The Elements of “Housekeeping”

Earth, water, air, and fire bind the alchemy that is Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. From the opening mention of the sod house where narrator Ruth’s grandfather grew up, the story is grounded in home and place and the departure from it. Ruth’s mother and Aunt Sylvie grew up in Fingerbone, Idaho, in a house put down “in this unlikely place” by the grandfather, who died when his train derailed into a lake from a bridge. The lake and bridge figure prominently in the bleak terrain and in the story — Ruth’s mother also plunged into the lake in a car and with intention.

Ruth and her sister Lucille come to live in their grandmother’s house in Fingerbone, where they’re raised by the grandmother, then by the grandmother’s sisters-in-law, and finally by Aunt Sylvie, who is ill-suited for housekeeping and child-rearing. The girls’ longing for family and their survival instincts make them inseparable, until they must choose between very different ways of “housekeeping.”  

Lesson: Give the weather of place a thematic role in your story

The many character introductions in the first several pages make a difficult entry into this novel. There are the girls Ruth and Lucille, a grandmother named “Sylvia,” the aunt “Sylvie,” sisters-in-law Nona and Lily, the grandfather, Ruth and Lucille’s dead mother Helen and estranged father, a friend Bernice who loaned Helen the car she drove into the lake, and more. Stay with it, patient reader. The complex family structure underpins the theme, as does the landscape and house itself. It’s a story about keeping and losing house and home and family.

As the novel progresses, the initial tangle of relationships unravels and is lost. Lucille leaves Ruth and Aunt Sylvie for a more conventional upbringing with her home economics teacher. Ruth and Aunt Sylvie escape Fingerbone to avoid legal action that could separate them. The elements, which have treated them harshly, become their allies and constant companions. They burn the house and don’t refute a news item that they’ve drowned in the lake. They ride trains, elusive and uprooted.

These passages show how elements shape character and story:

Wind  Ruth’s grandmother was a good mother and housekeeper. 

Her children slept on starched sheets under layers of quilts, and in the morning her curtains filled with light the way sails fill with wind. (p.12)

Snow  Ruth’s great-aunts are nervous and uncomfortable in their care-taking role.

Sometimes the sun would be warm enough to send a thick sheet of snow sliding off the roof, and sometimes the fir trees would shrug, and the snow would fall with surprisingly loud and earthly thuds, which would terrify my great-aunts. It was by grace of this dark and devastating weather that we were able to go very often to the lake to skate, for Lily and Nona knew that our house would fall, and hoped that we at least might be spared when it did, if only to die of pneumonia. (p.33)

Sun  Sylvie is at first a ray of hope for Ruth and Lucille.

The week after Sylvie arrived, Fingerbone had three days of brilliant sunshine and four of balmy rain. (p.60)

Air  But Sylvie doesn’t become the constant mother the girls desire.

The furtive closing of a door is a sound the wind can make a dozen times in an hour. A flow of damp air from the lake can make any house feel empty. Such dread is always mirrored upon the dread that inheres in things. For example, when Sylvie looked over the bridge she must have seen herself in the water at the foot of the trestle. But as surely as we tried to stay awake to know for certain whether she sang, or wept, or left the house, we fell asleep and dreamed that she did. (p.83)

Light  Sylvie’s strange ways intrigue the girls. They’ve learned to fend for themselves, but they crave security. Lucille eventually turns away from her aunt’s transient nature, but when Sylvie takes Ruth out on the lake in a stolen boat one night, Ruth is compelled as much as repelled by that free spirit. 

“The sun’s coming up,” [Sylvie] said. The sky above Fingerbone was a floral yellow. A few spindled clouds smoldered and glowed a most unfiery pink. And then the sun flung a long shaft over the mountain, and another, like a long-legged insect bracing itself out of its chrysalis, and then it showed above the black crest, bristly and red and improbable. In an hour it would be the ordinary sun, spreading modest and impersonal light on an ordinary world, and that thought relieved me. Sylvie continued to pull, strongly and slowly. (p.147)

Fire & wind  Sylvie and Ruth undertake a major house cleaning to impress the town people and sheriff who see Sylvie as unfit to care for Ruth. Even after Sylvie’s scheme fails, they continue to put the house in order, burning debris which has accumulated since Sylvie arrived.

Sylvie brought newspapers from the shed and we balled them up and stuck them in among the magazines and lit them with matches, and after a little while the magazines began to swell and warp and to page themselves and finally to ascend the spiraling air. That was a pretty day…We could watch the heat from the fire pull and tease the air out of shape, stretching the fabric of dimension and repose with its furious ascending. The magazine pages went black, and the print and the dark parts of pictures turned silvery black. Weightless and filigreed, they spiraled to a giddy height, till some current caught them in the upper air, some high wind we could not feel assumed them. (p.199)

Wind  Ruth chooses transience with Sylvie and never sees Lucille again, but she imagines her in the old house, refurbished after the fire, or settled elsewhere. Ruth passes by her grandmother’s house on the train but never gets off, though she says she would like to see the people who live there.

