The Traditional Narrative Structure Of Thomas Hardy English Literature Essay

In order to assess the validity or otherwise of Thomas Hardy’s assertion, we first need to consider whether or not any such construct as traditional narrative structure can properly be said to exist and, assuming that it does, provide a definition of what this structure might be. This is not as straightforward as it may appear. For one thing, there are many different traditions in world literature and therefore many different concepts of “traditional narrative structure”. It would be unwise, for instance, to attempt to assert that the storytelling devices employed by the anonymous authors of the stories later compiled as The 1,001 Nights or The Arabian Nights Entertainments complied in all respects with the narrative strategies pursued by Dickens, Trollope, Defoe, Austen and the other writers of the novel form as it has been understood and developed over the past two hundred years within Western society.

It is possible to understand from Hardy’s statement the kind of narrative structure that he had in mind, the progression from event A to B to C suggested by the regular formulation of beginning, middle and end. That Hardy’s statement should exhibit a strong implied attachment to this sort of narrative structure is in no way surprising, for it was an important aspect of his writing.

However, there had already been changes to what Hardy considered the traditional narrative style. Narrative trickery of one kind or another had been apparent in many authors’ works. Experimentation with form began very early on in the novel’s development. Indeed, it is arguable that such experimentalism had been present in the English novel since its earliest days. Samuel Richardson’s Pamela or Virtue Rewarded , for instance, arguably one of the first novels written in English, may conform to the beginning-middle-end formula looked upon so fondly by Hardy one hundred years later, but it is far from being a standard third party text. The book is an epistolary novel, which is to say that it consists of a series of interlinked texts, purporting to be letters written by the novel’s protagonist and no fewer than five other correspondents, each of whom has his or her unique literary style, psychology and point of view.

Richardson was not the first novelist to adopt this epistolary approach. Other writers, both in France and England, had preceded him. Yet there is no doubt that Richardson displayed a profound and unprecedented facility with the form. In Margaret Drabble’s words, he ‘raised the form to a level hitherto unknown and transformed it to display his own particular skills’. [1] And Richardson was not the only English novelist to have departed sharply from Hardy’s “norm” during the English novel’s formative years. His inventiveness and willingness to experiment with form had been equalled by several other writers, most importantly Lawrence Sterne. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, published in several parts between 1759 and 1767, stands out as a paragon of unconventionality even today. Its many stylistic novelties and tricks of form include flashbacks, typographical eccentricities, missing pages and multiple perspectives. Not for nothing has it been referred to as ‘the progenitor of the twentieth century stream-of consciousness novel’ [2] 

The traditional narrative structure that Hardy had in mind had, therefore, been altered and subverted from within for many years prior to the start of his own literary career. It is, nonetheless, true that the notion of a novel having to possess a beginning, middle and end had become firmly embedded in the psyche of most readers and writers by the late Victorian era. Hardy suspected that the dominance of the traditional narrative structure was under threat by the time he abandoned novel writing around the beginning of the twentieth century.

‘The Age of Realism, in many ways the last great affirmation of the Enlightenment, with its impressively self-confident faith in reason and in reason’s access to the real, drew to an end as the nineteenth century began to spill into the twentieth,’ [3] writes André Brink in his overview of the novel’s long development as a form:

In a turmoil of uncertainty prefiguring Eliot’s later wry conviction that ‘human kind/ Cannot bear very much reality’, Modernism was born. A remarkable revolution swept through all the arts. The faith in representation, which for so long had shaped Western culture, was wavering; and, in Santayana’s famous phrase, ‘mankind was starting to dream in a different key’ [4] 

Both novels, Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night aTraveller and One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez are arguably experimentations into a different style of traditional narrative fictions, that are far removed from what Hardy had in mind.

If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller is probably Calvino’s best known novel, published in Italian in 1979 and translated into English by William Weaver in 1981. Since then it has become firmly established as a classic of post-modern fiction. An examination of the book’s form quickly explains why.

