Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Good enough for sympathy - the usual thing in The Way We Live Now

Narrative contains within it a powerful tendency towards sympathy.  Anthony Trollope is more aware of this than most writers, or at least he openly writes about the effect in his novels.  My favorite example is when in The Eustace Diamonds he titles a chapter “Too Bad for Sympathy.”  Lizzie Eustace is a bad, bad person; please, reader, show some dignity and stop sympathizing with her, no matter how much fun she is or how much worse the people around her are.

In the Barchester novels, no one is too bad for sympathy, not even Mrs. Proudie.  Bad people begin to appear in the Palliser novels, just one in Can You Forgive Her?, a little circle of them around Lizzie Eustace, a couple of villains in the Phineas Finn novels.

The Way We Live Now inverts the ratio.  Maybe seven characters in the large cast are ordinarily decent human beings.  The rest are bad, some bad enough to be evil, by which I mean they do harm to others.  Trollope spends plenty of time in the heads of some of the worst of the characters.

Several of the plots rely on the usual novelistic sympathy.  A decent person makes a foolish decision and I am led to sympathize with the attempts to deal with the consequences, and perhaps even the mistake itself.  Like I would have behaved any better, right?

Thus the two love triangles that fill much of the novel – I guess one is more of a love trapezoid, but I will ignore that.  Will Paul Montague be able to marry Hetta Carbury or will he succumb to his American fiancée Mrs. Hurtle, who once killed a man?   For almost half of the novel, the point of view is restricted to Montague, so when he breaks with and parts from Mrs. Hurtle in Chapter 47, it was a surprise when Trollope followed not Paul but Mrs. Hurtle to her room to reflect on what it all means.  The narrator restores sympathy.  That shooting was in self-defense.

My favorite example, because it is so minor, is the paragraph where sympathy is extended to the Emperor of China, who is enduring an English dinner party:

… that awful Emperor, solid, solemn, and silent, must, if the spirit of an Eastern Emperor be at all like that of a Western man, have had a weary time of it. He sat there for more than two hours, awful, solid, solemn, and silent, not eating very much, – for this was not his manner of eating; nor drinking very much, – for this was not his manner of drinking; but wondering, no doubt, within his own awful bosom, at the changes which were coming when an Emperor of China was forced, by outward circumstances, to sit and hear this buzz of voices and this clatter of knives and forks.  “And this,” he must have said to himself, “is what they call royalty in the West!”

The Way We Live Now is as much about status as money.  “[T]he changes which were coming,” yes.

Tomorrow, then, the other mode, the inverted sympathy, the refusal of sympathy.  Ambiguous sympathy.  The variety of modes are part of the complexity of the novel, part of what makes it so interesting.


  1. Do you think the title of the book has anything to do with the ratio of good to bad people in it? Is Trollope saying that the way we live now is tending toward pretty bad? That'd make him sound like Chekhov.

  2. Replies
    1. I see Trollope was 60 when he wrote this. 60 years old and furious at "the commercial profligacy of the age." That he managed to sustain that fury long enough to write a long, long novel is pretty darned impressive. Though I guess Dickens had already done that with a couple of books.

  3. I finally bashed out my new bit, which is on exactly this, angry Trollope, cruel Trollope, still filtered through the sympathy device.

    I include a line that is close to Nabokovian.