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David Galenson

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A Portrait of Charles Dickens as a Young Experimental Novelist

Posted: 11/02/11 02:58 PM ET

A key difference between conceptual and experimental novelists is the role of plot. Conceptual novelists privilege the plot, carefully planning an elegant structure that leads inexorably to a closed ending -- a conclusion that not only resolves the suspense of the narrative, but provides a moral that ties the story to a larger concept. In contrast, experimental novelists generally do not plan their stories in any detail. Their novels often have open endings, in which the narrative remains unresolved, leaving readings to wonder what will happen to the characters.

The scholar Philip Young concisely summarized the plot of A Farewell to Arms, one of the most important works of a major conceptual novelist. Noting that although the two themes of love and war are not often paired by novelists, Young observed that

in Hemingway's novel their courses run straight and exactly, though subtly, parallel... In his affair with the war, [Frederic] Henry goes from desultory participation to serious action and a wound, and then through his recuperation in Milan to a retreat which leads to his desertion. His relationship with Catherine Barkley undergoes six precisely corresponding stages -- from a trifling sexual affair to actual love and her conception, and then through her confinement in the Alps to a trip to the hospital which leads to her death.

The ending is closed:

By the end of Hemingway's novel, when the last farewell is taken, the two stories are as one, in the point that is made very clear, lest there be any sentimental doubt about it, that life, both social and personal, is a struggle in which the Loser Takes Nothing, either.

In a new biography of the young Charles Dickens (Becoming Dickens, Harvard University Press, 2011), Robert Douglas-Fairhurst traces the early development of a great experimental novelist. His account of Dickens' plots is very different:

As Dickens grew older, he enjoyed promoting a view of his fiction as deliberate and artful: the postscript to his last completed novel, Our Mutual Friend, describes the novelist as "the story-teller at his loom," and this reflects his growing attachment to the idea that in a good writer's hands every sentence is part of an intricate design, no part of which can be removed without the whole fabric unraveling. Yet his first full-length attempts at fiction, such as the Pickwick Papers, were not seen as novels at all. They reveled in muddle and mess; many of their most memorable scenes and characters emerged only in the process of writing. Even when Dickens moved towards more carefully organized stories, he remained uneasily aware of how difficult it was to construct a plot without bullying its events into place.

The writer G.K. Chesterton humorously made this same point by contending that most of Dickens' books were in fact not novels, because they lacked an ending, a key requirement for that form. He wrote of Pickwick that

The point at which, as a fact, we find the printed matter terminates is not an end in any artistic sense of the word. Even as a boy I believed that there were some more pages that were torn out of my copy, and I am looking for them still.

Dickens worked at improving his organization and plotting, but he never achieved the precision of the early Hemingway. Most of Dickens' novels were initially published in installments, and he typically wrote each part separately, often making significant changes in a book's plot after some episodes had already been published. So for example after sales of the first four monthly numbers of Martin Chuzzlewit were disappointing, Dickens sent Martin to the United States in the hope that a comic attack on Americans would increase circulation.

Dickens' greatest strengths were equally those of an experimental artist. His novels emphasized vision: Virginia Woolf noted that "His people are branded upon our eyeballs before we hear them speak, by what he sees them doing, and it seems as if it were the sight that sets his thoughts in action." He created memorable characters: Anthony Trollope contended that "No other writer of English language has left so many types of characters as Dickens has done -- characters which are known by their names familiarly as household words." And he described the real life of the new modern city: George Eliot declared that "We have one great novelist who is gifted with the utmost power of rendering the external traits of a town population."

Conceptual novelists write toward a climax or denouement, but experimental novelists write for the excitement of the discoveries they make during the process of creation. Thus Douglas-Fairhurst describes Pickwick as "an ever-expanding route map of narrative digressions, shortcuts, and dead ends in which the pleasure of the journey is far more important than its final destination." And interestingly, the talent of experimental novelists generally develops more slowly, and emerges later in life, than that of conceptual novelists. When Hemingway wrote A Farewell to Arms, he was 30 years old, and -- in the opinion of most critics and scholars -- at the end of his greatest period of creativity. In contrast, Dickens' greatest period is generally considered to have begun with David Copperfield, which he published at 38, and to have continued through A Tale of Two Cities (published at 47) and Great Expectations (49).

Like many experimental artists, Dickens never arrived at a single definitive masterpiece that embodied the essence of his contribution: he was an experimental artist who loved process and motion, and who never ceased developing. Douglas-Fairhurst is the most recent critic to sense this, as he writes in a postscript that "Dickens was keenly aware of his characters as creatures who needed to be kept alive by the flow of ink from day to day, and whose identities were consequently no more fixed than his own."