Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Human Mysteries in Bleak House

I’ve been reading a bit about literary point of view in fiction recently. For several decades now, it appears writers and critics have rejected the omniscient narrator that they see as the prevailing technique of the past (I’m not so sure truly omniscient narrators ever dominated fiction) in favor of a technique in which the narration has access to the thoughts of only one character. In fact, it seems standard for the narration not just to report those thoughts as if observed, but to share them as if lived. This technique usually converts thoughts to the past tense and presents them without quotation marks, but they represent quotations of the words in a character’s head.

As an example, let me propose a passage from a book that doesn’t currently exist.
Arabella checked her ticket once more. 14B. Dang. Center seat. Why couldn’t she ever sit near the window? She folded her body to squeeze it under the luggage compartment, somehow managed to pull her carry-on past the arms of the aisle seat, and fell into her place with as much of a thud as 115 pounds can make.

But after a couple of breaths, things didn’t look so bad. Old lady in 14A. Little old lady. Maybe this flight wouldn’t be so bad after all.

And then she saw him. Two-hundred-ten pounds of the best a gym can turn out, and an attitude just as buffed. Oh, please don’t have 14C. Closer and closer he came. Row 10 . . . 11 . . . 12 . . . 13 . . . Looking for a spot in the overhead for his duffel. Then – sure enough – 14C.

The entire trio of seats careened backwards as the behemoth sat down. Without a word or a glance, muscle-man pushed Arabella’s elbow off the narrow arm of the seat and thrust his own at least four, maybe five inches over into 14B territory. Jerk. Who did he think he was?
It’s not just that a narrator knows everything Arabella knows and sees everything she sees. There is virtually no narrator in this passage. There is no Bunyan writing under the pretense (?) of recording his dream. There is no Knickerbocker, the narrator of many of Washington Irving’s tales, to tell the reader whom he spoke with and how he found out the story he’s recounting, or to express his doubts about the story’s accuracy. (N.B.: Neither of these narrators is omniscient.) The words in my excerpt are almost entirely Arabella’s thoughts, translated into the past tense and the third person. Where literally Arabella thought at the time, “Why can’t I ever sit near the window,” we get, “Why couldn’t she ever sit near the window?” “Who does he think he is?” becomes “Who did he think he was?” “Jerk” of course needs no refitting. As for the rest of the narration, it has no apparent source; it just exists, as if statements of fact do simply, objectively, Platonically exist, floating through space like the opening words of a Star Wars movie.

In my understanding, the pervasive practice of following one character’s thought process traces back in theory to Freud and his interest in the monologues of the innermost recesses of the human mind, and in practice to James Joyce, who used it to great effect in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. But I prefer much less direct contact with the characters’ streams of consciousness in my reading. I don’t care if Arabella calls the guy a jerk in her mind. I certainly don’t need to be told she does it; it's common, familiar behavior. I’d read with much more interest if I could see her wince. I’d love to see her open her mouth and start to say something. I’d love to hear what elliptical comment she makes about the jerk to the old lady.

With the issue of point of view on my mind, I came to Bleak House this month ready to test my vague memory of Dickens describing the sensuously perceptible much more than he channels the psychological. And my memory was not far off. So far in the book, I’ve found that Dickens sometimes reports a character’s habitual thoughts in an introductory description of the character, as, for instance, when he tells us that Sir Leicester Dedlock regarded those of the lower classes to exist for his comfort, and that he should be very much surprised to learn that they don’t think the same. But the narrator could base that summary on his observations from an unrevealed past. Once the scene gets going, all depictions of mental operations are gone; instead, we see Sir Leicester move and hear him talk and, as a result, get a much fuller picture of the psychological makeup of Sir Leicester than we would if we simply read the echo of his thoughts.

It could just be that I had the topic of point of view on my mind, but it certainly seems at this point (about 20% though the novel) that Dickens actually makes a theme in Bleak House of the privacy of thought. Both Esther in her first-person narrative and the third-person narrator who alternates with her speak several times of supposing what a character thinks. One passage speculates on what various farm animals think. The narrators even talk about other characters not having access to anyone else’s thoughts. The present-tense narrator says, for instance, “Therefore, while Mr. Tulkinghorn may not know what is passing in the Dedlock mind at present, it is very possible that he may.”

Not having direct access to characters’ thoughts is good. No access prompts more interesting, vivid descriptions of human action. No access makes for realism (since I don’t have direct communication with anyone else’s thoughts in real life). No access means mystery. I like finding out about fictional characters the same way I find out about real people: by observing, interpreting, and scratching my head in puzzlement. And Dickens regularly lets the reader do just that. I blogged last year about a motif in David Copperfield of characters dealing not with other characters but with the images of others that they carry in their own heads. In Bleak House, the inaccessibility of some characters is even built into their names. One character is named Nemo; I don’t remember, but I suspect that I will learn more about this “Nobody” later in the book. Another character is named Quale; one could pronounce the name like that of a former Vice President, but it could also be pronounced in two syllables, in which case it means a perceived property distinct from any underlying subject. Do I know the real Mr. Quale? No, I do not. Do I want to know the real Mr. Quale? Based on what I have seen so far, most assuredly not. But I definitely enjoy reading about him and speculating.

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