Friday, September 13, 2013

Mossy Mantles and the Place Driven Story, Part Three

Place can be described and brought to life, brilliantly, in ways you might not readily imagine. Too much physical description can be as misplaced as too little.  If the depiction of the setting does not bring with it the culture and the spirit of the people, we will not know who the characters are. The history of the original inhabitants is crucial.

From The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton:

“The Beauforts house was one of the few in New York that possessed a ballroom (it antedated even Mrs Manson Mingotts and the Headly Chiverses); and at a time when it was beginning to be thought provincial to put a 'crash' over the dining room floor and move the furniture upstairs, the possession of a ballroom that was used for no other purpose and left for three hundred and sixty four days of the year to shuttered darkness, with its gilt chairs stacked in a corner and is chandelier in a bag; this undoubled superiority was felt to compensate for whatever was regrettable in the Beaufort past.”

“New York has always been a commercial community and there are not more than three families in it who can claim and aristocratic origin in the real sense of the word...
The van der Luydens, direct descendants of the first Dutch Governor of Manhatten who stood above all of them had faded into a kind of super terrestrial twilight.. They divided their time between Trevenna their place in Maryland, and Sutercliff, the great estate on the Hudson which had been one of the colonial grands of the Dutch government of which Mr. Van der Luyden was still a patroon."


So what do these passages say about place? The topic is not, by any means, limited to the physical description. If a writer were to leave it at that and not describe the character's social standing, then we would not know who they are.

If you take a look at the south, you may think that the fertile soil and temperate climate would produce happy stories of people who are totally at ease. This is not always the case. Can anyone tell me why? The culture and the past are somewhat at odds with the lush setting; it is that contrast and the brutality of the change forced upon it which have yielded the greatest stories. The expression, 'may you always live in changing times,' has particular appeal to writers.

William Faulkner created the fictional Yokaipatawa county where:

“Life was created in the valleys. It blew up into the hills on the old terrors, the old lusts, the old despairs. That is why you must walk up the hills so you can ride down.”

In Absalom Absalom, Thomas Sutpen is a character who sought to wrest his mansion out of the muddy bottoms of the north Mississippi wilderness. He was a man, Faulkner said who wanted sons and the sons destroyed him.

Some stories have shifts in the settings and the description of that shift, or explanation, can imbue great tension in the action. I have chosen a passage from Alexander Dumas, The Count of Monte Christo:

“Meanwhile through a gully between two walls of rock, following a path worn by a torrent, which, in all probability human foot had never before trod, Dantes approached the spot where he supposed the grottos much have existed. Keeping along the coast and examining the smallest object with rapt attention, he thought he could trace on certain rocks, marks made by the hand of man. Time, which encrusts all physical substances with its mossy mantle, as it invests all things moral with its mantle of forgetfullness, seemed to have respected these signs, traced with a certain regularity and probably with a design of leaving tracks. Occasionally these marks disappeared beneath clumps of myrtle which spread into large bushed laden with blossoms or beneath parasitical lichen. Edward had to move branches on one side or remove mosses in order to retrace the marks which were to be his guide in this labyrinth...”

“At last after fresh hesitation, Dantes entered the second grotto. The second grotto was lower and more gloomy than the first; the air that could only enter by the newly formed opening had that mephitic smell Dantes was surprised to find in the firs. He waited to allow the pure air to displace the foul atmosphere and entered.
The treasure, if existed was buried in this corner. The time had at length arrived; two feet of earth removed and Dantes fate would be decided. He advanced toward the angle and summoning all his resolution, attacked the ground with a pickaxe. At fifth or sixth blow the pickaxe struck against an iron substance. Never did funeral knell, never did alarm bell, produce a greater effect on the hearer. Had Dantes found nothing, he could not have become more ghastly pale. He again struck his pickaxe into the earth and again encountered the same resistance, but not the same sound.
'It is a casket of wood bound with iron,' thought he."


How many movies, comic books, and cartoons have recreated that scene? It has become a expected now, but that was the original.

The most profoundly beautiful description of a setting, would induce nothing but a big yawn if a desperate situation did not immediately follow. Alfred Hitchcock used to say, get your character's in a pickle so we can watch them work their way out. He was a great one for using a setting dramatic in and of itself to help this concept along.

Consider this example of the technique from another master, Charles Dickens. This is from Great Expectations:
“Ours was the marsh country down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea. The first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things, seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening. At such a time, I found that this bleak place, overgrown with nettles was the church yard; and that Philip Pirrup, late of this parish and Georgiana wife of the above, were also dead and buried; and that the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard intersected with dykes and mound and gates with scattered cattle feeding on it was the marshes; and that low leaden line beyond was the river; and that distant savage lair form which the wind was rushing, was the sea; and that small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry was Pip.
'Hold your noise,' cried a terrible voice, as a man started up from among the graves at the side of the church porch. “ Keep still you little devil, or I'll cut your throat.”


Descriptions of settings can indicate what kind of story you are about to read. The ability to weave that through the opening pages can be what distinguishes the classics and the prize winners.
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Mary Jane Honegger said...

Great posts! I'm currently reading a fascinating novel, "Our Lady of the Forest" by David Guterson, a place-driven novel set in the Pacific Northwest. "Like Faulkner and the magnificent August Wilson, Guterson sings the song of place with perfect pitch ... [He] leads us into the grandeur of the rain-drenched forest of northwest Washington, then unflinchingly dares us to to examine the mysteries of faith and redemption ..." - Los Angeles Times Book Review

Elizabeth S. Brinton said...

Thank you for the information. I really want to read David Guterson now. Thanks for your kind words as well.