Wednesday, November 20, 2013
Hardy, Dickens and Deconstructing the Character-Driven Novel
that the pursuit of one such strategy precludes the utilization of the other.
Whether from ignorance of particular literary theory, or a stubborn persistence in my own particular perspective (which tends to fluid inclusion, spanning and encompassing genres, rather than rigid categorization) I cannot say. It might simply be a reiteration of what is already blatantly apparent - that novels are more complex creatures that refuse to obediently conform to prescribed perimeters; a vibrantly-hued Jack-in-the-box that will not be contained. Across the lid of this literary box wherein Jack is wedged is transcribed the phrase (in grandiose letters) - 'Character-driven' or 'Action-driven.' The larger the box, the broader the categorical brush, the more inclusive the members, and the less useful such distinctions become. Frequently encountering this fundamental polarization between action-propelled novels or those in which characters sit firmly behind the literary wheel, I ponder upon its validity. Perhaps it would behoove me (before discarding the notion entirely) to deconstruct the particular attributes that define a literary work as one or the other.
The assumption is that these proposed dichotomies are representative of all narrative works, that each novel can and must be placed in one box or another. Unlike the gregarious wanderings of subatomic particles (which can occupy not just two locations but an infinite number simultaneously), the slimmest of novels must (or so it seems) be definitively defined according to one or the other. Choose your box.
Perhaps the underlying notion is that within a given novel the thematic threads of action or character comprise the structural integrity of the given literary work. When one peels away the location and its associated atmospherics, the attendant details, the extraneous threads, what lies at the heart of the novel? What element can a reader, intent on some nefarious dissection, remove without compromising the integrity of the whole (assuming for arguments sake that such a thing can indeed be done)? What provides the quintessential foundations for each particular work? What serves to fundamentally propel the narrative onward? What, if the vehicular analogy can be strained a little further, fuels the literary engine? Can it indeed be such a simplistic reduction of two?
I have, these past months, been revisiting an old friend - Thomas Hardy; and particularly several of his lesser known novels The Woodlanders, and The Laodicean. Like Charles Dickens, his works were serialized; segmented pieces published monthly by Harpers Bazaar among others. Both authors penned novels peopled with profound fictional personalities, their works (as far as I am aware) falling decisively into the 'character-driven' category. I wonder if this form of installment publication lends itself more readily to character-rich narratives. In Dickens' initial segment of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, one is thrust into the grim darkness of Jasper's opium-induced dreams, encounters the complacently-gullible Edwin and is left with the whimsical girlishness of Rosa; these powerfully-rendered characters, accompanied by the fastidious Mrs Twinkleton and the eccentric Mr Durdles, are the gleam and glimmer that light the way; it is these fictional individuals that loom large in the imagination, that engage and enthrall the readership while it waits impatiently for the next monthly installment. Besides the obvious difference in reading-habits between contemporary readers and those of the early nineteenth century, I do not believe that a novel devoid of such engaging fictional characters would have survived the monthly-publication interim.
In the opening of Hardy's Woodlanders, serialized in Macmillan's Magazine, Grace Melbury returns from a genteel urban academy to the rustic simplicity of Little Hintock and the quiet attentions of the taciturn Giles Winterbourne; the early chapter depicts the latter awkwardly awaiting Grace's arrival at the marketplace, his apple tree sapling beside him, eyes on the dirt, a man of the turf and hillock who possesses an intuitive understanding of the natural world but easily bewildered by the feminine one. And she! She is a 'flexible young creature...coming on tiptoe through the mud...and she held out to him a hand graduating from pink at the tips of the fingers to white at the palm.' Again, as in Edwin Drood the contrast is delightfully apparent from the onset - this moment of awkward reunion encapsulates the dilemma that will plague Grace for chapters to come - how to reconcile her acquired urban polish with the woodland rusticity of her youth, of which Giles is a part.
Implicit in this dichotomy of character-propelled novels versus those relying upon action to power forward momentum, is the notion that they are mutually exclusive. Action or character and never the twain shall meet. I defy any readers to proclaim Les Miserables lacking in dramatic dash and physicality, or to find its deficit in The Mystery of Edwn Drood (a taut page-turner, by Dickensian standards, fraught with dark intrigue). The turmoil, when it comes, is all the more dramatic for our utter engagement in the characters who comprise a part of it; no languid sighs here, nor long-winded melancholy perambulations, but action enough to bring the heart to a heated fever, to quicken the breath, send eyes anxiously scanning the page ahead - Does he die? What happens next??? The evoked anxiety of the reader exists in direct proportion to their degree of identification with the characters who are thus beset; Valjean's flight through the murk and mire of subterranean sewers, the desperate retreat of Rosa with the malevolent Jasper on her heels in Edwin Drood. So it is not necessarily so that the action of these 'character-driven' novels is of the subtler sort, or that it is confined to emotional entanglements rather than physical combativeness.
