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Essay

The Yoke of Sympathy:
The Fiction Writer and Her Characters

 

Although the general tone of your [story] “Kirilka” is well maintained, it is spoiled by the character of the land captain. Keep away from depicting land captains. Nothing is easier than to describe unsympathetic officialdom, and although there are readers who will lap it up, they are the most unpleasant and limited kind of reader.

————————–—Anton Chekhov in a letter to Maxim Gorky

WHILE THE UNPUBLISHED NOVEL I wrote in graduate school includes plenty of unwise decisions on the part of the twenty-four-year-old author, there’s a blunder in the second chapter that I still look back on with pride. The first chapter is told from the point of view of a baseball wife putting her children to bed while listening to a game on the radio on a summer night. A few pages later, her younger sister appears on the doorstep; the sister’s husband has hit her, and she is making her escape. At the end of the chapter, after both husbands have arrived at the house, there is an uneasy reconciliation, and the sister and her husband leave together. With chapter two, I could not resist changing points of view. This will alarm anyone who has tried to help graduate students write first novels. There are plenty of successful novels told from multiple points of view, from Middlemarch to Atonement, which is probably why I liked the idea so much in the first place, but it’s extremely difficult to manage it the first time out of the gate. For one thing, it requires one central plot that can include everyone, which I didn’t have.

I was going on blind instinct. Shifting to a new main character seemed like fun, and I had no idea how ambitious I was being, or that this would swamp the novel in the end. But I still look back and smile, just a little. Of the four people I could have followed—the affable, unsuccessful ballplayer, his longsuffering wife, her brave, abused sister, or the man who hits his wife—I went with the wife-beater. I knew he was the person who was the most worth writing about, because, in my mind, he was the one who needed the most explaining. He never became a good person, exactly, but as my book lumbered along I did develop a kind of affection for him, and although I couldn’t manage to write a realistic ending in which he won the love of his family back, I wanted him to.

Saint Paul tells us that God delights in us as we are, in that while we were yet sinners he died for us. It would probably be wrongheaded, and would probably horrify Saint Paul, to conclude from this that God delights in our sin. Still, Paul makes it clear that our sin is not alien to God. Our entanglement with it still moves him in the same way that, as poet Michael Chitwood writes, the plight of your dog moves you after he has eaten your pantyhose and must face the consequences.

Our sins, after all—our active or passive choices against available good—are us. All our choices bear the imprint of the nature God created and loves—our passions, our exuberances, our hungers. No two people sin in quite the same way. And rarely does sin exist that is not intertwined with goodness. In other words, it’s a rare person who is wholly bad. This is one of the things great fiction makes plain for us. And this is what Chekhov was trying to explain, a little archly, to his friend the political activist Maxim Gorky.

In the little universes they create, fiction writers are like gods: omniscient, all-powerful parents. In order to write fiction that compels—and in order to drag themselves to their desks in the mornings—they must care desperately for their children. It’s a kind of love that can border on the eccentric. Chekhov is celebrated for his refusal to judge his characters, for his empathy. In his letters, he sometimes sounds kindlier toward fictional people than toward real ones.

Flannery O’Connor offers a striking comparison—for she could be as acerbic toward her characters as she was toward everybody else. For a long time I’ve puzzled over the fact that two of my favorite short story writers, Chekhov and O’Connor—a grandfather and a mother of the form as it now exists—could have such different attitudes toward the notion of sympathy in fiction. For Chekhov, sympathy was a requirement. For O’Connor, the idea of “compassion” was a bugaboo of vague, well-meaning political correctness.

Chekhov, whose father was a former serf and failed shopkeeper, wrote about people in all classes of Russian society, usually about small sins rather than big drama: self-deceit, callousness, vanity, failed connections. His stories are more about the unfolding of character than dramatic crisis: a person’s nature is clarified or revealed, but there isn’t a radical change of direction. (Much, though not all, of contemporary fiction inherits this, as did the film director Robert Altman.) Gorky wrote that in Chekhov, he hears:

The hopeless sigh of sympathy for men who do not know how to respect human dignity, who submit without any resistance to mere force, live like fish, believe in nothing but the necessity of swallowing every day as much thick soup as possible, and feeling nothing but fear that someone, strong and insolent, will give them a hiding.

Tolstoy is supposed to have observed that Chekhov could forgive everything because he could understand everything. But this “sigh of sympathy” as Gorky called it, doesn’t mean that Chekhov brushed over sin. His stories are nearly always about sin, and the sin always matters.

