The Furniture of Fiction

In previous posts I talked about three aspects of narrative fiction: the synthetic, the mimetic, and the thematic. These aspects, in my view, are simultaneous and inseparable, but it can be useful for the analyst to pry them apart, or at least to consider them as if they could be pried apart. In my previous work I have often focused on the synthetic, but in this series of posts I’m going to focus on the mimetic, the building and representation of a narrative world. I will start by looking at the representation of things; in later posts I will look at time and space, social structures, and characters. That should keep me busy for a year or two.

In my previous post (“The “Real” and The “Realistic”’) I examined two descriptions—a description of a real place (the castle of Coucy, as described by Barbara Tuchman) and a “realistic” description of a fictional place (from the beginning of Zola’s Thérèse Raquin), and in this post I will look at two more “realistic” descriptions from fiction. As I’ve noted, I don’t equate “mimetic” with “realistic”, but these passages of “realistic” description can serve as a sort of baseline. In later posts I will look at “realistic” descriptions which aren’t so realistic and also some “non-realistic” descriptions.

I begin with a description from the very beginning of Willa Cather’s novel, The Song of the Lark, first published in 1915; as we look at this passage we should remember that a single passage doesn’t tell us about a writer’s general practice, and we will see that Cather has several different ways of handling descriptions. With that caveat in mind, here’s the passage:

“Dr. Howard Archie had just come up from a game of pool with the Jewish clothier and two traveling men who happened to be staying overnight in Moonstone. His offices were in the Duke Block, over the drug store. Larry, the doctor’s man, had lit the overhead light in the waiting room and the double student’s lamp on the desk in the study. The isinglass sides of the hard-coal burner were aglow, and the air in the study was so hot that as he came in the doctor opened the door into his little operating-room, where there was no stove. The waiting-room was carpeted and stiffly furnished, something like a country-parlor. The study had worn, unpainted floors, but there was a look of winter comfort about it. The doctor’s flat-top desk was large and well made; the papers were in orderly piles, under glass weights. Behind the stove a wide bookcase, with double glass doors, reached from the floor to the ceiling. It was filled with medical books of every thickness and color. On the top shelf stood a long row of thirty or forty volumes, bound all alike in dark mottled board covers, with imitation leather backs.”

This passage comes right at the beginning of the novel. The first words introduce a character, Dr. Archie, and the first paragraph describes his office—not his home. Dr. Archie is one of the most important supporting characters of the story, present and influential from the beginning to the end, but he is not the hero. In a few pages we will meet the heroine, Thea Kronborg, and see her house, when Dr. Archie goes there on a house call.

We see this room because Dr. Archie has entered it, but we don’t see it through his eyes.

There’s a lot of detail in this description, enough for some potential set designer to get a good start on props: a ceiling lamp and a student lamp and a desk, a waiting room and a study and an operating room, a coal burner, a carpet, a desk with papers and glass paper weights, a bookcase. At this point in the story, Cather doesn’t identify the thirty or forty books on the top shelf. I initially assumed they were medical texts, but about twenty pages after this initial description we discover that they are a complete set of the novels of Balzac. We learn something about Dr. Archie’s interests beyond medicine, which are important for the rest of the story. In addition, Cather may be signaling that we should compare her work to Balzac’s social realism.

 All of these details tell us about the doctor and they also give a sense of the physicality of the room. Cather’s view of the world, at least in this passage, includes a careful attention to things. No doubt she is interested in characterization, but she is also interested in the furniture of the world.

We should also note what is left out. We see the doctor’s desk, but we don’t at this point see the doctor’s chair—perhaps because chairs have less to say than desks, which are very talkative. The chair is mentioned on the next page, because Dr. Archie sits down. We can guess that there are chairs in the waiting room, but we don’t see them. We can assume, I think, that the study is the doctor’s consulting room, but we don’t know where the patients would sit. In a later passage Thea comes to Dr. Archie’s office and sits in a chair next to his desk. The office has, as one would expect, a full set of furniture, even if it’s not all described here. No verbal description could possibly give the kind of detail provided by a painting or a photograph or a film. A writer, even a writer as interested in things as Cather is, has to choose what to describe and what to leave out.

Cather uses this description to characterize the doctor and perhaps also his social situation. His office is neat and orderly but in no way ostentatious. He has an operating-room attached to his office; perhaps the town doesn’t have a hospital. Dr. Archer is sociable; he likes a game of pool, and he’s happy to play with the clothier and with two strangers. The narrator notes that the clothier is Jewish—ethnic identifications were more common and more accepted in Cather’s day than in ours; a couple of pages later the heroine of the novel is described as a Swede, and there’s a lot of discussion of race and ethnicity throughout the novel. I will say more about social mimesis in a later post.

Now here’s a passage from Skylight, an early novel (published posthumously) by the great Portuguese novelist, José Saramago. In Chapter 6 a young man named Abel rents a room from an older couple, Silvestre and Mariana, who have a modest apartment in a building in Lisbon: “The boy (or so he seemed to Silvestre) stepped confidently into the apartment. He glanced around the walls and floor, alarming the estimable Mariana, ever fearful that someone might find fault with her cleaning.” (49)

Abel likes the room but says he can’t rent it unfurnished; Silvestre offers to provide some furniture and they come to an agreement. After Abel leaves, Silvestre and Mariana move a few pieces of furniture into the room: A bed, a table, a chest of drawers, and a chair.

