“My World—and Welcome to It”

I stole the title of this post from a delightful book of stories and essays by the American humorist, James Thurber. I think it exactly states the invitation that a storyteller makes to the reader or listener. A story is a world, and the storyteller has to make the world of the story welcoming—not necessarily pleasant, but welcoming in some way that will convince the reader that it’s a world worth entering. In this series of posts I’m trying to get at the ways a storyteller creates the world of the story. Some story worlds are pretty much like the world we all live in, some are not, but no story world directly describes reality, whatever “reality” is. The story world is always the world as seen by somebody—the author, the narrator, or the characters within the story—though as we will see sometimes the author tries to create the effect of a world that exists without being perceived. Of course the world of a story may include many different subsidiary worlds, as the characters move from place to place, and even—in some fantasy stories, for example—from world to world.

There are lots of possible narrative worlds, and lots of different ways of representing narrative worlds. Some writers, for example, are very interested in placing the action of the story within a larger context of what we might call nature, and others don’t care about nature so much. In this post I want to look at the beginnings of three novels, all of which begin with some account of the world of nature, but in three different ways. Here is the first paragraph of Ernest Hemmingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls:

“He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees. The mountainside sloped gently where he lay; but below it was steep and he could see the dark of the oiled road winding through the pass. There was a stream alongside the road and far down the pass he saw a mill beside the stream and the falling water of the dam, white in the summer sunlight.”

Hemmingway’s world is rich in physical sensations, as felt by Robert Jordan, the hero of the story. Jordan, or his pronoun, is the first word in the story, and the first sentence details his position—lying down, with his chin on his arms. In the second sentence we see the oiled road because Jordan sees it, as in the third sentence we see the mill because he sees it. Hemmingway gives us the scene through Jordan’s senses. The natural world continues to be important throughout the story—almost all the story takes place outdoors—but always as it is perceived by one of the characters, particularly by the hero.

Here are a few more instances from the first chapter: “He sat by the packs and watched the old man climb the ledge. It was not hard to climb and from the way he found hand-holds without searching for them the young man could see that he had climbed it many times before.” “He sat now by the stream watching the clear water flowing beneath the rocks and, across the stream, he noticed there was a thick bed of watercress.” “He could see a trail through the grass where the horses had been led to the stream to drink and there was the fresh manure of several horses.”

The very end of the novel is a ring which brings us back to the first paragraph. Jordan has been badly wounded in the attack on the bridge which is the goal of the whole story. He tells his companions to go on without him, while he waits behind, dying, but hoping to ambush the enemy and to slow the pursuit. Still we are in the world of Jordan’s perceptions. “Robert Jordan saw them there on the slope, close to him now, and below he saw the road and the bridge and the long lines of vehicles below it. He was completely integrated now and he took a good long look at everything. Then he looked up at the sky. There were big white clouds in it. He touched the palm of his hand against the pine needles where he lay and he touched the bark of the pine trunk that he lay behind. […] Robert Jordan lay behind the tree, holding onto himself very carefully and delicately to keep his hands steady. He was waiting until the officer reached the sunlit place where the first trees of the pine forest joined the green slope of the meadow. He could feel his heart beating against the pine needle floor of the forest.” And that’s the end. The novel begins and ends with the pine needles.

Compare the beginning of Virginia Wolfe’s The Waves. Most of this novel is taken up with passages which represent the mental processes, the thoughts and feelings and perceptions, of the various characters of the story. These passages are punctuated as direct quotations, but they represent unspoken mental states and processes rather than speech. These are punctuated from time to time by other short passages printed in italics, which seem to represent the natural world, through the course of a day from sunrise to sunset; a few artifacts of human manufacture are mentioned, but there is little direct human presence. Thus the italicized sections are starkly different from the rest of the story. The book begins with one of these:

“The sun had not yet risen. The sea was indistinguishable from the sky, except that the sea was slightly creased as if a cloth had wrinkles in it. Gradually as the sky whitened a dark line lay on the horizon dividing the sea from the sky and the grey cloth became barred with thick strokes moving, one after another, beneath the surface. Following each other, pursuing each other, perpetually.
“As they neared the shore each bar rose, heaped itself, broke and swept a thin veil of white water across the sand. The wave paused, and then drew out again, sighing like a sleeper whose breath comes and goes unconsciously. Gradually the dark bar on the horizon became clear as if the sediment in an old wine-bottle had sunk and left the glass green. Behind it, too, the sky cleared as if the  white sediment there had sunk, or as if the arm of a woman couched beneath the horizon had raised a lamp hither and the air seemed to become fibrous and to tear away from the green surface flickering and flaming in red and yellow fibres like the smoky fire that roars from a bonfire.”

