Chapter 1: discontinuance of the guide-board

Perhaps the last indulgence yet to be won by the writer of fiction will be that of discontinuing the time-honored institution of the guide-board. Many still expect it to stand visible on his closing pages, at least, and to be marked, when necessary, “Private way,” “Dangerous passing,” that there may be no mistake. Yet surely all tendencies now lead to the abandonment of that time-honored proclamation; and this change comes simply from the fact that fiction is drawing nearer to life. In real life, as we see it, the moral is usually implied and inferential, not painted on a board; you must often look twice, or look many times, in order to read it. The eminent sinner dies amid tears and plaudits, not in the state-prison, as he should; the seed of the righteous is often seen begging bread. We have to read very carefully between the lines if we would [4] fully recognize the joy of Marcellus exiled, the secret ennui of Caesar with a senate at his heels. Thus it is in daily life — that is, in nature; and yet many still think it a defect in a story if it leaves a single moral influence to be worked out by the meditation of the reader.

On my lending to an intelligent young woman, the other day, Mr. Hamlin Garland's remarkable volume, Main-travelled roads, she returned it with the remark that she greatly admired all the stories except the first, which seemed to her immoral. It closed, indeed, as she justly pointed out, with a striking scene in which a long-absent lover carries off the wife and child of a successful but unworthy rival, and the tale ends with the words: “The sun shone on the dazzling, rustling wheat; the fathomless sky as a sea bent over them, and the world lay before them.” But when I pointed out to her, what one would think must be clear at a glance to every reader, that behind this momentary gleam of beauty lay an absolutely hopeless future; that though the impulse of action was wholly generous, and not even passional, yet Nemesis was close behind; and that the mere fact of the woman's carrying another man's baby in her arms would prevent [5] all permanent happiness with her lover; my friend could only reply that it was all very true, but she had never thought of it. In other words, the guide-board was not there. The only thing that could have disarmed her criticism would have been a distinct announcement on the author's part: “N. B. The situation is dangerous;” just as Miss Edgeworth used to append to every particularly tough statement: “N. B. This is a fact.”

The truth is, that in Miss Edgeworth's day they ordered the matter differently. Either the sinners and saints were called up by name in the closing chapter, and judgment rendered in detail, or else very explicit reasons were given why the obvious award was impracticable. “The Lord Lilburnes of this hollow world are not to be pelted with the soft roses of poetical justice. He is alone with old age and in the sight of death.” Thus stands the guide-board at the close of Bulwer's Night and Morning; and in the discontinuance of such aids there is doubtless a certain risk. Some of the most powerful works of modern fiction have apparently failed to impress their moral on the careless reader. All really strong novels involving illicit love are necessarily tragedies at last, not vaudevilles; and nowhere is [6] this more true than in French literature. The clever woman who said that nothing was worse than French immorality except French morality, simply failed to go below the surface; for in France the family feeling is so potent that the actual destruction of the domestic tie is often punished with cruel severity, even by the most tolerant novelists. The retribution in Madame Bovary, for instance, is almost too merciless, since it wreaks itself even upon the body of the poor sinner after death, and pursues her unoffending child to the poorhouse. No one has painted a climax of unlawful passion more terrific than that portrayed in the closing pages of Monsieur de Camors, the guilty pair, false to every human obligation, successful in their wishes to their own destruction, numinibus vota exandita malignis, detached by their crime from all the world and finally from one another, wander like gloomy shadows amid an earthly paradise, meeting sometimes unwarily, but never exchanging a word. Yet both these novels are sometimes classed among the bad books, simply because the guide-board is omitted and the reader left to draw his own moral.

The same misjudgment is often passed for the same reason upon Tolstoi's [7] Anna Karinina, which surely is, among all books upon this same theme, the most utterly relentless. Not merely does it not contain, from beginning to end, a prurient scene or even a voluptuous passage, but its plot moves as inexorably and almost as visibly as a Greek fate. Even Hawthorne allows his guilty lovers, in The Scarlet Letter, a moment of delusive happiness; even Hawthorne recognizes the unquestionable truth that the foremost result of a broken law is sometimes an enchanting sense of freedom. Tolstoi tolerates no such enchantment; and he has written the only novel of illicit love, perhaps, in which the offenders-both being persons otherwise high-minded and noble-fail to derive from their sin one hour of even temporary happiness. From the moment of their yielding we see the shadow already over them; the author is as merciless to these beings of his own construction as if he hated them; and one feels like calling in an Omar Khayyam to defend once more the created against an unjust creator. Yet Anna Karenina has often been condemned as immoral, in the absence of the guide-board.

