Artistic Purity and the Rhetoric of Fiction
“Action, and tone, and gesture, the smile of the lover, the frown of the tyrant, the grimace of the buffoon,—all must be told [in the novel], for nothing can be shown. Thus, the very dialogue becomes mixed with the narration; for he must not only tell what the characters actually said, in which his task is the same as that of the dramatic author, but must also describe the tone, the look, the gesture, with which their speech was accompanied,—telling, in short, all which, in the drama, it becomes the province of the actor to express.”
—SIR WALTER SCOTT
“Authors like Thackeray, or Balzac, say, or H. G. Wells . . . are always telling the reader what happened instead of showing them the scene, telling them what to think of the characters rather than letting the reader judge for himself or letting the characters do the telling about one another. I like to distinguish between novelists that tell and those [like Henry James] that show.”
—JOSEPH WARREN BEACH
“The only law that binds the novelist throughout, whatever course he is pursuing, is the need to be consistent on some plan, to follow the principle he has adopted.”
“A novelist can shift his view point if it comes off, and it came off with Dickens and Tolstoy.”
Telling and Showing
AUTHORITATIVE “TELLING” IN EARLY NARRATION
One of the most obviously artificial devices of the storyteller is the trick of going beneath the surface of the action to obtain a reliable view of a character’s mind and heart. Whatever our ideas may be about the natural way to tell a story, artifice is unmistakably present whenever the author tells us what no one in so-called real life could possibly know. In life we never know anyone but ourselves by thoroughly reliable internal signs, and most of us achieve an all too partial view even of ourselves. It is in a way strange, then, that in literature from the very beginning we have been told motives directly and authoritatively without being forced to rely on those shaky inferences about other men which we cannot avoid in our own lives.
“There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job; and that man was perfect and upright, one that feared God, and eschewed evil.” With one stroke the unknown author has given us a kind of information never obtained about real people, even about our most intimate friends. Yet it is information that we must accept without question if we are to grasp the story that is to follow. In life if a friend confided his view that his
friend was “perfect and upright,” we would accept the information with qualifications imposed
by our knowledge of the speaker’s character or of the general fallibility of mankind. We could never trust even the most reliable of witnesses as completely as we trust the author of the opening statement about Job.
We move immediately in Job to two scenes presented with no privileged information whatever: Satan’s temptation of God and Job’s first losses and lamentations. But we conclude the first section with another judgment which no real event could provide for any observer: “In all this Job sinned not, nor charged God foolishly.” How do we know that Job sinned not? Who is to pronounce on such a question? Only God himself could know with certainty whether Job charged God foolishly. Yet the author pronounces judgment, and we accept his judgment without question.
It might at first appear that the author does not require us to rely on his unsupported word, since he gives us the testimonial of God himself, conversing with Satan, to confirm his view of Job’s moral perfection. And after Job has been pestered by his three friends and has given his own opinion about his experience, God is brought on stage again to confirm the truth of Job’s view. But clearly the reliability of God’s statements ultimately depends on the author himself; it is he who names God and assures us that this voice is truly His.
This form of artificial authority has been present in most narrative until recent times. Though Aristotle praises Homer for speaking in his own voice less than other poets, even Homer writes scarcely a page without some kind of direct clarification of motives, of expectations, and of the relative importance of events. And though the gods themselves are often unreliable, Homer—the Homer we
know—is not. What he tells us usually goes deeper and is more accurate than anything we are likely to learn about real people and events. In the opening lines of the Iliad
, for example, we are told, under the half-pretense of an invocation, precisely what the tale is to be about: “the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus and its devastation.”1
We are told directly that we are to care more about the Greeks than the Trojans. We are told that they were “heroes” with
“strong souls.” We are told that it was the will of Zeus that they should be “the delicate feasting of dogs.” And we learn that the particular conflict between Agamemnon, “the lord of men,” and “brilliant” Achilles was set on by Apollo. We could never be sure of any of this information in real life, yet we are sure as we move through the Iliad
with Homer constantly at our elbow, controlling rigorously our beliefs, our interests, and our sympathies. Though his commentary is generally brief and often disguised as simile, we learn from it the precise quality of every heart; we know who dies innocent and who guilty, who foolish and who wise. And we know, whenever there is any reason for us to know, what the characters are thinking: “the son of Tydeus pondered doubtfully /. . . . Three times in his heart and spirit he pondered turning . . .” (Book VIII, ll. 167–69).
