Posts Tagged ‘The Age of Innocence’

Losing the plot

There are certain words we use frequently, quite sure that we know what they mean, but then tie ourselves up in knots when asked to define them. “Tune” for instance. We all know what a “tune” is. Which of us has not hummed along to one? And yet, when we come to define it, we flounder. The best I can think of is something along the lines of:

“A sequence of pitches, with each element of that sequence lasting for a specified duration, and with a different level of stress applied to each.”

Not very elegantly phrased, I agree, but I think that should cover just about everything we may recognise as a tune. Problem is that it applies to a whole lot of things also that we wouldn’t recognise as a tune. If I were to, say, play a random sequence of notes on a piano, that too, according to my definition, must be counted a tune, but I doubt anyone would recognise it as such. No doubt musicologists have very refined and sophisticated definitions of what constitutes “melody”, but, speaking as a layman, although I am sure I know what the word means, I cannot even begin to articulate what it is.

I have the same difficulty when it comes to fiction: what is “plot”? Once again, I think I know what the word means. Tom Jones has a plot, and Tristram Shandy doesn’t; The Age of Innocence has a plot, but To the Lighthouse doesn’t. But once again, I don’t know how to define it. The best I can think of is “a sequence of incidents, each related to the others”. But of course, that would cover Tristram Shandy and To the Lighthouse as well as it does Tom Jones or The Age of Innocence. I’d hazard a guess that it might even cover Finnegans Wake. Indeed, I am not at all sure it’s possible to write fiction without incidents of some form or other. But as with “tune” or “melody”, this definition does not cover what we mean when we speak of “plot”. We do use the term merely to describe a sequence of related incidents. But what we actually mean by it, I really don’t think I can articulate.

All this makes it difficult to write about such matters. Possibly it’s my scientific background that makes me feel very uneasy when terms are discussed and debated that have not been defined. When we talk about fiction, we speak all the time of “plot”. But what do we mean?

This lack of definition of “plot” is the first thing – though by no means the only thing – that worried me about this recent article by Tim Lott. For those unwilling to click on links, let me summarise as best I can what I think it says. Mr Lott first refers to a recent report by the Arts Council that tells us sales of literary fiction have declined sharply in Britain; he then rejects the idea that literary authors ought to be subsidised, and proposes instead that they write “better books”. By which he means that they should focus more on plot. For to neglect plot is, he thinks, poor craftsmanship.

(I may have misinterpreted Mr Lott, or I may be caricaturing what he is saying. If so, both misinterpretation and caricature are unintentional. But I have at least provided a link to the article, so curious readers may easily satisfy themselves on this point.)

Quite apart from the lack of definition of “plot”, there is also another term that Mr Lott uses quite freely, and which, I believe, the Arts Council report to which he refers also uses quite freely; but which, too, is undefined: “literary fiction”. While I think I know what “plot” is, even without a working definition, I honestly have no idea what “literary fiction” means. Presumably it is some category of fiction – a genre; but genres are defined by content: horror, thriller, romance, western, science fiction, fantasy, erotica – all of these and more are defined by the nature of the content. But is there any element of the content of a work of fiction that defines it as “literary”?

The only reasonable definition of “literary fiction” I can think of is “fiction that has, or aspires to have, literary qualities”. This is not, I agree, a very good definition, as it raises, but leaves unanswered, the question of what we mean by “literary quality”, but I don’t think I can be taken to task for not providing a good watertight definition of a term when the term itself is not mine, and not one I would ever think of using. But if “literary fiction” is indeed fiction that has, or aspires to having, literary qualities (however we define them), then “literary fiction” seems to me to be about as meaningful as “artistic art”, or “musical music”.

And then, “better books”. By which Mr Lott means “books with more plot”. And his implication that the stronger the element of plot, the greater the craftsmanship. I was going to write a refutation of these assertions, but now I come to it, I really don’t think it’s worthwhile: it’s hardly difficult to find a great many very prominent counter-examples in literary history.

Now, we are not talking here about the opinions of some bloke from down the pub: Tim Lott is an eminent author, and teaches postgraduate students in possibly the most prestigious creative writing course in Britain. And I find it profoundly depressing to see someone in so eminent a position saying such things.

It is not to denigrate plot (and let us not get too worried here about the definition) to say that fiction lacking plot can be of an extremely high quality, and require a very high degree of craftsmanship. For instance, The Count of Monte Cristo, say, has, I think, an extremely good plot. Actually, it has very many good plots, all intertwined together with a breathtaking skill and panache; and it maintains our interest over a thousand and more pages almost entirely by maintaining narrative tension – by keeping the reader in suspense over the questions of what happens next, or what has happened in the past that is yet to be revealed. It is a magnificent achievement. On the other hand, Ulysses, though not lacking in incident (as I said earlier, I don’t think it is possible to conceive of fiction that lacks incident), is lacking in what we normally think of as plot. Going by Mr Lott’s equating of plot with craftsmanship, it should follow that Ulysses, compared to The Count of Monte Cristo, say, is lacking in craftsmanship – a sentiment so self-evidently absurd that Mr Lott himself would, I am sure, be happy to distance himself from it.

