A Masterpiece of Dread: Inner Conflict and Micro-Tension in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth

The Irish novelist Colm Toíbín once wrote:  “A novel is a set of strategies, closer to something in mathematics or quantum physics than something in ethics or sociology. It is a release of certain energies and a dramatization of how those energies might be controlled, given shape.” 

The House of Mirth is an awesome illustration of this idea. As narrative, it is an unstoppable dynamo of conflict and dread, an elegant and emotionally merciless equation in which each finely wrought scene brings Lily Bart, Wharton’s highly sympathetic and hopelessly flawed protagonist, one jagged step closer to the tragic fall we understand from the beginning is inevitable.

The House of Mirth is an elegantly built page-turner, a masterpiece of excruciating dramatic irony. By the final chapters one can barely stand to read on, though of course one really has no choice but to do so. Much of the book’s exceptional tension is due to Wharton’s skill and discipline as a craftswoman of narrative structure. Each scene is full of conflict, each has a clear turning point, and each creates a marked change of fortune, bringing Miss Bart either closer to or more distant from her dramatic desires: wealth by marriage, the adulation of her peers, and permanent membership in the highest social echelons of her age and milieu.

The narrative arc is downward, and sharply defined. The chapters are short, like potato chips, so that you can’t just read one, you must finish the whole pile. And Wharton’s turn of the century New York society is so convincingly drawn that once immersed, the reader is hard-pressed to look away.

Wharton’s novel is also propulsive on the sentence-to-sentence level. I believe this is mostly attributable to something Donald Maass has called “micro-tension.” Micro-tension is the “unconscious apprehension” that a reader experiences when faced with a point of view protagonist’s conflicting feelings. Conflicting feelings produce a sense of unease, and according to Maass, the reader will keep turning pages in an unconscious quest to relieve that unease. If Maass’ analysis is correct (and I believe it is), then The House of Mirth provides an excellent case in point:

“For a clever man it was certainly a stupid beginning; and the idea that his awkwardness was due to the fear of her attaching a personal significance to his visit, chilled her pleasure in seeing him. Even under the most adverse conditions, that pleasure always made itself felt: she might hate him, but she had never been able to wish him out of the room. She was very near hating him now; yet the sound of his voice, the way the light fell on his thin dark hair, the way he sat and moved and wore his clothes—she was conscious that even these trivial things were inwoven with her deepest life. In his presence a sudden stillness came upon her, and the turmoil of her spirit ceased; but an impulse of resistance to this stealing influence now prompted her to say: ‘It's very good of you to present yourself in that capacity; but what makes you think I have anything particular to talk about?’”

Lily loves Selden and yet she hates him. She is attracted to him, and yet, because she is determined to marry for money, she will not permit herself to act upon that attraction. For these and other reasons, throughout the book, Lily Bart exists in an agonized state of indecision. And it’s not only Lily. Witness Selden’s own conflicted feelings:

“Selden's avoidance of Miss Bart had not been as unintentional as he had allowed his cousin to think. At first, indeed, while the memory of their last hour at Monte Carlo still held the full heat of his indignation, he had anxiously watched for her return; but she had disappointed him by lingering in England, and when she finally reappeared it happened that business had called him to the West, whence he came back only to learn that she was starting for Alaska with the Gormers. The revelation of this suddenly-established intimacy effectually chilled his desire to see her. If, at a moment when her whole life seemed to be breaking up, she could cheerfully commit its reconstruction to the Gormers, there was no reason why such accidents should ever strike her as irreparable. Every step she took seemed in fact to carry her farther from the region where, once or twice, he and she had met for an illumined moment; and the recognition of this fact, when its first pang had been surmounted, produced in him a sense of negative relief. It was much simpler for him to judge Miss Bart by her habitual conduct than by the rare deviations from it which had thrown her so disturbingly in his way; and every act of hers which made the recurrence of such deviations more unlikely, confirmed the sense of relief with which he returned to the conventional view of her.

     But Gerty Farish's words had sufficed to make him see how little this view was really his, and how impossible it was for him to live quietly with the thought of Lily Bart. To hear that she was in need of help—even such vague help as he could offer—was to be at once repossessed by that thought; and by the time he reached the street he had sufficiently convinced himself of the urgency of his cousin's appeal to turn his steps directly toward Lily's hotel.”

And so we are presented with characters struggling not only with the novel’s big questions – such as whether or not one is to compromise one’s integrity in the search for security – but also with related, fleeting, moment-to-moment questions, such as whether or not to forgive a potential lover, or how to handle a conversation with one. These micro-conflicts urge us on from sentence to sentence and page to page as we wait for the other shoe to drop. We are swept inexorably forward to the next turning point in Lily’s customized road to perdition.

