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Emphasis In Narrative

( Originally Published 1918 )

Essential and Contributory Features—Art Distinguishes Between the Two by Emphasis—Many Technical Devices: 1. Emphasis by Terminal Position; 2. Emphasis by Initial Position; 3. Emphasis by Pause [Further Discussion of Emphasis by Position]; 4. Emphasis by Direct Proportion; 5. Emphasis by Inverse Proportion; 6. Emphasis by Iteration; 7. Emphasis by Antithesis; 8. Emphasis by Climax; 9. Emphasis by Surprise; 10. Emphasis by Suspense; 11. Emphasis by Imitative Movement.

Essential and Contributory Features.—The features of any object that we contemplate may with intelligent judgment be divided into two classes, according as they are inherently essential, or else merely contributory, to the existence of that object as an individual entity. If any one of its inherently essential features should be altered, that object would cease to be itself and would become another object; but if any or all of its merely contributory features should be changed, the object would still retain its individuality, however much its aspect might be altered. And in general it may be said that we do not understand an object until we are able to set intelligently in one group or the other every feature it presents to our attention.

Art Distinguishes Between the Two by Emphasis.—In contemplating natural objects, it is often difficult to distinguish those features which are merely contributory from those which are inherently essential; but it ought not to be difficult to do so in contemplating a work of art. For it is possible for the artist in fact it is incumbent upon him—to help the observer to distinguish clearly between the essential and the contributory details of the object he has fabricated. By employing certain technical expedients in exhibiting his work, the artist is able to communicate to the observer his own intelligent distinction between its more important, and its less important, features. He does this by casting emphasis upon the necessary details and gathering out of emphasis the subsidiary ones.

The importance of the principle of emphasis is recognized in all the arts; for it is only by an application of this principle that the artist can gather and group in the background the subsidiary elements of his work, while he flings into vivid relief those elements that em-body the essence of the thing he has to say. The halo with which the Byzantine mosaicists surrounded the faces of their saints, the glory of golden light that gleams about the figure of Christ in heaven in Tintoretto's decorations, the blank bright walls of the Doge's palace undermined by darkling and shadowy arcades, the refrain of a Provençal song, the sharp shadow under the visor of Verrocchio's equestrian statue, the thought-provoking chiaroscuro of Rembrandt's figure paintings—these expedients are all designed to attract attention to the essential elements of a whole of many parts. By technical devices such as these, emphasis must be given to the central truth of a work of art in order that the observer may not look instead at the mere accidents of its investiture. Where many elements are gathered together for the purpose of representing an idea, some of them must be more important than the others because they are to a greater extent imbued with it inherently; and the artist will fail of his purpose unless he indicates clearly which elements are essential and which are merely subsidiary.

Many Technical Devices.--Scarcely any other work of art, excepting a Gothic cathedral or a theatrical performance, is made of elements more multifarious than those of a fictitious narrative. The details of a novel are so many and so various that the author needs at all times a nice understanding and a careful application of the principle of emphasis. It is therefore advisable that the present chapter should be devoted to the enumeration and illustration of the different technical devices which are employed by artists in narrative to cast the needed emphasis on the essential features of their stories.

1. Emphasis by Terminal Position.—First of all, it is obviously easy to emphasize by position. In any narrative, or section of a narrative, that is designed to be read in a single sitting, the last moments are of necessity emphatic because they are the last. When the reader lays the narrative aside, he remembers most vividly the last thing that has been presented to his attention; and if he thinks back to the earlier portions of the story, he must do so by thinking through the concluding passage. Therefore, it is necessary in the short-story, and advisable in the chapters of a novel, to reserve for the ultimate position one of the most inherently important features of the narrative; for surely it is bad art to waste the natural emphasis of position by casting it upon a subsidiary feature.

The importance of this simple expedient will readily be recognized if the student will gather together a hundred short-stories written by acknowledged masters and examine the last paragraph of each. Consider for a moment the final sentences of "Markheim," which we have already quoted in another connection:

"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 entire story is summed up in the concluding phrase; and the final sentence rings ever after in the reader's memory.

