Versions of Reality

In a previous post I looked at a passage of world-building from Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark. In this post I will look at that passage again from several perspectives, and then compare it to a passage from Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. Here’s the passage from The Song of the Lark:

“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 description feels “objective”: the narrator is simply transcribing what’s in the room. Or some of what’s in the room; as I pointed out in my earlier post, there is some selection here, because not everything is described, and selection introduces a hint of subjectivity, even if that subjectivity is not foregrounded. The Song of the Lark is written in the third-person, which is typically more “objective” than the first-person. But the examination in an earlier post of the beginning of For Whom the Bell Tolls shows that a third-person description can be focalized through a perceiving subject—and this kind of focalization is common, particularly in twentieth-century narrative. Cather could have written a description focalized through Dr. Archie:

“When Dr. Archie returned to his office about the drug store, after a game of pool with the Jewish clothier and two traveling men who happened to be staying overnight in Moonstone, he saw that Larry, his man, had lit the overhead light in the waiting room and the double student’s lamp on the desk in the study. He could see that the isinglass sides of the hard-coal burner were aglow; he felt the hot air in the study, and so he opened the door into his little operating-room, where there was no stove.”

Indeed, she could have written this description with the technique known as Free Indirect Speech, where the thoughts of a character are incorporated into the narrator’s voice. Thus: “He could see that the isinglass sides of the hard-coal burner were aglow. How hot it was! What a relief to open door to the cooler air of the study!”

Just as a third-person description can be more or less subjective, a first-person description can be more or less objective. We could turn the description of the office into an objective first-person account by introducing a narrator inside the story (a homodiegetic narrator, to use the technical term). Let’s say this passage is told by a character named Jack, who comes to visit the doctor:

“Dr. Archie took me into his office, which was illuminated by an overhead light, and then into the study, where there was a double student lamp on the desk. The isinglass burner in the study was aglow and the air was hot, but Dr. Archie opened the door to his little operating-room, where there was no stove, to get some cooler air.” And so on. In the rest of the description it would be easy to add the narrator’s perception here and there: “I saw that the room was illuminated by an overhead light, which seemed somehow official and impersonal, but on the desk his study there was a double student lamp, which gave a more friendly atmosphere to the room. I could feel the heat from the isinglass burner in the study, and I was glad when Dr. Archie opened the door to his operating room, to let in some cooler and more refreshing air. The doctor’s desk was large and well made, and I was not surprised to see orderly piles of papers, under glass weights.” The narrator’s perception has been added, but not really much subjectivity.

Now I turn to another description of an office, from Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. This passage comes when Pip first arrives in London, where he is to be educated as a gentleman. He doesn’t know the identity of his benefactor (he thinks he can guess, but he’s wrong); he is placed under the general supervision of an attorney, Mr. Jaggers. A client, Mike, who has just one eye, is already waiting in Mr. Jaggers’ office; the clerk, Wemmick, shoves Mike out of the room and lets Pip in.

“Mr. Jaggers’ room was lighted by a skylight only, and was a most dismal place; the skylight, eccentrically patched like a broken head, and the distorted adjoining houses looking as if they had twisted themselves to peep down at me through it. There were not so many papers about, as I should have expected to see; and there were some odd objects about, that I should not have expected to see—such as an old rusty pistol, a sword in a scabbard, several strange-looking boxes and packages, and two dreadful casts on a shelf, of faces peculiarly swollen, and twitchy about the nose. Mr. Jaggers’ own high-backed chair was of deadly black horse-hair, with rows of brass nails round it, like a coffin; and I fancied I could see how he leaned back in it, and bit his forefinger at the clients. The room was but small, and the clients seemed to have had a habit of backing up against the wall: the wall, especially opposite to Mr. Jaggers’ chair, being greasy with shoulders. I recalled, too, that the one-eyed gentleman had shuffled forth against the wall when I was the innocent cause of his being turned out.” (Chapter 20)

Dickens takes full advantage of the first-person perspective; this description is as much about Pip’s perception of the room as it is about the room. The two similes in the first sentence are quite striking, but they tell more about how Pip sees the patched skylight and the adjoining houses than about the reality they purport to describe. (Similes are often a way of transferring feelings, but that’s a discussion for another time.) The second sentence is a clever antithetical contrast—what he expected to see but didn’t and what he did see that he didn’t expect. The objects Pip notes are odd and certainly call for some kind of explanation, which we don’t receive. The next sentence is another simile that expresses Pip’s reaction to the chair as much as the chair’s actual construction. The greasy mark of the clients’ shoulders on the wall adds a sensory detail which carries judgments, both about the clients’ reactions to Mr. Jaggers and the condition of their clothing.

Dickens’ way of building a world through description is completely different from Cather’s. She is mostly interested in communicating facts about the (invented) world. She doesn’t exclude words that carry an emotional tone—the waiting room is stiffly furnished, the study has a look of winter comfort—but these are few and subordinated to physical description. Dickens, by contrast, is more interested in the emotional tone than in accuracy. The office is dismal; the skylight is patched like a broken head; the adjoining houses are distorted, and they peep through the skylight; the casts on the shelf are dreadful (I think they are the dead-masks of clients who have been executed); Mr. Jaggers’ chair is like a coffin; the clients have left greasy marks on the wall. It is not incidental that Mike, the client, has just one eye. We always have to remember that such a detail is not a fact of some real world; Dickens has invented this client for a reason.

A revision of Dickens’ description of Mr. Jaggers’ office to reduce its subjectivity would tear the heart out of it. In the interests of science I will attempt a little vivisection: “Mr. Jaggers’ room was lighted by a skylight, through which you could see the adjoining houses. There were a few papers about, as well as an old rusty pistol, a sword in a scabbard, several boxes and packages, and two casts of faces on a shelf. Mr. Jaggers’ own high-backed chair was of black horse-hair, with rows of brass nails round it. The room was small, and the wall opposite to Mr. Jaggers’ chair had greasy stains on it.”

Cather is a realist, and I suppose Dickens is a kind of realist, most of the time. (In my next post I will examine two passages from Great Expectations that test the boundaries of the realistic.) I don’t think he wants us to think that Pip has been transported into some fantasy world, as Alice is transported to Wonderland, or Dorothy is transported to Oz. But Dickens’ sense of the real world is different from Cather’s. Things in Dickens’ world are interfused not only with perceptions (as they are, for instance, in Hemmingway’s world) but also with emotions and judgements, which sometimes determine how the objects are perceived and described.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s