Micro-tension is different from what we might think of as dramatic conflict, those bread-and-butter scenes wherein, for example, characters with clashing desires confront each other, there is a struggle, and one character wins and the other loses. Micro-tension is inward looking and smaller in scale. Yet working in concert with the boldly drawn structural conflicts underlying the narrative, it makes the fabric of the story exceptionally compelling.  Regardless of how it works, this is powerful writing. And The House of Mirth is proof that contemporary novelists still have a great deal to learn from Edith Wharton.


Narrative as Time Machine: Five Tools for World Building in Historical Fiction

Consider the opening paragraph of Mary Renault’s classic novel, The King Must Die:
“The Citadel of Troizen, where the Palace stands, was built by giants before anyone remembers. But the Palace was built by my great-grandfather. At sunrise, if you look at it from Kalauria across the strait, the columns glow fire-red and the walls are golden. It shines bright against the dark woods on the mountainside.”
Can you see this? It’s important to the author that you can. Otherwise you’re not rooted in the story, and you will quickly lose interest. Authors take note: the more fantastical or distant in time the world you are creating, the more you must infuse that world with vividly familiar and universally recognizable details. In the passage I just quoted, Renault uses a time-tested method for achieving a sense of the familiar and recognizable: a vivid description of nature, in this case a spectacular mountain sunrise. Which leads us to,

World Building Tool #1: Vivid Descriptions of Nature

I would argue that landscape description is an essential tool for all fiction writers, not just those wishing to engage in time travel. Why? Well, we all know natural landscapes instinctively, even if we’ve been born and raised in cities. Nature is primal; its patterns and spectacles are written into our DNA. It’s universally recognizable to us, so compelling portrayals of it tap into deeply resonant emotional responses. And because nature is relatively unchanging, landscape descriptions transcend time. They provide us with a reliable, scenic, and well-built bridge to the past – or to the future, if you ever decide you want to press the fast-forward button and write sci-fi – or to a completely invented world, if you decide you want to write fantasy. (Let’s not forget that JRR Tolkien is one of the greatest nature writers in the history of fiction.)

A few more examples:

From Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles:
“Later, Achilles sleeps next to me. Odysseus’ storm has come, and the coarse fabric of the tent wall trembles with its force. I hear the stinging slap, over and over, of waves reproaching the shore.” 
From James Welch’s Fool’s Crow:
“He pushed aside the boughs covering the entrance and looked out into the grey light. He had slept well in his small shelter, but now his breath told him it was very cold -- and still. He heard the croak again and looked up into the trees. The sky was lighter above them. The granite face of the great mountain loomed through the trees, and the yellow light of the Sun Chief struck the very top. He rolled out and stood up, and there in the pine where he had placed the meat sat a fat raven.”
World Building Tool #2: Accurate Portrayal of Recognizable Human Emotions 

This one sounds easy, but it’s not. If you can evoke emotional states in your characters that not are only plausible, but vividly true, the reader can’t help but be transported into the world of the story. From Edith Wharton’s seminal historical novel, The Age of Innocence:
“The longing was with him day and night, an incessant undefinable craving, like the sudden whim of a sick man for food and drink once tasted and long since forgotten.” 
Can you relate to this? What, have you never been in love?

From John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman:
“He put on his most formal self as he came down to the hall. Mrs. Endicott stood at the door to her office, her mouth already open to speak. But Charles, with a briskly polite “I thank you, ma’am” was past her and into the night before she could complete her question; or notice his frock coat lacked a button.  He walked blindly away through a new downpour of rain. He noticed it no more than where he was going. His greatest desire was darkness, invisibility, oblivion in which to regain calm.”
From Gore Vidal’s Burr:
“I have always preferred women to men. I think that sets me apart, don’t you?” Knowing exactly what he meant, I agreed. New York gentlemen spend far more time with one another in bars and taverns than in mixed company. Lately they have taken to forming clubs from which women are banned. “I cannot -- simply -- be without the company of a woman.” “But you’ve had no wife . . . ”“Since before you were born. But then I have not lacked for . . . gentle companionship.” He gives me a swift grin; suddenly in the pale light he looked to be a randy boy of fourteen. Then he abruptly became his usual self; full of dignity save for that curious unexpected wit. I always find his brilliance disturbing. We do not want the old to be sharper than we. It is bad enough that they were there first, and got the best things.
Is this clear? It’s good writing, basically. We’re trying to portray human emotion in way that will make our reader exclaim, “Ah yes. How true!”