Here, to cite a new example, is the conclusion of Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death":

"And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revellers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall. And the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the gay. And the flames of the tripods expired. And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all."

The sense of absolute ruin which we derive from this impressive paragraph is, to a considerable extent, due to the emphasis it gains from its finality. The effect would unquestionably be subtracted from, if another paragraph should be appended and should steal away its importance of position.

In order to derive the utmost emphasis from the terminal position, the great artist Guy de Maupassant, in his short-stories, developed a periodicity of structure by means of which he reserved the solution of the narrative, whenever possible, until the final sentences. This periodic structure is employed, for example, in his well-known story of "The Necklace" ("La Parure"). It deals with a poor woman who loses a diamond necklace that she has borrowed from a rich friend in order to wear at a ball. She buys another exactly like it and returns this in its place. For ten years she and her husband labor day and night to pay off the debts they have incurred to purchase the substituted jewels. After the debts are all paid, the woman tells her friend of what had happened. Then follows this last sentence of the story:

"`Oh, my poor Mathilde. But mine were false. At most they were worth five hundred francs!'"

The periodic pattern of Guy de Maupassant was sedulously copied by O. Henry; but this popular contributor to the American magazines went even further than his master and developed a double surprise to be delivered suddenly at the conclusion of the narrative. A typical example of his work is "The Gift of the Magi," wherein an unexpected outcome is immediately capped by a second outcome still more unexpected. The success of 0. Henry with the reading public may be attributed mainly to his cleverness in taking full advantage of the powerful expedient of emphasis by terminal position. His technical adroitness may be studied best by reading rapidly the final paragraphs of any hundred of his stories. He had the happy faculty of saying last the best and brightest thing he had to say.

2. Emphasis by Initial Position.—Next to the last position, the most emphatic place in a brief narrative, or section of a narrative, is of course the first. The mind of the reader receives with an especial vividness whatever is presented to it at the outset. For this reason it is necessary in the short-story, and advisable in the chapters of a novel, to begin with material that not only is inherently essential, but also strikes the key-note of the narrative that is to follow. Edgar Allan Poe is especially artistic in applying this principle of emphasis by initial position. We have already quoted, in another connection, the solemn opening of "The Fall of the House of Usher," with its suggestion of immitigable gloom of setting as the dominant note of the narrative. In "The Cask of Amontillado," wherein the thing to be emphasized is the element of action, Poe begins with this sentence: "The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could; but when he ventured upon insult,

I vowed revenge": and we know already that the story is to set forth a signal act of vengeance. In "The Tell-Tale Heart," which is a study of murderous madness, and deals primarily with the element of character, the author opens thus:

"True!—nervous-very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses—not destroyed—not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily-how calmly I can tell you the whole story."

3. Emphasis by Pause: In general it may be said that any pause in a narrative emphasizes by position whatever immediately precedes it, and also (though to a considerably less extent) whatever immediately follows it. For this reason many masters of the short-story, like Daudet and de Maupassant, construct their narratives in sections, in order to multiply the number of terminal and initial positions. Asterisks strung across the page not only make the reader aware of the completion of an integral portion of the story, but also focus his attention emphatically on the last thing that has been said before the interruption. The employment of points de suspension—a mark of punctuation consisting of a series of successive dots . .—which is so frequent with French authors, is a device which is used to interrupt a sentence solely for the sake of emphasis by pause.

Further Discussion of Emphasis by Position.—The instances which we have selected to illustrate the expedient of emphasizing by position have been chosen for convenience from short-stories; but the same principle may be applied with similar success in constructing the chapters of a novel. Certain great but inartistic novelists, like Sir Walter Scott, show themselves to be singularly obtuse to the advantage of placing emphatic material in an emphatic position. Scott is almost always careless of his chapter endings: he allows the sections of his narrative to drift and straggle, instead of rounding them to an emphatic close. But more artistic novelists, like Victor Hugo for example, never fail to take advantage of the terminal position. Consider the close of Book XI, Chapter II, of "Notre Dame de Paris." The gypsy-girl, Esmeralda, has been hanged in the Place de Grève. The hunchback, Quasimodo, has flung the archdeacon, Claude Frollo, from the tower-top of Notre Dame. This paragraph then brings the chapter to an end:

"Quasimodo then raised his eye to the gypsy, whose body he saw, depending from the gibbet, shudder afar under her white robe with the last tremblings of death-agony; then he lowered it to the archdeacon, stretched out at the foot of the tower and no longer having human form; and he said with a sob that made his deep chest heave: `Oh! all that I have loved!'"

