In good novels, we experience an intimacy with characters that we don’t have with people in real life. I can’t get inside someone’s mind and know their thoughts and feelings, no matter how well I think I know the person. Even in close relationships, we are separate and alone with our thoughts.
But in novels, we feel with and through the characters. This sense of intimacy is all the more powerful when the character is private and reserved – someone who in real life would not reveal their thoughts to us. Someone like Henry James, the main character of The Master by Colm Tóibín.
Henry James, probably best known for Portrait of a Lady (1881), was an American-born novelist who spent his writing life in Britain. Tóibín portrays him as an observer of high society, a man of letters who discerns the secrets of others but discloses little about himself. Henry James, the character, fails at intimacy because his writing life is more important to him than relationships. He uses people to generate stories and characters for his fiction.
Yet as a reader, I felt empathy for this self-absorbed character. Tóibín achieves this feat through the use of a “limited” third-person point of view, which closes the distance between the reader and the point-of-view character.
Tóibín is a master at creating a psychological closeness, but even masters need editors.
If I were Tóibín’s editor, I would have suggested revisions to a few passages to eliminate what Janet Burroway in Writing Fiction calls “filtering.” Filtering occurs when the author needlessly reminds us that the scene is presented through an “observing consciousness.” Consider this passage from The Master:
He could not remember precisely what term his aunt had used to describe Alice’s trouble. Alice was having an attack, perhaps, or Alice was suffering from her nerves, but he knew that during the night both of his parents in turn had come to speak with him, and he had noticed their excitement at the new dilemma presented to them. Their nervous daughter and her strange illness deserved all their sympathy and attention.
Expressions like “he knew,” “he recognized,” or “he noticed” tell us that we are observing a character who is observing. Instead of seeing through the character and thinking that character’s thoughts, the reader becomes aware of being an outsider – of being, in fact, a reader.
Remove the filtering, and our dream of fiction is uninterrupted. We are allowed to stay inside the mind of the character.
He could not remember precisely what term his aunt had used to describe Alice’s trouble. Alice was having an attack, perhaps, or Alice was suffering from her nerves. During the night both of his parents in turn came to speak with him, excited by this new dilemma. Their nervous daughter and her strange illness deserved all their sympathy and attention.
I also changed the past perfect tense (his parents had come) to the simple past tense (his parents came). The past perfect tense reminds us that Henry is remembering something that happened in the past. It’s not necessary to remind us, because we know he is remembering. The simple past moves seamlessly from a night remembered to a scene in which readers also experience that night.
If I were the editor, I would propose these changes to Tóibín and explain my rationale. He might accept the edit, or he might feel strongly that Henry’s remembering and knowing and noticing is essential to Henry’s characterization as someone who lives in his mind.
To my readers: Which version do you think is better?