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The Withered Arm is fairly representative of this terminal balance in successive episodes, as will be apparent if one examines the concluding paragraph of each plot division. There is about these concluding periods a peculiar air of suspense, of situation, -especially marked in I, III, V, VI, VII, and vili, that almost leads the reader to expect the conventional stage-direction “Curtain.”
The ordering of the narrative elements so as to produce contrast is a further means of attaining emotional vigor. As the contrasting lights and shadows of a Rembrandt are effective, so in narrative the juxtaposition of unlike scenes promotes forcefulness. A typical instance may be found in Macaulay's essay on Sir William Temple, where he ranges the character of Halifax against that of Shaftesbury:
His (Halifax's) mind was much less turned to particular observations, and much more to general speculations, than that of Shaftesbury. Shaftesbury knew the King, the Council, the Parliament, the City, better than Halifax; but Halifax would have written a far better treatise on political science than Shaftesbury. Shaftesbury shone more in consultation and Halifax in controversy: Shaftesbury was more fertile in expedients, and Halifax in arguments. He brought forward with wonderful readiness and copiousness, arguments, replies to those arguments, rejoinders to those replies, general maxims of policy, and analogous cases from history. But Shaftesbury was the man for a prompt decision. Of the parliamentary eloquence of these celebrated rivals, we can judge only by report; and so judging, we should be inclined to think that, though Shaftesbury was a distinguished speaker, the superiority belonged to Halifax. . . . The power of Shaftesbury over large masses was unrivalled. Halifax was disqualified by his whole character, moral and intellectual, for the part of a demagogue. It was in small circles, and,
above all, in the House of Lords, that his ascendancy was felt.
In narrative writing this method of ordering is effective in a variety of ways: in setting, in character, in action, contrast may serve the ends of forcefulness. In Tess the three stages of the heroine's life are rendered all the more effective from their projection against the wholly unlike backgrounds of Blackmore Vale, the valley of the Froom, and Flintcombe-Ash. In Prescott's Conquest of Peru the character of the pedantic martinet Blasco Nuñez is made more forceful by being brought into adversative correlation with that of the keen and practical Pedro de la Gasca. And similarly, details of action by the same method of antithesis receive added dramatic effectiveness. No reader of Vanity Fair can fail to realize the emotional effectiveness of the sudden contrast that distinguishes the transition from chapter XXII to chapter XXIII. On the one hand is the scene of carnage and confusion closing with the famous paragraph,
No more firing was heard at Brussels — the pursuit rolled miles away. Darkness came down on the field and city: and Amelia was praying for George, who was lying on his face, dead, with a bullet through his heart; and on the other, the quiet of Brighton, where Miss Crawley was passing her uneventful days, very little moved by the great events that attended the making and unmaking of empires.
(6) Proportion One of the most effective means of holding interest, that is, of securing rhetorical emphasis, - is to give each essential element in the narrative its proportionate
amount of space; or, to state it negatively, to give it no more elaboration than it deserves. This means that the writer shall have a clear idea of his controlling thought before he can duly enforce it. As the definition of narration makes evident, the main purpose of narrative writing is the setting in order, the developing, of the event. It is clear, then, that setting and characterization must receive relatively less elaboration than action. But this is only a general statement of the principle of proportion. In the exposition of the action many questions arise as to relative values: episodes of one order and another; details of rise and fall, of climax and catastrophe. The principle of proportion plays its part in the relative ordering of each of these. The precise adjustment, for example, of the amount of description or characterization necessary for preliminary exposition in a dramatic plot is a very nice matter, for the moment that the non-narrative matter begins to encroach upon the main business of the plot structure, proportion is lost and interest suffers. Professor Baldwin in his Composition, Oral and Written' has well illustrated this matter by Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. He shows that the core idea of the whole composition is the sentence: The best honor that we can pay these dead soldiers is to preserve the Union for which they died. In other words, the speech looks principally to the future: references to the present and past are merely accessory. A single sentence, the first, concerns the past; the next three sentences deal with the present, indeed, but with a distinctly prospective purpose; and all that remains, consisting of more than half the address, is an appeal for devotion to the Union in the years to come. In this way, by due proportioning of the space, the main idea is emphasized.
1 Pp. 20–22.
This same principle controls the writer of extended narrative. If he chronicle facts of history, he must so compress his work, by the exclusion of superfluous detail and by accurate judgment as to relative values, that the completed work shall adequately bring out the central theme and give unity and emphasis to the finished result. It is in this respect, according to J. F. Rhodes in an article published in the Atlantic Monthly in February, 1900, that Thucydides and Tacitus are superior to the historians of our own time: they have better digested their material, and, therefore, are less prone to give disproportionate space to details of relatively little importance. The writer says:
One reason why Macaulay is so prolix is because he could not resist the temptation to treat events which had a picturesque side and which were suited to his literary style; so that, as John Morley says, “in many portions of his too elaborated history of William III. he describes a large number of events about which, I think, no sensible man can in the least care either how they happened, or indeed whether they happened at all or not.” If I am right in my supposition that Thucydides and Tacitus had a mass of materials, they showed reserve and discretion in throwing a large part of them away, as not being necessary or important to the posterity for which they were writing. This could only be the result of a careful comparison of their materials, and of long meditation on their relative value. I suspect that they cared little whether a set daily task was accomplished or not; for if you propose to write only one large volume or four moderate-sized volumes in a lifetime, art is not too long nor is life too short.
And as with history so with the narrative of fiction: the central theme, with especial view to its culmination, must never be lost. Whether it be the solution of a a mystery, as in The Gold Bug; the crisis of a personal ex
perience, as in Flute and Violin; increasing tension leading to sudden solution, as in Marjorie Daw; a character study, like Richard Feverel ; -- whatever be the theme, subsidiary matter must be treated as subsidiary matter, for only as it contributes to the main theme and itself remains subordinated to that theme, will it be effective and contribute to ultimate interest.
Hardy's The Three Strangers affords example of wellsustained proportion in plot structure. The theme about which the action turns is primarily the identity of the first stranger, and, in less degree, that of the other two. The development of the plot idea is furthered, not by action alone, but by setting, by characterization, and by direct exposition. The background of Wessex rusticity and the tempestuous night, Mrs. Fennel's anxiety for her supply of mead, the booming of the gun from the jail at Casterbridge: - these and other details tend to heighten the mystery of the three travelers who seek shelter at the shepherd's cottage. Dialogue affords the main avenue of plot action, and here the importance of the three strangers is made evident. Nearly one third of this portion of the story is devoted to the words of the principal actors, mainly to those of the first and second strangers. Space is given to them in proportion to their importance in the action; the paragraphs in which they enter directly and indirectly constitute by far the major part of the entire composition. Of digression and elaboration of non-contributive detail there is practically little. By this due attention to proportion unity is secured and the interest which is concentrated on the principal personages increases the emphasis of the narrative.