Even when plot exists, I am not too sure that it is necessarily of primary importance. Middlemarch, say, is not short of plot: there are two main, intertwining plotlines, with many subsidiary plots hanging off them. One of these plotlines involves hidden crimes in the past, blackmail, manslaughter (possibly even murder!), public scandal … in short, incidents often sensational in nature. But does anyone actually read Middlemarch for the plot? Is “What happens next?” the main concern that keeps the reader turning the pages?

In novels such as, say, Conrad’s Nostromo, we actually do have a good plot. If all the events were arranged in chronological order, then we would have a thrilling tale of hidden silver, torture, revolution, etc. But Conrad takes this plot, turns it inside out, fragments it, displays only some of the fragments to us (out of chronological order) – indeed, does everything he can think of to take the reader’s attention away from the plot. Faulkner does something similar: Absalom, Absalom!, if written in a conventional manner, would be a vast family saga encompassing the American Civil War, and would no doubt have been the basis of a Hollywood epic to rival Gone With the Wind. But, as with Conrad, Faulkner fragments the plot and gives us some of those fragments (often narrated by unreliable sources) out of sequence; he also writes it in a prose so idiosyncratically convoluted that it’s only the most determined of readers who can last for more than a few pages. So apparently uninterested were Conrad and Faulkner in the plot that even when they had good ones, they effectively smashed it to bits.

And there’s Chandler, whom I find a particularly interesting case. He was definitely writing “genre fiction” – the detective story; and the genre he wrote in is one that generally demands good plotting. Yet, it seems to me that Chandler relegates the plot to the background – not by not having enough of it, but by having too much of it. There are so many plot elements, and they are so very intricate, that, after a while, the reader – well, this reader at least – finds it impossible to keep track of it all. And the strange thing is that it doesn’t matter. Even when I can follow no more than a very rough outline of the plot, I find it all enthralling. Once again, the plot is there, but relegated away from the principal focus of interest.

None of this is to denigrate the plot. However one defines it, it is a tremendous skill to plot well. But to assert that plotting makes for “better books”; or that plotting is indicative of superior craftsmanship; strikes me as so self-evidently absurd, that I wonder whether Mr Lott himself would care to stand by the conclusions they lead us to.

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“The Age of Innocence” by Edith Wharton

*** SPOILER WARNING: Please note that although the following does not focus on the plot of the novel, some elements of the plot are inevitably revealed. ***

 

First of all, the title. Wikipedia tells me that the title is ironic. Perhaps. But if so, it is a rather unsubtle and heavy-handed irony, and somewhat at odds with the subtlety and lightness of touch that are apparent in the novel itself. The title of Wharton’s earlier novel, The House of Mirth, had certainly been intended ironically, but that was very caustic in tone, almost bitter and angry; this, on the other hand, is far gentler, and far more genteel in its manners. So let us, for the moment at least, take the title at face value: let us assume that Wharton is, indeed, depicting an Age of Innocence.

But whose innocence? The two principal characters, Wayland Archer and Ellen Olenska, though both relatively relatively young, are not in the first flush of youth; and neither are they sexually inexperienced. These do not preclude innocence, of course, but if Wharton intends the “innocence” of the title to apply to these two principal characters, then we must look beyond what is seen merely on the surface.

Or perhaps the “innocence” applies to May Welland, Wayland’s fiancée and subsequently his wife. This is possibly more likely, as she really is, at the start of the novel, very young, and inexperienced. However, despite being one of the major participants in the drama, she is rarely allowed to occupy centre-stage, and she plays a quite shadowy (though intriguing) role throughout. One should not rule her out, though: her role, though shadowy, proves vitally important; and throughout the novel, despite her youth and experience, she embodies all the values most prized by the society these characters inhabit: formality, decorousness, correctness. And if the innocence of the title applies to her, it applies also to the society that she and her powerful family represent. And perhaps this isn’t intended ironically either.