And so on for another page or so. Later in this second paragraph of the opening, chirping birds are introduced, but these are the only living things in the passage. There are no people in this description, except for those adumbrated in the similes. In the passage from For Whom the Bell Tolls the sensory perceptions come to us through Robert Jordan. In this passage, however, there is no indication of anyone to perceive the sun, the sea, the sky, the sand, and so on. If there is a perceiver, it is the narrator, who does not appear except as the source of the words, if they have a source. I think that the intended effect is a kind of impersonal subjectivity, as it were, almost as if from the perspective of the writer of the creation story in Genesis.

Now here’s the beginning of Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native:

“A Saturday afternoon in November was approaching the time of twilight, and the vast tract of unenclosed wild known as Egdon Heath embrowned itself moment by moment. Overhead the hollow stretch of whitish cloud shutting out the sky was a tent which had the whole heath as its floor.
“The heaven being spread with this pallid screen and the earth with the darkest vegetation, their meeting line as the horizon was clearly marked. In such contrast the heath wore the appearance of an instalment of night which had taken up its place before its astronomical hour was come: darkness had to a great extent arrived hereon, while day stood distinct in the sky. Looking upwards, a furze cutter would have been inclined to continue work; looking down, he would have decided to finish his faggot and go home. The distant rims of the world and of the firmament seemed to be a division in time no less than a division in matter. The race of the heath by its mere complexion added half an hour to evening; it could in like manner retard the dawn, sadden noon, anticipate the frowning of storms scarcely generated, and intensify the opacity of a moonless midnight to a cause of shaking and dread.”

Hardy here is placing his story—its human actions and actors—in a larger context of nature, which is untouched by the human actions. Towards the end of this first chapter Hardy reinforces the point:

“To recline on a stump of thorn in the central valley of Egdon between afternoon and night, as now, where the eye could reach nothing of the world outside the summits and shoulders of heathland which filled the whole circumference of its glance, and to know that everything around and underneath had been from prehistoric times as unaltered as the stars overhead, gave ballast to the mind adrift on change, and harassed by the irrepressible New. The great inviolate place had an ancient permanence which the sea cannot claim. Who can say of a particular sea that it is old? Distilled by the sun, kneaded by the moon, it is renewed in a year, in a day, or in an hour. The sea changed, the fields changed, the rivers, the villages, and the people changed, yet Egdon remained.”

And so on for another paragraph. Then the next chapter begins: “Along the road walked an old man.” This old man, and the other characters in the story, are placed within the greater context of the natural world and Egdon heath in particular. Some critics have argued that Egdon heath is in fact the protagonist of the novel. I think this peculiar reading misses the point of the human actions which make the story, but nonetheless it is important to note that these actions take place in a larger context, a world of timeless nature.

These three passages—I could easily add a dozen more, or fifty, or a hundred—show three different ways of building a world. All three writers are “realists” (at least most of the time) and all three passages are “realistic”, and all three present “nature”, but in very different ways. Woolf’s world is introduced with no human participation or perception, except the perception of the narrator outside the story and the perception of the reader at second hand. Hardy’s world exists before and after and beyond the human, but he still finds it useful to introduce a furze-cutter, who plays no role in the story except to look up at the sky and down at the ground. Hemmingway’s world is nature as perceived by the characters. Often we take a “realistic” narrative world for granted, as if all “realisms” of every sort described the same “reality”, the same “nature”, but the “real” is not simply real, and “nature” is not simply natural.

5 thoughts on ““My World—and Welcome to It”

  1. Similar effects and affects arise in many of Conrad’s openings. I’m partial to the openings of *Heart of Darkness* and “The Secret Sharer.” Character narrators, I think, throw a particular wrinkle into situating readers within/without the storyworld. Emma K. and I had occasional discussions about immersive reading and the experience of storyworld. She was not, by her own admission, a ‘feeler’.