One of his loveliest and saddest stories, “The Lady with the Pet Dog,” is about adultery. At the beginning we meet Dmitry Gurov, who is idly contemplating forming a new liaison with a young woman who has appeared at the resort town of Yalta, where he is staying.

He was under forty, but he already had a twelve-year-old daughter and two boys at school. He had married young, when still a second-year student at college, and by now his wife looked nearly twice as old as he did. She was a tall, erect woman with dark eyebrows, dignified and imposing, who called herself a thinking person. She read a good deal, used simplified spelling in her letters, and called her husband Dimitry instead of Dmitry. Though he secretly regarded her as a woman of limited intelligence, narrow-minded and rather dowdy, he stood in awe of her and disliked being at home. Long ago he had begun being unfaithful to her, and he was now constantly unfaithful, and perhaps that was why he nearly always spoke ill of women, and whenever they were discussed in his presence he would call them “the lower race.”

Now, at this point, the reader is probably thinking: What a vain, cowardly, selfish, little chauvinist. Does a spirit of honesty in fiction really require that we read about such a horrid person? There is nothing likeable about this guy. I don’t want to read about him. But wait.

What comes next is one of my favorite moments in fiction. Chekhov is not about to counterbalance Gurov’s flaws with virtues. We’re not about to hear that he dotes on his children or that he rescues Borzoi puppies or works tirelessly to preserve historic architecture. Nor are we about to hear a ponderous back story about Gurov’s domineering mother or how he was beaten as a child. Instead, Chekhov goes straight into the heart of Gurov’s greatest flaw, his most off-putting quality, his contempt for women, and keeps pushing it further, until it reveals not virtue but a more layered personality than we’d expected—a human one, and a recognizably true one. It’s in this very layering that Chekhov performs his art: a reflection of the world as it is, not comforting, but familiar:

It seemed to him that he had been so schooled by bitter experience that he was entitled to call them anything he liked, but he was unable to live for even two days without “the lower race.” In the company of men he was bored, cold, ill at ease, and uncommunicative, but felt at home among women, and knew what to say to them and how to behave; and even when he was silent in their presence he felt at ease. In his appearance, in his character, in his whole nature, there was something charming and elusive, which made him attractive to women and cast a spell over them. He knew this, and was himself attracted to them by some mysterious power.

What we have now is not a tragically noble chauvinist and adulterer, nor a man dragged along helplessly by fate, but a slightly pathetic, slightly comic, complex personality, something that’s at once surprising and recognizable.

He’s romantic, a little absurdly so (he thinks he’s “unable to live even for two days” without women), but he also has some measure of self-knowledge. He recognizes that his attraction to women comes partly from his unease around men, and he sees his power over women as if from a distance, a mystery, something he can’t quite control and can’t quite claim credit for. He may be callous, but his power hasn’t made him proud.

It’s precisely by his refusal to look away from sin that Chekhov makes his people wonderful. He shows us how worthy our sin is of our attention—because mixed with it are opportunities for grace. At the heart of Gurov’s rather patronizing attraction to women is the place where he comes closest to humility. His best and worst qualities lie very close together.

Throughout the story, this rhythm continues, alternating snapshots of Gurov’s smallness and vanity with moments that reveal his sensitivity and awareness of the truth about himself. He begins an affair with Anna, the lady with the pet dog. She’s never done anything like this before, and though she is very much in love with him, the relationship makes her guilty and miserable. He is alternately sentimentally touched by what he thinks of as her naïveté and irritated with her agonizing—but even as he recognizes these feelings in himself, he continues to have glimpses of the truth. He knows, for example, that she sees him as a better man than he is, and that he has treated her arrogantly.

Gurov’s occasional humility is one of the places where we see a gleam of good in him. So is his capacity to find satisfaction in humble things. The section where he first returns to chilly Moscow from sunny Yalta after the affair seems to have ended is a gorgeous illustration of the ability to find beauty in the ordinary pleasures of home:

Already there was frost. When the first snow falls, and people go out for the first time on sleighs, it is good to see the white ground, the white roofs: one breathes easily and lightly, and one remembers the days of one’s youth. The old lime trees and birches have a kindly look about them: they lie closer to one’s heart than cypresses and palms; and below their branches one has no desire to dream of mountains and the sea….

