W. T. (William Tenney) Brewster.

English composition and style; a handbook for college students online

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study and have been crowded into classifications. Fiction is
called realistic or romantic, according as it tends to follow facts
and " hold the mirror up to nature," or attempts to produce
pictures of a life more in accord with beauty than reality.
Further, fiction hunts in many other couples, as the historical
novel and the contemporary novel, the novel of incident and
the novel of character, the novel of manners and the dramatic
novel, — which need not be explained here, and which indeed
merely indicate tendencies to which any particular novel may
or may not yield.

Elements of narration. Actually, amid all this diversity,
all narration, or in other words, any narrative, is likely to
possess certain elements, (i) It has some aim, object, or
purpose, which the tale of events succeeds more or less per-



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314 English Composition and Style

fectly in bringing out (2) There is action; things happen,
of whatever sort (3) These acts require actors of some de-
scription, and (4) they must happen in some place. These
elements are usually called purpose, plot, characters, and set-
ting, and, though all or any of them may be represented in
the most vague and sketchy way, an actual narrative could
hardly be written without them. These elements may be con-
sidered in some detail, since they furnish a convenient point
of departure for the discussion of the criteria, the structure,
and the technic of narrative writing.

Purpose. The chief purpose of narration is to tell what
has happened, — or is imagined to have happened, — and this
tale may exist for the amusement or edification of the writer as
well as of the reader. This fact it is well to recognize at the
start, since one may quite as well busy oneself with looking for
good material as with cultivating technic. Interesting events,
broadly speaking, are the sum and substance of narration; in
other words, no narrative is really good that does not present
interesting facts. Interesting facts are primarily what people
find to be interesting, but what is or ought to be interesting,
like criteria in word usage or in dietetics, is a matter of much
discussion. Hence various schools of historians and of novel-
ists have at different times arisen. These have maintained
through their own example, or by actual precept, that history
should be dramatically treated, as with Carlyle, or regarded
in an evolutionaiy spirit, as with Buckle, or as the critical ex-
amination of documents, as with many modem historians.
In like manner, we find Mr. Howells holding a brief for the
realistic novel and practically saying that nobody has any busi-
ness to be interested in any other kind,^ or the late £mile
Zola clinging to naturalism,* and other writers, like Scott*
and Stevenson,* defending romanticism both by precept and

1 Criticism and Fiction.

^Le roman ixperimental,

« Preface to The Fortunes of Nigel

^ A Humble Remonstrance and A Gossip on Romance,



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Narration 315

in practice. The truth of the matter is probably, that, to a
considerable degree, authors tell what interests themselves in
a manner not unnatural to themselves, and later frame these
natural preferences into theories of art, which may become
very influential and result in schools and literary movements.

Be that as it may, nearly all subjects for narration are inter-
esting either because they are unusual or because, though not
extraordinary, they appear in an unusual light. The un-
pardonable sins of narration are triteness and tediousriess.
Hence odd happenings, striking characters, exciting events, on
the one hand, are interesting, and, on the other, new inter-
pretations of fact or of personality. The reason why many
diaries and journals, news items in country papers, personals,
society news, and the like are uninteresting is because common-
place facts, ordinary happenings, daily routine, are unrelieved
by mental alertness, humor, or originality. That is the matter
with many accounts of mountain climbing, the passage of vaca-
tions, and various first adventures with wild animals, — espe-
cially where there is no personal affection to supply the lack
of animation in such narratives. Exception to this general
assertion will be found in certain kinds of stock narrative, like
the daily movement of business and finance, where the sole
interest lies in the information conveyed to special classes of
people.

