Wednesday, September 7, 2016
Plot and character in Trollope and elsewhere
The miserable Mr. Slope preaches a sermon arguing against the use of music in Anglican church services, which sets off a huge public debate in Barchester. Hard to believe, in today's terms, and had to believe this would be of interest to any contemporary reader; yet, as noted yesterday, Trollope keeps us engaged because we understand, recognize, and know about the characters - his great description of Slope, with his face the color of roast beef (in England, I guess that would be gray? or grey?) and his moist, clammy hands; and of course the honorable but unfortunate Warden, Mr. Harding, who is led to believe he will regain his abandoned post as the churchman in charge of the "hospital" (home for the aged, we would call it today) - and we know that obviously he desires will once again be thwarted - he's up against much more serious and unprincipled antagonists. What Trollope is getting at, what he's demonstrating in this novel (and others) is that you can write a great narrative about almost any conflict - as long as there is a conflict, that it comes to resolution, and that the characters propelling (or propelled by) the action are "round" and complex, not props or puppets (they can, I guess, be caricatures, if the author has the right comic touch, e.g., Dickens). This goes back to discussion of the importance of plot: readers like, even demand, plot - but plot is not what makes a novel great or otherwise (exception being certain genre writing, sci fi and mystery, e.g., which are more plot-dependent than literary fiction); we remember plot, plot is the string we pull on when we try to bring once-read novel back into our consciousness, but it's rarely what made the novel worth reading (and remembering) in the first place.