In the next breath, this capacity is perfectly balanced by Gurov’s moral frailties. The same passage shows that he is still a somewhat pompous, vain man, in his small way:

Little by little he became immersed in Moscow life, eagerly read three newspapers a day, and declared that on principle he never read Moscow newspapers. Once more he was caught up in a whirl of restaurants, clubs, banquets, and celebrations, and it was flattering to have famous lawyers and actors visiting his house, and flattering to play cards with a professor at the doctors’ club. He could eat a whole portion of selyanka, a cabbage stew, straight off the frying pan.

We feel the strength of Chekhov’s famous affection for his characters in this passage—an affection that has little to do with their moral goodness. Gurov is after all a rather silly man in most ways, and Chekhov makes no attempt to conceal or excuse this silliness. But Chekhov doesn’t take out any contempt on his creation by making him unable to value the sight of the snow on the roofs and the lime trees.

Gurov is a sinner, not merely because he’s having an affair and has had lots of them in the past. He’s a sinner in smaller ways: he’s snobbish about who he eats dinner with, he’s pompous and hypocritical about reading the newspaper. And yet, here is a man who, touchingly, loves to eat cabbage stew off the frying pan.

To my mind, that sentence about the cabbage stew pretty much says that Gurov’s creator, Anton Chekhov, loves him.

§

If Chekhov is the avatar of compassion for short story writers, Flannery O’Connor is the avatar of judgment. She shares with Chekhov the refusal to turn away from sin, but her style is very different. As is her attitude toward the notion of compassion. In 1960 she wrote:

It’s considered an absolute necessity these days for writers to have compassion. Compassion is a word that sounds good in anybody’s mouth and which no book jacket can do without. It is a quality which no one can put his finger on in any exact critical sense, so it is always safe for anybody to use. Usually I think what is meant by it is that the writer excuses all human weakness because human weakness is human.

O’Connor is unapologetically an old-fashioned moralist. She had said many times that the artist’s judgment is not separate from her act of seeing: the artist cannot see without judging. In other words, to write a character who casually involves a young married woman in an affair, one that will make several people profoundly unhappy, because one is bored and needs the companionship of women and is a little vain—to write this character is to know, sigh of sympathy or not, that the character is doing wrong.

To see is to judge, O’Connor says, an idea that went against the spirit of the age in which she said it and does so even more now. In other words, O’Connor’s mission is not simply to put what happened down on the page in a neutral way, to give us a slice of life. O’Connor’s stories are big, dramatic clashes between human sin and the violent intrusion of God’s grace. Observing life accurately is all well and good, but she has bigger plans. To simplify her project radically: the good in us must be rewarded, and, more often, given the human condition, the bad in us must be corrected.

Take for example Mrs. May in O’Connor’s “Greenleaf,” a story about a woman whose tidy dairy farm—and tidy life, and tidy body—are violently intruded on by divine presence as symbolized by a stray bull. (O’Connor is never shy with symbols.) O’Connor does not seem to set out to endear her main character to us any more than Chekhov did. In the opening sentence, the bull stands in the moonlight under Mrs. May’s bedroom window wearing a wreath on his head “like some patient god come down to woo her.” It’s an image straight out of classical Greece: an eager god takes on the form of an animal to woo an earthly maiden. But Mrs. May doesn’t make a very enticing Europa. She opens the Venetian blinds, shoos the bull in a guttural voice, and then mutters, “Some nigger’s scrub bull.” Her physical appearance is no less dismaying. “Green rubber curlers sprouted neatly over her forehead, and her face beneath them was smooth as concrete with an egg-white paste that drew the wrinkles out while she slept.” From the neck up, everything about her physical appearance is hard, neat, artificial, tightly controlled and maintained. Here is a woman dedicated to the fight against the entropy of time and its natural processes. Certainly O’Connor invites us to laugh.

As the story goes on, we learn that what is true of Mrs. May’s head is also true of her land. Farming is a constant battle against broken-down equipment, lazy help, and unpredictable nature, and Mrs. May is up to the challenge. Always watchful, she complains constantly and sees herself as injured by everything and everyone. There’s also something comically pathetic in her, even from the first, with her small frame and nightgown and curlers and face cream. She works at being strong, but the effort is obvious. She is no Nurse Ratchett. All she wants to do is take good care of her farm in order to pass it on to her sons, and this goal dooms her to a life of continual torment, because she thinks absolutely everything depends on her. In other words, her sin is the sin of pride. And this is where O’Connor—and the God in the story, who becomes more Judeo-Christian as the story goes on—cannot leave her.

