The Analytic Method in Literature
by The Editor Company
As one can not set a trap to catch fame, so one can not by mere taking thought do much in literature. Personality, experience, inspiration are the great factors in genius. The glowing soul, the wide knowledge, the direct fire from heaven, these are an author's best equipment. But where these exist in some measure, they can be eked out and supported by the conscious work of the mind—by analysis, selection, adjustment of parts to the whole. It is precisely in the Greek virtues of clearness, proportion, design—and consequent effectiveness, that modern writers in general fail. They have genius enough, they have immense experience, but they simply tear out huge fragments from the life of the world and cast them down before us as completed works of art. Tolstoi's vast novel, "War and Peace," is not as effective as a single short Greek tragedy. The whole work of Zola is not as impressive and significant as one of Poe's brief tales. The fact that recent literature instinctively chooses the disorganized medley of prose as its medium of expression, rather than the disciplined array of verse, is evidence of its chaotic bent. What its chiefs try for, of course, is truth. They claim to give us in words the exact equivalent of human existence and the world. As if they could! As if a book of ten thousand pages could chronicle the minute facts of one man's life, let alone those of all the people with whom he comes in contact or the phenomena of the world which affect him. Selection there must be, and why then should not selection be consciously guided to make a work of art with meaning, significance, beauty and power. The high a priori road of logic, analysis, deduction, design will lead an author to these ends, provided, of course, he carry with him the passport of creative force.
Leaving out lyric poetry, which is primarily a pure gush of emotion, the contents of most works of literature may be considered under these heads:—Theme, plot, situations, characters, tone and style.
Theme is the totality of the thing to be expressed. Many pieces of literature are without any definite theme. All that we can say is that their theme is human life. This was practically the answer Goethe gave to the critics who bothered him about the subject of Wilhelm Meister. In other works, and these are perhaps the majority, two or more themes are woven or blended together.
The artist may not be conscious, or may be but vaguely conscious, what the theme is he is developing. Aeschylus may not have been aware that his Prometheus means the eternal rebellion of the free spirit against law, even beneficent law. Byron may not have known that his Childe Harold expressed much the same thing. However, whatever we find in a work of art belongs to the poet who put it there whether he intended it or not.
An artist, too, may begin determinately with one theme, and, by the wayward wind of genius, find it turning in his hands into another, perhaps a reverse one. There can be little doubt that Cervantes started out merely to ridicule books of chivalry in his Don Quixote, but being himself the greatest knight errant of the world his theme developed into a contrast between nobility and the vulgar. Milton announces his theme with a flourish of trumpets. He is going to justify the works of God to man—but in the end he comes near justifying the devil.
The use of a theme is to give roundness and completeness to a work of art—to endow it with a beginning, a middle and an end. Man has a sense of perfection, finality, and when any piece of literature expresses, sums up, some permanent fact of nature or human nature, the work is like to be permanent, too. Gray's Elegy expresses with splendor and magnificence the doom of splendor and magnificence. Fitzgerald's Omar is the Bible of the bibulous—a musical descant on "What's the Use." Larger works, too, express some general thing—Victor Hugo's Toilers of the Sea shows the indomitable will of man conquering the treacherous, the illimitable, the all but omnipotent ocean. Goethe's Hermann and Dorothea is a hymn to home. Shakespeare's comedies are varying flashes from the facets of the jewel of joy. The greatest works of literature, Hamlet, King Lear, Faust, the Divine Comedy, contain so many themes, so intricately blended, that it has been and will be for centuries the task of critics to pick them out.
The feasibility of forming categories of fiction has been suggested, so that all possible themes may be arranged under a few heads. Identity, hunger, love and death are the general of subjects which have been elucidated. But other sets of categories might easily be framed for the guidance of writers. Or they may quite as well throw all such rather mechanical schemes aside and return boldly to the themes of their boyhood essays. Hope, courage, resignation, youth, age—all the abstractions—these were what we were wont to write about, and if any one can express such ideas in terms of human character and environment, or can, similarly, give final realization in words to such material matters as the forest, the desert, the clouds, the sea, and so forth—he will go near to being a great writer.