Interesting events are evidently very numerous, as may be
seen from the following illustrations, which also serve to show
the truth of the general assertion that the unusual, either in
fact, in view, or in treatment, is the main thing in all narrative.
Unusual events are the stock in trade of miscellaneous news
items, which consist largely of drownings, burglaries, murders,
unexpected discoveries of wealth or notices of the lives of
great men, unusual books, and many other things out of the
humdrum. " What is going on," the subject of most news-
papers, though purporting to be a record of daily life, is
of course justified by reason of its being "news." The un-
usual is the substance of most detective stories, tales of ship-



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3i6 English Composition and Style

wreck, marooning, mystery. The unusual may be the new,
as in many books of travel and discovery, or the momentous,
as in narrative of war, of diplomacy, of politics, whether re-
counted in the daily press, or in more formal books. The art
of publication proceeds on the assumption that such things
will be interesting to the reader. So, too, with that large
series of stock events, — best represented in the narration of
athletics and of politics, in the daily press, and, in fiction, by
the stock love stories of novels, — ^ there is the fundamental
assumption that such. matters will be interesting: the former
because people's own interests and sympathies may be involved,
or because of unusual achievement; the latter by reason of
passing moments of elevation above the humdrum concerns of
life.

Original presentations and pictures of life, as well as
accidents and momentous events, are also the material for
narrative and for narrative of the most permanent kind. In-
teresting pictures of life, interesting opinions of life, interesting
personalities, all of which are the material for narration, are
usually presentable because, within certain limits of plausibil-
ity and human sympathy, they deal with unusual things.
Aside from the events, which might be repeated in different
form, the interest of originality and unusualness attaches itself
to the work of any great novelist. The broad romanticism
of Scott, the accentuated view of personality and events in
Dickens, the glorification of just sentiment in Thackeray, the
somewhat rigidly causative and tragic view of life in George
Eliot, the comic interpretations of Meredith, the fatalism of
Mr. Thomas Hardy, the intellectual peripatetic of Mr. Henry
James, the analysis and understanding of odd human types of
Mr. H. G. Wells, the romanticism of the commonplace of Mr.
Kipling, — these and many other matters illustrate narrative
of an interesting kind, interesting because it is fresh in fact
or outlook. One would not always wish to live in a world
dominated as are some of these worlds, but they are none the
less good narrative from the facts that they represent.



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Narration 317

The purpose of much narrative is the presentation of inter-
esting personalities. It is the essence of biography and autobi-
ography to tell the story of interesting and uncommon lives.
Gibbon, Mill, Darwin, Anthony TroUope, could have had no
possible excuse for writing about themselves except that they
led unusual and fruitful lives, and only on a corresponding
theory can we account for Johnson's Lives of the Poets, for
Plutarch, for Boswell's Johnson, for Lockhart's Scott, Trevel-
yan's Macaulay, and many other books, or for the graceful
obituary notices that occur from time to time in the daily
press. Interesting characters are the bone and marrow of
many of the best pieces of imaginative literature, as witness
the resplendent heroines of George Meredith, and the elderly
people of Balzap and Thackeray ; these last may be detestable
but they are seen with an original eye and are contributions to
the uncommon.

Whatever may be a writer's motives, — the making of
money, the desire to be entertaining, vain-glory, or what not, —
the purpose of narration is to recount real or imaginary
events that have never been told before, or to tell of old events
in such new guise that they shall be interesting. Evidently,
certain events may be regarded as more important than others
and certain methods of treatment more effectual than others,
or certain by-products more noteworthy than others, — some
of these matters will be spoken of later, — but the purpose
of narrative is as has been described.

Plot. The plot of a narrative is the course of the action or
the events. A news item, for example, may be very little
but plotj and, on the other hand, this plot or course of events,
may, as in certain novels, be of very slight importance.
Plot, as the term is ordinarily used, refers (i) to action of
any kind, and the novel with most plot, or the so-called " novel
of plot*' is merely that narrative in which many things hap-
pen. Plot also refers (2) to unified action tending toward one
end, and hence, to illustrate this meaning of the term, we
sometimes speak of under-plot, or sub-story, as in The Mer-



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3i8 English Composition and Style

chant of Venice, or we deny the possession of plot to such
narratives as Pickwick Papers and Middlemarch. It is per-
haps simplest not to dispute such a point, and to take refuge
in the general truth that there are many diflferent forms of
plot, — as the episodical, as with Dumas, the scant and simple,
as with Meredith's The Egoist, or Mr. James's The Sacred
Fount, or the rambling, as with Loma Doone, or the intricate
as with Fielding's Tom Jones, or the multiplied, as with Middle-^
march, or the well-knit, but occult, as in the best detective
stories.

