7 Quick Takes Friday (2/28/14)
In Creative Writing, we are working on murder mystery stories. What’s so interesting to me about this genre is how particular it is. You just have to have certain strict elements to make this type of story work. For instance:
Objects. Objects are crucial to murder mysteries in a way that they are not to basically any other type of fiction. Obviously “the murder weapon” is often important, but more crucially, the plot itself is almost always driven by the discovery of objects–physical clues that lead the protagonist to the truth.
Think: in the first episode of the new Sherlock series, what object is crucial?
Yup. The pink suitcase. It’s essential. If the murderer had not forgotten leave the pink suitcase with the body, it would have been nearly impossible to prove that the lady had not committed suicide. But since the pink suitcase was missing, and Holmes knew (by the splash of dirty water on her left ankle) that she had been dragging a suitcase behind her in the rain, the so-called “suicide” had to involve at least one other person on the scene–the murderer.
Still not convinced?
Think: In almost every Columbo episode, an object (or objects) plays a crucial role in Columbo’s deciphering of the facts versus the story given by the murderer.
In the episode we watched in class, for example, we see Columbo reading a newspaper while the police scurry about the house and the medical examiner peers over the body. As usual, Columbo gets some weird glances for seeming to be so uninterested in what is most important.
Wait. What? You’ve never seen a Columbo episode before???
But, in his characteristic way, there is always just “one more thing” that Columbo has questions about. In this case, he has questions about the newspaper. The murderer claimed she had not left the house all day and there was no one else who came to see her. The newspaper must have been delivered to the house, she said.
Ah– but only morning editions of the paper are delivered. The evening edition had to have been bought by someone at a drug store or grocery, proving that the murderer had, in fact, left the house even though she claimed not to.
So the challenge for my students is to recognize–and utilize–the importance of objects in their own murder mystery stories. Most really good mysteries rely upon them.
Speaking of objects, I wrote a paper in college tracing the development of the novel by looking at how objects are treated in four specific works: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Gustave Flaubert’s novella A Simple Heart, William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop.
The objects I consider in these works are, respectively: Mr. Darcy’s portrait, Felicite’s green parrot, the coffin and Our Lady’s tilma.
What’s interesting is how these four works suggest the increasing importance of objects in novels over time. Jane Austen (1775-1817) and other early novelists (Phillip Sidney, John Bunyan, Jonathan Swift, Laurence Sterne, Anthony Trollope) almost never talk about objects because they are more interested in ideas, concepts, conversation, and character. This is why the scene where Elizabeth experiences a revelation about Mr. Darcy while looking at his painted portrait is so interesting; it is very unusual for Austen and most other early novelists. By the time we get to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, objects are everywhere.
The biggest exception I can think of to this rule about early novelists is in Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), where one of the best scenes in this early novel is about the main character salvaging various objects from the wreck of his ship. But the story still centers around his inner thoughts and religious conversion. Moreover, in most of these early novels, the narrator (even if she is not directly involved in the action of the story) uses 1st person–giving a sense of subjectivity rather than objectivity.
By the time we reach Flaubert and his parrot, however, objects become a lot more prominent in novels—perhaps partially due to the increasing influence of the Industrial Revolution and advances in science and what is “objectively” real. Think of the significance of the scarlet letter in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s famous work (1850), or the whale (is it okay to say it functions as an object?) and Captain Ahab’s wooden leg in Moby Dick (1851). Even in very interior and psychologically-driven novels, like Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866), objects (and characters’ interpretations of them) feature very prominently.
By the time we get to Faulkner, the 18th and early 19th century subjectivity of the opinionated (and often 1st person narrator) begins to be fused with the objective mid-18th through late 20th century objective third person. Faulkner, Virgina Woolf and James Joyce and other adventurers into streams of consciousness and human interiority combine an emphasis on the external world with and its tenuous relationship to the internal world of the human mind.
I haven’t read as much post-modern fiction, but I would guess the relationship between character and object has already begun to change very significantly.
All of this is not to say that objects should “mean” something in a story– but rather that looking at the way an author presents objects tells us a lot about the his epistemology– what human beings can know about reality.
Obviously my above argument is fraught with holes and exceptions, but I think the general idea holds.
Speaking of ideas with a lot of holes and exceptions, this is a very interesting take on the popular Myers-Briggs Personality Test–a test which, by the way, has always fascinated me.
All tests of the Myers-Briggs ilk are tautologies. They are tautological because their results cannot exceed my input. If out of 100 questions, I 100 times affirm that I am likely to grow angry over criticism and confrontation, all my 100-question test-result really says is that “I am likely to grow angry over criticism and confrontation.” Sure, a test may express its tautological conclusions in words that sound like it has digested our answers and excreted some new diamond — as when we tell a test in 100 different ways that we are most likely to look outwardly than inwardly, and it tells us we are an “extrovert” — but closer inspection reveals that this new “identity” is no more than a simplified expression of what we usually do — an “extrovert” is defined as a person more likely to look outwardly than inwardly. The problem with test-takers is that we conflate words which summarize and offer back to us our habits with words that serve as identities given to us by the test. (BadCatholic, “Magic and Myers-Briggs”)
It is true that we should not so easily conflate “habit” with “identity” (although immediately Flannery O’Connor’s Habit of Being comes to mind).
But on the other hand: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
UPDATE: Or, as Molly pointed out to me, not actually Aristotle, but Will Durant’s characterization in The Story of Philosophy.
On the one year (!) anniversary of Pope Benedict’s official retirement, via Catholic News Agency:
Back to objects.
An excerpt from my essay:
For Felicite, however, this [relationship between a human being and an object] is more complex, and for Flaubert (or at least for his narrator) objects seem to gather more levels of meaning than they do for Austen. The portrait of Darcy in Pride and Prejudice is simply a description of him—its meaning lies in its accurate rendering and its ability to convey something of his inner character to Elizabeth. But the picture of the Holy Spirit and the stuffed parrot have a more complex relationship to one another and to Felicite—because that very relationship exists only in her perception: “In her mind, the one became associated with the other, the parrot becoming sanctified by connection with the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit in turn acquiring added life and meaning” (SH 35). The picture of the Holy Spirit is not a portrait of the parrot—yet the two objects acquire a kind of correspondence in Felicity’s “mind,” in her imaginative awareness. In Flaubert’s story the object’s significance is also much more subjectively determined; Darcy’s portrait would represent Darcy to almost everyone in Austen’s world (albeit to a lesser degree than to Elizabeth), but we may safely assume that the stuffed parrot would suggest the Holy Spirit only to Felicite. (Shea, “People and Things: Epistemological Possibility and Limit in Austen, Flaubert, Faulkner and Cather”)
Next time you read a really good novel, notice any and all objects presented. Do they figure prominently in the plot? Do they reveal something about how characters come to know the truth about themselves or about one another?
Are objects prominently featured at all?
Also, here is the most fascinating article to appear on my newsfeed this week (and, thanks to my very interesting friends, that is saying a lot):
“8 Surprising Historical Facts that Will Change Your Concept of Time Forever.”
This article features sliced bread, Betty White, the pyramids of Egypt, the Chicago Cubs, and other notables.
Not everyone can be a world history master, especially when we tend to learn about it in specifically segmented classes like “European History” or “American Revolutionary History.” Maybe you have an exceptional grasp on the global historical timeline. But for those of us who don’t, the list below, inspired by a recent Reddit thread called “What are two events that took place in the same time in history but don’t seem like they would have?” puts key historical moments into some much-needed context. (huffingtonpost.com)
Have a great weekend!