World Building Tool #3: Incorporating the Exotic

The previous two elements of world building were all about grounding the reader in the familiar. The next one is about the opposite: it’s about transporting the reader to an unfamiliar place. Earlier, I alluded to the importance of “vicarious experience” in historical fiction. This is the “pornography” of the genre, if you like, and your readers will need some of it or a lot of it depending on the expectations you’ve set up in terms of where your book falls on the spectrum we talked about in the beginning. Vicarious experience is one of the innocent joys of historical fiction. No matter where you come down on the spectrum, you really can’t ignore it. From Dorothy Dunnett’s Here be Dragons:
“Accustomed to forest trails and deer tracks, he found it strange to be traveling along a road wide enough for several horsemen to ride abreast. Stranger still to him were the villages, each with its green and market cross, its surprisingly substantial stone church surrounded by a cluster of thatched cottages and an occasional fishpond . . . It was midday before he was within sight of the walls of Shrewsbury Castle. He drew rein, awed. Castle keep and soaring church spires, a fortified arched bridge spanning the River Severn, and the roofs of more houses than he could begin to count.” 
Doesn’t this seem exotic to you? It’s exotic for the point of view character too, but from opposite directions in time: for him its grand and modern, while for us it’s a scene brought back to life from the mists of the primordial past.

From Kenneth Roberts’ Arundel:
“In the spring there are quantities of salmon running upstream, easy to take with a spear because of the narrowness of the river bed. When the salmon are finished there are fat eels lying in the current riffles at low tide, so thick that in an hour one boy with a trident may fill a barrel, which is a feat I have frequently accomplished, being addicted to smoked eel with a gallon of cider before meals . . .”
So, we get it, right? A different time. Something that is foreign to our experience, but that is written so well that we can clearly imagine it. We are transported. 

World Building Tool #4: Defamiliarization

Defamiliarization is a critical tool for all fiction writers, but especially for those writing historical fiction, where the risk of falling into clichés is particularly acute. Consider this passage from Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient:
 “The last mediaeval war was fought in Italy in 1943 and 1944. Fortress towns and great promontories which had been battled over since the eighth century had the armies of new kings flung carelessly against them. Around the outcrops of rocks were the traffic of stretchers, butchered vineyards, where, if you dug deep beneath the tank ruts you found blood-axe and spear. Monterchi, Cortona, Urbino, Arezzo, Sandepolcro, Anghiari. And then the coast. Cats slept in the gun turrets looking south.”
Why is this an example of defamiliarization? Because it shows us something familiar, even clichéd, in a compelling new light. In the process, it makes us wake up and pay attention. Ondaatje transforms the Italian theatre of WWII into something new and surprising. It’s a mediaeval war: the butchered vineyards; the blood-axes and spears buried beneath the tank ruts. Best of all, for me, are the cats sleeping in the gun turrets. This is why Ondaatje is so good.

From Bernard Cornwell, Sharpe’s Rifles:
“The dryest building was a stone barn, built on rock pillars that were meant to keep vermin at bay, and with a roof surmounted by crosses so that, from a distance, it looked like a small crude church. The ruined house and byres yielded dam and fungus-ridden timbers that, split and shredded with cartridge powder, were coaxed into a fire that slowly warmed the wounded men.”
He could have just written, “they built a fire.” Fungus-ridden timbers split and shredded with cartridge powder? It’s a different way to build a fire.

And now we come to a very important point:
Q: What do all the world-building examples we’ve discussed so far have in common?  
A: Vivid, concrete, specific detail: which is the lifeblood, the gods’ nectar, of fiction. 
That's right. Vivid, concrete, specific detail. If there is one simple key to world-building, this is it. 

Word Building Tool #5: Use Period Details - But Sparingly 

Consider this made-up passage, which is brimming with period detail: 
“He walked down the street, his beaverskin top hat like a bobbing stovepipe, his shiny black Kramer’s Brother’s boots clacking against the ship’s-ballast cobble stones.” 
This passage may strike you as awkward or funny, but it’s representative of a habit that’s all too common in lesser or apprentice historical fiction. Remember: period details must make sense given what’s happening in the story and the point of view character’s emotional state. They can’t feel “show-offy” or cut-and-pasted from the writer’s journal. Don’t fall into the trap of simply cataloguing your research. Stay away, in other words, from the historical “info dump.”

Here’s an example period detail used more effectively, again from The Age of Innocence:
“He stood silent, beating his stick nervously against his boot-top . . .” 
This is the first time in the novel we’ve had a reference to a walking stick, or to boots, both of which were of course ubiquitous in the period Wharton was writing. But it makes sense that we wouldn’t hear much about it, because what self-respecting point of view character is actually going to look down and notice his own clothing or everyday accessories? Wharton’s character is not noticing them, he’s using them, and in a way that is expressive of both his character and his emotional state.