Far from being a conventional narrative, in which events are described from the outside by an omniscient narrator and everything proceeds smoothly from an initiating incident to a denouement, the novel has a bewitching and playful form. It is self-reflexive, in that it is a book about a reader who is trying to read a book called If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller. The first chapter and each subsequent alternate chapter are written in the second person. They form a linking narrative between the intervening, even-numbered, chapters, which all purport to be extracts from various books which the reader tries, at different times, to read:

You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. [5] 

One prominent way in which If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller resists traditional narrative structure is by violating boundaries of the structure. These are the boundaries comprised by the inside and the outside of the novel. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller resists these boundaries because its premise is a reader’s attempt to read a work entitled If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, whilst being aware that the narrative is instructing the reader to read and how to. This external, authoritative narration in the narrative has the effect of rupturing any traditional narrative sequence in further ways. It causes there to be various acts of reading, both within and without the text, which are out of synch with each other. A key example of this is Calvino’s statement that, ‘You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller’. [6] Not only is the reader’s identity destabilised by the fact that the ‘you’ may refer to the reader outside or the reader inside the text in a way not common in traditional narrative, but also the acts of reading are temporally disrupted: ‘You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller’, the boundary of narrative, narrator and reader is broken, the reader is being instructed by the narrative to read. Another key example of the boundaries, set out by traditional narrative is the set of short orders, orders directed at us, the reader, to physically move our body:

Stretch your legs, go ahead and put your feet on a cushion, or two cushions, on the arms of the sofa, on the wings of the chair, on the coffee table, on the desk, on the piano, on the globe. Take your shoes off first. If you want to, put your feet up; if not, put them back. Now don’t stand there with your shoes in one hand and the book in the other. [7] 

This address to the reader has the effect of pulling the reader into work. This is very much a departure from Hardy’s view of the traditional narrative form. However, this is not to say that there is not a traditional narrative thread binding the work together. As the book continues, a clear, if unconventional, story begins to take shape. The reader, who is referred to and addressed throughout the novel becomes the protagonist in a convoluted narrative that revolves around an international conspiracy involving fraud, a mischievous translator, sinister government agents and a number of other elements. There may not be a traditional plot embedded in the book, but there is definitely a plot and it is one that has enough narrative muscle to keep a reader enthralled. There is a clear sense, throughout the book, that the author is solicitous to the reader and eager to retain his or her interest. This desire to aid the reader is borne out by something Calvino once wrote:

My working method has more often than not involved the subtraction of weight. I have tried to remove weight, sometimes from people, sometimes from heavenly bodies, sometimes from cities; above all I have tried to remove weight from the structure of stories and from language. [8] 

If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller also highlights the problems of the one dimensional aspect of traditional narrative structures. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller resists linearity. Traditional narrative structures are mentioned only in the context of their non-appearance, complaints such as that of ‘chapters interrupted right at the climax…let’s hope we get to the end satisfactorily’. [9] Here the vocabulary of traditional narrative climax and satisfying ending, though present’ is subverted. Calvino comments on his own narrative throughout and his most clear comment on this particular form of resistance to traditional narrative structures occurs when, making explicit the sexualised connotations of interrupted climax, and satisfying ending, he describes how

Lovers’ reading of each other’s bodies… differs from the reading of written pages in that it is not linear. It starts at any point, skips, repeat itself, goes backward, insists, ramifies in simultaneous and divergent messages, converges again, has moments of irritation, turns the page, finds its place, gets lost. A direction can be recognized in it, a route to an end, since it tends toward a climax, and with this end in view it arranges rhythmic phases, metrical scansions, recurrence of motives. But is the climax really the end? Or is the race toward that end opposed by another drive which works in the opposite direction, swimming against moments, recovering time? [10] 

One Hundred Years of Solitude could loosely be described as a family saga. It deals with the varying fates of numerous individuals drawn from seven generations of one South American family, but it is in not a type of narrative. The book includes multiple time-frames and numerous supernatural elements, including ghosts and prophecies, all of which are treated in a matter-of-fact fashion by the novel’s many characters. This makes it a clear embodiment of magic realism and it has, indeed, been identified by many critics as the quintessential magic realist text. [11] 

The American science fiction and fantasy author Gene Wolf, for instance, has said that ‘Magic realism is fantasy written by people who speak Spanish,’ [12] while the British fantasy author Terry Pratchett has said that it is ‘like a polite way of saying you write fantasy’ [13] . Despite the difficulty many have experienced in pointing out its exact nature, however, the term continues to have resonance for many readers and One Hundred Years of Solitude continues to be seen as its most characteristic text.

