Tuesday, October 19, 2010

"Puffy Importance" was one of his nicknames - George Douglas Brown describes a character

The House with the Green Shutters (1901) is an extraordinary novel.  I suppose I should try to make that case, and not just assert it.  For now, I’ll just assert.  Anyway, it’s not a novel for everyone, and what novel is.

I want to look at something else.  Descriptions of characters, of people, in fiction: mostly useless?  At its best – as with any element of fiction – description of faces and hands and hair is essential.  Those currently enjoying Madame Bovary will see all sorts of wonderful examples of that.  How often, though, are even good writers at their best?  Thin face, small red mouth, pointed nose, bulging eyes, tiny ears, high forehead, a meadow of green hair – presented in a list like this, what reader really remembers it?  I did not go into it when I wrote about Ivan Turgenev’s novella Rudin, but this was one of the features that made the story resemble a play.  Character enters – describe character in exhaustive detail – never mention a single one of those details again.  Functional, but artless.

What does George Douglas Brown do?  Here’s the Rev. Mr Struthers, a character mentioned earlier but only met "in person" in Chapter 20, about two-thirds of the way through the novel, and never seen again.

He had big splay feet, short stout legs, and a body of such bulging bulbosity that all the droppings of his spoon - which were many - were caught on the round of his black waistcoat, which always looked as if it had just been spattered by a gray shower.

So this is going to be a list.  A page and a half in fact, this first paragraph a physical description, the second mental.  Speaking only for myself, though, this list is memorable.  As if “bulging bulbosity” were not enough, we have the disgusting intrusion of the “droppings,” merely food, I guess.  Somehow the word “gray” really rubs it in – it’s not merely soup and crumbs, but their ancient remains.  The description continues:

His eyebrows were bushy and white, and the hairs slanting up and out rendered the meagre brow even narrower than it was.  His complexion, more especially in cold weather, was a dark crimson.  The purply colour of his face was intensified by the pure whiteness of the side whiskers projecting stiffly by his ears, and in mid-week, when he was unshaven, his redness revealed more plainly, in turn, the short gleaming stubble that lay like rime on his chin.

Is this as good?  I don’t think so.  Maybe moving towards a too-muchness.  The contrast of colors, though, that has to work.  It’s simple, even cartoonish – white vs. dark, whether crimson or purple, and then the whiteness is brought in again.  The stubble, that’s good, too.  The rime evokes different stubble, stubble in a field.  The earlier mention of cold weather (it is actually sunny summertime at this point of the story) prepares the reader’s imagination for the overlay of the frosty field.  Two more lines:

His eyes goggled, and his manner at all times was that of a staring and earnest self-importance.  "Puffy Importance" was one of his nicknames.

All right, that seals it.  This is a great description.  I’m going to remember Puffy Importance long after I’ve forgotten much of the rest of The House with the Green Shutters.

Two more lines from Rev. Mr Struthers, not as evidence of anything:

“[A]t the Day of Judgment every herring must hang by his own tail!” (Ch. 5)

“But perhaps," he added, with solemn and pondering brows - "perhaps he was a little too fond of Hegel.  Yess, I am inclined to think that he was a little too fond of Hegel."  Mrs. Eccles, listening from the Black Bull door, wondered if Hegel was a drink. (Ch. 20)


  1. You are my other better brother from another mother, Wuthers. I've been reading The Custom of the Country and bowing down before Wharton who has such a delicious knack for just these details. Here's how she describes Elmer Moffat, a representative of a particular type of American man:

    "As the young man picked the catalogue up and held it out to her she noticed that his bulging eyes and queer retreating face were suffused with a glow of admiration. He was so unpleasant-looking that she would have resented his homage had not his odd physiognomy called up some vaguely agreeable association of ideas. Where had she seen before this grotesque saurian head, with eye-lids as thick as lips and lips as thick as ear-lobes?"



  2. "Character enters – describe character in exhaustive detail – never mention a single one of those details again."

    It srrms to have been aconvention of the time todescribe the unseeable in detail, Where novels had long descriptions of characters, plays include long depictions of characters' equally invisible psychology and motivation in the stage directions. Shaw is the most extreme example- there are whole novels in his stage directions- but other playwrights did so too.

  3. Oh, yeah, look at what Wharton does. An ordinary descriptive detail (the bulging eyes) followed by vagueness - queer and unpleasant and odd. The reader is perhaps lulled - maybe we won't even get a real description. Then, the dinosaur head and the lips over the eyes and the ears on his mouth. Grotesque, and perhaps not exactly descriptive of any actual human, but Elmer now looks like something.

    Right, Roger, a convention of plays. The flexibility available to the novelist is so great, though, conventions are no excuse. Turgenev himself quickly moved on to more artful devices.