Visibility in Fiction

Edith Wharton

Visibility: the condition of being visible.—New English Dictionary

No one interested in the art of fiction can have failed to reflect on the mysterious element which seems to possess, above all others, the antiseptic quality of keeping a novel alive. One reader may wish to prove this quality to be one thing, another reader another. “Style,” that undefinable yet so plentifully defined attribute, is perhaps most often invoked—and “style” (in the sense of the selective quality which shapes substance as well as form) can in fact embalm a tale: that is, give it an enduring semblance of vitality. Style can arrest the air of lifelikeness; but it cannot really keep the characters alive, and the aliveness of the characters seems the novel's one assurance of prolonged survival.

In the attempt to probe this mystery of visibility one ends by having to put aside all theories, all the reasons one's personal preferences might dispose one to invoke as decisive. It may or may not be possible to find out why the power of giving life is the novelist's only assurance against dissolution; the facts declare it to be so. One need only enumerate the small number of novels which, outliving both their first success and their inevitable subsequent depreciation, have again floated to the surface, and held their place there, to see that however different they are in kind, however difficult it seems to discover their common denominator, they have one, and it is this. Or rather, to be still more accurate, they have two, seldom coexistent, but on the contrary mutually exclusive. These privileged books, in fact, are sometimes just “good yarns,” in the old simple sense of the tale of adventure—the tale in which the characters remain subordinate to their experiences, exist only in function of what happens to them, though these happenings may be so vividly depicted as to reflect the light of life upon their faces. It was necessary to open a parenthesis for the inclusion of the stories which have achieved this kind of immortality, or the reader would have cried: “And ‘Rob Roy’? And ‘Moby Dick’? And ‘Lord Jim’?”; but they can hardly be included in the present inquiry, which concerns rather the fictitious people who remain vivid to us through some animating principle distinct from the adventures that befall them—characters so present in the minds of generations of readers that they have acquired an historic personality, and go on living with the substantiality of the famous people of the past.

A good story has enthralled readers from the beginning of time, and will doubtless always do so. The recent craze for the detective novel is the inevitable result of the modern novelist's growing tendency to situate the experiences of his characters more and more in the region of thought and emotion; but the people in most novels of adventure live with a mere vegetable Iife compared with the vital flame which animates the figures depicted in great novels of character or of manners. No one, for instance, would be likely to claim for the actors in the best of such tales—“Robinson Crusoe,” the vividest of the Dumas series, even the most successful among Scott's—the acute visibility which makes the heart throb and the marrow tingle at the flesh-and-blood aliveness of Tolstoi's Prince Andrew and Natasha, of Beatrix Esmond and the Fotheringay, of Père Goriot, old Grandet, Madame Marneffe, or the incomparable Madame de Rênal of “Le Rouge et le Noir.”

Three cases, indeed, there are wherein adventure and character-drawing so closely overlap that it would be rash to maintain that the tales owe their survival to the one element rather than the other. These exceptions are, of course, to be found in the novels of Scott, Stevenson, and Conrad, the only novelists of adventure who have quite successfully defended the individuality of some of their characters against the overwhelming encroachment of events. Some; not all; but more at least than Dumas, whose Chicot, indeed, pleads to be excepted, but whose other characters linger in memory only as cleverly drawn but one-dimensional figures compared with the living beings of the great novelists of character. It is certain, at any rate, that the novel of manners or of character (and all the greatest novels belong in one or the other of these groups) must stand or fall with the degree of lifelikeness of the characters.

They have animated episodical characters, but their central figures have remained abstractions or puppets.

To the axiom thus narrowed down, few exceptions will be found save the somewhat awkward one of the phantasmagoric world of Dickens. This world, indeed, is tremendously alive; it has entered into all our lives; yet on surveying it attentively, one perceives that the aliveness is not always lifelike, and that it is always larger than life. These overwhelming exuberant people, who, whenever they appear, go through the same tricks of speech or gesture, as though bouncing out of the wings at the call of their cue, are, in fact, the people of the stage, that other-dimensional land where attention must be focussed and character defined by devices of representation as different from the novelist's as sculpture is from painting.

The startling visibility of Dickens's characters is indisputable; they are “close-ups” before the cinema. And there is no doubt, either, that in spite of the elaborate machinery of his plots, Dickens takes rank, and high rank, among the novelists of character, and as such only has survived. Yet his characters live but the oddly restricted lives of people in plays (in all plays but the greatest): that is, they live only in their story, as the people of a drama live only in its dramatic conventions. To accept the reality of these characters one must first accept the artificial conditions in which they exist; and that Dickens can constrain most of his readers to do this is proved by the survival of his novels. Mrs. Nickleby, at first sight, seems as much alive as any character in “War and Peace”; not until the history enshrining her is at an end does one perceive that she lives only in its pages, can breathe only its peculiar air, whereas the Princess Mary, Natasha, the wonderful Rostov family, and all the rest of the characters in “War and Peace,” live as we live, in time and space, live a life independent of the narrative in which they figure, a life overflowing the bounds of even the vast scene which their creator conceived for them.