* * *

Summing Up

The best world-building passages in historical fiction, of course, combine several or even all of the above tools at once. They weave the familiar with the exotic, the recognizable with the unknown. They use period details sparingly, never gratuitously or in a way that seems intended just to showcase the author’s research. These passages are gritty and vivid enough to awaken our imaginations, so that we can’t help but be transported back in time to the world of the story.

To illustrate this point, let’s read three final passages. The first two are also from The Age of Innocence (obviously, I love this book) and the third is from Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier’s runaway bestseller published in 1997.
“The figure at the end of the pier had not moved. For a long moment the young man stood half way down the bank, gazing at the bay furrowed with the coming and going of sailboats, yacht-launches, fishing-craft and the trailing black coal-barges hauled by noisy tugs. The lady in the summer-house seemed to be held by the same sight. Beyond the grey bastions of Fort Adams a long-drawn sunset was splintering up into a thousand fires, and the radiance caught the sail of a catboat as it beat out through the channel between the Lime Rock and the shore.” 
 “The next morning, when Archer got out of the Fall River train, he emerged upon a steaming midsummer Boston. The streets near the station were full of the smell of beer and coffee and decaying fruit and a shirt-sleeved populace moved through them with the intimate abandon of boarders going down the passage to the bathroom.” 
“It was a cold day and the mud of the road was near frozen to the condition of slurry. Some of the men were barefoot. Many wore homemade uniforms in the mute colors that plant dyes make. The Federals were arrayed on the field before them, all newly outfitted. Bright and shiny in factory-made uniforms, new boots. When the Federals charged,
the men behind the wall held their fire and taunted them and one called out, Come on closer, I want them boots.”
Q: What do these passages have in common?  
A: They’re beautifully written, even poetic. They blend vivid, well-drawn sensory observations of the natural world with deftly chosen and carefully limited period detail. They weave the familiar with the exotic, the recognizable with the strange, and they are gritty and vivid enough to awaken our imaginations, so that we can’t help but be transported back in time to the world of the story. 

And that is how the worlds of the past are made. 

* * *

This post is based on a lecture given at Grub Street's 2014 Muse and the Marketplace conference. It was originally published as a two-part article in The Grub Daily


Character Creation by Metaphor: Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time

Over the last several years, at literary cocktail parties perhaps, or their on-line equivalents, I’ve overheard various intriguing fragments of conversation regarding Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. The fragments have been highly complimentary, seemingly to the point of hyperbole, along the lines of the jacket copy on my dog-eared, time-yellowed used bookstore edition: “many critics regard [it] as one of the greatest achievements in all modern fiction.”

Clearly, at some point, I had to give it a try. The first installment, A Question of Upbringing, takes place at Eton, Oxford, and in 1920’s London. It is indeed very good fiction, although I’m still not sure whether I’m ready to go along with the jacket copy. But this is top grade stuff, no question: intelligent, funny, gripping, and satisfying both as intellectual nourishment and entertainment. Take this passage introducing Stringham, one of the main characters:

When I came in, Stringham was kneeling in front of the fire, employing a paper-knife shaped like a scimitar as a toasting-fork. Without looking up, he said: “There is a jam crisis.”   
         He was tall and dark, and looked a little like one of those stiff, sad young men in ruffs, whose long legs take up so much room in sixteenth-century portraits: or perhaps a younger – and far slighter – version of Veronese’s Alexander receiving the children of Darius after the Battle of Issus: with the same high forehead and suggestion of hair thinning a bit at the temples. His features certainly seemed to belong to that epoch of painting: the faces in Elizabethan miniatures, lively, obstinate, generous, not very happy, and quite relentless. He was an excellent mimic, and, although he suffered from prolonged fits of melancholy, he talked a lot when one of these splenetic fits was not upon him: and ragged with extraordinary violence when excited. He played cricket well enough to rub along: football he took every opportunity of avoiding.

I love that paper knife shaped like a scimitar: hints of romance and violence echoing back to the crusades. And yet: “There is a jam crisis.” How could one not be fascinated by this short paragraph, which conveys volumes about the social milieu and the character in question?

Then we have the references to 16th century paintings & Elizabethan miniatures. These provocative images linger and expand in our minds, serving not only to give us a physical vision of Stringham, but also to emphasize his pedigree: he is a patrician, rooted in a grand tradition, with all the accompanying connotations of noblesse oblige, dry humor, and highly accomplished social skills that flow from that heritage. 