“Seeing them would expel poor Lucille, who has, in my mind, waited there in a fury of righteousness, cleansing and polishing, all these years. She thinks she hears someone on the walk, and hurries to open the door, too eager to wait for the bell. It is the mailman, it is the wind, it is nothing at all. Sometimes she dreams that we come walking up the road in our billowing raincoats, hunched against the cold, talking together in words she cannot quite understand. (p.217)

Inhabiting Place ~ Of the Farm

In John Updike’s story Pigeon Feathers and short novel Of the Farm, an 80-acre farm plays a central role. The fictional place is based on Updike’s mother’s birthplace, a property near Plowville, Pennsylvania, where Updike moved with his family at the age of thirteen. The farm had been owned by Updike’s grandparents, sold by his grandfather when the family moved to Shillington (a town renamed Olinger in Updike’s stories), and repurchased by Updike’s mother. The author spent his formative teen years there, isolated and encouraged by his mother to write.

Lesson: Engage your fictional place in conflict, just as you do with characters, to make it come alive 

The fact that a fictional place is based on a real place is not reason enough to make readers believe it. In Updike’s work, the farm is an animate presence, consistent one story to the other. When I read Pigeon Feathers I developed loyalty to its cast of inhabitants, including a boy named David who is a stand-in for Updike. In Of the Farm, I initially felt as if the new inhabitants were imposters. The Updike stand-in here is a man named Joey, who visits the farm on a mission to help his mother and gain her acceptance of his new wife. In Pigeon Feathers, the farm and David’s relationship to it had been so convincing that I initially found myself wondering: What right did Joey have to use David’s home for his own childhood memories? But Joey stakes his claim.

This liveliness of place comes not just from Updike’s descriptions, such as this narration by Joey: We went up a sharp little rise and there, on the level crest where Schoelkopf’s weathered mailbox stood knee-deep in honeysuckle and poison ivy, its flopped lid like a hat being tipped, my wife first saw the farm. It comes also from giving the farm a role in the story; it’s a source of pleasure and pain, love and conflict.

In the Pigeon Feathers, there is friction between David’s parents over the farm and in Of the Farm, even though Joey’s father has died, the friction that had been between his parents lingers as a palpable force threatening Joey’s new marriage. Early in Of the Farm, Joey expresses his relationship with it: …whenever I returned, after no matter how great a gap of time, to this land, the acres flowed outward from me like a form of boasting. But he lives with the memories of conflict between his parents caused by the farm and considers this possibility: … my mother had undervalued and destroyed my father… had brought him to a farm which was in fact her giant lover, and had thus warped the sense of the masculine within me, her son.

When Joey mows the field, sweating in the hot sun, his technique is: to slice in one ecstatic straight thrust, up the middle and then to narrow the two halves, whittling now at one and now at the other, entertaining myself with flanking maneuvers acres wide and piecemeal mop-ups. His mother’s method is: to embrace the field, tracing its border and then on a slow square spiral closing in until one small central patch was left. Their differing styles with the tractor amplify their personal differences, as Joey describes: I imitated war, she love. In the end, our mowed fields looked the same, except that my mother’s would have more scraggly spots where she had lifted the cutter over a detected pheasant’s nest or had spared an especially vivid patch of wildflowers.

Joey’s mother is married to the farm. The only way she’ll leave it is through death. The mowing metaphor foreshadows the negotiated truce that the inevitable event will bring. He will inherit the farm—his mother’s farm—with all its history of sorrow and joy.

Lesson: Animate the landscape by putting it “in the body”

A masterful writer wouldn’t be content with the “vivid” descriptor in the above sentence, and Updike is masterful. He has Joey convey the liveliness of the wildflowers: Black-eyed susans, daisy fleabane, chicory, goldenrod, butter-and-eggs each flower of which was like a tiny dancer leaping, legs together—all of these scudded past the tractor wheels.

As with the writing of character, putting the landscape “in the body” makes the fictional place real and felt. As Joey mows on the tractor, his senses heighten to the landscape, now become erotic…Crickets sprang crackling away from the slow-turning wheels; butterflies loped and bobbed above the flattened grass as the hands of a mute concubine might examine, flutteringly, the corpse of her giant lover. The sun grew higher. The metal hood acquired a nimbus of heat waves that visually warped each stalk. The tractor body was flecked with foam and I, rocked back and forth on the iron seat shaped like a woman’s hips, alone in nature, as hidden under the glaring sky as at midnight, excited by destruction, weightless, discovered in myself a swelling which I idly permitted to stand, thinking of Peggy. My wife is a field.

Lesson: Orient the reader 

The action of Pigeon Feathers centers around the barn and house, while that of Of the Farm revolves around the field, garden, berry patches, and house. The same structures and natural elements appear in both the story and novel, but in different proportion. The fictional surroundings in both feel real and consistent.

As writers, we can map our fictional places or use other methods to discover and know these places well before or during the writing process. As readers, it’s not essential that we are able to map a place in order to believe it, but with Updike we could. Consistency of place—an author’s grasp of direction, scale, weather, light, landscape, landmarks, flora, fauna, architecture—orients readers and allows us to feel “at home” with the story.

Full-bodied Characters

Fiction invites us to experience other peoples’ lives. As writers and readers, we enter territories—geographic, physical, psychic—that would not otherwise be available to us. A believable character is a guide to another world. For the masterful writer and the fortunate reader, “real” characters inhabit lives of their own that extend past the time of writing and reading.

As writers, we know and invent more about our characters than we show or tell. We can develop histories, physical descriptions, and emotional baggage for our characters through lists, biographies, interviews, photos, scrapbooks. (More on these tools in another post.) To make our characters appear and seem “real,” we need to put ourselves in more than their shoes. We need to shape-shift into their bodies.