Scott, Stevenson, Conrad, though first of all tellers of good tales rather than psychological novelists, have, nevertheless, given to some of the characters peopling their pages a deeper reality than Dickens ever gave to his. What they have failed in is to meet the supreme test: they have animated episodical characters, but their central figures (only perhaps excepting Conrad's Nostromo) have remained abstractions or puppets. Dugald Dalgetty and Andrew Fairservice are real flesh-and-blood; Rob Roy, Waverley, the Master of Ballantrae, brave figures as they are, yet seem fabricated out of a surprisingly lifelike substance which faintly suggests the most expensive embalming.

But it is, after all, of greater interest for the critic (and still more, of course, for the novelist) to try to detect what makes for visibility in character-drawing than to speculate on the mysterious reasons why such visibility keeps a book afloat while all the other fairy godmothers who attend its launching—beauties of style and of description, intellectual insight and moral ardor—cannot save it from going to the bottom.

The only novels that live are those whose characters the reader calls by name. Emma (whether Woodhouse or Bovary), Père Goriot, Rastignac, Anna Karenina, Vronsky, Barry Lyndon, Clive Newcome, Jos Sedley, Becky Sharp, Lord Steyne, Daisy Miller—what reader ever hesitates over their identity, or would think of citing their names in quotation marks? They have broken away from the printed page and its symbols, they mix with us freely, naturally; and so do a host of minor figures who have mostly escaped out of the same tales. For the gift of giving visibility to the characters of fiction is the rarest in the novelist’s endowment, and one can almost count on ten fingers the creative artists who have possessed it.

To get a general consensus as to who they are would not be difficult, so rare and so compelling is this art of conferring visibility; but the beginning of wisdom would be to find out how it is done. At first that, too, seems not impossible; one inclines to ascribe the result to the trick of associating, in the reader's mind, the characters depicted with a certain set of idiosyncrasies of word, gesture, conduct, or else to the degree of visual intensity with which the author has evoked them—or to the combination of both procedures, as in Balzac. But is this explanation adequate? Does the most profoundly real visibility obey the call of such recurrent artifices? Is it not the result of a combination of arts much subtler and less self-conscious than these?

Let us take the people whom the novelist tries to make visible by associating them with catchwords and ascribing to them, whenever they appear, the same physical or mental oddities. Dickens excelled in this art, and to Zola and the French “naturalists” it became an accepted device of the craft, their chief short-cut to realization. Whoever sneezed or squinted on the first page, sneezed or squinted at each subsequent appearance. Whoever stuttered, spoke every sentence in his rôle with a stutter; whoever had a grotesque pronunciation, pronounced every word grotesquely. The most horrid and nerve-racking examples of the use of this device are to be found in Balzac, where everything is to be found, of best and worst, that the novelist's art can make use of. But the artifice seldom results in complete visibility; it merely suggests it, as the sound of a snore through the wall of a hotel bedroom suggests that there is someone sleeping next door. The characters thus described remain, as it were, concealed behind their idiosyncrasies.

Sometimes one is inclined to think that visibility is achieved simply by the author’s own intense power of seeing his characters in their habit as they lived, and by his ability to reproduce the color of his vision in words. No novelist has ever possessed this power to the same degree as Tolstoi. That lifted upper lip of the poor little wife of Prince Andrew, Maslova's squint, Karenin's way of cracking his dry finger joints—though so little emphasized in comparison with the tricks of Dickens’s people, they haunt us like Becky's sandy hair and green eyes, like the sultry splendor of Beatrix Esmond.

Trollope, again, is perplexingly careless in the matter of physical word-painting.

Undoubtedly, this rare gift of passionate contemplation and vivid picturing does help to make bodily visible the characters of these two supremely equipped novelists; but what of certain other novelists who did not possess it, and yet confer visibility on their creations? Do we any of us really know what Mrs. Proudie looked like, or Archdeacon Grantley or even the great Lady Glencora? Who ever actually saw a Dostoevsky or a Turgenev character with the eyes of the flesh? And as for Jane Austen's, one almost wonders if she ever saw them bodily herself, so little do their physical peculiarities seem to concern her.

The fact is that on all sides perplexity awaits us. We certainly do not think of Jane Austen's characters as disembodied intelligences, though she has favored us with such scant glimpses of their physical appearance; while George Meredith, who has spent the richest of epithets and epigrams on his personages, though some of them have the appearance of life, has evoked none as tangible, substantial, solidly planted on the earth that we ourselves tread, as the least of Jane Austen's creations. Trollope, again, is perplexingly careless in the matter of physical word-painting. The portraits of his men are reduced to a minimum (though the touches he gives are vigorous); while the colors he uses to portray his women, and more especially his heroines, are out of the same scantily supplied paint-box which served Scott, Jane Austen, and all their lesser contemporaries. Yet, if we have a nodding acquaintance with the lavishly portrayed Meredithians, the Hardings, Grantleys, and Pallisers are our very kin! How, then, is the magic wrought?