Her chief tormentors are her hired man and his family, the Greenleafs, whose different members represent the forces of entropy, injustice, and chaos. Most disturbing to Mrs. May is Mrs. Greenleaf. Massive and slovenly, she has a yard full of garbage, five snuff-dipping daughters, and spends her time in the woods writhing on the ground and groaning in ecstatic prayer. She is everything that Mrs. May is not. In her obscene fervors, Mrs. Greenleaf embodies the total abandonment to God, loss of control, and loss of dignity that Mrs. May cannot allow herself. Seen through Mrs. May’s eyes, it’s hard to think of anything more indecent. O’Connor has told us earlier that Mrs. May is “a good Christian woman with a large respect for religion, though she did not, of course, believe any of it was true.” The idea that divine love could include an erotic element is not so much lost on her as anathema to her. As well as being hypocritical, Mrs. May is envious and has a tendency to dwell on injuries to herself, both real and imaginary. “I’m always the victim,” she complains to her apathetic sons.

For all that is infuriating about Mrs. May, she is hard to hate. The reader comes to appreciate, as the circumstances of life on the May farm emerge, that there is something worthy of respect, even something pretty formidable, in Mrs. May’s iron will. Widowed with two sons, in fifteen years she has pretty much single-handedly taken a broken-down dairy farm and made a success of it, though she has no farming background and no real help, only her own energy and determination. She has moderation and a sense of perspective. If she’s rigid, it’s because life required her to be strong, and she met the challenge. But O’Connor doesn’t emphasize this. She knows Mrs. May has virtues, but she isn’t particularly interested in them. Like Chekhov, she doesn’t apologize for her character’s flaws but keeps her story heading straight into the eye of them.

Here is one of my favorite passages, in which the best and worse of Mrs. May’s nature vie for the upper hand, with control changing sentence by sentence. After several days of trying to get Mr. Greenleaf to get rid of the bull (he drags his feet because he knows the bull belongs to his sons O.T. and E.T.), she has taken him out too see that he shoots it, and is waiting in the pasture while he searches the woods beyond. For a while she imagines that he is probably shirking and loitering. But then:

A new thought occurred to her: suppose Mr. Greenleaf had aroused the bull chunking stones at him and the animal had turned on him and run him up against a tree and gored him? The irony of it deepened: O.T. and E.T. would then get a shyster lawyer and sue her. It would be the fitting end to her fifteen years with the Greenleafs. She thought of it almost with pleasure as if she had hit on the perfect ending for a story she was telling her friends. Then she dropped it, for Mr. Greenleaf had a gun with him and she had insurance.

Astonishingly, Mrs. May begins to feel a moment of concern for another person, but her compassion is quickly overshadowed by alarm and self-interest. She starts to drift into bitterness and wallowing, but her common sense reasserts itself in the end, for she is a pragmatic woman and not the kind to indulge in useless morbid fantasies. I think of the final sentence, where Mrs. May shakes herself out of her deliciously self-pitying reverie, in the same way I think of Chekhov’s sentence about Gurov eating cabbage stew out of the frying pan. It’s a moment that seems full of the author’s affection for the character. In every obvious way, Mrs. May is at her worst here, in her paranoia and selfishness. But even now, O’Connor allows her to pull herself back from the brink of melodrama.

Like Chekhov’s, O’Connor’s best characters have goodness that lies very close to their own frailty. As John L’Heureux says, O’Connor knows that her people are good, but she also knows that they aren’t good enough. Mrs. May’s iron will has been her survival. This quality is not only agricultural but spiritual: She works so hard to control her borders that she cannot know God. Unlike Mrs. Greenleaf, who seems to have no borders at all—either to her massive, fleshy body or to her soul—the trim, self-contained Mrs. May cannot let God in.

In the final moments of the story, when the bull charges toward her “like a wild tormented lover” and buries its head in her lap, goring and killing her, her mastership over her farm and her mastership over her soul collapse at the same moment: She is obliterated by the divine embrace, but not before a new kind of sight is restored to her. In the enigmatic final paragraph, the nature of her new vision is not spelled out as clearly as, say, Ruby Turpin’s is in “Revelation,” but Mrs. May is unmistakably changed in her final moments. In death she bends over the bull as if “whispering some last discovery into the animal’s ear.” Neither O’Connor nor the story’s god is willing to let Mrs. May remain in her old state of tormented, anxious pride.