The figure below serves as a nudge to ground our writing in the senses and body of a character. Add your own action verbs and sensory verbs. Keep in mind the three guiding verbs for character-driven fiction: desire, choose, act.

Know Your Characters - Body, Mind & Soul

Ground writing in the body and senses


Let’s see how masterful authors do it…

Italo Calvino, Baron in the Trees 

Biagio describes Cosimo upon waking: In the morning, on the other hand, when the jackdaw croaked, from the bag would come a pair of clenched fists; the fists rose in the air and were followed by two arms slowly widening and stretching, and in the movement drawing out his yawning face, his shoulders with a gun slung over one and a powderhorn slung over another, his slightly bandy legs (they were beginning to lose their straightness from his habit of always moving on all fours or in a crouch). Out jumped these legs, they stretched too, and so, with a shake of the back and a scratch under his fur jacket, Cosimo, wakeful and fresh as a rose, was ready to begin his day.

Rachel Cusk, The Country Life  

Stella, the first-person narrator, suffers: I examined my arms, and to my dismay saw that they were  a furious red, cross-hatched with hundreds of thick, raised white lines, as if I had worms embedded beneath my skin. Crying out, I flung back the eiderdown… I scratched, tearing at my nightdress like a maniac, and then understood that I was going to lose control of myself if I continued in this fashion. I sat, hot and exhausted, on the corner of the bed, my head in my hands. My skin tingled and itched now that my fingers were not attending to it. I bridled my urge to scratch, forcing my hands into my mouth. My back felt unbearably hot. Around me the night was shrunken and dense, like the pupil of an eye contracted to a pinprick.

Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

Readers (listeners) are in concert with Mrs. Ramsay: But here, as she turned the page, suddenly her search for the picture of a rake or a mowing-machine was interrupted. The gruff murmur, irregularly broken by the taking out f pipes and the putting in of pipes which had kept on assuring her, though she could not hear what was said (as she sat in the window which opened on the terrace), that the men were happily talking; this sound, which had lasted now half and hour and had taken its place soothingly in the scale of sounds pressing on top of her, such as the tap of balls upon bats, the sharp, sudden bark now and then, “How’s that? How’s that?” of the children playing cricket, had ceased; so that the monotonous fall of the waves on the beach, which for the most part beat a measured and soothing tattoo to her thoughts and seemed consolingly to repeat over and over again as she sat with the children the words of some old cradle song, murmured by nature, “I am guarding you—I am your support,” but at other times suddenly and unexpectedly, especially when her mind raised itself slightly from the task actually in hand, had no such kindly meaning, but like a ghostly roll of drums remorselessly beat the measure of life, made one think of the destruction of the island and its engulfment in the sea, and warned her whose day had slipped past in one quick doing after another that was all ephemeral as a rainbow—this sound which had been obscured and concealed under the other sounds suddenly thundered hollow in her ears and made her look up with an impulse of terror.

Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried

The author Tim O’Brien gets inside his character Tim O’Brien: I remember the monotony. Digging foxholes. Slapping mosquitoes. The sun and the heat and the endless paddies. Even in the deep bush, where you could die any number of ways, the war was nakedly and aggressively boring. But it was a strange boredom. It was boredom with a twist, the kind of boredom that caused stomach disorders. You’d be sitting at the top of a high hill, the flat paddies stretching out below, and the day would be calm and hot and utterly vacant, and you’d feel the boredom dripping inside you like a leaky faucet, except it wasn’t water, it was a sort of acid, and with each little droplet you’d feel the stuff eating away at important organs. You’d try to relax. You’d uncurl your fists and let your thoughts go. Well, you’d think, this isn’t so bad. And right then you’d hear gunfire behind you and your nuts would fly up into your throat and you’d be squealing pig squeals. That kind of boredom.

Richard Yates, Doctor Jack-o’-lantern (Eleven Kinds of Loneliness)

Body language reveals Vincent Sabella’s trepidation at being a new kid in class in : He arrived early and sat in the back row — his spine very straight, his ankles crossed precisely under the desk and his hands folded on the very center of its top, as if symmetry might make him less conspicuous — and while the other children were filing in and settling down, he received a long, expressionless stare from each of them.

Whitney Otto, How to Make an American Quilt

An illicit encounter elicits desire and implies what will happen next for Sophia: He presses her flush against the stone wall with his heavy, clothed body. Now he is running his hand along the inside of her thighs, splitting her legs apart, nestling his body between them. Sophia thinks she will lose her breath forever, will drown and not care, will always have this sensation of inner heat and outer cold. He cradles her against the quarry rock. She trembles in his arms. She knows what she will say and without hesitation. Yes.

Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

Clarissa Dalloway begins her day with senses heightened and flows to the reader a spectrum of color and fragrance: Ah yes—so she breathed in the earthy garden sweet smell as she stood talking to Miss Pym who owed her help, and thought her kind, for kind she had been years ago; very kind, but she looked older, this year, turning her head from side to side among the irises and roses and nodding tufts of lilac with her eyes half-closed, snuffing in, after the street uproar, the delicious scent, the exquisite coolness. And then, opening her eyes, how fresh like frilled linen clean from a laundry laid in wicker trays the roses looked; and dark and prim the red carnations, holding their heads up; and all the sweet peas spreading in their bowls, tinged violet, snow white, pale—as if it were the evening and girls in muslin frocks came out to pick sweet peas and roses after the superb summer’s day, with its almost blue-black sky, its delphiniums, its carnations, its arum lilies was over; and it was the moment between six and seven when every flower—roses, carnations, irises, lilac—glows; white, violet, red, deep orange; every flower seems to burn by itself, softly, purely in the misty beds; and how she loved the grey-white moths spinning in and out, over the cherry pie, over the evening primroses! 

