Near the beginning of Women in Love, D.H. Lawrence presents this extraordinary incident:
“The Fool,” cried Ursula loudly, “Why doesn’t he ride away until it’s gone by?”
Gudrun was looking at him with black-dilated, spellbound eyes. But he sat glistening and obstinate, forcing the wheeling mare, which spun and swerved like a wind, and yet could not get out of the grasp of his will, nor escape from the mad clamour of terror that resounded through her as the truck thumped slowly, heavily, horrifying, one after the other, one pursuing the other, over the rails of the crossing.
The locomotive, as if wanting to see what could be done, put on the brakes, and back came the trucks, rebounding on the iron buffers, striking like horrible cymbals, clashing nearer and nearer in frightful strident concussions. The mare opened her mouth and rose slowly, as if lifted up on a wind of terror. Then suddenly her forefeet struck out, as she convulsed herself utterly away from the horror. Back she went, and the two girls clung to each other, feeling she must fall backwards on top of him. But he leaned forward, his face shining with fixed amusement, and at last he brought her down, sank her down, and was bearing her back to the mark. But as strong as the pressure of his compulsion was the repulsion of her utter terror, throwing her back away from the railway, so that she spun round and round on two legs, as if she were in the centre of some whirlwind. It made Gudrun faint with poignant dizziness, which seemed to penetrate her heart.
The rider is Gerald Crich, owner of the local coal mine and thoroughly modern early-twentieth-century captain of industry, who as I’m sure you know, comes to a chilly and tragic end. The passage is richly symbolic and in the context of the book it evokes and crystallizes one of the novel’s primary themes: the natural world assaulted by the lifeless mechanisms of greed. But like all good symbolic iconography, this image is flexible: it applies as easily to politics (I think of students in Tiananmen Square) or the arts (Remember when Dylan went electric?).
For me, it embodies the ongoing polarity of organic living narrative and the smoke-belching machinery of plot. This schism between natural behavior and authorial will haunts any writer of “carefully structured” stories. That sounds like a euphemism, and it is. Even the word ‘plot’ has become stigmatized in literary circles: literature as puppet show, with characters on strings.
So is there a place for plot in literature – as opposed to mere storytelling? To address this question I read Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel. This vibrant, funny and readable book takes a thorough and entertaining look at the genre, starting with the history of the novel, describing the twelve types of story the novel tells and finally analyzing a hundred different examples from The Tale of Genji to Atonement.
Comments like “In a novel length is always a promise, never a threat” assured me that we shared a common sensibility. Her first discussion of plot concerns The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle:
Each time I reread the novel, knowing the tricks and deceptions of the plot, I learned how the tricks and deceptions worked together logically. The novel had two stories – the story as it unfolded on the surface, and story of what had happened. The two stories had to mesh perfectly for Holmes’s recapitulation to be convincing, but the surface story had to hide the real story for the recapitulation to be interesting. Both stories had to bolster Holmes’s claim to special intellectual status … Watson could make claims for Holmes, but Conan Doyle had to depict Holmes in a way that made good on the claims, at least in the eyes of a twelve-year-old.
There is a ray of hope in that passage: plot can be used to delineate character, through action. Later on, in her discussion of Robinson Crusoe, Smiley delineates a revolutionary innovation that Daniel Defoe introduced in the book many consider to be the first real novel: the continuous, effortless shift between the events of the story and the characters’ reactions. This access to the inner life of characters brings the schematic outline to life.
Out of necessity, Crusoe approaches his world with investigative openness, and as a result of his investigations, his island become real, not at all phantasmagorical. In addition, “how to” in a novel always yields “who” – the manner in which a character goes about his task reveals his uniqueness. This is the most essential mark of narrative, for a very simple reason: the story must progress. Each idiosyncratic action progresses the story but at the same time distinguishes the protagonist not only from those around him (or her) but also from the reader and other individuals the reader knows or has read about. A novel cannot tarry too long with the meaning of events, because meaning is usually experienced as either revelation or instruction. Revelation is by nature momentary, and instruction is by nature not very entertaining. Beads of meaning, therefore, tend to be strung along a wire of actions. Thus individuality, meaning and action (which may coalesce more formally into plot) are inextricably mixed in the form of the novel and dissolved in the further idiosyncrasy of the narrative voice
I had a glimmer of this tonic synergy recently in rewriting my novel Owners. The plot had taken over – insidiously, as it always does. A central character’s role obscured his actual responses to the human truth of what was happening to him. It’s a kind of check-the-box thought process. The character has to find this out, and then he has to do such and such … but the real effect of the news gets lost in the mechanical details.
In the first draft of Owners, when housepainter Mike Henderson finds out that homeowner Preston Lomax’s plan will render him destitute, he more or less goes on about his plot-appointed business. But a brush with financial melt-down in my own life taught me the folly of this narrative choice: Mike would have done one thing and one thing only at that point: shamelessly and utterly freaked out. As I did, as anyone would. The interesting thing is that when I went back and incorporated this bit of human truth into the story, it supported and enriched the plot, bound the characters to their actions with a sturdier twine of authentic motivation and heart. I think Jane Smiley would have approved.
Elizabeth Bowen discusses the tension between character and plot in her essay On Writing a Novel, included in The Mulberry Tree, Writings of Elizabeth Bowen, edited by Hermione Lee.
Plot … cannot claim a single poetic licence. It must be reasoned – only from the moment its none-otherness, its only-possibleness has become apparent. Novelist must always have one foot, sheer circumstantiality, to stand on, whatever the other foot may be doing.(N.B. – Much to be learned from story telling to children. Much to be learned from the detective story – especially non-irrelevance ...
