Writing Fiction - Characters
( Originally Published 1918 )
Characters Should Be Worth Knowing—The Personal Equation of the Audience—The Universal Appeal of Great Fictitious Characters—Typical Traits—Individual Traits—The Defect of Allegory—The Defect of Caricature—Static and Kinetic Characters —Direct and Indirect Delineation—Subdivisions of Both Methods —I. Direct Delineation: 1. By Exposition; 2. By Description; [Gradual Portrayal]; 3. By Psychological Analysis; 4. By Reports from other Characters—II. Indirect Delineation: 1. By Speech; 2. By Action; 3. By Effect on other Characters; 4. By Environment.
Characters Should Be Worth Knowing.—Before we proceed to study the technical methods of delineating characters, we must ask ourselves what constitutes a character worth delineating. A novelist is, to speak figuratively, the social sponsor for his own fictitious characters; and he is guilty of a social indiscretion, as it were, if he asks his readers to meet fictitious people whom it is neither of value nor of interest to know. Since he aims to make his readers intimate with his characters, he must first of all be careful that his characters are worth knowing intimately. Most of us, in actual life, are accustomed to distinguish people who are worth our while from people who are not; and those of us who live advisedly are accustomed to shield ourselves from people who cannot, by the mere fact of what they are, repay us for the expenditure of time and energy we should have to make to get to know them. And whenever a friend of ours asks us deliberately to meet another friend of his, we take it for granted that our friend has reasons for believing that the acquaintanceship will be of benefit or of interest to both. Now the novelist stands in the position of a friend who asks us to meet certain people whom he knows; and he runs the risk of our losing faith in his judgment unless we find his people worth our while. By the mere fact that we bother to read a novel, thus expending time which might otherwise be passed in company with actual people, we are going out of our way to meet the characters to whom the novelist wishes to intro-duce us. He therefore owes us an assurance that they shall be even more worth our while than the average actual person. This is not to say that they should necessarily be better; they may, of course, be worse: but they should be more clearly significant of certain interesting elements of human nature, more thoroughly representative of certain phases of human life which it is well for us to learn and know.
The Personal Equation of the Audience.—In deciding on the sort of characters that will be worth his readers' while, the novelist must of course he influenced by the nature of the audience he is writing for. The characters of "Little Women" may he worth the while of children; and it is not an adverse criticism of Louisa M. Alcott to say that they are not worth the while of mature men and women. Similarly, it is not an adverse criticism of certain Continental novelists to say that their characters are decidedly unfit companions for adolescent girls. Our judgment of the characters in a novel should be conditioned always by our sense of the sort of readers to whom the novel is addressed. Henry James, in his later years, wrote usually for the super-civilized; and his characters should be judged by different standards than the pirates of "Treasure Island,"—a story which was written for boys, both young and old. One reader may be bored by pirates, another by super-subtle cosmopolitans; and each reader has the privilege of avoiding the society of the characters that weary him.
The Universal Appeal of Great Fictitious Characters.—But the very greatest characters of fiction are worth everybody's while; and surely the masters need have felt no hesitancy in asking any one to meet Sancho Panza, Robinson Crusoe, Henry Esmond, Jean Valjean, or Terence Mulvaney. In fact, the most amazing thing about a great fictitious figure is the multitude of very different people that the character is capable of interesting. Many times we willingly absent ourselves from actual society to pass an evening in the company of a fictitious personage of a class with which we never associate in actual life. Perhaps in the actual world we would never bother to converse with illiterate provincial people; and yet we may not feel it a waste of time and energy to meet them in the pages of "Middlemarch." For my own part, I have always, in actual life, avoided meeting the sort of people that appear in Thackeray's "Vanity Fair"; and yet I find it not only interesting but profitable to associate with them through the entire extent of a rather lengthy novel. Why is it that a reader, who, although he has crossed the ocean many times, has never cared to enter the engine-room of a liner, is yet willing enough to meet on intimate terms Mr. Kipling's engineer, Mac Andrew? And why is it that ladies who, in actual society, are fastidious of their acquaintanceship, should yet associate throughout a novel with the Sapho of Daudet? What is the reason why these fictitious characters should seem, for nearly every reader, more worth while than the very same sort of people in actual life?