Loving The Country Life

Everything about Rachel Cusk’s The Country Life is at odds with the ease suggested by the book’s title. When protagonist Stella Benson flees her complications in London—job, parents, husband—for reasons she doesn’t disclose other than that she’s unhappy, she hopes life will be sweeter and simpler in the country. She’s wrong, delightfully so. Cusk starts the story at a fast clip and keeps the pace speeding like an arrow, sweeping the reader — breathless and clueless as Stella — into the romp. Stella can’t help herself from becoming ensnarled in predicaments from cheerfully uncomfortable to hilaroulsy life-threatening. Each day of her new country life sprouts opportunity for disasters. The reader sees them coming at the same time as Stella, or a moment before she does, which makes them doubly sportive.

Lesson: Give your character trouble and misery

Teachers and books on writing craft push us to give our characters trouble. Make them miserable! Put them in predicaments! Watch them squirm! I’ve always found this hard to do. I don’t like trouble; I prefer happiness. But happiness start to finish contains no transformation, no character arc. Early in my writing career, I  learned about the Greek masks of Comedy and Tragedy. A Comedy starts with misery, ends with happiness (or promise of.) A Tragedy starts with happiness, and ends with misery (or promise of.)  

The Country Life is a Comedy. Whatever Stella endured in her London life was bad enough to make her want to escape to an anticipated idyllic life in the country. But if Cusk handed Stella what she wanted, there would be no story. From the moment Stella steps foot in the country, she is plagued by sunburn, insect bites, tarred roads, allergies, heat — a myriad of problems. Her off-balance sense of self engenders pratfalls, thievery, near car-wrecks, pet abuse, and near-drowning. This woman lives on the edge. She flings, has flung, and will continue to fling herself at life, even after the story’s end. She’s a flinger. And we love her for it!

She’s propelled by opposite forces within — bravery and embarrassment (or desire to avoid it), meticulous obsession and recklessness. She intends well, but misses, and suffers the consequences of her actions. Hey—better her than us! The joy of this kind of book is in our believing that Stella will survive, maybe even triumph!, as we cheer her on from our comfortable reading spot.

Lesson: For a Comedy, make trouble comedic

We learn a valuable lesson from Cusk about dishing out trouble: To keep it comedic, spoon a dollop of black humor. Stella has no driver’s license, but chauffeurs her ward, Martin, to town. He’s a disabled teenager, wheelchair bound, for whom she’s been hired as a companion and helper. They make it to town—barely—to Martin’s school and need to get back home. In the parking lot, Martin encourages her (what teenager wouldn’t love the adrenalin rush of this illicit ride!), “You’re doing fine, Stel-la.” She protests, “I could get us both killed….What if I injured you?  You could be crippled for life.”

Lesson: Give trouble a purpose

Martin, a wise young man with family problems of his own, engages Stella in philosophical discussions that illumine her plight—we still aren’t sure, really, why she’s fled London.

[Stella speaking:] “I happen to believe that the search for happiness is often itself the greatest cause of unhappiness.” 

 But if you were happy, you wouldn’t be searching,” said Martin.

“I didn’t say I was. I was speaking generally. I think it is almost impossible to be happy and to know yourself to be so at one and the same time. People believe that happiness is a goal, as opposed merely to the absence of problems. Looking for happiness is like looking for love. How do you know when you’ve found it?”

“I always imagined they came together,” said Martin.

“Nonsense. Love makes people more miserable than anything else.”

Cusk could have told us more about the character’s early problems through exposition or had Stella narrate  her own back story. But this masterful author writes a character who give us her own evidence for comparison. We see the misery she encounters through her misguided choices and get a sense that whatever the misery was that she escaped from in London was, at least in part, of her own making.

Lesson: Mirror emotions in the physical

Love and all its complexities — the difficulties of loving and being loved—are what Stella is escaping from and discovering in The Country Life. But love is abstract. Insect bites, sunburn, dangerous roads and near drowning are not.

Cusk uses an old mirror found in the cottage where Stella lives as a prop, in standard literary and inventive ways, to show us Stella. Through her reflection, Stella reveals her interior thoughts to herself and us. Our heroine (or anti-heroine) is, at the same time, so self-absorbed and detached from herself physically and emotionally that she can barely function. Her descriptions have her at arm’s length to herself. “Sensing that I stood on the brink of an abyss of self-consciousness—a void into which I often fall, rendering me unable, even over several hours, to dress myself—I dug deeper into the cases and was surprised to find a summer dress I did not remember packing. It seemed imperative that having made this discovery I activate it immediately and with determination, before my first, faint protests…”  

As the story progresses, Stella becomes more real to herself and us, more present in her body, and more aware of herself in the grander scheme of life.

“I stood transfixed by the mirror, for some time, accustoming myself to this stranger of whose desires and motives I was not entirely sure.”

“Whatever cream it was that the creature had applied to my sunburn had worked wonders, for when I got up and looked in the wardrobe mirror I saw that the colour of my skin had completely altered from emrgency red to an attractive brown.”

““Before I could fend it off, the sight had filled me with a sense of my destitution….What surprised me was to realize how familiar this sight was. I had seen it on busy London pavements, amidst a throng of faces; one or two whose eyes looked out from their bodies as if from behind bars, as they paid for the crime of permitting their misfortunes to outweigh the space their flesh was entitled to occupy.