We experience Stringham as a humorous and breezily pleasant companion, but we also sense that he suffers deeply. He is an average athlete, a melancholic, far from perfect. He is unhappy, perhaps in part because of the weight of expectations and responsibility that go along with his upper-class lineage. Still, he bears the burden gracefully. In just a few paragraphs, Powell has provided us with a stunningly rich, textured, and sympathetic portrait.

Contrast the above introduction to this quick sketch of Le Bas, the boys’ overbearing schoolmaster:

Le Bas had in his hand a small blue book. It was open. I saw from the typeface that it contained verse. His hat hung from the top of his walking stick, which he had thrust into the ground, and his bald head was sweating a bit on top. He crouched there in the manner of a large animal—some beast alien to the English countryside, a yak or a sea lion, taking its ease: marring, as Stringham said later, the beauty of the summer afternoon.

This is a study of Stringham’s opposite: emphatically non-aristocratic, graceless, an awkward, alien misfit. There is something so right about it that we immediately recognize it as true. For me, the most important thing to note is that Powell is again using metaphorical imagery (yes, word-detectives, I know it’s simile he’s using—but remember, simile is merely a class of metaphor) to paint the distilled essence of a character. 

Instead of sad figures in Elizabethan paintings, we now have a yak or a sea lion crouching in the English countryside. These metaphors give us a vivid, poignant, and deeply resonant vision of a character who doesn’t belong, is impossibly out of his depth. And yet Le Bas has a certain beastly power, and is therefore a bit of a threat as well, which harmonizes perfectly with his role in the story. It’s a cutting introduction to a disastrous character, and yet the portrait is complex and not entirely unsympathetic. This is very well done.

Let’s appreciate another example:

Fair, not strikingly pretty, with long legs and short, untidy hair, she remained without moving, intently watching us, as Peter shut off the engine, and we got out of the car. Like her legs, her face was thing and attenuated, the whole appearance given the effect of a much simplified—and somewhat self-conscious—arrangement of lines and planes, such as might be found in an Old Master drawing, Flemish or German perhaps, depicting some young and virginal saint; the racquet, held awkwardly at an angle to her body, suggesting at the same time an obscure implement associated with martyrdom. . . any hopes or fears orientated in her direction were quickly dissolved, because she hardly spoke when Peter introduced us, except to say in a voice unexpectedly deep, and almost as harsh as her brother’s: ‘The hard court needs resurfacing.’

We don’t get to know this character, Jean, very well in this book—it’s possible she will reappear later in the series—so we don't find out whether the martyrdom imagery is actually “on the nose.” I suspect not, but it doesn’t really matter, because as it stands the metaphorical portrait is complex, contradictory, and interesting. The Old Master reference, the self-conscious arrangement of lines and planes, the way the tennis racquet seems intentionally held to create a certain impression, and the deep, harsh voice complaining about the tennis court—these are more than enough to intrigue us, and they fix this character indelibly in our imaginations.

A few more:

Loitering about the college in aged sack-like clothes and Turkish slippers, his snow white hair worn longer that that of most of his colleagues, Sillery could lay claim to a venerable appearance: though his ragged, Old Bill moustache (which, he used laughingly to mention, had once been compared with Nietszche’s) was still dark. He was, indeed, no more than entering into his middle fifties: merely happening to find convenient a façade of comparative senility.

Up to that afternoon I had only seen Members hurrying about in the streets, shaking from his round, somewhat pasty face a brownish, uneven fringe that grew low on his forehead and made him look rather like a rag doll, or marionette: an air augmented by brown eyes like beads, and a sprinkling of freckles. His tie, a broad, loose knot, left the collar of his shirt a little open. I admired this lack of self-consciousness regarding what I then—rather priggishly—looked on as eccentricity of dress. He appeared to have known Sillery all his life, calling him ‘Sillers’, a form of address which, in spite of several tea-parties attended, I had not yet summoned the courage to employ.

The power of the visual metaphors that anchor these character portraits may in part be due to the fact that they’re not too on-the-nose. They are at once economical and vivid – one feels the shock of recognition – and yet, at the same time, they are complex, textured, and full of internal contradictions. In other words, they create an extraordinarily lifelike impression. Sillery in his sack-like clothes and Turkish slippers partakes of the essence of both Wild Bill and Nietszche; Members is a rag doll, a puppet, true—and yet he is bold, unselfconscious, and admirably courageous.

Excellent stuff. There is clearly much to learn from Powell about how to employ metaphorical writing to create vivid, unforgettable fictional characters. I can't wait to read the rest of the series.