Sunday, October 9, 2011

Some Thoughts Are Worth More than a Penny

Usually I hate third-person narrative that reveals a character's thinking. To begin with, I can't help wondering who this omniscient, or at least multiscient, narrator could be. (Multiscient: a word I just made up meaning "knowing a lot of things." Maybe mentiscient, "knowing minds," or cogitatiscient, "knowing thoughts," or absconditiscient, "knowing hidden secrets" would work even better.) I don't mind hearing that Prince Charming thinks Sleeping Beauty the most beautiful girl he's ever seen. The narrator's knowledge of Prince Charming's secret opinions just contributes to the story's overall aura of fantasy: we aren't expected to think of a fairy tale as true while we hear it. But if I'm supposed to suspend my disbelief while reading a more realistic novel, then I have to believe that some third party could realistically have told the tale. On top of this problem, I've just seen too many lazy examples where inner dialog replaces vivid description. Don't tell me Fred is worried; show me Fred is worried. Tell me about his wrinkled brow or his drumming fingers. I'll know Fred better if you tell me he gives himself a neckrub than I will if you tell me that he's thinking, "What am I going to do?"

Trollope grants himself an exception, though, when he says upfront, as he so frequently does, that the characters of the present novel are inventions of his imagination. He -- or at least his narrating proxy -- often addresses the reader directly and tells her how much he knows of the character that graces his creative mind, how much he doesn't know, how much he knows but won't tell, and how much he will leave to the reader. (Trollope sometimes refers to readers with feminine pronouns and sometimes with masculine. I'm not sure which is more surprising given the century in which he wrote.) In Doctor Thorne, he says that Mary Thorne must be exceptionally beautiful because everyone expects the heroine to be flawless in appearance. But he goes on to say that he knows more about and is more concerned with her temperament, which definitely has flaws. Once Trollope establishes that the characters are pure imaginations and then declares his interest in their inner lives, I expect to hear their thoughts, and I want to hear their thoughts.

And his characters' thoughts are fascinating. I believe I've come across only one murder so far in the ten or so Trollope novels I've read. Some fans of Victorian fiction might this lack of action makes for boring books. But reading about Lady de Courcy's secret thoughts, I find that she thinks people of a lower class are less human than she, and doesn't the Sermon on the Mount teach that such thoughts are tantamount to murder? When the inner life forms the stage, every thought, every feeling, every decision, every hesitation becomes an action in the drama.

And this drama is full of action. When Augusta admits to herself that Mr Moffat is not a man of birth, she doesn't go so far as to remember that he is in fact the son of a mere tailor. Mary, unconscious of any internal contradiction is "armed to do battle against the world's prejudices, those prejudices she herself loved so well." When asked if her husband gambles, Lady Arabella replies "very slowly" that she doesn't think so, and a world of doubt lies in her slow tempo. And when the Honourable John de Courcy sighs in looking at his cousin Frank's humble birthday presents, we learn that he is thinking about "what small hope there was that all those who were nearest and dearest to him should die out of his way, and leave him to the sweet enjoyment of an earl's coronet and fortune."

In a novel that exposes minds, Trollope can even tell us what one character knows about what another character knows. Early in Doctor Thorne, Squire Gresham says this to Doctor Thorne:
"My father left me the property entire, and I should leave it entire to my son;--but you don't understand this."
     The doctor did understand the feeling fully. The fact, on the other hand, was that, long as he had known him, the squire did not understand the doctor.
But these imaginary characters are severely realistic and are not privy to each other's minds; they must rely on the verbal cues and body language that, in any other author's work, I prefer. In one scene, the reader knows that Augusta mentally sweeps the nagging inconsistency in her thoughts under the rug of pride in being an heiress. But her brother Frank doesn't know what's going on. "Well, what is it?" he asks her. "What makes you stick your chin up and look in that way?"

No comments:

Post a Comment