    I can relate to both the Hemingway and Woolf examples; I have used other works of theirs to illustrate some of my thinking about affective reading. But my experience of those texts is wholly different from my experience of Conrad’s.

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    1. Thanks for this, Randy. I will have to go back to look at Conrad’s openings. There’s just so much material, the problem is selection. If I continue this series I will have more to say about first-person v. third-person perspectives, including various kinds of focalization (thanks to Frances for bringing this up on her Facebook comment) and Free Indirect Discourse. I’m interested in your conversation with Emma. What did she mean about not being a “feeler”? What do you mean? Are you a “feeler”? What is one if one isn’t a “feeler”?

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      1. I ‘feel’ bad leaving Matthew’s questions just hanging here without an apparent attempt to answer them. And, I think I might be getting a hang of how to work with WordPress and not have my replies disappear into the great digital void.

        It has been some years since that conversation with Emma K. and my memories might be different that what you might have learned had you had the opportunity to ask her. But, here goes: the ‘conversation’, mostly through eMail but also occasionally at ISSN conferences, revolved around ekphrasis and my rhetorical approach to it which differed from her more ‘traditional’ (re)representation account of it in her work. This was an early exploration of the affective in ekphrasis, well before I started my run through the rabbit warrens of rhetoric and affect theory. We were discussing the effect of ekphrasis on immersed readers, how even sparse descriptions in texts are evocative of a scene even to the extent that re-reading a text often leaves (the immersed) reader asking, “Is that all there is to this scene? Why do I remember so much more than is written here?”

        If you have read (and) were affected by RLS’s *Kidnapped*, especially the scene in which young Davey is climbing—during a raging storm—the ruined and unfinished tower at his (evil) uncle’s behest to (ostensibly) obtain his bequest, you will have a sense of what I am getting at. The text is VERY sparse but the ekphrasis (in the rhetorical sense) is sufficiently stunning (to the immersed and affected reader) as to leave a lasting impression.

        It is that “immersed and affected” reader that Emma claimed she was not. I, on the other hand, am a ‘feeler’. And that is likely why I was so early drawn first to reader-response theory and then, later, to the rhetorical theory of narrative and, now, to rhetoric, itself.

        I don’t know that there is anything particularly good or bad about being a ‘feeler’ or not. It is simply a different lens through which we can engage the world, and—as Martha Nussbaum might have us believe, as a consequence of her theory of (first, literary and now) narrative imagination—others.

        Are there signs by which one can tell they are a ‘feeler’? Maybe. I think that one such sign is the ability to ‘hear’ the voices of others when reading their work. For instance, as a consequence of our having spoken together in the past and not necessarily about such things as this, do you ‘hear’ my voice, even though I am not there in the room as you read this?

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  2. What great contrasts! All these entry points to world building are so interesting.

    I’d love to know more about how you would characterize the perspective in the Hardy (as contrasted with Woolf’s “impersonal subjectivity” and Hemingway’s focus on Jordan’s perception)?

    In the Hardy, like in the Woolf, natural elements (sea, sky) are the subjects of most of the sentences, but the way these subjects behave is quite different. I could really go on about that first sentence of the Hardy, with “Saturday afternoon in November” as the subject of the first clause and “vast tract…” as the subject of the second. The first relies on human calendars, but making it a subject that can “approach” almost takes a position outside of time, one able to observe the passage of time from a timeless perspective that also observes human attempts to measure it (are “Saturday afternoon” and “the time of twilight”different registers?). Perhaps that idea is reinforced by the second clause with its “vast tract of unenclosed wild” which is, however temporarily, linguistically enclosed by being “known as” Egdon Heath (and don’t get me started on “embrowned itself”!).

    If the perspective in the Woolf is, as you say, like that of “the writer of the creation story in Genesis,” what is this perspective that sees all of time, but is nonetheless particularly interested in Egdon Heath?

    Looking forward to more!

    (Also, sorry if this got posted several times – I’m having trouble communicating with WordPress!)

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  3. Brilliant. I will have to take some time to think about your comments. I’m still in the gathering-evidence-phase of this project, so my interpretations are decidedly provisional and subject to change as there is more evidence. I have sometimes talked about what I call “God’s newspaper”, which tells everything that happens exactly as it happens with no mediation. It’s written by God and read by God simultaneously. Perhaps that’s the limit condition of the narrator of the creation story.

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