Friday, March 26, 2010

Plot and pattern

It is certainly true, as my critics protest, that there is more than one way to hold a novel together. There is, for example, the dramatic monologue—boring, and cut off from the main stream of the novel’s history, but available to all would-be “experimental writers.” Trickier to pull off, but also more promising, is what A. S. Byatt calls, with rather more of a verbal shrug than one would expect from a first-rate novelist, “poetic form.”

In the Introduction to the Oxford Classics edition of Middlemarch, Byatt writes that the novel is “held together . . . by a web of metaphors, interlinked and constantly developing and modifying each other, of which the web itself is a central example.” After connecting the dominant image of the web to “the image of eyes and light,” and after tracing Eliot’s dancing pattern of webs and eyes, Byatt concludes: “Such connections are mode than decorative or instructive; they are a form of discovery and creation, a mode of knowledge and the medium of art.”

Perhaps Daniel Green would prefer Byatt’s critical language, or at least her authority. But Byatt is not really saying anything much different from what I have been holding about plot.

The novel is a pattern art; the pattern, usually a plot but occasionally (rarely) a substitution for it, is the intellectual element in fiction; not Aristotelian dianoia but intellectual patterning, customarily by means of an ingenious plot, is where a novelist’s thought is to be found.

The rest of Green’s objections to my case can be easily dispensed with.

“If plot is not a logical structure,” he asks, “how can it serve the same purpose as argument?” Because argument is the organizing principle in philosophy. Logic is the method by which philosophical argument is conducted: it is peculiar to philosophy. Plot is (almost always) the method by which a novel’s “argument” is conducted. It is fiction’s answer to philosophy.

“Why is it assumed that every novel has a ‘central theme’?” Green goes on. “Don't some novelists work without the assumption of a ‘theme’?” To answer in reverse order. No, and because, as in music, novels operate by means of announcing the theme and then developing and varying it. You will notice that I am using the term theme in its Nabokovian sense. Theme is not dianoia; it is not, that is, simply the novelist’s speech. It is an element, the central element, in the novel’s pattern.

All of the remainder of Green’s questions (“How do we decide which [theme] the plot is validating?” “How do we know that [The Age of Innocence] was written to ‘verify’ this theme?”) can be answered with a single word. By argument. The critic is related by marriage to the philosopher. He must present a case for his assertions. I recommend that Daniel Green try it some time.


scott g.f.bailey said...

I largely agree with the statements you've lately made regarding plot, but I have two quibbles:

1. To separate plot from character, theme and language seems to be dividing a house against itself. In good fiction, all of the elements are of course interconnected, and a plot point is no more or less structurally vital than character development. However, Aristotle was right enough when he said that character was action and action is plot.

2. You state that "novels operate by means of announcing the theme and then developing and varying it." I would say that novels examine themes from a variety of angles, but if you mean that a novel states a thesis and then gives supporting arguments and evidence for that thesis, I am doubtful. More often, I would claim, novels reveal theme slowly and although theme and climax are almost always foreshadowed from the start, theme itself is only directly presented (if at all) in the second act.

D. G. Myers said...

(1.) You are surely right in practice, but not in theory. There is, after all, no way to tell a story without characters (even if the characters are animals or cyborgs). It is possible, however, to separate them analytically.

Please remember, too, that one of my goals is fundamentally to transform our Aristotelian habits—to uproot thought from character and replant it in plot, drama, action.

(2.) There are thesis novels, but I did not have them in mind. I mean that novels introduce a passage or verbal formula containing an image or framing a problem which is then interlaced throughout the rest, which advances by developing it or playing variations upon it. What you call the slow revelation of theme is another way of saying pretty much the same thing. Where we differ is in my conviction that, as in music, the theme is announced early. It is, in any event, a structural device.

R. T. said...

My understanding of plot tends to echo your argument. Plot, to my mind, is the logical, cause-and-effect relationship between events, and that relationship gains strength and momentum because of conflict(s). I would emphasize that the key words are these: logical, cause-and-effect, relationship, and conflict. These qualities are so interlocked within plot that the whole is very much dependent upon the logical relationship of the parts; this suggests that focusing on a single part in isolation, without being mindful of the whole, undermines the reader's (critic's) appreciation of the plot.

Joshua Mostafa said...

Presumably in your quotation from Byatt - "Such connections are mode than decorative or instructive" - it should be "more" not "mode".

On the topic. Plot is the way a novel is held together, but that is no reason to privilege it over other elements - the most important part of the present is not the ribbon that binds it.

A writer's thought is to be found everywhere in a novel: in the sentence, in the metaphor, in the narrative, in the voice, in the characters. Books in which the plot takes precedence are unsatisfying.