Character. Though plot, in the sense of action, is indis-
pensable to narrative, and though happenings are the main
part of daily narrative, it is also largely true that all great
works of narrative art are interesting by reason of the people
that they present. This is also true of great drama. In
both narrative and drama, we usually remember far better the
personalities of the characters than the sequence of events;
and that is usually so with life. The point is so evident as to
need no illustration.

The term character as used in narrative, especially in fiction,
has three typical meanings, (i) Anything that acts, like Mr.
Kipling's garboard strakes and oo7*s, is character. (2)
Character is well-drawn character, as in the phrase " a good
character " where there may be no notion of moral worth, but
only of artistic vividness and verisimilitude. (3) The phrase
"a good character" may also mean a character of worth,
though artistically a horrible production, and this sense of
the term is seen in such phrases as " a great character," " a
pleasing character," etc. These distinctions would seem, to
be rather obvious, but failure to keep them in mind is the
cause of much disagreement in familiar criticism. Many
^wajf-fruitless discussions, as, for example, whether Aldus
Raebum, the hero of Marcella, is a better -character than Dr.
Primrose of the Vicar of Wakefield could be sharpened and
ended more briskly if such distinctions were kept in mind.

It is commonly said that the artist tells us more about peo-



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Narration 319

pie than we could perceive for ourselves, that he presents
their characters in a clearer light. That is certainly true of
the great character novels and plays, — Hamlet, Le Misan-
thrope, Tom Jones, The Antiquary, Vanity Fair, Euginie
Grandet, Anna KarSnina, The Portrait of a Lady, The Return
of the Native, The Egoist. Still, all that the narrative artist
has access to, in this careful selection of details to make his
point, is what anybody has access to: he is limited to the same
methods that are at the disposal of the most casual narrator.
After one has seen a character there are but four ways of
presenting it in narrative. The formal or expository ways
consist of (i) description of character, either by single
epithets and phrases or by long accounts, as with Scott, and
(2) of the exposition of the workings of the mind of the
character, a method very familiar to any reader of Balzac or
George Eliot. As of description the danger is too great
length, so of analysis the objection lies in digression and con-
fusion of method, of which more will be said later. Analysis
is evidently the result of observation of the more informal
natural and dramatic methods by which we become acquainted
with characters, and these last are represented in nar-
ration by (3) specific acts and (4) dialogue. Dickens made
emphatic use of these methods, as where Uriah Heep con-
tinually rubbed his hands, or in the oft-repeated assertion
of Mrs. Micawber " that she would never desert Mr. Micaw-
ber," who, with equal persistency, was "waiting for some-
thing to turn up.*'

If characters in narrative are not well drawn or if they fail
to be interesting and attractive, they are not likely to suc-
ceed. A well-drawn character is simply one that is clear in
outline, evident in motive, distinct from other characters.
Now it is customary in narrative to gain interest for char-
acter, not simply by the good presentation of interesting per-
sonalities, but by making them typify something. The moment
that a character can be taken to mean something besides itself
a type begins to form, and the character begins to be the repre-



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320 English Composition and Style

sentative of a class. Hence we find such phrases as American
Girl, College Girl, Shaksperean Heroine, — '' Gibson Girls,
Christy Girls, Gilbert Girls, Fisher Girls," — and many other
things. Characters may be so highly typified as to lose all
personality: this is the usual state in fables and allegories.
To make a character at once typical of a universal motive and
at the same time a personality is one of the very highest
achievements of narrative and dramatic writing: of this there
is no better example than Moliere's Le Tartufe. The vari-
ous ways of typifying actually used by different narrators is
an interesting study, — for example the typifying in Steven-
son of various forms of action, — but it need not detain us
here.

