One Weird Trick That Makes a Novel Addictive

Illustration for article titled One Weird Trick That Makes a Novel Addictive

In January, Adelle Waldman wrote an excellent essay for the New Yorker’s Page Turner blog called “The Ideal Marriage, According to Novels.” In it, she notes that men and women write about marriage differently. Roth and Bellow write about mysterious attractions and breast shape; Ferrante and Austen write about the practical quest to find an intellectual and emotional peer. While reading Waldman’s essay, I remembered a quote from Douglas Adams:

It is difficult to be sat on all day, every day, by some other creature, without forming an opinion on them. On the other hand, it is perfectly possible to sit all day, every day, on top of another creature and not have the slightest thought about them whatsoever.


In Adams’s context, he’s talking about a horse and rider, but I thought: Female novelists have been writing from the role of the horse.

In literature and life, it’s been a woman’s survival tactic to understand and adapt to the character of a man, whether her boyfriend, husband or father. Even with property rights, women are still often the meteorologists of mood—and FEMA when things get bad. Men haven’t been forced to form opinions about the minds of women to the same degree, and Waldman makes the strong case that there’s a difference in the ways relationships are described in their fiction.

She writes: “Intelligence, taste, conversation—these are the terms on which the heroines of novels by women again and again evaluate their love interests. Male authors, on the other hand, tend to proceed differently.” Even in portraying Kitty and Levin’s complex marriage in Anna Karenina, Tolstoy’s Levin sees Kitty in the same simple terms.

It was the childlike expression of her face, combined with the slim beauty of her figure,” he muses. Her smile “always transported [him] into an enchanted world where he felt softened, and overflowing with tenderness as he remembered feeling on rare occasions in his early childhood.”

Waldman’s piece is so well-considered, and I’d like to add to her point. I think the thing she’s found in the women’s novels goes beyond the search for intellectual connection. There’s a novelistic technique that early nineteenth century female writers invented, which has been used primarily by female novelists ever since; it’s a technique that goes deep into the soul of the novel itself. It’s something like the blues, or early rock n’ roll—something artistically explosive invented under circumstances of oppression. It’s the technique of adaptation.

Adaptation is a kaleidoscopic way of understanding human nature, and a novelistic technique for showing that character isn’t fixed. In real life, people change constantly, depending on who’s in the room, or what they’ve each understood of the others’ nature and mood. Character isn’t only a ball rolling down a hill, these women write it like a game of billiards, with endless potential shifts and ricochets. These female characters aren’t just judging which man’s mind will give them the best hope for a respectful marriage; they are describing and creating a frame for the ways people create themselves in relation to others.


This is the way adaptation plays out: Person A comprehends some information about person B’s nature from what B says or does, and that changes how A approaches her afterward. It sounds simple, but I think it’s very difficult to write and nearly impossible to write well. Almost no one tries. Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte each did this over and over.


Here’s an example from Pride and Prejudice: The first time Mr. Darcy tries to express his interest in Elizabeth, he asks her to dance, and she refuses. Later, he sees her reading, and he comments to other people in the room that reading is important and his library is huge. Really great library at Darcy’s house. Elizabeth, however, doesn’t take the hint. Any shy person might recognize the arrows in his flirting quiver—standing around near her and saying to his friends that he likes the things that he thinks she likes. It’s as effective for him as it usually is for the rest of us; she doesn’t know, or doesn’t want to, that flirting is taking place.

Then, the next time Mr. Darcy is alone with Elizabeth and his friends, he adapts. He makes an unflattering observation about Mr. Bingley’s personality, offered to Elizabeth as a gift. He’s changing his approach based on a comment she made in the previous scene. He can only change within the range of his own character, which is shy (he’d never say this in another context), clever (no one fully gets the insult except for Elizabeth), and sort of mean. It’s an incredibly efficient scene, and it’s how Darcy, a man with few lines and no third person narration spilling his secrets, can be as well-developed a character as Elizabeth herself.


Mr. Darcy’s original attraction to Elizabeth is described the way Waldman figures male-authored love stories in general. He notices that she is pretty, has a nice figure and her eyes seem smart; on this topic, he, via Austen, does not go into specifics. No physical description can ever be as specific as the way dialogue telegraphs thought. Austen gives us much more direct access to the attractions of his character than to the beauty of Elizabeth’s figure.

In the scene about Mr. Bingley’s character—in which Elizabeth doesn’t buy Darcy’s diss of a friend—Mr. Darcy speaks with greater meaning than any of his friends. He sometimes puts covert significance for separate people into a single statement. The arguments he makes are well-reasoned. From the perspective of a writer, that’s a real trick: it’s hard to make a character sound smart while they’re also wrong. Elizabeth counters this with her own style of intelligence, which makes Darcy adapt as the conversation continues: Austen, here, is doing a backflip between trapezes.


Instead of a character being defined at the start and continuing to make his or her characteristic speech and actions through to the last page, Austen’s characters change from page to page. The adaptations are shown directly through dialogue and action, connecting the reader (who has access to these things the way they generally don’t, to vague allusions to beauty or allure) to the changes and the reasons for them—as well as the effect among all the characters that these changes create. This technique makes a romantic plot like a murder mystery; the readers have the same clues as the detective. When Elizabeth falls in love with Mr. Darcy, it’s for reasons we’ve experienced ourselves. We’re in the laboratory of human nature.

