This Week in My Classes: Fun with Fiction

In Close Reading we have finished our poetry unit (yay, say the students–no more scansion!) and been working on short stories. The basic idea is the same: our focus is on paying attention to the various ‘technical’ elements in them, to see how they work to support the effects and ideas of the stories overall. The process of picking out individual elements often feels somewhat artificial, but there’s also a useful discipline in it. Often, we work backwards from a general impression, of a character or scene, for instance, to figuring out how we got that impression. So far we’ve talked about point of view, narration, characterization, and setting. Because one of the guiding principles of the course is that it provides portable knowledge and skills, I’m having some fun bringing in illustrative examples from all kinds of books in addition to our officially ‘assigned’ reading. Here are some of the excerpts we considered as examples of different approaches to characterization:

Dorothea knew many passages of Pascal’s Pensées and of Jeremy Taylor by heart; and to her the destinies of mankind, seen by the light of Christianity, made the solicitudes of feminine fashion appear an occupation for Bedlam. She could not reconcile the anxieties of a spiritual life involving eternal consequences, with a keen interest in gimp and artificial protrusions of drapery. Her mind was theoretic, and yearned by its nature after some lofty conception of the world which might frankly include the parish of Tipton and her own rule of conduct there; she was enamoured of intensity and greatness, and rash in embracing whatever seemed to her to have those aspects; likely to seek martyrdom, to make retractions, and then to incur martyrdom after all in a quarter where she had not sought it.

He belonged to that class of men – vaguely unprepossessing, often bald, short, fat, clever – who were unaccountably attractive to women. Or he believed he was, and thinking seemed to make it so. And it helped that some women believed he was a genius in need of rescue. But the Michael Beard of this time was a man of narrowed mental condition, anhedonic, monothematic, stricken.

Macon wore a formal summer suit, his traveling suit—much more logical for traveling than jeans, he always said. Jeans had those hard, stiff seams and those rivets. Sarah wore a strapless terry beach dress. They might have been returning from two entirely different trips. Sarah had a tan but Macon didn’t. He was a tall, pale, gray-eyed man, with straight fair hair cut close to his head, and his skin was that thin kind that easily burns. He’d kept away from the sun during the middle part of every day.

 He had a great relish for feminine beauty; he was addicted to observing and analyzing it; and as regards this young lady’s face he made several observations. It was not at all insipid, but it was not exactly expressive; and though it was eminently delicate, Winterbourne mentally accused it – very forgivingly – of a want of finish. He thought it very possible that Master Randolph’s sister was a coquette; he was sure she had a spirit of her own; but in her bright, sweet, superficial little visage there was no mockery, no irony.

Dear Joan,

 I do hope I know you well enough to say this.

 I think you ought to forget about your leg. I believe that it is something psychological, psychosomatic, and it is very hard on Charles. It is bringing both him and you into ridicule and spoiling your lives.

 Do make a big try. Won’t you! Forget about your bodily aches and pains. Life is a wonderful thing, Joan. I have discovered this great fact in my work with the Dying.

 Your sincere friend,

   Eliza (Peabody)

We were talking about the role of description or exposition, speech (including thought) and action, external points of view, and what I called ‘accessories’–all the things on or around a character that help communicate who they are, from literal accessories to homes or occupations or hobbies or what books they are reading in a scene. I quoted David Lodge’s remark, from The Art of Fiction, that “all description in fiction is highly selective; its basic rhetorical technique is synecdoche, the part standing in for the whole”: that seems to me a helpful principle to keep in mind. It was interesting how much information we could glean from these small pieces, especially as nobody in the class had actually read any of the novels I took them from. I think (I hope!) they could see the point of the exercise, which was to help us realize how we know what we (think we) know when we’re reading along. Working on fiction in this way you always have to resist their tendency to get caught up in the plot, so using examples out of context, which might seem perverse in other contexts, is actually helpful in this particular course.

In Victorian Fiction we are nearly done with Great Expectations–already! One of the things I like to think about with this novel is the development of young Pip into the Pip who is morally capable of narrating the novel. One of the most moving chapters in the novel for me is Chapter 44, in which Pip first confronts Miss Havisham and Estella with his new knowledge of the real identity of his benefactor. He hasn’t yet moved all the way from confusion to compassion, but already he is working to make something right out of the wrongs he–and they–have done in pursuing their false ideas, and to restore some sense of love and forgiveness to their devastated lives. “You will get me out of your thoughts in a week,” says Estella as Pip, overcome with grief and horror, begs her not to throw herself away on the malignant Bentley Drummle. Pip’s response moves not only us, but also, against all expectation, Miss Havisham:

`Out of my thoughts! You are part of my existence, part of myself. You have been in every line I have ever read, since I first came here, the rough common boy whose poor heart you wounded even then. You have been in every prospect I have ever seen since — on the river, on the sails of the ships, on the marshes, in the clouds, in the light, in the darkness, in the wind, in the woods, in the sea, in the streets. You have been the embodiment of every graceful fancy that my mind has ever become acquainted with. The stones of which the strongest London buildings are made, are not more real, or more impossible to be displaced by your hands, than your presence and influence have been to me, there and everywhere, and will be. Estella, to the last hour of my life, you cannot choose but remain part of my character, part of the little good in me, part of the evil. But, in this separation I associate you only with the good, and I will faithfully hold you to that always, for you must have done me far more good than harm, let me feel now what sharp distress I may. O God bless you, God forgive you!’

In what of unhappiness I got these broken words out of myself, I don’t know. The rhapsody welled up within me, like blood from an inward wound, and gushed out. I held her hand to my lips some lingering moments, and so I left her. But ever afterwards, I remembered — and soon afterwards with stronger reason — that while Estella looked at me merely with incredulous wonder, the spectral figure of Miss Havisham, her hand still covering her heart, seemed all resolved into a ghastly stare of pity and remorse.

That ability to touch someone’s heart is fundamental to Dickens’s fiction, isn’t it? This moment makes an interesting comparison to the climactic encounter between Dorothea and Rosamond in Middlemarch, which also turns on an encounter with someone else’s ‘center of self’ and on the morally inspirational effect of generosity…and yet the scenes are arrived at so differently and belong in other ways to such different worlds.

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