Setting. The locus of narrative may be implied, may be
left to the imagination under the stimulus of a few proper
names, or may be treated in various degrees of fullness.
Where incident turns on place, much careful description, as
in detective stories, is necessary, and many other narratives
call for much description. Over and above what is strictly
necessary, the narrative, as in the novels of Mr. Thomas
Hardy, may contain passages and descriptions of great beauty.
Many narratives of " prevailing mood " or *' atmosphere *'
consist largely of setting.

Structure and treatment of narrative. Interesting facts
are, as we have seen, the backbone of narration. Many tales,
anecdotes and novels do no more than present such facts ; at-
tractive details are, far more than structure or composition,
the charming thing in such novels as, say, Lorna Doone. But
a large part of the interest of much narrative lies in treat-
ment; for skilful handling will often supply the place, tem-
porarily, of valuable facts, though treatment alone, unaccom-
panied by valuable facts, has probably rarely resulted in great
and permanent literature. Treatment is, broadly speaking,
merely the means of keeping up the interest in, or adding to the
interest of, the material. How important treatment is may
be seen by reference to detective stories, where the main nar-



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Narration 321

rative effort is to keep the reader in a state of mystification
till the author, or his agent, the detective, is ready to clear
it away. Treatment may be regarded as method of composi-
tion or structure, and certain general considerations may now
be taken up.

Probably the best way of studying narrative structure is
to take any tale, story, or narrative whatsoever and isolate
(i) the opening situation and (2) the conclusion. The open-
ing situation might, to borrow a term from the drama, be
called the " exposition," or, to borrow one from logic, the
"premises." A convenient example is the opening of Poe's
tale. The Cask of Amontillado already quoted (p. 103) where
the premises, or opening assumptions are (i) that one man,
Fortunato, had injured and insulted another, Montresors, who
not unnaturally (2) vowed revenge. The method of this re-
venge was (3) to render the avenger immune from punish-
ment and (4) to visit upon the victim the full measure of
horror and feed the gratification of the avenger. It will be
observed of these premises that they are unusual, in that
human beings seldom think of schemes of revenge so firmly,
even if they entertain them at all. But it is also evident that
the premises or situation, though abnormal, are not unnatiu^al ;
they are wholly within the botmds of possibility. These
premises, these opening asstmiptions, are not extravagant.
The conclusion or denouement, is the walling up of Fortunato,
amid horrible mockery.

Between these points lies the story, or more properly the
narrative, and the structiu-al question is. How did Poe get
from his premises to his conclusion? that is to say. How did
he represent the four elements in the premises to be carried
into specific effect? It will be evident (i) that Montresors
has to make his preparations in the cavern -and the niche be-
forehand ; this is implied in the procession of events. He also
has (2) to dispose of possible witnesses; this is matter for
the specific opening situation on the night of the carnival.
He must also (3) arouse the enthusiasm of Fortunato; this



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322 English Composition and Style

he does by appealing to the vanity of the victim, — indeed the
assumption that the victim was vain of his connoisseurship
in wine might be regarded as a premise. He must also (4)
keep up the enthusiasm of Fortunato and bewilder him; this
is done by the successive potations. Finally (5) he must sur-
prise Fortunato and chain him before he is aware. Then
Montresors can reap the full measure of his conclusion.

Such may be regarded a good formula, for the critical ex-
amination of narrative, — after it has been once read for in-
formation or amusement. In the case of Poe's tale, it is
evident that the conclusion might have been very different:
Fortunato might have merely simulated drunkenness and have
overpowered Montresors, and the ending might have been
the 1 001 St injury and the second insult. Even so, the method
of analysis woiild be the same, — here is a premise, here a
conclusion; how does the narrator get from one to the other?
Evidently the connection is not logical, as in argumentation.
In fiction, the connection consists in anything, within the
limits of general plausibility and similitude to the beginning
and the ending, that the writer thinks will be interesting. In
narrative of actual events it consists of the facts that lead
from the terminus a quo to the terminus ad quem. In all
this, one must keep in mind the fact that, as has already been
said (p. 38), these two points, in both fact narrative and
in fiction, are isolated far more than is possible in that con-
tinuous flow of events that we call life.