In the Odyssey
Homer works in the same explicit and systematic way to keep our judgments straight. Though E. V. Rieu is no doubt correct in calling Homer an “impersonal” and “objective” author, in the sense that the life of the real Homer cannot be discovered in his work,2
Homer “intrudes” deliberately and obviously to insure that our judgment of the “heroic,” “resourceful,” “admirable,” “wise” Odysseus will be sufficiently favorable. “Yet all the gods were sorry for him, except Poseidon, who pursued the heroic Odysseus with relentless malice till the day when he reached his own country.”
Indeed, the major justification of the opening scene in the palace of Zeus is not as mere exposition of the facts of Odysseus’ plight. What Homer requires of us is sympathetic involvement in that plight, and Athene’s opening reply to Zeus provides authoritative judgment on what is to follow. “It is for Odysseus that my heart is wrung—the wise but unlucky Odysseus, who has been parted so long from all his friends and is pining on a lonely island far away in the middle of the seas.” To her accusation of neglect, Zeus replies, “How could I ever forget the admirable Odysseus? He is not
only the wisest man alive but has been the most generous in his offerings. . . . It is Poseidon . . . who is so implacable towards him. . . .”
When we come to Odysseus’ enemies, the poet again does not hesitate either to speak in his own person or to give divine testimony. Penelope’s suitors must look bad to us; Telemachus must be admired. Not only does Homer dwell on Athene’s approval of Telemachus, he lays on his own direct judgments with bright colors. The “insolent,” “swaggering,” and “ruffianly” suitors are contrasted to the “wise” (though almost helplessly young) Telemachus and the “good” Mentor. “Telemachus now showed his good judgment.” Mentor “showed his good will now by rising to admonish his compatriots.” We seldom encounter the suitors without some explicit attack by the poet: “This was their boastful way, though it was they who little guessed how matters really stood.” And whenever there might be some doubt about where a character stands, Homer sets us straight: “‘My Queen,’ replied Medon, who was by no means a villain. . . .” Hundreds of pages later, when Medon is spared from Odysseus’ slaughter, we can hardly be surprised.
The result of all this direct guidance, when it is joined with Athene’s divine attestation that the gods “have no quarrel” with Telemachus and have settled that he “shall come home safe,” is to leave us, as we enter upon Odysseus’ first adventure in Book Five, perfectly clear about what we should hope for and what fear; we are unambiguously sympathetic toward the heroes and contemptuous of the suitors. It need hardly be said that another poet, working with the same episodes but treating them from the suitors’ point of view, could easily have led us into the same adventures with radically different hopes and fears.3
Direct and authoritative rhetoric of the kind we have seen in Job and in Homer’s works has never completely disappeared from fiction. But as we all know, it is not what we are likely to find if we turn to a typical modern novel or short story.
Jim had a great trick that he used to play w’ile he was travelin’. For instance, he’d be ridin’ on a train and they’d come to some little
town like, well, like, we’ll say, like Benton. Jim would look out of the train window and read the signs on the stores.
For instance, they’d be a sign, “Henry Smith, Dry Goods.” Well, Jim would write down the name and the name of the town and when he got to wherever he was goin’ he’d mail back a postal card to Henry Smith at Benton and not sign no name to it, but he’d write on the card, well, somethin’ like “Ask your wife about that book agent that spent the afternoon last week,” or “Ask your Missus who kept her from gettin’ lonesome the last time you was in Carterville.” And he’d sign the card, “A Friend.”
Of course, he never knew what really come of none of these jokes, but he could picture what probably happened and that was enough. . . . Jim was a card.
Most readers of Lardner’s “Haircut” (1926) have recognized that Lardner’s opinion of Jim is radically different here from the speaker’s. But no one in the story has said so. Lardner is not present to say so, not, at least, in the sense that Homer is present in his epics. Like many other modern authors, he has effaced himself, renounced the privilege of direct intervention, retreated to the wings and left his characters to work out their own fates upon the stage.