Typical Traits.—The reason is that great fictitious characters are typical of their class, to an extent rarely to be noticed in any actual member of the class they typify. They "contain multitudes," to borrow Whitman's phrase. All idealistic visionaries are typified in Don Quixote, all misers in Harpagon, all hypocrites in Tartufe, all egoists in Sir Willoughby Patterne, all clever, tricksy women in Becky Sharp, all sentimentalists in Barrie's Tommy. But the average actual man is not of sufficient magnitude to contain a multitude of others; he is comparatively lacking in typical traits; he is not, to such a great extent, illustrative of life, because only in a small measure is he representative of his class. There are, of course, in actual life, certain people of unusual magnitude who justify Emerson's title of "Representative Men." " Benjamin Franklin, for example, is such a man. He is the only actual person entirely typical of eighteenth-century America; and that is the main reason why, as an exhibition of character, his autobiography is Just as profitable a book as the master-works of fiction. But men so representative are rare in actual life; and the chief business of fiction is therefore to supply them.
Individual Traits.—It is mainly by supplying this need for representative men and women that the novelist can make his characters worth the while of every reader. But after he has made them quintessential of a class, he must be careful also to individualize them. Unless he endows them with certain personal traits that distinguish them from all other representatives or members of their class, whether actual or fictitious, he will fail to invest them with the illusion of reality. Every great character of fiction must exhibit, therefore, an intimate combination of typical and individual traits. It is through being typical that the character is true; it is through being individual that the character is convincing.
The Defect of Allegory.--The reason why most allegorical figures are ineffective is that, although they are typical, they are not at the same time individual. They are abstractly representative of a class; but they are not concretely distinguishable from other representatives or members of the class. We know them, therefore, not as persons but merely as ideas. We feel very little human interest nowadays in reading over the old morality plays, whose characters are merely allegorical abstractions. But in criticising them we must remember that they were designed not so much to be read as to be performed upon the stage; and that the actors who represented their abstract and merely typical characters must necessarily have endowed them with concreteness and with individuality. Though a character in one of these allegorical plays might be called "Everyman," it was one particular man who walked and talked upon the boards; and he evoked sympathy not so much for the type as for the individual. But allegory written to be read is less likely to produce the illusion of reality; and it is only when allegorical characters are virtually conceived as individuals, instead of mere abstractions, that they touch the heart. Christian, in Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress," is so conceived. He is entirely representative of seventeenth-century Christianity; in a sense he is all men of Bunyan's time and Bunyan's religion; but he is also one man and one only, and we could never in our thought confuse him with any other character in or out of fiction.
The Defect of Caricature.—But just as a character may be ineffective through being merely typical, so also a character may be unsignificant through being merely individual. The minor figures in Ben Jonson's Comedies of Humours are mere personifications of exaggerated individual traits. They are caricatures rather than characters. Dickens frequently commits the error of exhibiting figures devoid of representative traits. Tommy Traddles is sharply individualized by the fact that his hair is always standing on end; but he exhibits no essential truth of human nature. Bards, who is always willin', and Micawber, who is always waiting for some-thing to turn up, are emphatically distinguished from everybody else in or out of fiction; but they lack the large reality of representative characters. They are individualities instead of individuals. They do not exhibit an agglomeration of many different but consistent traits rendered unified and single by a dominant and informing characteristic, such as ambition in Macbeth, senility in Lear, or irresoluteness in Hamlet. A great fictitious character must be at once generic and specific; it must give concrete expression to an abstract idea; it must be an individualized representation of the typical qualities of a class. It is only figures of this sort that are finally worth while in fiction, more worth the reader's while than the average actual man.
Static and Kinetic Characters.-But there is yet an-other 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, o 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.
1. 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 Wake-field," 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 de-livered 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." Further-more, 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 Wood-house. 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 him-self 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 state-ment 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 through-out."
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 Scan 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."'
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 Auk-land?'
"` 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 al-ways 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.