Monday, November 15, 2010

Speaking of cliches-

Here's a fun one, and another indication that Dickens really did some extremely modern stuff. Here his omniscient narrator actually comments on his own voice, and tendentiously connects his lazy use of a cliche to the nation's wellbeing (and the narrator or implied author here isn't actually Dickens, of course, but Dickens's invention):

A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens

Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge's name was good upon 'Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Mind! I don't mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country's done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

This so connects to "the medium is the message"-- he's saying that the "the simile" or cliche (the medium) is itself significant, "the wisdom of our ancestors." And all to justify using a "dead" image!

Dickens shows us that we can have fun. The opening of a book doesn't have to be just about getting the information in the right order. (The first paragraph kind of does that, by identifying the main characters-- Scrooge and Marley-- and the setting: the 'Change would be recognized by his contemporary readers as the City of London, as we'd know "Wall Street" was New York). But the second paragraph goes off and is just fun. Oh, considering that Marley's ghost appears in the next page and casts doubt on how dead "dead as a doornail" is, the discussion of the cliche sets up a comic motif. But mostly it's just for fun, laughing at our tendency to use somewhat incomprehensible cliches which don't bear close examination. Dickens shows he's still entertained by the language, a very good thing in a writer. And of course, by use of the term "as a doornail," he forces the questions-- what is "dead"? What is "living"?

There's no reason not to make that opening fun, in a fun way that complements the type of book. I don't mean a comic opening to a tragic novel, but an opening that perhaps sets up the ordinary world as interesting and lively before the tragedy occurs, or an opening description of some transcendent beauty or thoughtfulness, or a puzzle about some serious issue, like "am I me if I have no memory of my life?" or "when does psychic pain become insupportable?"

(And, interestingly, the character themes this sets up-- Scrooge's meticulous care for his reputation, his inability to truly feel anything, even sorrow, and of course the motif of record-keeping-- are all finished and contradicted by the close of the story... Dickens was an elegantly classical writer.)

But notice the economy there too-- we learn only as much as we absolutely need to. Marley was dead. Scrooge was connected to him enough that he was the chief mourner at the funeral. Do we need more than that? Obviously not, as Dickens "wastes" the second paragraph on some writerly joke. Keep that in mind when you think about what you have to insert into the opening paragraph: Probably a lot less than you think. If you're putting a lot more in there than a Victorian novelist does, for goodness sake, you're probably putting in too much.

So something to take away from this is that "information" isn't the most important attribute of an opening, is it? What else might be more important? I think Dickens is doing too more important things: First, he's setting up that "meticulous" motif of recordkeeping and specificity that will help unite the story. And second, he's setting up an ironic tone that starts us out as skeptics-- is Scrooge really mourning? Is Marley really dead? If he is, why do they keep saying it and having to prove it with signatures?

Again, I'm not sure most of us could write an opening with this kind of fractal quality when we start the story. I think this probably was created after the draft was finished and the writer know what themes and questions and tone were developed in the story.


1 comment:

Perri said...

This is a fascinating post.

I love to use metaphor (sometimes cliche). Sometimes a little too much. And I appreciate how you dissected this great example.

I had no idea Dickens had that much going on!