Stella’s arc transforms her from being armored and distant from herself to begin to being able to be close to at least one other person. She’s confronted herself in the mirror but still has trouble facing the choices she made in abandoning her past. Finally, someone from her former life chances to find her in the country and will be at the dinner table with Martin’s family, to whom Stella has lied and omitted truths. Martin advises her…“Everyone has to face things. It’s the only way.”  He helps her gather courage.

In the final scene, we don’t just glimpse her or see her reflection, we are in her skin “..presently I felt the warm clammy pressure of another hand, Martin’s, taking one of mine.”

A clammy hand may not be Stella’s idea of true happiness, but in the manner of a Comedy, the story promises happiness for this character at some point beyond the book’s ending.

The Awakening: One Man’s Viewpoint

By Guest Blogger: Lee Stein

This post is from Lee Stein, a writer and participant in the Read to Write Workshop Sebastopol, 2010. Lee missed the first session where we discussed The Awakening by Kate Chopin. His viewpoint adds a valuable dimension to our otherwise all female class discussion. Thanks, Lee!

I just finished reading The Awakening. The pace of the book (apropos of New Orleans, of course) posed a bit of a reading hurdle and the writing style of late 19th or early 20th century writing, as well. However, once I got into it, I actually couldn’t wait to pick it up again. As a reader, Kate Chopin (ironic that she also makes several references to the musical Chopin) builds us up as we empathize with Edna as she in fact awakens from her routine world to a richer life, one filled with love, sensuality, her own choices, her apparent real development as an artist, her independence from what was the ball and chain of societal and marital expectations. 

 Of course as the reader, I could (almost) see the end coming, especially when Robert, who represents, even more than her husband, the “straight and narrow” of society. God forbid, Robert would say, that I involve myself with a married woman, no less than the wife of one of the scions of New Orleans business and society. I could never take the step to live with her without the proper social blessings, or run away with her. I would rather sacrifice my position (witness the note he leaves) than to actually live a life based on the life of the heart. This in fact seals Edna’s fate. 

I went back and looked at the first line, and Chopin cleverly introduces the theme of the book, in French, via the character of the parrot (who does in fact make another appearance). “A green and yellow parrot, which hung in a cage outside the door, kept repeating over and over: “Allez vous-en! Allez vous-en! Sapristi! That’s all right!”

The footnotes inform us: Go away, go away! For God’s sake, go away! That’s all right.”

At first this seems a bit silly for an introduction. But we see several elements where Edna strips her life in one way or another of the confining rules and expectations of society, even as she gives her heart to Robert. First, Robert leaves for Mexico. Then she leaves this idyllic summer getaway where she and Robert idle their time with one another as she falls in love to return to the city with the change of season with her children and unfullfilling, unloving husband. About the same time, she sends the children to their grandmother’s home in the country and her husband leaves for NY on an extended business trip. Somewhere in there, we have other leavings: She becomes involved (quasi-romantically) with Alcee in Robert’s absence, but she also leaves Alcee, or directs Alcee to leave her on several different occasions. She leaves her own family in a sense, refusing to attend her sister’s wedding and in a sense, leaves her father, who despite his visit to New Orleans, fails to persuade her to attend and in a sense leaves her family. She strips her self symbolically of all the trappings of life expected of a “gentile woman of New Orleans” to lead her own life as an artist, make her choices. Even her dearest friend Madame Ratignolle, who seems to have a borderline love affair with Edna (see the scene at the beach with the two of them), represents the exact opposite direction of Edna’s life. Her life is directed to caring for husband and children, minimal physical activity on her own behalf, and certainly, other than the more or less required music lessons, and apparently only a fair player at best, Madame, interestingly is always referred to formally, as Madame R… as though the author wants us to see her in this formal, structured way.

It is interesting that as a reader, I am falling in love or at least deeply admiring Edna’s steps out of convention into a true soul direction. And finally, after stripping herself of everything with which she starts the story, she literally strips naked on the beach and consciously swims out into the Gulf, ending her life because no male energy could meet her and fulfill her. Robert failed, despite her heart and soul being committed to him, Alcee never had a chance. Her husband’s idea was to simply keep plying her with bribes in the form of bonbons, crystal, wine or other gifts as versus truly loving her or making space for her. And so, really, she had no other avenue, in her world, so that ultimately, she wasn’t truly independent, but rather still crushed by her dependence on a deep and meaningful relationship.

Ordinary, Extraordinary Boy: Baron in the Trees

In Italo Calvino’s fabulous tale Baron in the Trees, a young boy, Cosimo, has a spat with his father during dinner and, out of spite and stubbornness, climbs into a tree and refuses to come down—ever. What makes this story believable and compelling are the details reported by the younger brother, Biagio, who narrates, and the determination of the little rascal, Cosimo, who fulfills his destiny and lives aloft his whole life, taking his birthright of “Baron” upon his father’s death. Biagio narrates from the time of the fateful dinner until Cosimo’s fortuitous heaven-ward ascent as an old man. As promised, he never touches the ground, even in death. What makes this story unforgettable is Cosimo, an ordinary, extraordinary boy.

Lesson: Contrast vivid images and physicality to show character transformation

Writers can get bogged down by description. How much visual information is enough or too much? When does a “catalog” serve the story? What does body language say about character?

