More on Character Sketches

In my previous post (“Cather’s Characters”, posted 16 July), I discussed fifteen character sketches in Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark (and a couple of sketches in Jane Austen’s Emma). I noted that all the sketches in The Song of the Lark concern secondary or tertiary characters. There is no sketch of the principal character, Thea, in The Song of the Lark. Of course we learn a lot about Thea, but not through a character sketch. What we learn, we learn along the way, as Thea acts and reacts to the events and the other characters. The whole point of a novel—at least of a psychological novel such as The Song of the Lark—is the gradual unfolding of a character; a sketch of a major character, one might suppose, is inconsistent with characterization in the novel. But in fact there are many examples of sketches of major characters; in this post I look at a sketch of a major character in Patrick White’s Voss. I will have to quote rather extensively, but the passage is worth reading in full.

White’s Voss takes place in nineteenth-century Australia. The principal character is Johann Ulrich Voss, a German explorer. At the very beginning of the novel Voss comes to visit his patron, Mr. Bonner. Mr. Bonner is not at home, and so Voss is entertained for a while by Bonner’s niece, Laura Trevelyan, who offers him a glass of wine while they wait.

“His throat was suddenly swelling with wine and distance, for he was rather given to melancholy at the highest pitch of pleasure, and would at times even encourage a struggle, so that he might watch. So the past now swelled in distorting bubbles, like the shadows of the warehouse in which his father, an old man, gave orders to apprentices and clerks, and the sweet smell of blond timber suggested all safety and virtue. Nothing could be safer than that gabled town, from which he would escape in all weathers, at night also, to tramp across the heath, running almost, bursting his lungs, while deformed trees in places snatched at his clothes, the low, wind-combed trees, almost invariably under a thin moon, and other traps, in the shape of stretches of unsuspected bog, drew black, sucking sounds from his boots. During the Semester, however he had the reputation for bristling correctness, as befitted the great surgeon it was intended he should become, until suddenly revolted by the palpitating bodies of men. Then it was learnt he would become a great botanist instead. He did study inordinately, and was fascinated in particular by a species of lily which swallowed flies. With such instinctive neatness and cleanliness to dispose of those detestable pests. Amongst the few friends he had, his obsession became a joke. He was annoyed at first, but decided to take it in good part; to be misunderstood can be desirable. There were certain books, for instance. He would interrupt his study of which, and sit in the silence of his square room, biting his nails by candlelight. The still white world was flat as a handkerchief at that house, and almost as manageable. Finally, he knew he must tread with his boot upon the trusting face of the old man, his father. He was forced to many measures of brutality in defence of himself. And his mother crying beside the stove, of which the green tiles were decorated with lions in relief. Then, when he had wrung freedom out of his protesting parents, and the old people were giving him little parcels for the journey, not so much as presents as in reproach, and the green forests of Germany had begun to flow, and yellow plains unroll, he did wonder at the purpose and nature of freedom. Such neat trees lined the roads. He was wondering still when he stood upon the underside of the world, and his boots sank into the same, gritty, sterile sand to which he used to escape across the Heide. But the purpose and nature are never clearly revealed. Human behaviour is a series of lunges, of which, it is sometimes sensed, the direction is inevitable.
“Fetched up at this point, Voss made a polite gesture that he had learnt somewhere, cleared his throat, and said gravely to Miss Trevelyan: ‘Your health.’”

This is a remarkable passage from a remarkable novel. I don’t have the space here for an extensive analysis, but I note the complex intensity of the writing, which is typical of the whole book. In the first sentence quoted, for instance—“His throat was suddenly swelling with wine and distance”—is a kind of zeugma—a yoking of two concepts, one material and one abstract, in a single structure. White’s grammar at times edges close to solecism, but never by mistake: the emotion simply can’t be contained by the rules.

This sketch, like the other sketches we have been examining, is a digression which stops the ticking of the narrative clock—a lot of time is covered in the sketch, but hardly any time passes between the moment when Voss accepts the wine and the moment when he drinks health to Miss Trevelyan. This digression, like almost all of those in The Song of the Lark, is marked as a ring—here by the repetition of “throat” at the beginning and end: “His throat was suddenly swelling with wine and distance [….] Voss … cleared his throat”.

The story told in the sketch is the outline of a novel in itself. We see Voss’ father, his lumber business—we even smell the wood—and the town where Voss grew up. We see his dissatisfaction, as he escapes from the town to tramp on the heath—the trees, the moon, the boggy ground. We see Voss in school. We see his parents’ ambition for him, his rejection of two respectable careers, and his brutal rejection of his parents themselves, as he leaves them and travels to Australia.

So far, this sketch is following the pattern of the sketches in The Song of The Lark—a digression, marked as a ring, which temporarily stops the narrative clock. This digression, unlike those in The Song of the Lark, is also what I call a Second Chapter Retrospect. Very often a story will begin in medias res, in the middle of things. The author will choose a moment to start the story which is some ways along in the chronological series of events, usually a dramatic moment to catch the readers’ attention; then the narrative doubles back to fill in earlier events. This retrospect is often found in the second chapter of a story, and thus the term Second Chapter Retrospect, but it can be found a little earlier, within the first chapter, or delayed slightly; mathematical precision is not required. Examples abound and readers may well be able to think of some. One good example is found in Vergil’s Aeneid (Vergil here is copying Homer’s Odyssey). As the Aeneid begins, Aeneas and his followers are shipwrecked on the coast of North Africa; they are welcomed and entertained by Dido, the Queen of Carthage, and as they are feasting she asks Aeneas to tell the story of the fall of Troy and his subsequent wanderings. His narrative, which takes up Books Three and Four, is clearly a Second Chapter Retrospect—but it’s not, I think, a character sketch. The Retrospect in the Aeneid is told by Aeneas; many other Retrospects, probably a majority, are told in the third person, by an omniscient narrator; the Retrospect in Voss somehow represents Voss’s own thoughts and memories, though I think we are not supposed to ask if he really goes through all these memories as he accepts the wine from Laura Trevelyan. This Retrospect combines features of first person and third person narration.

None of the sketches in The Song of the Lark is a Second Chapter Retrospect. Only the first few would be candidates, I suppose—I don’t know of a Second Chapter Retrospect that follows another Retrospect, but I don’t want to say it couldn’t happen. But a Second Chapter Retrospect has to fill a gap created when a story starts in medias res, and that condition does not occur in The Song of the Lark. I think it’s also likely that a true Second Chapter Retrospect would be about one of the major characters. (Cather does use a Second Chapter Retrospect in another novel, My Mortal Enemy, and very effectively.) The sketch in Voss does count as a Second-Chapter Retrospect—it concerns the title character, and it comes after a beginning in medias res.

There’s more to be said about character sketches and about Second Chapter Retrospects, but my next post will move on to other aspects of world building in The Song of the Lark.

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