“Mariana put clean sheets on the bed and gave the room a final tidying up. Husband and wife stood back to admire their work, but remained unsatisfied. The room still looked empty. Not that there was a lot of free space. On the contrary, you had to turn sideways to get in between the bed and the chest of drawers. But it lacked a certain something to cheer the place up and make it homey. Mariana went off and returned shortly afterward with a doily and a vase. Silvestre gave an approving nod. The furniture, so stiff and glum before, took on a more cheerful aspect. And with a rug to cover the bare floor and a few other such touches, the room took on an air of modest comfort. Mariana and Silvestre looked at each other and smiled, like people congratulating each other on the success of an enterprise.” (52)

We see this room because Abel is looking at it, and we see the furniture because Mariana and Silvestre are moving it into the room. Saramago makes good use of this description to tell us about the room—the furniture is meager and the room is cramped—and the characters—Mariana is proud of her housekeeping. The addition of the doily shows how much can be made of a single detail. Silvestre and Mariana do their best with what little they have and they take satisfaction in what little they can do. Saramago makes his own commentary on this passage somewhat later in the book, in Chapter 21:

“Lying in bed, his feet resting on a newspaper so as not to dirty the bedspread, Abel was enjoying a cigarette. He had eaten well. Mariana was a good cook and an excellent housewife. You could see this in the way the apartment was furnished, in the small details. His room was further proof. The furniture was poor but clean and had a dignified air about it. There is no doubt that just as pets—well, cats and dogs at least—reflect the temperament and character of their owners, the furniture and even the most insignificant household objects reflect something of the lives of their owners too. They give off coldness or warmth, friendliness or reserve. They are witnesses constantly recounting, in a silent language, what they have seen and what they know. The difficulty lies in finding the best, most private moment, the most propitious light, in which to hear their confession.” (145)

Saramago seems to be stating his own theory and practice as a novelist, at least in this early work. Objects tell us about the people associated with them. The neatness and dignity of the apartment confirm what we have already learned about Mariana. But we also learn something about Abel: he’s the sort of person who leaves his shoes on when he lies down on the bed, but he also takes care to put down a newspaper to keep the bedspread clean.

Both Cather and Saramago are realists; both describe places and things, and both use descriptions to characterize. Their practices, however, are not identical—at least in these passages. There are only a few things in Abel’s room: a bed, a table, a chest of drawers, a chair, a rug, and as finishing touches a vase and a doily. The doctor’s office is more richly furnished. Some of the objects are given individual attention: the isinglass in the coal-burner is aglow, the floors in the study are unpainted, the desk is well-made, the bookcase is wide and it has double glass doors, and the books on the top shelf—thirty or forty of them—are bound all alike, with imitation leather backs. The rooms in the two novels are different—there’s simply more to describe here than there was in Abel’s room—but I think there’s also a difference in technique. Many writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries liked a kind of Victorian fussiness in their furnishings, but many writers of the mid-twentieth century concentrate on a few items, sometimes even just one particularly significant detail. We have to remember, however, that each writer has an individual personality—some are just more interested in things, some less so, no matter what the tendency of the period may be.

The objects in Abel’s room are there because the characters have put them there, but the objects in Dr. Archie’s office have an existence of their own, independent of the doctor. No doubt the doctor chose the furnishings of his office, but we don’t see his reasons for choosing them or observe his reactions to them. They are just there. We see the objects in his office because he is there, as a few pages later we will see Thea’s house when he goes there, but the descriptions are independent of his perceptions. It’s always interesting to examine the extent of human involvement or perception in a description. In the passage from Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror that I quoted in a previous post, we note that she introduces the reactions of a sort of imaginary observer of the castle: “Travelers coming from any direction could see this colossus of baronial power from miles away and, on approaching it, feel the awe of the traveler in infidel lands at first sight of the pyramids.” Cather’s description of Dr. Archie’s office only occurs because he enters the room, but the description doesn’t depend on his perceptions. The description of Abel’s room in Skylight includes his perceptions of the room and also the activity of Silvestre and Mariana as they move furniture into the room and try to make it look attractive. Here’s another passage from Cather’s The Song of the Lark; here Thea is setting herself up in the attic, so that she can have some privacy in a very crowded house (Part I, Chapter VIII):

“Thea had three music pupils now, little girls whose mothers declared that Professor Wunsch was ‘much too severe.’ They took their lessons on Saturday, and this, of course, cut down her time for play. She did not really mind this because she was allowed to use the money—her pupils paid her twenty-five cents a lesson—to fit up a little room for herself upstairs in the half-story. It was the end room of the wing, and was not plastered, but was snugly lined with soft pine. The ceiling was so low that a grown person could reach it with the palm of the hand, and it sloped down on either side. There was only one window, but it was a double one and went to the floor. In October, while the days were still warm, Thea and Tillie papered the room, walls and ceiling in the same paper, small red and brown roses on a yellowish ground. Thea bought a brown cotton carpet, and her big brother, Gus, put it down for her Sunday. She made white cheesecloth curtains and hung them on a tape. Her mother gave her an old walnut dresser with a broken mirror, and she had her own dumpy walnut single bed, and a blue washbowl and pitcher which she had drawn at a church fair lottery. At the head of the bed she had a tall round wooden hat-crate, from the clothing store. This, standing on one end and draped with cretonne, made a fairly steady table for her lantern. She was not allowed to take a lamp upstairs, so Ray Kennedy gave her a railroad lantern by which she could read at night.”

Again we see the writer construct a world—or part of the world—by having a character construct it. Thea’s room has more in it than Abel’s room does—not a lot more, but some; Cather’s description is somewhat fuller; and Thea herself is picking what she wants, within her means, so the room is a manifestation of her character. These two passages from The Song of the Lark describe two quite different rooms—Dr. Archie’s professionally well-appointed office and Thea’s improvised attic bedroom. Both rooms are fully furnished, with lots of carefully selected objects, but they show different characters with different resources.

In this post I’ve been looking at some examples of realistic mimesis and their thematic implications. In my next post I plan to look at some posts that play with the boundary between the real and the unreal.

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