Perhaps the 'action', in these novels, actually encompasses a broader canvas; defined not only in terms of the ongoing physical momentum of events, but also supplemented by the internal ruminations and angst of a poignantly-drawn, complex character. The action of intent and motivation. In the conventional form of an 'action-driven' novel, I understand this means essentially and specifically a sequence of action-packed scenarios - much as one would expect to see in a modern Bond film - with the daring hero proceeding from one life-threatening engagement to another, with looming conflict and the desperate attempt to overcome it, being a central theme. Perhaps in these novels the dramatic plot sequence forms the primary structure of the novel itself, with characters formulated but essentially secondary to the maelstrom through which they are propelled. It is not that the characters are two-dimensional, as much as their particular roles within the narrative could be fulfilled by a certain, relatively generic type; authorial time and attention being bestowed on dramatic sequences that ideally enthrall a reader eager to escape quotidian demands. I do not mean to say that these novels are less enjoyable, or less worthy than their more literary counterparts - I merely wonder as to the accuracy of such polarizations in their interpretation. Perhaps the allocation of 'action-driven' for these novels is in fact quite appropriate, if it did not imply a dearth thereof in 'character-driven' works.
Within literary landscapes (such as those evoked by Hardy and Dickens) where plot progression cannot be imagined sans the complex creatures drawn with much authorial forethought (no generic hero-type will do) the action is just as prevalent but broadens to encompass a wider range of dramatic eventualities; not only the pant and grunt of physical struggle, but the mental agonies of Somerset as he yearns after the coolly reserved Paula in The Laodicean, or the ferocious malignity of Jasper in the quiet school garden in the Mystery of Edwin Drood, or the final death-scene of Giles Winterbourne gasping out his last in the dilapidated home he had relinquished (at the cost of his own life) for his Grace, even when she was no longer his own. To my mind, this is action of a much more powerful sort.
I do not think it is entirely a matter of length either - of spatial emphasis within the novel to one or the other; side-characters that populate Dickensian narratives are deftly portrayed with a minimum of pen-strokes. The disquieting Princess Puffer of Edwin Drood is portrayed within a few short paragraphs in the opening chapter, and despite her later reappearances within the novel, she is little-enlarged upon but remains a vividly memorable character within the Dickensian compendium. The unscrupulous Dare of The Laodicean is most indelibly portrayed via his laconic encounters with Captain De Stancy, where a brief dialogue serves the turn, or a glimpse into the mental machinations as he devises schemes to libel and undermine Somerset in his pursuit of Paula. There is no lengthy exposition of his character, or his background, but instead he is immersed within the ensuing action, his aspect vividly apparent in conversational asides. There is scarce narrative space devoted to these supporting cast members but they are indubitably critical in the rendering of each imaginative world, and give credence and incentive to the ensuing action.
Some advocating this polarization of action versus character writers even go so far as to ascribe a neural predisposition towards one kind of writing or another - not only are there novels propelled, with some degree of exclusivity, by action and others by characters, but each are produced by authors who depend upon, and utilize, one side of their brain in preference to the other. This implies a level of biological predeterminism, but one that is, I feel, negated by authorial choice - either one wishes to focus primarily on a thrilling escapade, complete with villain and hero counterparts, a rollicking narrative entertainment which many readers enjoy; or they wish to convey fictional individuals that are more than the sum of their parts, characters that transcend the page, and whose actions (subtle, mental and otherwise) impel the forward momentum of the novel. They are not opposite ends of the spectrum, nor does one necessarily exist independently of the other - character-novels are hardly devoid of action, and there are indubitably works of escalating action that contain characters both luminescent and memorable (I found Stephen King's characterization via dialogue - from the admittedly few novels of his which I have read and those some time ago - quite superb).
Perhaps, as in many things, it is in the extreme reductionism where the error lies; it seems imbued with a simplicity which finds little correlation in the complexities of any given literary endeavor. I do not mean to say that any writer can simply select his or her preferred modus operandi and blithely proceed with one kind of novel or another. A writer conveys in words that which is within, the giving of voice to an internal compulsion, the narrative colored by their own particular vision, one that itself evolves and morphs with passing years. There are writers of all literary tint and hue, catering to an audience just as diverse; but each of us shares the restless imperative to self-transcribe the palpitating adventure that thrums in our blood and resounds in the beat of our heart. It is not to say an action-writer cannot delve into a character-compelled narrative, and vice versa, or even that one exists in isolation of the other, but it is a question, perhaps, of authorial motivation. Rather than isolating specifics that drive the plotline, perhaps instead we should make reference to what compels the writer behind the pen.