The essential thing about narrative structure is that be-
tween these two points the narrative be kept moving. It may
move slowly as with the later novels of Mr. Henry James or
it may move rapidly, as with Poe, but it should move. It
may move very regularly, from one point of view, as with
Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice or by means of counter
stories which overlap, as with Scott's Ivanhoe or Stevenson's
Thd Wrecker and Treasure Island, or it may air itself by the
way, as with most of the novels of Thackeray, or display much
erudition, as with George Eliot, but in all cases it moves



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Narration 323

along, and, by whatever means, attempts to avoid tediousness,
— the results of the known, the obvious, the anticipated. It
may move with any one of the elements of narration chiefly
in view : if action is the main thing, as with Poe's story already
referred to, the beginning is a premise leading to action, and
the conclusion an active one. Novels of character, like Silas
Marner move from a character of one description to the same
character under new conditions or dominated by new ideas
and habits; here there is character development. In many
stories, on the other hand, characters are static from begin-
ning to end; they merely accumulate blessings or experience.
Many stories and novels, as well as narratives of actual fact,
move through a series of impressions ; of such Poe's The FaU
of the House of Usher is a stock example.

Aids to movement. Nearly all literary devices in narra-
tion may be regarded as aids in keeping up the movement,
or, in other words, of keeping the reader or hearer interested.
The case of the story teller is simple enough: if he sees that
his hearers are becoming weary, he will liven his detail, may
even digress, may, if he has not gained sufficient plausibility
for the story, introduce fresh and interesting details. Now
written narrative has to do all this by anticipation, by guess
as to what will be interesting, what will keep the tale agoing.
Aside from stock material and routine, certain principles of
composition are here applicable; they may be regarded with
relation to the matter in hand, and also as a means of increas-
ing the reader's attention.

Unity. Of the former class unity is important. Applied
to narration it means that any tale, anecdote, story, or novel,
should unmistakably be about something, be it large or small ;
that the material should have to do with one subject. Unity
in any narrative, either of fact or fiction, means that, be the
proportions what they may, the material should be on that
subject. There is also the thing known as "unity of im-
pression " whereby the narrative should convey one uniform
effect or one single effect. This kind of unity is more evi-



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324 English Composition and Style

dent in shorter pieces than in longer, for the reason that
unity of effect is probably measured by one's ability to «it still
with fixed attention. We have all had the experience of find-
ing the first half of a novel charming on one day, and the
latter half detestable on the next ; though no critical examina-
tion could show any real difference. In any event, imity may
come from various sources — facts, character, effects, and
what not.

A word might be said, at this point, of the sequestration
of unity as the special property of that much-studied and
talked-about modem form, the short story, often so-called the
" short-story." Much that has been said on the subject is
very interesting and stimulating, but, from a strictly scientific
point of view, much might have been left unsaid. For, ex-
cept in point of length, — the short story being somewhere
between a novel and an anecdote, — it is very difiicult to see
why many of the distinguishing marks claimed for the short
story — as unity, imagination, etc., — would not apply to any
well-made narrative. There is no particular reason why cer-
tain famous and oft-cited examples of the short story could
not have been put differently or have served subordinate
functions in longer works. Poe could have run on indefinitely
in The Fall of the House of Usher, Hale's A Man Without
a Country could be readily filled out into a longer story with
excellent unity had the author so desired; Markheim by
Stevenson, standing just as it is, would make an excellent
concluding chapter for a novel. A hundred other instances
will occur to the reader. The truth of the matter is that
certain critics, probably beginning with Poe, have elected to
speak of certain well-told tales as if they constituted a new
form. To these well-told tales the name " short-story " has
recently been applied, — the real distinction being that, of tales
not too long for one comfortable reading and not so short



Online LibraryW. T. (William Tenney) BrewsterEnglish composition and style; a handbook for college students → online text (page 28 of 43)