Plot is the vehicle for carrying on the theme. It is a stock laying that there are only seven distinct jokes in the world, and there are not many more plots. Great books reiterate each other with unblushing plagiarism. The plot of the Illiad bears a surprising resemblance to that of the Ramayana and the Irish Epics of Cuchulain and Deirdre are like both. The Hindoo and Greek and Scandinavian and Celtic gods might change places and no one could distinguish them in the shuffle. What indeed is there of difference in the lives of men? A man is born, is educated, marries, works, comes into money, travels, grows great or miserable, dies. This is the formula which we must transmute into the myriad combinations of art.
Myths, popular legends, folk-lore, stories that linger about the countryside, furnish the best materials for plots. This is because they have been worked and reworked by the common imagination of the race. They have suffered recension after recension until they have become harmonized, their saliencies brought out, their crudities repressed and a great wealth of ideas gathered to them. The individual author who invents his own plot ought to submit it to something of the same treatment, by turning it over in his mind, brooding over it, and trying the effect of this or that alteration. Plots taken direct from actual life—or from history—are as a rule, raw, stiff and unnatural. They are not probable enough.
A well-built detective story, like one of Wilkie Collins' great
four, is really the model of good plot-work. This is because we see
undisguised in such a piece the logical faculty at work; realize the
prevision that looks before and after and shapes the thing. The
skeleton that supports the frame is revealed beneath the covering of
flesh. Such a skeleton must exist in all works of art which are not
gelatinous or amorphous. The author should know his denouement before
he begins: every incident should be a step towards the end. Probably
the greatest number of modern novelists have neglected plot and wrecked
themselves upon character or incident or expression. The development of
character may indeed stand in lieu of the development of plot; but if
is best to have both, as have the great models—the Greek tragedies.
Tolstoi, whose huge and formless works are the very antithesis of all
we have been describing, makes an attempt, in Anna Karenena, to bind
together the scattered fragments of his plot by one significant
incident. Anna first meets her lover on descending from a railway train
which has just killed a flagman. At the end of the book she meets her
death by throwing herself under a train in the same place. This effort
at fate pre-figuration is so feeble, and so opposed to the whole turn
of the story, that it seems a false note.
the piece are brought face to face, the scenes when things hap-pen. A good brief direction for authors would be this: get an atmosphere, get a climax and get done. Such climaxes should be led up to carefully, and made imaginatively probable, which is a very different thing from the actual truth. The appearance of Dimmesdale on the scaffold in the Scarlet Letter, is a magnificent example of a climax coherently and legitimately worked out. But the true dramatist or novelist will sacrifice everything, even imaginative truth, to a great situation. Shakespeare does it again and again in Richard the Third, notably in the wooing of Lady Anne over the coffin of her husband. The poet knew that the great effect of the Scene would carry the beholder or reader away and make him excuse the weakness or falsity of the means used to produce It. There is a situation in a recent novel, The Divine Fire, which is much to my purpose. The authoress was determined to subject her poet to all the agonies and degradations of extreme poverty. The culminating scene of the book is triumphantly worked out, but in order to reach such a success she has ignored the fact that no sane man, who was the sole owner of property worth four or five thousand pounds, would allow himself to starve to death in a London bagnio. Any money lender would have advanced the poet all the funds he needed to tide him over his hard times. Yet Miss Sinclair did perfectly right, and we have to thank her for a sensation.
Character in analysis is with us throughout literature. It is abundant, it is cheap, and when we can't get any better it is quite satisfactory. Such are the characters generally of Greek and Latin comedy—the bragging captain, the parasite, the intriguing slave. Such are Ben Jonson's "humors," his Bobadil, Kileley, Mosca and others. Such are the characters in Res-toration and post-Restoration dramas which are created out of an adjective or a noun: Sparkle, Scandal, Lady Sneerwell, Lord Toppington, Charles Surface. Such are the characters in antithesis of Dryden and Pope's satires—Buckingham, Shaftsbury, Villiers, Addison. Such are the characters, though more disguised, which flourish in the pages of George Eliot, where weakness poses as a man in Tito Melema, and vanity as a woman in Rosamond Viney.