In sleep she knew she was in her bed, but not the bed she had lain down in a few hours since, and the room was not the same but it was a room she had known somewhere. Her heart was a stone lying upon her breast outside of her; her pulses lagged and paused, and she knew that something strange was going to happen, even as the early morning winds were cool through the lattice. . . .
Now I must get up and go while they are all quiet. Where are my things? Things have a will of their own in this place and hide where they like. . . . Now what horse shall I borrow for this journey I do not mean to take? . . . Come now, Graylie, she said, taking the bridle, we must outrun Death and the Devil. . . .
The relation between author and spokesman is more complex here. Katherine Anne Porter’s Miranda (“Pale Horse, Pale Rider” ) cannot be simply classified, like Lardner’s barber, as morally and intellectually deficient; the ironies at work among character, author, and reader are considerably more difficult to describe. Yet the problem for the reader is essentially the same as in “Haircut.” The story is presented without comment, leaving the reader without the guidance of explicit evaluation.
Since Flaubert, many authors and critics have been convinced that “objective” or “impersonal” or “dramatic” modes of narration are naturally superior to any mode that allows for direct appearances by the author or his reliable spokesman. Sometimes, as we shall see in the next three chapters, the complex issues involved in this shift have been reduced to a convenient distinction between “showing,” which is artistic, and “telling,” which is inartistic. “I shall not tell
you anything,” says a fine young novelist in defense of his art. “I shall allow you to eavesdrop on my people, and sometimes they will tell the truth and sometimes they will lie, and you must determine for yourself when they are doing which. You do this every day. Your butcher says, ‘This is the best,’ and you reply, ‘That’s you saying it.’ Shall my people be less the captive of their desires than your butcher? I can show
much, but show only. . . . You will no more expect the novelist to tell you precisely how
something is said than you will expect him to stand by your chair and hold your book.”4
But the changed attitudes toward the author’s voice in fiction raise problems that go far deeper than this simplified version of point of view would suggest. Percy Lubbock taught us forty years ago to believe that “the art of fiction does not begin until the novelist thinks of his story as a matter to be shown
, to be so exhibited that it will tell itself.”5
He may have been in some sense right—but to say so raises more questions than it answers.
Why is it that an episode “told” by Fielding can strike us as more fully realized than many of the scenes scrupulously “shown” by imitators of James or Hemingway? Why does some authorial commentary ruin the work in which it occurs, while the prolonged commentary of Tristram Shandy
can still enthral us? What, after all, does an author do when he “intrudes” to “tell” us something about his story? Such questions force us to consider closely what happens when an author engages a reader fully with a work of fiction; they lead us to a view of fictional technique which necessarily
goes far beyond the reductions that we have sometimes accepted under the concept of “point of view.”
TWO STORIES FROM THE “DECAMERON”
Our task will be simpler if we begin with some stories written long before anyone worried very much about cleaning out the rhetorical impurities from the house of fiction. The stories in Boccaccio’s Decameron, for example, seem extremely simple—perhaps even simple-minded and inept—if we ask of them the questions which many modern stories invite us to ask. It is bad enough that the characters are what we call two-dimensional, with no revealed depths of any kind; what is much worse, the “point of view” of the narrator shifts among them with a total disregard for the kind of technical focus or consistency generally admired today. But if we read these stories in their own terms, we soon discover a splendid and complex skill underlying the simplicity of the effect.
The material of the ninth story of the fifth day is in itself conventional and shallow indeed. There was once a young lover, Federigo, who impoverished himself courting a chaste married woman, Monna Giovanna. Rejected, he withdrew to a life of poverty, with only a beloved falcon remaining of all his former possessions. The woman’s husband died. Her son, who had grown fond of Federigo’s falcon, became seriously ill and asked Monna to obtain the falcon for his comfort. She reluctantly went to Federigo to request the falcon. Federigo was overwhelmed with excitement by her visit, and he was determined, in spite of his poverty, to entertain her properly. But his cupboard was bare, so he killed the falcon and served it to her. They discovered their misunderstanding, and the mother returned empty-handed to her boy, who soon died. But the childless widow, impressed by Federigo’s generous gesture in offering his falcon, chose him for her second husband.
Such a story, reduced in this way to a bare outline, could have been made into any number of fully realized plots with radically different effects. It could have been a farce, stressing Federigo’s foolish extravagance, his ridiculous antics in trying to think of something to serve his beloved fo...