The novel is propelled through its hundred or thousand pages by a device known as the story or plot. This is frequently conceived by the novelist in very simple terms, a mere nucleus, a jotting on an old envelope: for example, Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol (1843) might have been conceived as “”a misanthrope is reformed through certain magical visitations on Christmas Eve,”” or Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813) as “”a young couple destined to be married have first to overcome the barriers of pride and prejudice,”” or Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866) as “”a young man commits a crime and is slowly pursued in the direction of his punishment.”” The detailed working out of the nuclear idea requires much ingenuity, since the plot of one novel is expected to be somewhat different from that of another, and there are very few basic human situations for the novelist to draw upon. The dramatist may take his plot ready-made from fiction or biography – a form of theft sanctioned by Shakespeare – but the novelist has to produce what look like novelties.
The example of Shakespeare is a reminder that the ability to create an interesting plot, or even any plot at all, is not a prerequisite of the imaginative writer’s craft. At the lowest level of fiction, plot need be no more than a string of stock devices for arousing stock responses of concern and excitement in the reader. The reader’s interest may be captured at the outset by the promise of conflicts or mysteries or frustrations that will eventually be resolved, and he will gladly – so strong is his desire to be moved or entertained – suspend criticism of even the most trite modes of resolution. In the least sophisticated fiction, the knots to be untied are stringently physical, and the denouement often comes in a sort of triumphant violence. Serious fiction prefers its plots to be based on psychological situations, and its climaxes come in new states of awareness – chiefly self-knowledge – on the parts of the major characters.
Melodramatic plots, plots dependent on coincidence or improbability, are sometimes found in even the most elevated fiction; E.M. Forster’s Howards End (1910) is an example of a classic British novel with such a plot. But the novelist is always faced with the problem of whether it is more important to represent the formlessness of real life (in which there are no beginnings and no ends and very few simple motives for action) or to construct an artifact as well balanced and economical as a table or chair; since he is an artist, the claims of art, or artifice, frequently prevail.
There are, however, ways of constructing novels in which plot may play a desultory part or no part at all. The traditional picaresque novel – a novel with a rogue as its central character – like Alain Lesage’s Gil Blas (1715) or Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749), depends for movement on a succession of chance incidents. In the works of Virginia Woolf, the consciousness of the characters, bounded by some poetic or symbolic device, sometimes provides all the fictional material. Marcel Proust’s great roman-fleuve, a la recherche du temps perdu (1913-27; Remembrance of Things Past), has a metaphysical framework derived from the time theories of the philosopher Henri Bergson, and it moves toward a moment of truth that is intended to be literally a revelation of the nature of reality. Strictly, any scheme will do to hold a novel together – raw action, the hidden syllogism of the mystery story, prolonged solipsist contemplation – so long as the actualities or potentialities of human life are credibly expressed, with a consequent sense of illumination, or some lesser mode of artistic satisfaction, on the part of the reader.
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