Of course all such character creation is of an inferior kind. When an artist explains his personages to us, either by means of dissection and vivisection, or by the simpler method of attaching the label of a name, our curiosity about them is at an end. They are simply machines which have been taken apart, toys out of which the sawdust has extruded. The real figures of fiction are projections of their creator's brooding consciousness or mirror-like reflections of his sympathy. Whether they "wrap themselves in mystery" like Hamlet or show in transparent clearness like Marguerite, they are equally as real and as unexplainable as life itself.
There are really only two ways in which a character can be made to stand on his feet—can be realized. These are by what it does and by what it says. Physical descriptions are generally ineffective and explanations of motives and intentions are still more so. If an author wishes to convince us that his heroine is charming or witty let him make her do and say charming and witty things. If he wants to create a villain let him show us the man at work. The reader is the judge, not the author, and for the latter to take part for or against any of his personages, is fatal. The dramatist has far the advantage of the novelist here, for, except in soliloquies, he is under no temptation to turn his characters' minds inside out.Tone is the key to which a piece of literature is modulated —the lighting of the stage whereon its scene is set. A landscape is one thing under the chilly gleam of dawn, another under the full pulsating sunlight of mid-day, a third in the crimson flush of sunset: it is still different in half obliterating twilight or in the night and storm with the momentary torches of the lightning burning or extinguishing above it. The final effect of almost every piece of literature depends on its tone, keeping, atmosphere, harmony of light or shadow. What would Wuthering Heights be without its pitch and intensity of shadow, unrelieved, except at the last moment, by a glimpse of light? What would Macbeth be without its truth of keeping? Or As You Like It and Twelfth Night without their sunny perfection of atmosphere? It is conceivable that any literary work might be taken bodily—plot, characters, names and all— and if set to another key, plunged into a different light, it would be such a new thing that the original maker would not recognize his own creation. A famous instance of just such a transformation exists in the treatment of the Orestes story by the three Greek tragedians. In .Aeschylus, Orestes is very much to the front and the play is high pitched and heroic. In Sophocles, Orestes and Electra are about equal in interest and the piece is purely human. In Euripides, Electra takes the center of the stage and the tragedy is domestic, not to say bourgeois.
Style consists of two parts, quality of thought and weight of thought. Quality of thought is innate, hardly to be acquired. It is a writer's soul expressing itself after its nature —as, gay, sombre, easy, tortuous, charming, terrible. Weight of thought consists simply of terseness and concentration of language and the accumulation and importance of ideas. All this may be acquired by study and effort. For example, Lord Bacon has immense weight of thought but not much quality. Oliver Goldsmith has the most engaging quality of thought in everything he wrote, but nowhere any great weight. Or to give a passage from one of the very gods of expression, who unites quality and weight of thought in his rich style—to quote from John Keats:
"As when upon a tranced summer night, Those green robed senators of ancient woods, Tall oaks, branch charmed by the earnest stars, Dream, and so dream all night without a stir, Save from some gradual, solitary gust, Which comes upon the silence, and dies off, As if the ebbing air had but one wave;— So came his voice and went."
This has Keats' special quality of sensuousness and harmony, but it has high intellectual weight as well. Consider the assemblage of images and thoughts which are brought together to body forth an oak forest. The actual meaning of the passage simply this: "as when upon a summer night the oaks are still save for some gust which comes and dies away." But to Keats it is a "tranced night," not dead nor sleeping, but some-thing between. The trees are "green robed senators of ancient Broods," which flashes upon our minds a compound picture of Home's Conscript Fathers and the Druidic temples. But the oaks are "branch charmed" and we see the "earnest stars" above them at their witchcraft. And so they dream in the silence Until one solitary gust comes upon them and dies away like one ebbing wave of the great ocean of air.
It is hardly necessary to say that such accumulations of metaphor and picture as in the above are not indispensable to weight of style. The most simple statement, in its proper place, may have a thrust and power beyond the capacity of adjectives or images to equal. The "Prythee undo this button" of Lear; the "I wailed not, so of stone I grew within" of Dante; or Marguerite's first answer to Faust are instances of simple expressions pregnant with meaning.