Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The true realism - R. L. Stevenson's "The Lantern-Bearers"

These boys congregated every autumn about a certain easterly fisher-village, where they tasted in high degree the glory of existence. (140)

So this is the first sentence of "The Lantern-Bearers" (1888), an essay, not a story.  Strange beginning, isn't it?  Which boys? Which village?  They did what, exactly?

Stevenson's boys, of which he is one, are in a resort town, on summer vacation.  The glories of existence include fishing, penny cigars, tide pools, the illustrations in The London Journal, "bottled lollipops," a beach with the jawbone of a whale for a landmark, endless numbers of wonderful things.  "[Y]ou might go Crusoeing, a word that covers all extempore eating in the open air," or even golf, although Stevenson writes "I seem to have been better employed."  The most wonderful sport is to go lantern-bearing.

The essence of this bliss was to walk by yourself in the black night; the slide shut, the top-coat buttoned; not a ray escaping, whether to conduct your footsteps or to make your glory public; a mere pillar of darkness in the dark; and all the while, deep down in the privacy of your fool's heart, to know you had a bull's-eye at your belt, and to exult and sing over the knowledge. (144)

This sentence must be taken literally.  Boys, led by young Stevenson, attached lit bull's-eye lanterns to their belts and essayed into the dark, but with the lanterns hidden by their overcoats.  The boys could detect each other only by the smell of "blistered tin" issuing from their coats.  The boys assembled in some isolated spot, unveiled their lamps, and "delight[ed] themselves with inappropriate talk."  This was the height of pleasure.

"The Lantern-Bearers," perhaps the third-best thing Stevenson ever wrote, is a piece of literary criticism.  Stevenson is lighting into the "realists" again, just as he was yesterday.  Zola might faithfully record every detail and "turn out, in a page or so, a gem of literary art, render the lantern-light with the touches of a master, and lay on the indecency with the ungrudging hand of love" and yet have come nowhere near the real life of the scene.

To the ear of the stenographer, the talk is merely silly and indecent; but ask the boys themselves, and they are discussing (as it is highly proper they should) the possibilities of existence. To the eye of the observer they are wet and cold and drearily surrounded; but ask themselves, and they are in the heaven of recondite pleasure, the ground of which is an ill-smelling lantern. (148)

Stevenson suggests some models of realistic art – Anna Karenina, George Meredith, King Lear, “Dostoieffsky’s Despised and Rejected,” or, at least, key scenes from these books.  But he is really talking about his own writing, what he is trying to do.  In “The Lantern-Bearers,” he calls realistic novels romances, too, “in the hope of giving pain.”  “Romances” are what Stevenson writes.  The word is associated with adventure stories, with fantasy, but Stevenson here suggests another meaning, another goal:  “the true realism, always and everywhere, is that of the poets to find out where joy resides, and give it a voice far beyond singing” (149).

I believe Stevenson would agree with me that he did not hit this mark too often in his own work.  I think he did in “The Lantern-Bearers.”

Please venture to Emily’s Evening All Afternoon for a more humanistic look at “The Lantern-Bearers.”


  1. A. R.,

    Many years ago I read an essay, title long since forgotten, by William James, I think, about not knowing a person until one knows what gives that person joy. What that may be probably differs for everybody, but one can't come close to understanding another until that is known.

    One example he gave was Stevenson's lantern bearers, and I hunted up the essay. I then began reading more essays by James and Stevenson, but nothing I read afterwards by both ever quite matched those two essays.

    1. http://www.uky.edu/~eushe2/Pajares/jcertain.html This is likely the James essay to which you are referring.

    2. Yes, that must be it, thanks. James includes almost 1,300 words of the Stevenson essay. And I don't blame him. "Fair use" was a little different back then.

  2. I loved this essay in the Lopate collection. It's what gave me the impression that Stevenson was a better essayist than a novelist (though I am very fond of several of his novels, including Treasure Island and Kidnapped and David Balfour.) The difference between Zola's "human animal," purely scientific (or supposed to be so) and Stevenson's lantern-bearers is notable.

  3. You're both right, I think. Stevenson was a better essayist than a novelist. But he didn't write too many as good as "The Lantern-Bearers."

    Fred - I'll try to find that W. James essay. How interesting.

  4. I can certainly see from this why you'd like Stevenson. Does Jekyll and Hyde manage it? The Beach at Falesa? You liked both; those are the two I want to read in any case.

  5. I think Jekyll and Hyde and The Beach of Falesa exceed this goal of Stevenson's, which is pretty narrow.

    Kidnapped is the best example of how Stevenson tries to bring off these sorts of scenes. The narrative is just a journey, so it's easy for Stevenson to regularly built towards "great scenes" every three or four chapters. Maybe they work for the particular reader, and maybe they don't, but if not, here comes another one!

    Thankfully, Stevenson is good enough at the sentence level that he makes up for a lot of the idiosyncracies of this "romanctic" approach.

    Ford Madox Ford, in Parade's End is not so dissimilar - those scenes that seem to ramble about but are actually building up to some revelation or "effect."

  6. The James essay you're looking for is "On A Certain Blindness in Human Beings" and can be found on pp. 132-149 of his "Talks to Students". I came upon the lantern-bearers in much the same way as the OP.

    James introduces the Lantern-Bearers, as follows, and I Heartily agree:

    "Robert Louis Stevenson has illustrated this by a case drawn from the sphere of imagination, in an essay which I really think deserves to become immortal, both for the truth of its matter and the excellence of its form."

    James' concludes saying:

    "These paragraphs are the best thing I know in all Stevenson."

  7. Thanks for the direction to the W. James essay.

  8. I just got a copy of RLS 's _The LANTERN-BEARERS and Other Essays.
    The first essay was great--"The Philosophy of Umbrellas". I'm finding that the best way to read the book is one essay at a time and then set it aside for a day or two--thus giving me a chance to really mull
    it over.

  9. Wise strategy, Fred. Stevenson's essays were a great discovery for me. I had thought of Stevenson as a lightweight. Not completely wrong, but not right, either.

  10. The 'village' is North Berwick, East Lothian, Scotland (25 miles east of Edinburgh) where I went to High School

  11. And do try 'Virginibus Puerisque'!!

  12. I should try it again. It is terrific. But gee all of this Stevenson reading was 8 years ago. Ages.