What is it about this book that qualifies it as magic realism and in what way is its narrative distinguishable from Hardy’s cherished mode of traditionalist storytelling? The book’s difference is undoubtedly the mythic and timeless quality Marquez brings to bear in his treatment of the fictional town of Macondo and its multi-layered connection with the Buendía family, whose patriarch, José Arcadio Buendía, is also Macondo’s founder. Macondo is, in a way, a leading character in the novel and yet its geography and character remain remarkably opaque throughout. As Ian Johnston has pointed out:

‘There is something clearly magical about the world of Macondo; it is a state of mind as much as, or even more than, a real geographical place (we learn very little about its actual physical layout, for example). And once in it, we must be prepared to meet whatever the imagination of the author presents to us.’ [14] 

The capacity of the imagination to which Johnson alludes is immense, and so the ability to enforce a ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ in the mind of the reader that co-exists with it [15] . It is Marquez’s ability to make the reader accept and even fail to question events that could not possibly take place in the real world that give One Hundred Years of Solitude its unique flavour. An excellent example of the kind of trick Marquez plays repeatedly, comes early on in the novel when an act of suicide is followed by a physically impossible perambulation by a trail of blood:

A trickle of blood came out under the door, crossed the living room, went out into the street, continued on in a straight line across the uneven terraces, went down steps and climbed over curbs, passed along the Street of the Turks, turned a corner to the right and another to the left, made a right angle at the Buendía house, went in under the closed door, crossed through the parlour, hugging the walls so as not to stain the rugs, went on to the other living room, made a wide curve to avoid the dining-room table, went along the porch with the begonias, and passed without being seen under Amaranta’s chair as she gave an arithmetic lesson to Aureliano José, and went through the pantry and came out in the kitchen […] [16] 

The blending together of the real with the imagined, the plausible with the impossible, is what characterises the book throughout. Time becomes a blur, characters reflect the personalities of long dead ancestors or unborn descendants, history and chronology are obscured by the interplay of broadly similar events (invasion after invasion, birth after birth, death after death). Only Macondo seems stable, in the end, and yet even Macondo blows away to nothingness in the final, apocalyptic chapter, leaving the reader uncertain regarding the status of everything that has happened.

And yet, all of this has to be set alongside the extremely detailed and persuasive nature of Márquez’s writing. He may be concerned with the fantastical and the fabulous but he also a sharp-eyed literary observer. The translator Edith Grossman made exactly this point when she gave the keynote speech at an event held in New York in 2003. Focusing on the quality of his prose and on his approach to narrative, Grossman said of Márquez:

He is a master of physical observation: Surfaces, appearances, external realities, spoken words – everything that a truly observant observer can observe. He makes almost no allusion to states-of-mind, motivations, emotions, internal responses: Those are left to the inferential skills and deductive interests of the reader. In other words, García Márquez has turned the fly-on-the-wall point of view into a crucial aspect of his narrative style in both fiction and non-fiction, and it is a strategy that he uses to stunning effect. [17] 

One Hundred Years of Solitude also resists traditional narrative structures with its relation to traditional boundaries of, and within, narrative. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller contravenes boundaries; One Hundred Years of Solitude goes further by collapsing these traditional boundaries. A very significant way in which this is affected is through the names in the novel. Spread over several generations, there are three women with a forename Remedios, five male characters with the forename Aureliano, and five characters sharing both a forename and a surname: José Arcadio. What should be a straightforward, linear piece of historiography is made more complex and convoluted by Marquez. It becomes unclear exactly which characters of the names Aureliano, Remedia or José Arcadio are interacting at certain points in the narrative. One such example is that of Aureliano and Amaranta Ursula, in the rooms where Colonel Aureliano had also made love, ‘made mad love on the floor of the porch…they were awakened by a torrent of carnivorous ants who were ready to eat them alive’. [18] 

One Hundred Years of Solitude often resists traditional narrative structures at the same time as drawing attention to them. One key example of this is the flashback with which the novel begins. As a traditional narrative structure, the flashback has a very definite sense of the present through which the past is framed. However, Marquez resists this traditional structure by destabilising this present tense, and the presence of the character having the flashback: ‘Many years later as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember[…]’ [19] The suggestion of a traditional flashback is preserved in the act of remembering, yet Marquez resists the traditional structure of the flashback by locating it into the future , ‘Many years later’, ‘was to remember’, a ruptured linearity which is, in a further resistance to traditional narrative structures, explained only at the end of the novel, when Aureliano finally realises that the ‘parchments’ he discovered are a prophecy of the novel’s events: ‘at that prodigious instant Melquiades’ final keys were revealed to him and he saw the epigraph of the parchments perfectly placed in the order of man’s time and space’. [20] 

Both One Hundred Years of Solitude and If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller depart quite radically from the traditional narrative structure utilised by Thomas Hardy and yet neither Marquez nor Calvino is willing to jettison the idea of narrative or deny their readers a satisfying encounter with the elemental power of storytelling. These texts resist traditional narrative but they do not reject or repudiate narrative itself. On the contrary, they provide meaning and pleasure by taking the novel further and beyond the structure in which Hardy worked in. Both writers resist traditional narrative structure by rupturing the linearity of the narrative and creating problems of time and engagement of the reader.


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