If, now, we consider, in the light of these striking instances, what it is that has brought about this gradual disuse of the overt and visible [8] moral, we shall soon see that it is a part of the general tendency of modern literature to do without external aids to make its meaning clear. There is undoubtedly a tendency to rely more and more upon what has been well called “the presumption of brains” in the reader. Note, for instance, the steady disappearance of the italic letter from the printed page. Once used as freely as in an epistle from one of Thackeray's fine ladies, it is now employed by careful writers almost wholly to indicate foreign words or book titles; a change in which Emerson and Hawthorne were conspicuous leaders. There is a feeling that only a very crude literary art will now depend on typography for shades of meaning which should be rendered by the very structure of the sentence. The same fate of banishment is overtaking the exclamation-point, so long used by poets-conspicuously by Whittier — as a note of admiration also. Here, too, as in the other case, the emphasis is now left to render itself; and even the last verse of the poem, which often — to cite Whittier again-contained the detached moral of the lay, is now commonly clipped off, leaving the reader to draw the moral for himself. The poet now makes his point as best he can, and leaves it [9] without a guide-board; in this foreshadowing precisely that change which has also come over the prose novel.

Granting that much fiction, at any rate, has a moral expressed or implied, it is to be observed that all fiction has changed its note in other respects within the last century, and must accept its own laws. Formerly conveying its moral often through a symbol, it now conveys it, if at all, by direct narrative. The distinction has never been better put than in a remarkable and little-known letter addressed by Heine on his death-bed (1856) to Varnhagen von Ense, in giving a personal introduction to Ferdinand Lassalle. “The new generation,” wrote Heine, “means to enjoy itself and make the best of the visible; we of the older one bowed humbly before the invisible, yearned after shadow kisses and blue-flower fragrances, denied ourselves, wept and smiled and were perhaps happier than these fierce gladiators who walk so proudly to meet their death-struggle.” The blue-flower allusion is to the favorite ideal symbol of the German Novalis; and certainly the young men who grew up fifty or sixty years ago in America obtained some of their very best tonic influences through such thoroughly ideal tales as [10] that writer's Heinrich von Offerdingen, Fouque's Sintram, Hoffmann's Goldene Topf, and Richter's Titan, whether these were read in the original German or in the translations of Carlyle, Brooks, and others. All these books are now little sought, and rather alien to the present taste. To these were added, in English, such tales as Poe's William Wilson and Hawthorne's The Birthmark and Rappaccini's Daughter,; and, in French, Balzac's Le Peau de Chagrin, which Professor Longfellow used warmly to recommend to his college pupils. Works like these represented the prevailing sentiment of a period; they exerted a distinct influence on the moulding of a generation. Their moral was irresistible for those who really cared enough for the books to read them; they needed no guide-boards; the guide-board was for the earlier efforts at realism, before it had proved its strength.

Realism has since achieved its maturity, and undoubtedly has won — if it has not already lost again-possession of the field. Whether its sway be, as many think, a permanent change, or only, as I myself believe, a swing of the pendulum, the fact is the same. It is as useless to resist such changes as it was for Lowell to go on lighting his pipe for years [11] with flint and steel, which I well remember his doing, rather than accept the innovation of a friction-match. Realism must hold the field so long as it has a right to do it, and it can only be asked to fulfil the conditions of its being. If we excuse it, as we plainly must, from the perpetuation of the guide-board, we can only ask that it shall go on and do its work so well that no such aid shall be needed; that its moral, where there is one, shall be reasonably plain; that is, so clearly put as to produce a minimum of misunderstanding. How important this is may be appreciated when we consider that so great an artist as Goethe, writing Die Wahlverwandschaften, expressly, as he thought, to vindicate the marriage laws, was supposed by his whole generation to have written against them, simply through an ill-chosen title and a single unseemly incident. And another reasonable condition is that fiction, being thus set free, should be a law unto itself and stop short of undesirable materials; that it should obey that high and significant maxim of the Roman augurs-never to let the sacred entrails be displayed outside the solemnity of the temple. It is for disregard in this respect, and not for any want of serious purpose-since he usually has such a purpose, [12] and does not write with levity — that Zola is to be condemned.

But granting these simple conditions fulfilled, the writer of fiction should surely be allowed henceforth to wind up his story in his own way, without formal proclamation of his moral; or, better still, to leave the tale without technical and elaborate winding up, as nature leaves her stories. His work is a great one, to bring comedy and even tragedy down from the old traditions of kingliness to the vaster and more complex currents of modern democratic life. When the elder Scaliger wrote, in 1561, that work on Poetry which so long ruled the traditions of European literature, he defined the difference between tragedy and comedy to consist largely in this — that tragedy concerned itself only with kings, princes, cities, citadels, and camps; in tragoedia reges, principles, ex urbibus, arcibus, castris. All these things are now changed. Kings, princes, camps, citadels are passing away, and the cities that will soon alone survive them are filled with a democratic world, which awaits its chronicles of joy or pain. The writer of fiction must tell his tale, and leave it to yield its own moral. The careless or hasty reader will often misinterpret it, and would do so were [13] the guide-board ever so conspicuous; but the serious student will bear away an influence proportioned to the hidden wealth of meaning, and this meaning will be more precious in proportion as he has been left to discern it for himself.


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