Biagio describes Cosimo’s escape with a matter-of-fact assessment from head to toe: “We saw him through the windows climbing up the holm oak. He was dressed up in the most formal clothes and headdress, as our father insisted on his appearing at table in spite of his twelve years of age; powdered hair with ribbon in the queue, tricorne, lace stock and ruffles, green tunic with pointed tails, flesh-coloured stockings, rapier, and long white leather gaiter halfway up his legs, the only concession to a mode of dressing more suitable to our country life. (I, being  only eight, was exempted from powdered hair except on gala occasions, and from the rapier, which I should have liked to wear.)” Calvino then puts Biagio’s attention fully on the body: “Cosimo climbed up to the fork of a big branch where he could settle comfortably and sat himself down there, his legs dangling, his arms crossed with hands tucked under his elbow, his head buried in his shoulders, his tricorne hat tilted over his forehead.” 

Compare this sketch of Cosimo the boy to Biagio’s description of his brother a lifetime later: “…he was getting to be a shrivelled old man, with bandy legs and long monkey-like arms, hunch-backed, sunk in a fur cloak topped by a hood, like a hairy friar. His face was baked by the sun, creased as a chestnut, with clear round eyes between the wrinkles.”

What we see is what we get. The first scene is comedic because even though Cosimo is dressed “normally” for a boy of his social standing, he looks extraordinarily out of place perching in a tree. But we believe he is there—we feel him there—because Biagio has noticed the legs dangling, the head buried in the shoulders. He is a typical rebellious child, having done the deed, now makes sure he’s observed, perhaps petulant, but stubbornly staying put in the tree. The later scene might be comedic had we happened upon it at first. But by now, we’ve lived for decades in the trees with Cosimo through Biagio’s faithful reporting. For all the extraordinary life he’s lived, Cosimo seems quite normal with his bandy legs and face like a chestnut. It feels right that he’s fur-cloaked and moves like a monkey.

Calvino uses the “fashion catalog” of the early scene to launch Cosimo in his arc. Fully clothed in the symbols of his father’s expectations, he has much to lose by disobeying. As he transforms from disobedient boy to a young man in search of himself, so do the details:  the rapier, “which, in spite of family orders, he kept very sharp” becomes a useful tool and weapon, not merely decoration; the tricorne gives way to a cat’s fur cap; ruffles become “bright-coloured feathers of kingfisher or greenfinch.”

Lesson: Focus and heighten the essence of character traits

The word “trait” comes from “tractus” — a drawing out, line. Just as people are distinguished by certain traits, memorable characters have traits that keep them intact in our minds and set them apart from others in the story. Cosimo wants his own way and proceeds to find it. He’s hard-headed, but not hard-hearted. He becomes his own type of leader, telling his father: “I realize that when I have more ideas than others, I give those others my ideas, if they want to accept them; and that to me is leading.” He sees the social strata as a charade and, in his own way, tries to live a meaningful, authentic life. As a wild child, he captures our imaginations and childhood ambitions — endless camping out under the stars, magical tree forts, no dressing up for dinner. As a young man, he realizes he won’t discard essential aspects of his upbringing: “A gentleman, my lord father, is such whether he is on earth or on the tree-tops.” He hangs on to his stubbornness, determination, fortitude, rebelliousness, belief in charting one’s own destiny—all much the same trait, depending upon how you value it—to his dying day.

He becomes a legend in his own time, helping to right injustices when moved to do so, enduring praise from from visitors near and far. “Were I not the Emperor Napoleon, I would like to be the Citizen Cosimo Rondo!” Biagio is quick to tell us that Cosimo did not give a rap about receiving honors, but “it would have given us pleasure in the family.” It is this force of character that we remember. Biagio sums it up well: “Only by being so frankly himself as he was till his death could he give something to all men.”

Narrating into the “Heart of Darkness”

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness begins with a first-person narrator on a yawl in the Thames with four other men. He sets the scene: “…the sky without a speck was a benign immensity of unstained light….” As night arrives, one of the other men, Marlow, begins talking. “‘And this also,’ said Marlow suddenly, ‘has been one of the dark places of the earth.'” 

That interruption is justified by narrator #1. “His remark did not seem at all surprising. It was just like Marlow.”

There is a narrative volley, as Marlow begins again at length, pauses—so we’re told by narrator #1—begins again, breaks off—again we’re told by narrator #1, who gives us another glimpse of the river: “Flames glided in the river, small green flames, red flames, white flames, pursing, overtaking, joining, crossing each other—.” 

Marlow begins again. We’re still on the yawl, listening, and he takes us on a trip up a different river into the African jungle, where, while working for a trading company, he met Mr. Kurtz, another trading company employee, who due to his unorthodox methods for collecting ivory and his great artistic talents has become a myth in his own time.

Lesson: Distinguish narrative voice through diction

Rivers, real and metaphoric, pull us through the story. Marlow’s river is unlike that of narrator #1. Marlow says, “We called at some more places with farcical names, where the merry dance of death and trade goes on in a still and earthy atmosphere as of an overheated catacomb; all along the formless coast bordered by dangerous surf, as if Nature herself had tried to ward off intruders; in and out of rivers, dreams of death in life, whose banks, were rotting into mud, whose waters, thickened into slime, invaded the contorted mangroves, that seemed to writhe at us in the extremity of an impotent despair.”

Marlow’s lengthy passages are in quotes, so we know he is the one speaking. But even if they weren’t in quotes, his words describe a river from an altogether darker point of view. 

