only, of writing a story. You may take a plot and fit characters to it, or you may take a character and choose incidents and situations to develop it, or lastly—you must bear with me while I try to make this clear'—(here he made a gesture with his hand as if he were trying to shape some-thing and give it outline and form)—‘you may take a certain atmosphere and get action and persons to express it and realize it. I'll give you an example—" The Merry Men." There I began with the feeling of one of those islands on the west coast of Scotland, and I gradually developed the story to express the sentiment with which the coast affected me.'

In other words, starting with any one of the three elements—action, actors, or setting—the writer of narrative may create events by imagining the other two. Comparatively speaking, there have been very few stories, like "The Merry Men," in which the author has started out from a sense of setting; and nearly all of them have been written recently. The feeling for setting as the initial element in narrative hardly dates back further than the nineteenth century. We may therefore best consider it in a later and more special chapter, and devote our attention for the present to the two methods of creating narrative that have been most often used—that in which the author has started with the element of action, and that in which he has started with the element of character.

Very few of the great masters of narrative have, like Honoré de Balzac, employed both one and the other method with equal success: nearly all of them have shown an habitual mental predilection for the one or for the other. The elder Dumas, for example, habitually devised a scheme of action and then selected characters to fit into his plot; and George Meredith habitually created characters and then devised the elements of action necessary to exhibit and develop them. Readers, like the novelists themselves, usually feel a predilection for one method rather than the other; but surely each method is natural and reasonable, and it would be injudicious for the critic to exalt either of them at the expense of the other. There is plenty of material in life to allure a mind of either habit. Certain things that are done are in themselves so interesting that it matters comparatively little who is doing them; and certain characters are in themselves so interesting that it matters comparatively little what they do. To conceive a potent train of action and thereby fore-ordain the nature of such characters as will accomplish it, or to conceive characters pregnant with potentiality for certain sorts of deeds and thereby foreordain a train of action,—either is a legitimate method for planning out a narrative. That method is best for any author which is most natural for him; he will succeed best working in his own way; and that critic is not catholic who states that either the narrative of action or the narrative of character is a better type of work than the other. The truth of human life may be told equally well by those who sense primarily its element of action and by those who sense primarily its element of character; for both elements must finally appear commingled in any story that is real.

The critic may, however, make a philosophical distinction between the two methods, in order to lead to a better understanding of them both. Those writers who sense life primarily as action may be said to work from the outside in; and those who sense it primarily as character may be said to work from the inside out. The first method re-quires the more objective, and the second the more subjective, consciousness of life. Of the two, the objective consciousness of life is (at its weakest) more elementary and (at its strongest) more elemental than the subjective.

The Narrative of Action.—Stevenson, in his "Gossip on Romance," has eloquently voiced the potency of an objective sense of action as the initial factor in the development of a narrative. He is speaking of the spell cast over him by certain books he read in boyhood. "For my part," he says, "I liked a story to begin with an old wayside inn where, `towards the close of the year 17—,' several gentlemen in three-cocked hats were playing bowls. A friend of mine preferred the Malabar coast in a storm, with a ship beating to windward, and a scowling fellow of Herculean proportions striding along the beach; he, to be sure, was a pirate. This was further afield than my home-keeping fancy loved to travel, and designed altogether for a larger canvas than the tales that I affected. Give me a highwayman and I was full to the brim; a Jacobite would do, but the highwayman was my favourite dish. I can still hear that merry clatter of the hoofs along the moonlit lane; night and the coming of day are still related in my mind with the doings of John Rann or Jerry Abershaw; and the words `post-chaise,' the `great north road,' `ostler,' and `nag' still sound in my ears like poetry. One and all, at least, and each with his particular fancy, we read story books in childhood, not for eloquence or character or thought, but for some quality of the brute incident." For the writer who works from the outside in, it is entirely possible to develop from "some quality of the brute incident" a narrative that shall be not only stirring in its propulsion of events but also profound in its significance of elemental truth.

The Narrative of Character.—The method of working from the inside out—of using a subjective sense of character as the initial factor in the development of a narrative—is wonderfully exemplified in the work of Ivan Turgénieff; and the method is very clearly explained in Henry James' intimate essay on the great Russian master. Henry James remarks: "The germ of a story, with him, was never an affair of plot—that was the last thing he thought of : it was the representation of certain per-sons. The first form in which a tale appeared to him was as the figure of an individual, or a combination of individuals, whom he wished to see in action, being sure that such people must do something very special and interesting. They stood before him definite, vivid, and he wished to know, and to show, as much as possible of their nature. The first thing was to make clear to him-self what he did know, to begin with; and to this end he wrote out a sort of biography of each of his characters, and everything that they had done and that had happened to them up to the opening of the story. He had their dossier, as the French say, and as the police has of that of every conspicuous criminal. With this material in his hand he was able to proceed; the story all lay in the question, What shall I make them do? He always made them do things that showed them completely; but, as he said, the defect of his manner and the reproach that was made him was his want of `architecture'—in other words, of composition. The great thing, of course, is to have architecture as well as precious material, as Walter Scott had them, as Balzac had them. If one reads Turgénieff's stories with the knowledge that they were composed—or rather that they came into being-in this way, one can trace the process in every line. Story, in the conventional sense of the word—a fable constructed, like Wordsworth's phantom, `to startle and waylay'—there is as little as possible. The thing consists of the motions of a group of selected creatures, which are not the result of a preconceived action, but a consequence of the qualities of the actors.

And yet, for the writer who, like Turgénieff, works from the inside out, it is entirely possible to develop from "the qualities of the actors" a train of action that shall be as stirring as it is significant.

Recapitulation.—The main principle of narrative to bear in mind is that action alone, or character alone, is not its proper subject-matter. The purpose of narrative is to represent events; and an event occurs only when both character and action, with contributory setting, are assembled and commingled. Indeed, in the greatest and most significant events, it is impossible to decide whether the actor or the action has the upper hand; it is impossible, in regarding such events, for the imagination to conceive what is done and who is doing it as elements divorced. A novelist who has started out with either element and has afterward evoked the other may arrive by imagination at this final complete sense of an event. The best narratives of action and of character are indistinguishable, one from another, in their ultimate result: they differ only in their origin: and the author who aspires to a mastery of narrative should remember that, in narrative at its best, character and action and even setting are one and inseparable.

For the conveniences of study, however, it is well to examine the elements of narrative one by one; and we shall therefore devote three separate chapters to a technical consideration of plot, and characters, and setting.


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