Friday, March 12, 2010

Ingenuity in plotting

“What about the idea that plot should be ingenious, complicated,” Elizabeth Bowen wondered—“a display of ingenuity remarkable enough to command attention?”

Although an ingenious plot is not a logical structure, it serves the same purpose in fiction that argument serves in philosophy—and may even rival philosophical argument in brilliance. The trouble, or the glory, is that literary critics have never devised a notational system for reducing the plot to its necessary causal sequence. Indeed, critics have an allergy to reducing a novel to its plot. So much else about it seem so much more important!

But the plot is what gives the “so much else” its importance. And when it is airtight, the plot succeeds in establishing, I would hold, the validity of the novel’s central theme.

Consider one of the most brilliantly plotted novels of all time—Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence (1920). The novel is written, as I have argued before now, to verify a “tragic view of marital duty.” The verification is accomplished by the plot, which I now proceed to reduce to a sequence of necessary steps.

(1.) Newland Archer, “impelled to decisive action,” joins the Mingotts, his fiancée’s family, in their box at the opera, where they have brought the disgraced cousin Ellen Olenska, a “young woman with a history,” into public for the first time since she left her Polish husband and returned to New York.

(2.) When his own family criticizes Madame Olenska at dinner the next evening, a “spirit of perversity” moves Archer to defend her. “She’s ‘poor Ellen’ certainly, because she had the bad luck to make a wretched marrage,” he says; “but I don’t see that that’s a reason for hiding her head as if she were the culprit.”

(3.) The Mingotts plan a “formal dinner” at which Madame Olenska will be reintroduced into New York society, but no one accepts their invitation; and so Archer, “aflame at the outrage,” goes to the van der Luydens, the most important family in the city, socially speaking, and asks them to host a dinner in Ellen’s honor. They agree.

(4.) At the dinner, Archer dissents from the general agreement that Madame Olenska had “lost her looks”; they converse at some length for the first time, talking (a little dangerously) about love; when he rises to leave, Ellen touches his knee with her fan (“it thrilled him like a caress”) and instructs him to visit her tomorrow.

(5.) Archer arrives at her house to find Madame Olenska gone; she returns in the company of Julius Beaufort, a notorious roué. Alone together at last, Archer tries to explain what the van der Luydens and her aunt Mrs Manson Mingott have done on her behalf. Ellen understands; they want to help her, but only “on condition that they don’t hear anything unpleasant.” She bursts into tears: “Does no one want to know the truth here, Mr Archer? The real loneliness is living among all these kind people who only ask one to pretend!” Archer comforts her.

(6.) After leaving her house, Archer stops at a florist to send “the daily box of lilies-of-the-valley” to his fiancée May Welland. His eyes light upon yellow roses, and he is struck by their “fiery beauty.” On impulse, he sends them to Madame Olenska—anonymously.

(7.) Two weeks later, Archer is asked by the head of the law firm in which he is an associate partner to look over Madame Olenska’s divorce papers. The Mingott family, he is given to understand, should like him to persuade Ellen not to go ahead.

(8.) Archer goes to see Madame Olenska. While discussing the divorce, he becomes convinced that the gossip surrounding her is true after all—she is the culprit. Unwilling to speak the truth, he pleads with Ellen to drop the divorce: it will only cause unpleasantness, “a lot of beastly talk.” “But my freedom,” she protests—“is that nothing?” Archer replies that the people who are fondest of her judge divorce by a different standard (“Our legislation favours divorce—our social customs don’t”). Ellen agrees to drop the divorce, saying that Archer is right.

(9.) Meeting several evenings later at the theatre for a performance of Dion Boucicault’s Shaughraun, Madame Olenska and Archer are both struck by the melodramatic scene in which two lovers must part. “Do you think,” Ellen asks, “he will send her a bunch of yellow roses tomorrow morning?”

(10.) Three days later, Archer receives a note from Madame Olenska. She has fled to the van der Luydens’ house Skuytercliff in the Hudson Valley. “I ran away,” she writes, “the day after I saw you at the play, and these kind friends have taken me in.”

(11.) Archer goes to Skuytercliff. He finds Madame Olenska, but while talking to her, he sees Julius Beaufort coming up the drive. He leaps to the conclusion that Beaufort is arriving for an assignation. “I didn’t know he was here,” Ellen says, but Archer draws away from her and calls out to Beaufort in greeting: “Madame Olenska was expecting you.”

(12.) Four days later, back in New York, Archer receives a note: “Come late tomorrow: I must explain to you. Ellen.”

(13.) Instead, Archer jumps on a boat for St. Augustine, where his fiancée May has gone for the winter with her family.

(14.) In St. Augustine, Archer pleads with May to move up the date of their wedding. She gazes at him with a “despairing clearness” and asks why. “Is it—is it because you’re not certain of continuing to care for me? . . . [I]s there some one else?” May offers to release Archer from his promise to her. “I couldn’t have my happiness made out of a wrong—an unfairness—to someone else,” she says. Archer denies there is anyone else, and swears that he wishes to move up the date of their wedding out of disgust for submitting to “foolish conventionalities.”