A chapter ending may be artistically planned either (as in the foregoing instance) to sum up with absolute finality the narrative accomplishment of the chapter, or else, by vaguely foreshadowing the subsequent progress of the story, to lure the reader to proceed. The elder Dumas possessed in a remarkable degree the faculty of so terminating one chapter as to allure the reader to an immediate commencement of the next. He did this most frequently by introducing a new thread of narrative in a phrase of the concluding sentence, and thereby exciting the reader's curiosity to follow up the thread.

The expedient of emphasis by terminal and by initial position cannot, of course, be applied without reservation to an entire novel. The last chapter of a novel with a complicated plot is often of necessity devoted to tying or untying minor knots in the straggling threads of the general network. Therefore, the most emphatic place in an extended narrative is not at the very end, but rather at the close of the chapter which sets forth the culmination. Also, although many great novels, like "The Scarlet Letter," have begun at an emphatic moment in the plot, many others have opened slowly and have presented no important material until the narrative was well under way. "The Talisman" of Scott, "The Spy" of Fenimore Cooper, and many another early nineteenth-century romance, began with a solitary horseman whom the reader was forced to follow for several pages before anything whatever happened. Latterly, however, novelists have learned from writers of short-stories the art of opening emphatically with material important to the plot.

4. Emphasis by Direct Proportion.—Another means of emphasis in narrative is by proportion. More time and more attention should be given to essential scenes than to matters of subsidiary interest. The most important characters should be given most to say and do; and the amount of attention devoted to the others should be proportioned to their importance in the action. Becky Sharp stands out sharply from the half a hundred other characters in "Vanity Fair," because more time is devoted to her than to any of the others. Similarly, in "Emma and in "Pride and Prejudice," as we have noted in the preceding chapter, the heroine is in each case emphasized by the fact that she is set forth from a more intimate point of view than the minor people in the story. It is wise, for the sake of emphasis by proportion, to draw the major characters more completely and more carefully than the minor; and much may therefore be said, on this ground, in defence of Dickens's habit of drawing humanly only the leading characters in his novels and merely sketching in caricature the subsidiary actors.

5. Emphasis by Inverse Proportion-It is sometimes possible, in special cases, to emphasize ironically by in-verse proportion. An author may deliberately devote several successive pages to dwelling on subsidiary matters, only to emphasize sharply a sudden paragraph or sentence in which he turns to the one thing that really counts. But this ironical expedient is, of course, less frequently serviceable than that of emphasis by direct proportion.

6. Emphasis by Iteration.—Undoubtedly the easiest means of inculcating a detail of narrative is to repeat it again and again. Emphasis by iteration is a favorite device of Dickens. The reader is never allowed to forget the catch-phrase of Micawber or the moral look of Pecksniff. In many cases, to be sure, the reader wishes that he might escape the constantly recurrent repetition; but Dickens occasionally applies the expedient with subtle emotional effect. In "A Tale of Two Cities," for example, the repeated references to echoing footsteps and to the knitting of Madame Defarge contribute a great deal to the sense of imminent catastrophe.