Interest of watching a dress that has been well packed unpacked from a dress box. Interest of watching a silk handkerchief drawn from a conjuror’s watch…
What about the statement, (in relation to PLOT) that ‘each character is created in order and only in order that he or she may supply the required action’? To begin with, strike out ‘created’. Better, the character is recognized (by the novelist) by the signs he or she gives of unique capacity to act in a certain way, which ‘certain way’ fulfills the needs of the plot.
This sounds practical and astute. Perhaps the two sides of this dichotomy can be resolved; perhaps that’s the point of writing the book in the first place.
Bowen makes a brief cameo appearance in the text of Ian McEwan’s sublime masterpiece Atonement; at least, she is referred to in a letter of rejection from Cyril Connolly (editor of the literary magazine Horizon) to the book’s protagonist, Briony Tallis:
In other words, rather than dwell for quite so long on the perceptions of each of these three figures , would it not be possible to set them before us with greater economy, still keeping some of the vivid writing about light and stone and water which you do so well – but then move on to create some tension, some light and shade within the narrative itself. Your most sophisticated readers might be well up on the latest Bergsonian theories of consciousness, but I’m sure they retain a childlike desire to be told a story, to be held in suspense, to know what happens …
Simply put, you need the backbone of a story. It may interest you to know that one of your avid readers was Mrs. Elizabeth Bowen. She picked up the bundle of typescript in an idle moment when passing through the office on her way to luncheon, asked to take it home to read and finished it that afternoon. Initially, she thought the prose “tool full, too cloying” but with ‘redeeming shades of Dusty Answer (which I wouldn’t have thought of at all). Then she was “hooked for a while” and finally gave us some notes which are, as it were, mulched into the above.
Of course McEwan idolizes Bowen and in both style and theme his book is a tribute to her. He may have the final word, at least for this essay, on the matter of character versus contraption. Briony Tallis spreads a senseless lie that ruins the lives of her sister Cecilia and her lover, Robbie Turner. Cecilia repudiates her family, Robbie goes to jail for ‘raping’ Briony; Briony becomes a writer. Her first attempt to describe these events is reviewed by the Cyril Connelly in passage above.
At the outbreak of World War II, Robbie is set free to join the army and winds up at Dunkirk. Briony becomes a nurse, tending to the war wounded. When she finds out that Cecilia and Robbie are living together, and that he is on leave, she seeks them out and makes her apology. This comes as a huge relief to the reader – a massive burden of guilt and sorrow shifted a little if not wholly removed.
But there are wrong notes in the text. There are errors of both fact and perception in the section that describes Robbie’s war-time experiences; precisely, one realizes later, as if they were being written by a young woman with no direct experience of battle. Then at the end of the healing reunion with her sister and brother-in-law, we find another ominous note sounded: this entire section is signed: “BT. London 1999.” This is baffling at first, particularly since it reflects a truth we are loathe to accept. But when Briony goes to a family reunion and neither Cecilia (who had apparently reconciled with the family) nor Robbie is there, the truth starts to reveal itself.
There was no reunion. There was no reconciliation.We have been reading Briony’s novel, rewritten into a masterpiece since the chastisements of Connelly and Bowen years before.
Let Briony explain it:
It is only in this last version that my lovers end well, standing stand by side on a south London pavement as I walk away. All the preceding drafts were pitiless. But now I can no longer think what purpose would be served if, say, I tried to persuade my reader, by direct or indirect means, that Robbie Turner died of septicemia at Bray Dunes on one June 1940, or that Cecelia was killed in September of that same year by the bomb that destroyed Balham underground station. That I never saw them in that year. That my walk across London ended at the church on Clapham Common, and that a cowardly Briony limped back to the hospital unable to confront her recently bereaved sister. That the letters the lovers wrote are in the archives of the War Museum. How could that constitute an ending? What sense or hope or satisfaction could a reader draw from that account? Who would want to believe that they never met again, never fulfilled their love? Who would want to believe that, except in the service of the bleakest realism? I couldn’t do it to them. I’m too old, too frightened, too much in love with the shred of life I have remaining. I face an incoming tide of forgetting, and then oblivion. I no longer possess the courage of my pessimism. When I am dead, when the Marshalls are dead, and the novel is finally published, we will only exist as my inventions. Briony will be as much of a fantasy as the lovers who shared a bed in Balham and enraged their landlady. No one will care what events and which individuals were misrepresented to make a novel. I know there’s always a certain kind of reader who will be compelled to ask, But what really happened? The answer is simple: the lovers survive and flourish. As long as there is a single copy, a solitary typescript of my final draft, then my spontaneous, fortuitous sister and her medical prince survive to love.
I must confess that these lines always bring me to tears, even now, as I laboriously copy them for this essay. Perhaps it’s because McEwan so passionately and precisely sums up the reasons why we read novels at all; and write them. To inhabit other lives, which seem as real (or more real) than our own; to redeem the world, to correct its cruelty, to atone for our sins.
Because in fact the lovers do flourish. All of this is made up, not by Briony but by McEwan and we can choose any conclusion we like from the narrative bouquet that the author offers us.
So then, here is an exquisite example of plot and character unified into a single onrushing narrative force and a ‘twist’ ending that recapitulates the very essence of the character we have come to love, the nature of her sins and the quality of her salvation.
So it can be done! I ought to feel a rush of hope and energy, but instead I feel strangely daunted. Of course it can be done – by Bowen, by McEwan.
Whether or not I will be able to manage this magic act, pull this scarf from the watch, keep the terrified mare on her feet as the trucks of causality and consequence rumble past … that remains to be seen.