The society Wharton depicts is the same society she had depicted earlier in The House of Mirth – the aristocracy of East Coast America, some time late in the 19th century. In the earlier novel, Wharton’s depiction had been quite acrimonious: there’s a sense almost of anger in her portrayal of the various cruelties and hypocricies of a society that, for all its formal and decorous surfaces, heartlessly crushes and destroys the novel’s tragic heroine Lily Bart. However, that earlier novel had been published in 1905; The Age of Innocence, on the other hand, was published in 1920, on the other side of the Great War, when all the old certainties seemed precariously balanced on the edge of extinction, and all values – moral, social, aesthetic – seemed in danger of being turned upside-down. Under the circumstances, it was perhaps not unreasonable to see what had gone before, for all its manifold shortcomings, as being, indeed, an “age of innocence”.

The plot itself is fairly straight-forward: one may go so far as to call it a “standard plot”, ready-made and off-the-shelf. A man, no longer very young but not yet middle-aged, is engaged to a younger woman who is innocent and virginal; but he falls for a more experienced woman who is closer to his age, and a passion develops; and it all ends unhappily. This is the blueprint for any number of Turgenev stories. Indeed, there is more than a whiff of Turgenev to all the proceedings, right down to a nostalgic and regretful epilogue that takes place many years after the main events. And we cannot help but ask ourselves what Wharton was thinking of, at the very time when modernism was on the ascendency and the air was suffused with the excitement of the new, writing a novel of a kind that could very easily have been written some sixty or seventy years earlier. Was it a mere act of defiance, a mere extolling of the values of the past, aesthetic and moral, in the face of their likely demise?

I think that is certainly the case, but only partly. Wharton’s aesthetics and morals were, I think, by nature conservative, but not blindly so. The society she depicts here is still a society of cruelty and hypocrisy: it still values outward show and formality higher than emotional needs, and stability above individual fulfilment. And if someone’s individual needs threaten this stability, then they are crushed. Wharton is still very much aware of all this. At the centre of this novel, after all, is a profoundly sad love story: the love, which grows into a passion, is never consummated, and the two lovers end up apart from each other, living out lives that are empty and hollow. All this Wharton knows; and, what is more, she is sympathetic. And yet, the society which could do all this, the age in which all this could happen, where the turbulence of the inner life is drained to maintain the unruffled nature of the surface, are still, Wharton seems to insist without irony, an innocent society, an innocent age. Social stability may indeed come at a great cost, but at a time when everything seemed up in the air, and the world itself seemed on the verge of turning upside-down, this stability, though dearly purchased, is not something to be easily dismissed.

And if this society is itself essentially innocent, then its representative in this novel (in the sense that it is she who acts to maintain society’s values), May Welland, is also innocent. But this innocence is more complex than it may at first sight appear to the reader. It is certainly more complex than it appears to Newland, who becomes her husband: towards the end of the novel, he is taken by surprise on hearing that, shortly before her death, she had told their son that he could rely on his father, as his father had already made the greatest sacrifice for the sake of his family. In other words, she had known what her husband had felt about Ellen Olenska: she had known the extent of his passion for her, and how much his sacrifice had cost him. And if this knowledge had occasioned in her grief and pain, both had been hidden so perfectly, that not even her own husband had noticed. The external surfaces must, at all costs, remain unruffled: and if her husband has to deny his passion towards this end, May has to deny her injury.

We also cannot help wondering whether Wayland had also underestimated her earlier. During their engagement, she had suggested postponing the marriage, so as to give her fiancé the opportunity to change his mind, should he so wish. Wayland had assumed that May had been thinking of a former flame of his, and he had no worries on that score. But, given how badly he had mistaken May throughout his long marriage to her, it seems likely, in retrospect, that he had mistaken her in this also – that, in truth, May had known all along, possibly earlier than he had done himself, of the true nature of his feelings for Ellen. May, for all her innocence, plays her hand perfectly, much as Maggie Verver plays her hand in Henry James’ The Golden Bowl: May tells Ellen that she is pregnant before she is sure of the fact, and, in effect, packs Ellen off, leaving Wayland for herself. May is utterly victorious. We may ask whether she is happy, or emotionally fulfilled by her victory: perhaps not. It is hard to discern what emotional fulfilment there can be when one is married to someone who, one knows, is deeply in love with someone else. But to May, as to the powerful society family she comes from, social norms and formalities, social stability, all take precedence over mere individual fulfilment. And if Wayland has to sacrifice his inner self to this end, so does she. And all of this, Wharton insists, is indeed innocence.

May Welland is rarely in the forefront of the novel, but the more I think about this, the more important her role appears to be. Shadowy though her presence is, it is her actions in the background that determine the outcome. The novel may be read simply as a sad love story; and as such, it is as exquisite as anything by Turgenev. But while it portrays unfulfilled lives with great sympathy, it also raises, it seems to me, uncomfortable questions on whether the price to be paid for personal fulfilment is a price that is worth paying. The gentleness and, indeed, the gentility of the writing cover matters considerably more disturbing.