Lesson: Use narrative structure for a story-telling effect

The first narrator occasionally breaks into Marlow’s narration, a device reminding us that Marlow has already returned safely and setting Marlow’s narration in storytelling context, leaving some doubt—is he exaggerating for effect? Natives attack, the jungle teems with menace. It’s Kurtz’s doing; the natives don’t want him to leave. Kurtz, who appears to have lost his sanity, comes on board and dies soon after with Marlow by his side. Kurtz’s last words stay with Marlow: “The horror! The horror!”

Marlow delivers letters to Kurtz’s intended and fudges the truth: he tells her that “The last word he pronounced was—your name.”  This is another story within a story, one that makes us aware that truth is subjective, as are stories and the telling of them.

Lesson: Shape narrative structure integral to theme

Marlow’s tale is a meditation on life and death, on greatness and failure. The encased narration gives the effect of going deeper into the layers of the story—the outer layer is the first narrator, the second layer is Marlow, and the third—at the heart—is Kurtz, the pearl in the oyster. Through the layered narration, readers are drawn into the story and witness Kurtz’s death. We are complicit when Marlow lies to Kurtz’s girlfriend about his final words, and we question whether or not we also would have lied.

When narrator #1 at the end takes us out of the story, we feel ourselves leave the rapture of the tale, as if waking from a dream. His description of the Thames reflects how the story has changed his point of view: I raised my head. The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky—seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.

The “I” That Binds “Joy Luck Club”

The stories of the four mothers and four daughters in Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club are all told through first-person point of view. This approach could be confusing, but Tan accomplishes her feat because she uses, actually, not eight points of view, but two: Chinese-born mothers and American-born daughters. The reader recognizes each narrator not so much through her distinctive voice as through the details of her life: the mothers are attached to their traditions; the daughters are 100% American.

The elder women have their Joy Luck, a mah jong become stock-market club. Suyuan Woo, who started the club, has died, and her daughter, Jing-mei “June,” begins the many-storied book by relating her mothers’ tale. Suyuan’s life was scarred; fleeing the Japanese invasion of Kweilin, she left her baby girls by the side of the road. This first story where June joins their club one night, initiates the narrative pull-through, introduces the other mothers, and mentions the daughters.

Lesson: Cohere your first person narrators

The glue that joins the stories comes from the deep misunderstandings and love that binds mother to daughter, old world to new. The older women dream of evocative past lives, and they chatter about discarded ambitions for their daughters. The daughters are not all best friends. There is rivalry, instilled by their mothers’ competition to have the best daughters. The daughters muddle through their contemporary marriages, careers, and divorces, unable to discard their heritage, always disappointing their mothers. June’s story weaves throughout and ends the novel. She goes back to China and finds the left-behind sisters. “Together we look like our mother.”

The American Heritage dictionary defines cohere as “To have internal elements or parts logically connected so that aesthetic consistency results. To cause to form a united, orderly, and aesthetically consistent whole. Interesting, cohere comes from the Latin “to cling.” In Tan’s narrative structure, the binding “I” is, ultimately, a hallmark of the book’s artistic integrity and the book’s gestalt. 

Together, Tan’s stories paint a vivid picture of clashing cultures and generations. The “I” that could have been confusing deepens the understanding between them all.

Strings Attached in “Vanity Fair”

William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair is a romp, a performance, a puppet show told in sixty-seven chapters. The intruding narrator intermittently makes his presence and his control of the story known.

He anticipates and apologizes: “But as we are to see a great deal of Amelia…;” “…indeed I am afraid that her nose was rather short….” (p. 11, Penguin Books 2004 edition)

He admonishes: “How is this? Some carping reader exclaims.” (p. 125)

He challenges: “I throw out these queries for intelligent readers to answer….” (p. 251)

He abdicates: “Why was she so violently agitated at Dobbin’s request? This can never be known.”  (p. 252)

He assumes: “I doubt, I say, that Becky would have selected either of these young men….”  (p. 587)

He lectures: “…so an uninitiated man…had best keep his opinions to himself whatever they are.” (p. 589)

Subtitled “Novel without a Hero,” Vanity Fair has a heroine: Becky Sharp. She’s clever and spirited, self-centered and good-hearted, a wife and mother who is careless with her husband and child, a good friend to Amelia, the other heroine. The narrator is kind to Becky, looks out for her: “She has her enemies. Who has not? Her life is her answer to them. She busies herself in works of piety.”

A plethora of characters and events are packed into this novel: the narrator moves things along in quick summary or explanation, or drops back behind the action, but never for long. He comes directly into it: “It was on this very tour that I, the present writer of a history of which every word is true, had the pleasure to see them first, and to make their acquaintance.”

He’s omniscient (except when he feigns ignorance), but he’s also a character. He’s an entertainer. He’s the puppeteer, manipulating the story; and, as in watching a puppet show, readers are at times unaware, at times keenly aware, of the strings.

Lesson: Try it. Learn from it.

Writing an intruding narrator is a lot harder to pull off than it may seem. You may start strong, humorous, but not be able to maintain that level throughout the long form of a novel. Or the voice may divert attention from the story in an annoying way or become so intolerable the reader closes the book. Or you may write an acclaimed piece of contemporary metafiction.

The advantage of trying it is this: Once you’ve written that kind of narrator intentionally, you will probably be able to spot your own intrusions and residue of author’s notes more easily in your work when they aren’t desired.