Certain modern authors have developed a phase of emphasis by iteration which is similar to the employment of the leit-motiv in the music-dramas of Richard Wagner. In the Wagnerian operas a certain musical theme is devoted to each of the characters, and is woven into the score whenever the character appears. Similarly, in the later plays of Henrik Ibsen, certain phrases are repeated frequently, to indicate the recurrence of certain dramatic moods. Thus, in "Rosmersholm, reference is made to the weird symbol of "white horses," whenever the mood of the momentary scene foreshadows the double suicide which is to terminate the play. Students of "Hedda Gabler" need not be reminded of the emphasis flung by iteration on the phrases, "Vine-leaves in his hair," "Fancy that, Hedda!", "Wavy-haired Thea," "The one cock on the fowl-roost," and "People don't do such things!" The same device may be employed just as effectively in the short-story and the novel. A single instance will suffice for illustration. Notice, in examining the impressive talk of the old lama in Mr. Kipling's "Kim," how much emphasis is derived from the continual recurrence of certain phrases, like the "Search for the River," "the justice of the Wheel," "to acquire merit," and so forth.

A narrative expedient scarcely distinguishable in effect from simple iteration is the device of parallelism of structure. For example, in Hawthorne's story of "The White Old Maid," the first scene and the last, although they are separated in time by many, many years, take place in the same spacious chamber, with the moonbeams falling in the same way through two deep and narrow windows, while waving curtains produce the same ghostly semblance of expression on a face that is dead.

7. Emphasis by Antithesis.—Emphasis in narrative is also attained by antithesis,—an expedient employed in every art. In most stories it is well so to select the characters that they will set each other off by contrast. In the great duel scene of the "Master of Ballantrae," from which a selection has been quoted in a previous chapter, the phlegmatic calm of Mr. Henry is contrasted sharply with the mercurial hot-headedness of the Master; and each character stands forth more vividly because of its opposition to the other. Of the two women who are loved by Tito Melema, the one, Tessa, is simple and childish, the other, Romola, complex and intellectual. The most interesting stories present a constant contrast of mutually foiling personalities; and whenever characters of varied views and opposing aims come nobly to the grapple in a struggle that vitally concerns them, the tensity of the situation will be augmented if the difference between the characters is marked. This expedient is therefore of especial importance in the drama. Othello seems more poignantly emotional in the presence of the coldly intellectual Iago. In "The School for Scandal," Charles and Joseph Surface are much more effective together than either of them would be alone. The whole-hearted and happy-go-lucky recklessness of the one sets off the smooth and smug dissimulation of the other; the first gives light to the play, and the second shade. Hamlet's wit is sharpened by the garrulous obtuseness of Polonius; the sad world-wisdom of Paula Tanqueray is accentuated by the innocence of Ellean. Similarly, to return to the novel for examples, we need only instance the contrast in mind between Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, the contrast in mood between Claude Frollo and Phoebus de Châteaupers, the contrast in ideals between Daniel Deronda and Gwendolen Grandcourt.

The expedient of antithesis is also employed effectively in the balance of scene against scene. The absolute desolation which terminates "The Masque of the Red Death" is preceded by "a masked ball of the most unusual magnificence." In Scott's " Kenilworth," we pass from the superb festivities which Leicester institutes in honor of Queen Elizabeth, to the lonely prison where Amy Robsart, his discarded wife, is languishing. Victor Hugo is, in modern fiction, the greatest master of anti-thesis of mood between scene and scene. His most emphatic effects are attained, like those of Gothic architecture, by a juxtaposition of the grotesque and the sublime. Often, to be sure, he overworks the antithetic; and entire sections of his narrative move like the walking-beam of a ferry-boat, tilting now to this side, now to that.

But in spite of his excess in employing this device, his practice should be studied carefully; for at his best he illustrates more convincingly than any other author the effectiveness of emphasis by contrast.

The subtlest way of employing this expedient is to pre-sent an antithesis of mood within a single scene. Dame Quickly's account of Falstaff's death touches at once the heights of humor and the depths of pathos. At the close of "Mrs. Bathurst," the tragic narrative is interrupted by the passage of a picnic-party singing a light love-song. Shylock, in his great dialogue with Tubal, is at the same moment plunged in melancholy over the defection of his daughter and flushed with triumph because he has Antonio at last within his clutches. Each emotion seems more potent because it is contrasted with the other. In Mr. Kipling's "Love-o'-Women," the tragic effect is enhanced by the fact that the tale is told by the humorous Mulvaney. Thus:

"`An' now?' she sez, lookin' at him; an' the red paint stud lone on the white av her face like a bull's-eye on a target.