For contrast, take Romeo and Juliet, who probably speak to one another more than Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, and yet the cause and progress of their love is mysterious to the audience. Even Shakespeare’s comic banterers, Beatrice and Benedick change only because of outside forces, never because of something the other has said. Their jokes are only funny—never the key to the next step of the unfolding drama. Their personalities, and understanding of one another, are fixed whether they are in hate or love.


Charlotte Bronte takes us a step deeper. Jane Eyre uses almost every potential complexity of the adaptability technique and uses it to paint characters not only vividly but even luridly. Both Jane and Mr. Rochester are moving targets: neither of them settles into a single set of characteristics. They always have a restless connection. In other words, the attraction Waldman describes as based in character doesn’t always lead to respect or an ideal marriage, it can also lead to big, off-kilter, bizarre and thrilling love—it has no less of the dirty force of love based in other, male-valorized qualities. Where Austen might be making a pattern for all love, the way marriage ought to be, Bronte uses the adaptation technique to make her characters and their connection idiosyncratic.


Waldman describes their union like this: “Rarely is the inner life of another so wholly congenial, so perfectly aligned with one’s own sense of self, as is Rochester’s with Jane Eyre’s.” This point is one of a very few places I disagree with her. I don’t think their inner lives are so congenial. Unlike Elizabeth Bennet, Jane Eyre would have married her eventual husband on the most unequal of terms, with enormous misunderstandings between them; she only didn’t because she found out it would have been bigamy. Even after their wedding is called off, the mad wife is revealed, and Mr. Rochester is purring about the possibility of using violence to keep Jane against her will—Jane quickly forgives him.


In the last third of the book, godly St. John Rivers offers Jane something like the on-paper version of an ideal marriage. He respects her mind. He hopes they’ll travel together. He looks after her when she’s weak and supports her professional goals and independence when she’s strong. He’s a good conversationalist. Isn’t this what women are supposed to want? Women—people—probably often skip reading the St. John Rivers chapters because they’re boring. Through all of Jane’s adaptive and intelligent calculation, Jane Eyre isn’t a story of finding dignity in marriage, but experiencing visceral desire.

Mr. Rochester, despite being Jane’s match, doesn’t come to understand his own flaws and treat Jane as an equal—though Bronte gives him some of the speeches of a man who believes he’s doing that. His actions never seem as convinced; there’s no final version of his personality. Rochester’s character is drawn a double way—he wants a pure and innocent heart of his own, but he gets Jane’s through lying, manipulating and threatening, as well as adapting.


Readers can see it like this: There’s an inflection in his dialogue when he first understands that Jane can’t be bought, that she isn’t the person he assumes she was at first. He changes his mind about her because of what she says and her astringent manner. He is her boss, and he can tell her what to do, which makes him think he has the right to her free conversation—but he reads in her face that she’s annoyed when he commands her to speak about her own thoughts.


At this point he’s frantic about keeping her good opinion and changes his approach: he’s kind to her, and she accepts his friendship. That works for a while, but he assumes, since she’s not too particular about many social conventions, that she might be open to sleeping with him after a romantic moment. When she doesn’t, he has to come up with a new plan—a mean-spirited plot forcing her to watch him courting a beautiful, nasty woman.

Idiosyncratic Jane likes that kind of thing—appreciates the intelligence, however twisted, that it evinces. She confesses her love while scolding him for his badness. Love based in character can go deep into the weird psyche, and these female novelists aren’t making lesson-plan romances any more than their male peers. Waldman suggests that the women’s attention to character leads them to value respectful marriages more highly than men—I think that’s only part of the picture. Women have developed techniques to write about the ways personality can excite desire; even more, they developed techniques to write about the ways people can change one another.


The adaptation technique isn’t just an efficient way of telegraphing psychological depth; it hits the reader like rock n’ roll. It doesn’t have to be done at the level of genius to be incredibly catchy and exciting, but there’s no ceiling to its potential for complexity or connection to the audience. It’s often used for romantic pairs, but that’s not the only possibility. Contrary to its reputation as Shakespearean, I think Breaking Bad draws heavily on the adaptation technique. It’s in Gone With the Wind, Harry Potter, Twilight and the Hunger Games. I don’t think it’s a coincidence all those books have found massive popularity and obsessive followings. It makes books feel addictive. It lets us read the intentions of non-point-of-view characters naturally, the way we read actual people.

It’s not everywhere in the canon. It isn’t in the work of George Eliot, Woolf, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, or Dickens; however romantic and psychological they are, those authors use other methods. Where the free indirect discourse of Flaubert, the minimalism of Hemingway and maximalism of Nabokov are often credited with marking the great countries on the map of modern literary fiction, I think the geniuses of the adaptable character are under-praised. Bronte and Austen are often lauded, of course, but for irony, psychology and free indirect discourse: rarely for the scale of this achievement. A comedy of manners sounds like someone tittering about Mr. Collins picking up the wrong fork. These women have created one of our most powerful and effective literary techniques using the materials of their underdog—under-horse—role.


Catherine Nichols is on Twitter.

Images via Penguin


eats books and leaves

That Adams quote reminds me of something that happened late in my marriage. I forget what nasty thing he’d said to me but I said, “You know, I don’t think you think about me half as much as I think about you.” I wasn’t normally given to dramatic statements but there had been a lot of stuff pointing in this direction.

“I DON’T,” he snapped.

Later he couldn’t remember even saying that much, so guess that double-shows how much I meant to him. Heh.