Lesson: Use it incidentally for narrative control

You may decide to use a bit of intrusion in your work for narrative control. Ann Patchett does this in Bel Canto when she steps out of the story for a time bridge and begins again—So to rejoin the story a week after Mr. Hosokawa’s birthday party ended seems as good a place as any.

This jumped out at me the times that I’ve read Bel Canto. But it fits with the established narrative voice—omniscient, distant to close-third person point of view—fully in control, no nonsense (won’t waste our time), comforting, and wise.

Symmetry of “To Kill a Mockingbird”

As the story goes, when Harper Lee first submitted her manuscript for To Kill a Mockingbird in 1957 to J.P. Lippincott publishers, she was told it was a “series of short stories strung together.” She worked with an editor to shape the material into novel form, and the novel was published in 1960 to acclaim. It’s a good bet that few unpublished writers would get that kind of editorial help today, and it’s likely that some editors would reject this Pulitzer-Prize winning book on the grounds that the story wraps up too tidily and that some passages border on the polemic. Call me old-fashioned, I love the symmetry of this book and I can accept the author’s slipped-in moralities: failure of schools to teach, comparisons of Hitler’s Nazism to America’s racism, the detritus of missionary zeal in tribal cultures, hypocrisy of the “well-bred”—because of her handling of the narrative through Scout.

Lesson: Use symbols well to shape the story

Symbols abound in first-person narrator Scout’s world, and they are used by Lee to shape the story from first page to last.


A broken arm, described by Scout in the opening sentence, ties Jem, her brother and unfortunate victim, to Tom Robinson, the Negro convicted of raping a white woman. Jem’s left arm is “somewhat shorter than his right” and Tom’s left arm, seen two-thirds of the way through the book, “was fully twelve inches shorter than his right, and hung dead at his side.” The fact of Tom’s disability should have saved him from the rape conviction, but it doesn’t. Jem’s injury, mentioned in the first sentence, is not incurred until 20 pages from the novel’s completion. The broken arm, seen by the reader through Scout’s eyes as “dangling crazily in front of him,” bookends a story of racism and love.

Oak tree

An oak tree with its knothole and jutting roots looms large in Scout and Jem’s small-town neighborhood. The tree lies at the edge of the Radley property, along the route to school (though there is some confusion here—early in the book there are two oak trees that seem closer to Scout’s home and later there is the one that is closer to the school yard—oh, well—this may be evidence of the novel having been a series of stories). One day the knothole beckons with foil-wrapped gum, then other gifts such as soap sculpted in the likenesses of Scout and Jem, but soon the hole is plugged with cement, effectively cutting off the cryptic communication between the children and the mysterious filler-of-the-knothole-with-presents reclusive neighbor Boo Radley.

In the course of the story, the children venture beyond their neighborhood and the phantoms of their imagination to the larger world of the courtroom, where their father, Atticus, defends Tom, and where the children witness a truly bad man—Tom’s accuser Ewell— and learn the horrific outcome of his intentions.

The novel is winging its way to a close when the children, headed for a school Halloween pageant, pass under the oak—a stand-in for Boo. The reader is alerted: Boo has a role yet to play. When, on the way home, barefooted Scout (her vision obscured by her ham costume) “felt the sand go cold under my feet and I knew we were near the big oak,” it’s as if Boo were there, but we trust the narrator and the author not to shock by making Boo a villain. The children are accosted and Scout is unable to see who is grabbing her or who has appeared on the scene to save them. The reader understands before Scout does that the rescuer is probably Boo Radley.

Sharp implements, gestures, flowers, food, feet, dogs, birds

The attacker is Ewell, the man who with his daughter invented the rape story to frame Tom Robinson. Ewell is killed with a knife. His own? Boo’s? Scout can’t possibly know—she was inside the ham! The reader pieces it together as Scout sees and hears Atticus and Sheriff Tate discussing scenarios of the attack and the killing. By the time Atticus asks her, “Can you possibly understand?,” the reader is certain Boo killed Ewell in defense of the children, and knows that Atticus and Tate are corroborating on a story that Ewell fell on his knife. They want to protect Boo from being subjected to prosecution.” Earlier she’d been told that it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird, because all they do is sing, and she makes the connection saying to her father: “Well, it’d be sort of like shootin’ a mockingbird, wouldn’t it?

Sharp implements—scissors, hedge clippers, knives—slice into the story from beginning to end. Comforting gestures—Atticus’ pat on Jem’s head, Boo’s petting of Jem’s head, Scout’s hand on Boo’s arm as she escorts him home—add a gentle touch. Flowers—a garden of azaleas, camellias with tops lopped off, rows of potted geraniums—define and connect women characters. Food is ever present—as nourishment, payment of debt, gratitude, love, and social strata clues. Shoes and barefeet keep the story grounded in a rural Southern place. Soap—as sculpture, a sign of cleanliness, a measure of poverty—is a tactile element. A rabid dog, shot dead by Atticus, hints at the human deaths to come. Birds, real and symbolic—mockingbirds, the good-hearted Finch family and neighbors, populate the story and keep hope aloft through the end.

Full circle

The dangerous man is dead, racism is alive but more open to scrutiny in the Maycomb community, and the children are safe. Atticus gets the last word: “Most people are [nice], Scout, when you finally see them.” The book comes full circle to Jem, asleep with his bandaged arm. Atticus is in his son’s room and “would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.” Sigh. The reader rests in that moment of resolution.