"He lifted up his eyes, slow an' very slow, an' he looked at her long an' very long, an' he tuk his spache betune his teeth wid a wrench that shuk him.

"`I'm dyin,' Aigypt—dyin',' he says; ay, those were his words, for I remember the name he called her. He was turnin' the death-color, but his eyes niver rowled. They were set—set on her. Widout word or warnin' she opened her arms full stretch, an' `Here!' she sez. (Oh, fwhat a golden mericle av a voice ut was.) `Die here,' she sez; an' Love-o'-Women dhropped forward, an' she hild him up, for she was a fine big woman."

8. Emphasis by Climax.—Another rhetorical expedient from which emphasis may be derived is, of course, the use of climax. The materials of a short-story, or of a chapter of narrative, should in nearly every case be assembled in an ascending order of importance,—each incident carrying the interest to a higher level than that of the preceding. The same is true of the structure of a novel from the outset to the moment of the culmination; but of course it is rarely possible in the denouement to carry the interest any higher than the level it attained at the point of greatest complication. Climacteric progressiveness of structure is effectively exhibited in Henry James' tale of mystery and terror, "The Turn of the Screw." The author on horror's head horrors accumulates, in a steadily ascending scale. But, on the other hand, many stories have been marred by the introduction of a very striking scene too early in the structure, after which there has succeeded of necessity an appreciable diminution in the interest. The reason why sequels to great novels have rarely been successful is that it has been impossible for the author in the second volume to sustain a climacteric rise of interest from the level where he left off in the first.

9. Emphasis by Surprise.—A means of emphasis less technical and more psychological than those which have been hitherto discussed is that which owes its origin to surprise. Whatever hits the reader unexpectedly will hit him hard. He will be most impressed by that for which he has been least prepared. Chapter XXXII of "Vanity Fair" passes in Brussels during the battle of Waterloo. The reader is kept in the city with the women of the story while the men are fighting on the field a dozen miles away. All day a distant cannonading rumbles on the ear. At nightfall the noise stops suddenly. Then, at the end of the chapter, the reader is told:

"No more firing was heard at Brussels—the pursuit rolled miles away. Darkness came down on the field and city: and Amelia was praying for George, who was lying on his face, dead, with a bullet through his heart."

This statement of George Osborne's death is emphasized in several ways at once. It is made emphatic by position, since it is placed at the very end of a long chap-ter; by inverse proportion, since it is set forth in a single phrase after many pages that have been devoted to less important matters; but most of all by the startle of surprise with which it strikes the reader. Likewise, the last sentence of de Maupassant's "The Necklace," quoted earlier in this chapter, is emphatic by surprise as well as by position; and the same is true of the clever and unexpected close of H. C. Bunner's "A Sisterly Scheme," in many ways a little masterpiece of art.

In tales of mystery, the interest is maintained chiefly by the deft manipulation of surprise; but even in novels wherein the aim to mystify is very far from being the primary purpose of the author, it is often wise to keep a secret from the reader for the sake of the emphasis by surprise which may be derived at the moment of revelation. In "Our Mutual Friend" the reader is led for a long time to suppose that the character of Mr. Boffin is changing for the worse; and his interest is stimulated keenly when he discovers ultimately that the apparent degeneration has been only a pretense.

In the drama this expedient must be used with great delicacy, because a sudden and startling shock of surprise is likely to scatter the attention of the spectators and flurry them out of a true conception of the scene. The reader of a novel, when he discovers with surprise that he has been skilfully deceived through several pages, may pause to reconstruct his conception of the narrative, and may even re-read the entire passage through which the secret has been withheld from him. But in the theatre, the spectators cannot stop the play while they reconstruct in retrospect their judgment of a situation; and therefore, in the drama, a moment of surprise should be carefully led up to by anticipatory suggestion. Before Lady Macbeth is disclosed walking in her sleep, her doctor and her waiting-gentlewoman are sent on to tell the audience of her "slumbery agitation." This is excellent art in the theatre; but it would be bad art in the pages of a novel. In a story written to be read, surprise is most effective when it is complete.

10. Emphasis by Suspense.—An even more interesting form of emphasis in narrative is emphasis by suspense. Wilkie Collins is accredited with having said that the secret of holding the attention of one's readers lay in the ability to do three things: "Make 'em laugh; make 'em weep; make 'em wait." Still abide these three; and the greatest is the last. The ability to make the reader wait, through many pages and at times through many chapters, is a very valuable asset of the writer of fiction; but this ability is applied to best advantage when it is exercised within certain limitations. In the first place, there is no use in making the reader wait unless he is first given an inkling of what he is to wait for. The reader should be tantalized; he should be made to long for the fruit that is just beyond his grasp; and he should not be left in ignorance as to the nature of the fruit, lest he should long for it half-heartedly. A vague sense of "something evermore about to be" is not so interesting to the reader as a vivid sense of the imminence of some particular occurrence that he wishes ardently to witness. The expedient of suspense is most effective when either of two things and only two, both of which the reader has imagined in advance, is just about to happen, and the reader, desirous of the one and apprehensive of the other, is kept waiting while the balance trembles. In the second place, there is seldom any use in making the reader wait unless he is given in the end the thing he has been waiting for. A short-story may occasionally set forth a suspense which is never to be satisfied. Frank R. Stockton's famous tale, "The Lady or the Tiger?", ends with a question which neither the reader nor the author is able to answer; and Bayard Taylor's fascinating short-story, "Who Was She?", never reveals the alluring secret of the heroine's identity. But in an extended story an unsatisfied suspense is often less emphatic than no suspense at all, because the reader in the end feels cheated by the author who has made him wait for nothing. There are, of course, exceptions to this statement. In "The Marble Faun," Hawthorne is undoubtedly right in never revealing the shape of Donatello's ears, even though the reader continually expects the revelation; but, in the same novel, it is difficult to see what, if anything, is gained by making the reader wait in vain for the truth about the shadowy past of Miriam.

11. Emphasis by Imitative Movement.—Emphasis in narrative may also be attained by imitative movement. Whatever is imagined to have happened quickly should be narrated quickly, in few words and in rapid rhythm; and whatever is imagined to have happened slowly should be narrated in a more leisurely manner,—sometimes in a greater number of words than are absolutely necessitated by the sense alone,-the words being arranged, furthermore, in a rhythm of appreciable sluggishness. In "Markheim," the dealer is murdered in a single sudden sentence: "The long, skewerlike dagger flashed and fell." But, later on in the story, it takes the hero a whole paragraph, containing no less than three hundred words, to mount the four-and-twenty steps to the first floor of the house. In the following passage from "The Masque of the Red Death," notice how much of the effect is due to imitative movement in the narrative:

"But from a certain nameless awe with which the mad assumptions of the mummer had inspired the whole party there were found none who put forth hand to seize him; so that, unimpeded, he passed within a yard of the Prince's person; and, while the vast assembly, as if with one impulse, shrank from the centres of the rooms to the walls, he made his way uninterruptedly, but with the same solemn and measured step which had distinguished him from the first, through the blue chamber to the purple—through the purple to the green—through the green to the orange—through this again to the white—and even thence to the violet, ere a decided movement had been made to arrest him. It was then, however, that the Prince Prospero, maddening with rage and the shame of his own momentary cowardice, rushed hurriedly through the six chambers, while none followed him on account of a deadly terror that had seized upon all." The spectre and the Prince pass successively through the same series of rooms; but it takes the former fifty-one words to cover the distance, whereas it takes the latter only six.

In every story that is artistically fashioned, the methods of emphasis enumerated in this chapter will be found to be continually applied. Its essential features will be rendered prominent by position (terminal or initial), by pause, by proportion (direct or inverse), by iteration or parallelism, by antithesis, by climax, by surprise, by suspense, by imitative movement, or by a combination of any or all of these. The necessity of emphasis is ever present; the means of emphasis are simple; and any writer of narrative who knows his art will endeavor to employ them always to the best advantage.


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