What makes a novel good?

It is a truth universally acknowledged, as Elizabeth Bennett might have put it, that the novel is a story about people. No-one could disagree with this definition, but it is limited in one important way: it defines the novel from the reader’s point of view only.  It doesn’t define the novel from the writer’s viewpoint – that is, it doesn’t tell you anything about how a novel is constructed.

The ‘story about people’ definition concerns the content of the novel, while the thing that distinguishes the novel from all other forms of writing is, I believe, not its content but its structure.

Of course, the content of a novel is of the first importance – often it is the reason why we choose to read one novel rather than another – a science fiction space opera, say, rather than a historical romance.  It may also be the reason that the novelist has chosen to write that particular book.  We now know from recent research that when Daphne Du Maurier wrote Rebecca she was exorcising demons from her own stormy marriage. So the traditional definition of the novel is certainly one useful way of looking at things.  But I believe the novel can also usefully be looked at in another way: not as a story about people, but as a structural network of causes and their effects which, like all structures, must obey certain natural laws.

In nature, causes always precede their effects.  And as novels must always be logical, so the novelist’s effects must be foreshadowed in advance to be credible.

In A Tale of Two Cities we learn early on that the hero, Charles Darnay and the feckless lawyer, Sydney Carton, are alike enough to be mistaken for each other.  We know this similarity must play a part in the plot, but do not find out what it is until Carton performs the only heroic act of his life by impersonating Darnay to the guillotine.  Had we not learnt of their similarity in an earlier court scene, this impersonation would have seemed implausible when Dickens needed to use it to resolve his story.

Most causes are separated from their effects by some distance of time, although this need not always be so.  Given what we know of Mister Toad, it comes as no surprise when he buys a motor car on one page and crashes it on the next.  Kenneth Grahame uses the closeness of cause and effect to illustrate Toad’s impetuous and unreliable character.  In the main, though, novelists like to prepare their effects early on and cash them in later.

There is no human or romantic reason why Elizabeth Bennett and Mister Darcy should not fall in love at first sight, overlook each other’s perceived failings, and marry at once in chapter one. But there is, of course, a very good novelist’s reason, and it is connected with the structure of the book, not its content.  Without Darcy’s prejudice and Lizzy’s pride keeping them apart, there would be no novel.

It could be argued that it is the character of the two protagonists that is the central dynamic of Pride and Prejudice and thus its content that distinguishes the novel from, say, a James Bond novel like Goldfinger.  That it is a character-driven story rather than a plot-driven story.  But there is no reason why we should not learn all there is to learn about the character of Lizzy and Darcy in chapter one and that they should not pull themselves together, stop acting like children and get married in the space of twenty or thirty pages.

It is not really their character that is keeping them apart: it is Jane Austen’s pen and her desire to keep us waiting.  Darcy and Lizzy must be kept apart for thirty chapters whatever their characters might dictate.  They must necessarily repel each other long enough to sustain a novel, for reasons that are purely structural.

Usually, the novelist prepares his or her causes early and produces the effects later if for no other reason than that we want our £5’s worth of story in between.  In Great Expectations it is important that we are misled into thinking Miss Havisham is Pip’s benefactor not the convict Magwitch.  To prepare us – and Pip – for this misleading inference, Dickens introduces a single coincidence: that both Miss Havisham and Magwitch share the same lawyer, Mister Jaggers.  As a boy, early in the story, Pip sees Jaggers at Miss Havisham’s house and jumps to the same conclusion that we do about his benefactor’s identity, a confusion that hangs over much of the novel and whose unravelling provides an important crisis later on.

In some cases, structural considerations alone dictate crises or clashes of personality and even dictate that they be kept as far apart in time as possible.

Moby Dick, for example, must elude Captain Ahab until the end of what is by most standards a very long novel.  Everything that happens, between the narrator’s elegantly laconic opening sentence, ‘Call me Ishmael’, and Ahab’s encounter with the great white whale no less than one hundred and thirty five chapters later, exists merely as scaffolding to keep the two great protagonists apart until the climactic encounter.  All else in the story merely adds colour and builds the tension.  Once again, it may be Ahab’s obsession and the whale’s cunning elusiveness that provides the main points of interest, but there is no compelling reason of character or psychology why they should not meet and destroy each other in chapter one: their long delayed clash is structural, not psychological.

Of course, an important feature of these structures is that they must be invisible to us, the reader.  And it is indispensably necessary for each such scaffolding pole to be disguised by the novelist as something else.  Darcy doesn’t really spurn Lizzy Bennett because her mother is loud and her young sister is embarrassing, but because there are another fifteen or twenty chapters to go. Ahab’s vessel becomes becalmed not because the trade winds have failed, but because it is not yet time for him to face Moby Dick. Pip thinks he is being educated as a gentleman by Miss Havisham, not really because Mister Jaggers is the lady’s lawyer but because Dickens wants us to cringe when Magwitch puts in an appearance to claim ‘his boy’.

Are there any counter-examples to be found in the novel that undermine my advocacy of the primacy of structure?  Of course, it is the great joy of the English Novel that there are as many interpretations as there are critics.

The most glorious female character in English literature, Becky Sharp, contradicts every one of my observations.  Becky is so deliciously, outrageously wicked that we are mesmerised by her from the start and both the content and structure of Vanity Fair consists simply of whatever Becky chooses to do next.  When she throws her copy of Doctor Johnson’s dictionary out of the carriage window on leaving Miss Pinkerton’s Academy, we know we are dealing with a villainess of the deepest dye. Thereafter, we can only watch open-mouthed at whatever scheme Becky next engineers.  When she marries young Pitt Crawley we cringe for the poor man. When she betrays him, we can only shake our heads sadly at his foolishness in not seeing what is so clear to us.  We are like bystanders at a traffic accident: we just want to see what happens next.

Becky Sharp demonstrates that the novel, at its best,  is indeed ‘a story about people’.  But Sydney Carton, Captain Ahab, Mister Pip, Lizzy and Darcy, and even Mister Toad, suggest that in many cases, we, the readers of novels, are victims of the gypsy switch.  We have been thrilled and entertained not by literary figures, but by invisible structures that dictate that the heroes and heroines of our favourite books should behave the way they do, not because they are headstrong, angry, vengeful, or in love, but simply because there is a logical order of cause and effect in which events must befall them if we are to understand, appreciate and sympathise with their predicaments.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *