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On the proposed abolition of the plot

it was said of the romantic Muse in Germany —of the Pegasus, or winged horse of Uhland—that, like its colleague, the famous war-horse Bayard, it possessed all possible virtues and but one fault, that it was dead. It is in this decisive way that Mr. Howells and others deal with the plot in stories and dramas; they decline to argue the matter, but simply assert that the plot is extinct. If any one doubts the assertion they would perhaps still decline to argue the matter, and simply extend the assertion to any critic who differed from them, pointing out that he must be dead also. It may be so, since there may always be room for such a possibility. ‘Tyrawley and I,’ said Walpole's old statesman, ‘have been dead these two years; but we don't let anybody know it.’ In the matter of literary criticism, however, the fact is just the other way. The [136] critics who cling to the plot are not aware of their own demise; but Mr. Howells has found it out. To find it out is justly to silence them; for, as Charles Lamb says in his poem exemplifying ‘the lapidary style,’ which the late Mr. Mellish never could abide:--

It matters very little what Mellish said,
Because he is dead.

But if we grant for a moment, as a matter of argument, that whatever yet speaks may be regarded, for controversial purposes, as being alive, it may be well enough pointed out, that, if plot is dead and only characters survive, then there is a curious divergence in this age between the course of literature and the course of science. If anything marks the science of the age it is that plot is everything. Museums were formerly collections of detached specimens, only classified for convenience under a few half-arbitrary divisions. One may still see such collections surviving, for instance, in that melancholy hall through which people pass, as rapidly as possible, to reach the modern theatre known as the Boston Museum. But in all [137] natural history museums of any pretensions, the individual specimen is subordinated to the whole. The great Agassiz collection at Harvard is expressly named ‘The Museum of Comparative Zoology.’ In the Peabody Museum at Yale—in which, as Charles Darwin told me, quoting Huxley, there is more to be learned than from all the museums of Europe—you are not shown the skeleton of a horse, and left with that knowledge, but you are shown every step in the development of the horse from the time when, in pre-historic periods, he was no larger than a fox and had five toes. In science, plot is not only not ignored, but it is almost everything; only it is not called plot, it is called evolution.

And conversely, what is called evolution in science is called plot in fiction. Grant that character is first in importance, as it doubtless is, yet plot is the development of character. It is not enough to paint Arthur Dimmesdale, standing with his hand on his heart and despair in his eyes; to paint the hand anatomically correct, the eyes deep in emotion; but we need to know what brought him there; what produced [138] the strange combination, a Puritan Saint with a conscience wrung into distortion. Lear is not Lear, Hamlet not Hamlet, without a glimpse at the conditions that have made them what they are. With the worst villains of the play, we need, as Margaret Fuller profoundly said, to ‘hear the excuses men make to themselves for their worthlessness.’ But these conditions, these excuses, constitute the plot.

It is easy enough to dismiss plot from the scene, if it means only a conundrum like that in ‘The Dead Secret,’ or a series of riddles like the French detective novels. In these the story is all, there is no character worth unravelling; and when we have once got at the secret the book is thrown away. But where the plot is a profound study of the development of character, it can never be thrown away; and unless we have it, the character is not really studied. What we do at any given moment is largely the accumulated result of all previous action; and that action again comes largely from the action of those around us. ‘We are all members one of another.’ Just as we are all learning this in political economy, [139] are we to drop it out of view in fiction? The thought or impulse that springs into my mind or heart this instant has been largely moulded by a hundred men and women, living or dead; if the novelist or the dramatist wishes to portray me, he must include them also. Otherwise the picture is as hopelessly detached and isolated as the figure in this sketch that a very young artist has just brought me in from the seaside—a little boy standing at the apex of a solitary rock, fishing in the ocean; the whole vast sea around him, but not a living thing near him—not even a fish.

We all find ourselves, as we come into mature society and take our part in life, surrounded by a network of event and incident, one-tenth public and nine-tenths private. If we have warm hearts and observant minds we are pretty sure to be entangled in this network. By middle life, every person who has seen much of the world is acquainted with secrets that would convulse the little circle around him, if told; and might easily eclipse all the novels, if the very complication of the matter did not forbid utterance. As no painter, [140] it is said, ever dared paint the sunset as bright as it often is, so the most thrilling novelist understates the mystery and entanglement in the actual world around him. If he is cautious, he may well say, as the Duke of Wellington is said to have remarked when meditating his autobiography: ‘I should like to speak the truth; but if I do, I shall be torn in pieces.’ If our realists would say frankly: ‘We should like to draw plots such as we have actually known; but we dare not do it, let us therefore abolish the plot,’ their position would be far more intelligible. Miss Alcott's heroine, in writing her first stories, finds with surprise that all the things she has taken straight from real life are received with incredulity; and only those drawn wholly from her internal consciousness are believed at all. Life goes so much beyond fiction that those who are brought up mainly on the latter diet are more apt to encounter something in life which eclipses fiction than something which seems tame in comparison. And, on the other hand, when we put real events into the form of fiction, they seem over-wrought and improbable. [141]

Much of this applies, of course, to character as well as to plot. The seeming contradictions in the character of Hamlet, over which the critics have wrangled for a century or two, are not really so great or improbable as those to be found in many youths who pass for commonplace; and that man's experience is limited who has not encountered, in his time, women of more ‘infinite variety’ than Shakespeare's Cleopatra. Character in real life is a far more absorbing study than character in fiction; and when it comes to plot, fiction is nowhere in comparison. Toss a skein of thread into the sea, and within twenty-four hours the waves and the floating seaweed will have tangled it into a knot more perplexing than the utmost effort of your hands can weave; and so the complex plots of life are wound by the currents of life itself, not by the romancers. If life thus provides them, they are a part of life, and must not be omitted when there is a pretence at its delineation. I once heard an eloquent preacher (W. H. Channing) express the opinion that we should spend a considerable part of eternity in unravelling the strange history [142] of one another's lives. It might be easy, perhaps, to devise more profitable ways of spending eternity; but there is no doubt that the pursuit he proposes, if we undertook it, would occupy a good many ages of that period. It would be necessary, however, to stipulate that none of it should be given to us in the form of autobiography, since we have altogether too much of that offered to us in this life. To make our friends really interesting, we must be allowed to explore their secrets in spite of them, and perhaps against their direct opposition.

Of course we all view this drama of life around us through a medium varying with our temperaments. Heine says that he once went to see the thrilling tragedy of ‘La Tour de Nesle,’ in Paris, and sat behind a lady who wore a large hat of rose-red gauze. The hat obstructed his whole view of the stage; he saw the play only through it, and all the horror of the tragedy was transformed by the most cheerful roselight. Some of us are happy in having this rose-tinted veil in our temperaments; but the plot and the tragedy are there. ‘The innocent,’ [143] says Thoreau speaking of life, ‘enjoy the story.’ They should be permitted to enjoy it, which they cannot do unless they have it. Grant that character is the important thing; but character will soon dwindle and its delineation grow less and less interesting, if we detach it from life. We are all but coral-insects or sea-anemones forming a part of one great joint existence, and we die and dry up if torn from the reef where we belong.

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