(15.) Returning to New York, Archer goes to see Madame Olenska. He tells her that May had guessed the truth. “There is another woman,” he says. “[Y]ou are the woman I would have married if it had been possible for either of us.” Ellen is astonished. “[I]t’s you who’ve made it impossible,” she says. It was Archer who dissauded her from divorcing, “to spare one’s family the publicity, the scandal.” Ellen only agreed to drop the divorce because her family would become his family when he married May. “I’ve made no secret of having done it for you!” she cries. Archer confesses his love for her, but Ellen says that “it’s too late to do anything but what we’d both decided on.” Why? It was Archer himself who had taught her gratitude and loyalty to the people who had worked so hard to make possible her social acceptance. Ellen had watched him closely, and had seen that he “hated happiness bought by disloyalty and cruelty and indifference.” Everything he had asked her to do had underscored that lesson. To run away with him now would be to undo all the good that he himself had accomplished; it would be, as she puts it much later, to destroy the lives of those who helped her remake her own; it would be to achieve happiness by means of disloyalty and cruelty and indifference. “I can’t love you unless I give you up,” Ellen concludes.

(16.) Archer and May Welland are wed.

(17.) Archer looks into his future, “and passing down its endless emptiness he saw the dwindling figure of a man to whom nothing was ever to happen.”

(18.) Much happens, including a sad reunion between Archer and Madame Olenska, but nothing happens that is necessary to the plot until, many weeks later, Mrs Manson Mingott suffers a stroke. Ellen is summoned back to New York to take her place at the deathbed. Archer is assigned the task of fetching her from Union Station. They exchange the usual expressions of deep feeling, and agree to meet at the Metropolitan Museum. Archer tells her that he wants them to be together. “Is it your idea, then, that I should live with you as your mistress,” Ellen says—“since I can’t be your wife?” Finally, several days later, she asks if she should come to him once and then return to Europe. In despair, Archer tells her to come to him once—tomorrow.

(19.) Before the assignation can occur, however, May tells her cousin Ellen Olenska that she is pregnant with Archer’s first child.

(20.) Madame Olenska returns the hotel-room key that Archer had sent her, and after a farewell dinner for her arranged by May, she departs for Europe.

And with that the plot is complete. What is striking is how ingeniously Wharton arranges for Newland Archer, “impelled to decisive action” and moved by “a spirit of perversity,” to do the very things that later make it impossible for him to achieve the happiness he so desperately longs for. He himself plotted, behind the scenes, to remake Ellen Olenska’s life, and his plot comes back to haunt him.

So too his mistakes. He lies to Ellen about the reasons she ought not to divorce. He is afraid of the scandal, because he believes her to be a wanton; and in his own rush to assume the worst about her, he embraces the very “social customs” that condemn Ellen to loneliness—the refusal to tell the truth, the insistence upon pretense. And he lies to May Welland too, when she, in a generosity of spirit, offers to release him from his promises. When he cannot bring himself to tell May the truth, the iron doors of his promise swing shut, trapping him forever.

Newland Archer himself has brought about the tragedy of an “endlessly empty” life—through plots and errors. Only at the very end of the novel does he learn, from his son Dallas, that May had known all along about his passionate desire for Ellen. Even though she had guessed the truth, she had “spun” the story differently to their son, telling Dallas on her deathbed that “when she asked [him] to, [he had] given up the thing [he] most wanted.” Only when it was too late, that is, did Newland Archer understand the depth of character in his wife, and the fullness she might have provided him—if only. . . .

In The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton does not build an intellectual case for the tragedy of marriage. She lays it out—by plots and errors moved. And in so doing, she puts on abundant and satisfying display how the greatest novelists think.


Kevin said...

Very nice, well done. I've been intending to pick up Age of Innocence since your previous post on Wharton — and now have no excuse except my own weak, paltry will... Cheers, K

R/T said...

Thank you for offering the intriguing lens through which I can now reread and reassess Wharton's novel. As always, your perspective on specific texts serves as a catalyst for me to reevaluate my previously held assumptions and interpretations. It is a bit like attending a blog-based master-class.

dglen said...

This goes a long way to articulating what I feel when I'm trying to say what's missing from Reality Hunger.

Kevin said...

Hi Professor Myers, I've been thinking about his post for the better part of the day.

Why do you say "verify" a tragic view of marital duty?

It's not as if Wharton is presenting a thesis that can be proved.

Perhaps I'm reading too much into it — still, can you say something more about this?

For sheer aesthetic power, what other works of hers should I short-list?

Best, Kevin

jim prentiss said...

When I read your post about "The Age of Innocence"(9/6/09), I picked up the book and could not put it down because I enjoyed the story (plot). Edith Wharton has a collection of stories, "The New York Stories of Edith Wharton", published by NYRB Classics, that I enjoyed. The story from that collection that I read over and over is "The Long Run". I think it is about the idea of commitment, but what do I know you are the teacher. Like to know your thoughts about that story.

D. G. Myers said...


That is just exactly what I mean—or, rather, what I hypothesize. The philosopher seeks to validate his central claim through argument; the novelist, through plot.


I don’t know the story, or any of Wharton’s stories, for that matter. Only the novels. Tell me more.

Kevin said...

Thank you!

Second part of my question?


Steven said...

Dear Mr. Myers,

Sometimes there are things so good that there is no rejoinder, only thanks. Too infrequently is that thanks expressed, and so I take this opportunity to do so.

Thank you--this was wonderful reading and served to remind me to read much of Ms. Wharton again (as time allows).



Edward Champion said...

But what if the novelist isn't interested in commanding attention? It seems hardly fair to put the onus of plot (and therefore readership, a population sector who may or may not respond to plot, depending upon how jaded and elitist your viewpoint is) on the novelist, which assumes that all novelists desire the same tedious commercial goals. You should see what Dan Green has to say about your post. Your viewpoint leaves out nearly every experimental writer and giddy rule-breaking novelist. A great novel need not verify your viewpoint (although it can). Indeed, such a limited reading approach is akin to a child braying for a security blanket.