Session #3: Mystery & Suspense

Session #3, February 25th, 2009.

Suspense by excellent lunch on Flickr
Suspense by excellent lunch on Flickr

Today’s themes were mystery and suspense.

To illustrate the various meanings of suspense, I chose a passage from Thomas Hardy‘s novel A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873). You can read the passage for yourself online. It is from Chapter 22 and begins “At first, when death appeared improbably because it had never visited him before…”. In order to understand the situation, you need to read Chapter 21.

Henry Knight, out on the cliffs of Dorset, slips down a slope above a cliff, as he tries to catch his hat blown off by a gust of wind. Before the eyes of his horrified companion, Elfride Swancourt, he finds himself unable to climb back up the grassy slope as it is now wet from a shower of rain. She tries to help him, but only succeeds in pushing him further down, and his legs slip over the edge of the cliff. He’s only hanging on by his arms.

A real “cliffhanger”! The word “suspense” originally means “hanging”, and still has this meaning in “suspension bridge”. From the meaning of “hanging” came the meaning of “waiting impatiently to know what happens next”. In this example, both meanings of “suspense” are illustrated.

In addition, the excerpt illustrates the meaning of a synonymouse phrase, “cliffhanger”, which refers to a story or movie full of suspense.  Hardy’s tale “A Pair of Blue Eyes” is considered the origin of this phrase, as the narrative leaves Henry Knight hanging over the edge of the cliff, holding on only by his arms, his feet over empty space and the sea “an eighth of a mile” below, gradually losing his strength. The narrative follows his thoughts and feelings as he becomes increasingly desperate.

To illustrate “mystery”, I chose an excerpt from another writer of suspense stories, Wilkie Collins‘ (Japanese here)  “The Moonstone” (1868).  T. S. Eliot called it “the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels“. It contains many elements that later became staples of the English detective story, for example in those by Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers: a large number of suspects, red herrings, an English country house, investigation by talented amateurs, and two police officers who represent the ‘local bungler’ and the skilled, professional, Scotland Yard detective.

Although I did not realize it at the time, other novels by Collins also offer examples of the “cliffhanger”:  “Why are we to stop her, sir? What has she done?” “Done! She has escaped from my Asylum. Don’t forget; a woman in white. Drive on.” (The Woman in White).

“The Moonstone” is also an example of a novel which is told in the form of letters written by various characters; such novels are called epistolary novels (Japanese here), and have a long history in English literature. Jane Austen originally intended “Pride and Prejudice” to be in this form, but later abandoned the idea.

Epistolary novels often contain letters by different characters which describe the same event from different points of view. This leads naturally to another technique of fiction, the unreliable narrator: as we read different accounts of the same event, doubt appears – which character is telling the truth? Which narrator can we rely on? This fascinating development is made possible by the use of letters; it is much more difficult to throw doubt on the reliability of a narrator when there is only one narrator. The reader’s natural impulse is to take the narrator’s version as the truth, at least until some evidence appears to contradict it.

Difficult though it is to throw doubt when only a single narrator is used, this was accomplished with remarkable success by Kazuo Ishiguro (Japanese here) in his novel about an English butler in a large country house, “The Remains of the Day” (Japanese here).  Even more remarkable, perhaps, is that the feat was accomplished even in the movie version of this novel.

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