It is a truism to say that it all depends on the measure of the novelist's genius. Of course; but what is the particular faculty of genius that produces, by means so different, the identical effect of visibility? Sometimes one inclines to ascribe it to a quality of quietness; almost to that slow taking of pains which was once thought the fundamental attribute of genius. Certainly the great novelists, even those (chiefly those) who packed their pages with immortality while the printer's devil waited in the passage, seem never to have written in a hurry. There were days when, obviously, they had no time to correct their grammar or make sure of their syntax; hardly ever a day when they could not let their characters ripen and round themselves under the sunlight of a steady contemplation. It must be, then, surely, this mysterious faculty, something so intimate and compelling, so much like a natural process, that outward accidents, the hurry and worry of the surface, can never check, can seldom even distort it. Once called into life the beings thus created continue their dumb germination in the most tormented mind, if the mind be a great novelist's; and by the time they are born into the book which is their world they are such well-constituted organisms that they live on in our world after theirs has ended.

No one, perhaps, has exhibited as completely as Tolstoi the result of the novelist's intense absorption in his creatures. All those who have attempted the art of fiction, or even considered it critically, know the initial difficulty of making the reader of a thickly populated novel immediately distinguish between the various characters as they first appear. Experience, of course, helps the novelist in this respect; he will avoid crowding his opening pages; he will be careful to give his readers time to get used to one character before he “brings on” another; he will, above all, sternly exclude the supernumeraries who are forever clamoring for an engagement, attracting attention by their antics, and trying to persuade him of their eventual usefulness. These principles are elementary—but look how the great men defy them! Tolstoi, especially, juggles with this particular difficulty.

Balzac, Jane Austen, Thackeray, Tolstoi: almost invariably, when these touched the dead bones they arose and walked.

Re-read “Resurrection" with this technical problem in mind, and admire the way in which, as he follows Prince Nekludov from point to point in his long hunt after Maslova and his own soul, Tolstoi indulges himself in the delight of calling into rounded visibility each judge, juryman, lawyer, prison official, turnkey, soldier, prostitute, convict, or provincial magistrate or administrator, with whom Nekludov comes into contact in his agonizing pilgrimage from St. Petersburg to Siberia! Tolstoi knew that most of these people, whose physical appearance, clothes, voices, and tricks of speech he so carefully reproduces, would appear only once in the course of his tale; but he knew also that they were not supernumeraries, but “stuff o’ the conscience” to the tortured Nekludov, and therefore he painted them as vividly as his unhappy hero saw them. Perhaps no other novelist has achieved just this tour de force; and it is of interest as showing the creator's power of identifying himself with his creature, and visualizing with terrible completeness every face and figure burnt upon Nekludov's “lidless eyes in Hell.”

But it is a harder task to sustain visibility than to evoke it for a moment; and here again Tolstoi is equalled only (and never surpassed) by Jane Austen, Balzac, Thackeray—and at times by Stendhal, Flaubert, and Trollope. Can anyone, for instance, after seeing Emma Bovary under the umbrella opened against the spring shower, in the first pages of her life history, forget for a moment how she looked, and who she was? The survival of her name is there to attest her visibility. But though Charles Bovary, M. Homais, Madame de Rênal, Count Mosca, the Duchess de Sanseverina, and many of Trollope's people have escaped out of their books and still live with us, their number is small compared with the throng of friends and companions with whom the four greatest of life-givers have blessed us.

Balzac, Jane Austen, Thackeray, Tolstoi: almost invariably, when these touched the dead bones they arose and walked. Not only stood, struck lifelike attitudes, did the Madame Tussaud business with an uncanny air of reality, but actually progressed or retrograded, marked time or spurted forward, in our erratic human way; and came out at the end of their tales disfigured, altered, yet still the same, as we do when life has thoroughly dealt with us. These four novelists alone—with Proust perhaps as an only fifth—could give this intense and unfailing visibility to their central characters as well as to the episodical figures of the periphery; and it is plain that, though their results are identical, and Mr. Woodhouse is as warm to the touch as Henry Esmond, the procedure in each case was profoundly different.

To say this is perhaps to acknowledge that the problem is insoluble, the “trick” not to be detected; yet we may still conjecture that a common denominator is, after all, to be found in the patient intensity of attention which these great novelists concentrated on each of their imagined characters, in their intimate sense of the reality of what they described, and in some secret intuition that the barrier between themselves and their creatures was somehow thinner than the page of a book.

Edith Wharton was an American novelist and critic.
Originally published:
March 1, 1929


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