In O’Connor stories, things happen (which isn’t so clearly the case in Chekhov, where the final crisis is usually something subtle). Here there is a clear dramatic contest: you have Mrs. May’s ferocious pride and self-containment going due west, and God’s invasive grace, mediated through the bull, going due east, and there’s a direct and very forceful collision that transforms Mrs. May. Whereas in “The Lady with the Pet Dog” you have a deepening portrait that continues to reveal more and more of the man, his mix of good and evil, as the story goes on. Within Gurov, the opposing forces of self-deceit and self-knowledge run so closely together that they constantly push against each other, resulting in a zigzagging progress toward an eventual moment of clarity.

O’Connor, the judge, moves her story toward a final scene in which Mrs. May receives enlightenment and death in almost the same breath. God—and O’Connor—love her and refuse to leave her alone until she mends. On the other hand, empathetic Chekhov has Gurov meandering around the streets of Moscow and eating cabbage soup and thinking about how beautiful the snow is. When he and Anna recognize in the final sentence of the story that “the most difficult part [of their lives] is only beginning,” though we feel that we’ve traveled a great distance from where we began, we don’t exactly feel that justice has been served.

The two stories compel in completely different ways. I think part of it has to do with where each writer locates mystery. O’Connor sees the source of mystery and grace in God; grace acts violently on her people, and they either respond to it or not. Whereas Chekhov, a seemingly agnostic physician, locates mystery in the human heart. And of course neither of them is wrong; mystery is in both places. In any case, the territory being explored is different, and consequently the stories are very different, right down to the punctuation.

I should mention that O’Connor greatly admired Chekhov. In her letters she recommended him several times as a model to other writers who asked her for advice, so presumably she didn’t class him with practitioners of the drippy sentimental half-baked kind of compassion she was so sarcastic about. Elsewhere she has written:

There is a better sense in which [the word compassion] can be used but seldom is—the sense of being in travail with and for creation in its subjection to vanity. This is a sense which implies a recognition of sin, this is a suffering-with, but one which blunts no edges and makes no excuses. When infused into novels, it is often forbidding. Our age doesn’t go for it.

She’s not actually talking about Chekhov, but she could be. It’s not that Chekhov doesn’t recognize that his characters sin, or that he casually excuses it; but he’s not repulsed by it or afraid of it. His steadfast love for his characters is not the same as moral leveling. Quite the opposite. For all his affection and sympathy, he excuses Gurov’s selfishness no more than O’Connor excuses Mrs. May’s pride.

Chekhov grants an essential dignity to his characters’ suffering, even when they suffer because of their own foolishness. He never invites the reader to laugh at them or to put herself above them. Precisely because Gurov’s flaws are so small and so ordinary—vanity, insecurity, boredom—we can’t pretend we don’t have them, too. Chekhov’s “travail with and for creation” takes the form of attentiveness to human failings, a delving into them—and yet more in a spirit of diagnosis than as an attempt to cure.

I don’t think Chekhov is as interested as O’Connor is in presenting characters as people who are struggling on a clear good-evil continuum. He seems more interested in exploring his people than in shaking them up. Perhaps he lacked O’Connor’s faith that God could reach into our world and mend people. Which after all is a radical idea.

It may take a second glance to see it, but O’Connor likes her characters, particularly these indomitable women of hers who struggle to manage small farms, and because she likes them, they are a burden on her: she can’t just leave her people to wallow in their sin. Grace must intrude. O’Connor loves the world like a wise, no-nonsense parent, or like the patient god represented by the bull—and in that sense she participates in the travail of its slow perfection.

Chekhov bears a different kind of yoke for his characters. His love for the world as it is takes the form of a moody, regretful sweetness—even alongside a keen awareness of the places where we miss the mark, there is a tenderness, a patience, an equally keen sense of the broken world’s ultimate value, its worthiness of love. I think in particular of that lyric scene when Gurov returns to Moscow: “When the snow first falls, it is good to see the white ground, the white roofs…. The old lime trees have a kindly look…. One has no desire to dream of mountains and the sea.”

Every artist loves the world in her own idiosyncratic way—and when art works, it’s able to convey that peculiar, personal love, to illustrate it, to make it concrete and communicable, to let me in on one more vision of the world’s essential goodness, even if just briefly.

Jane Austen loved the world with great good humor in spite of its hypocrisies; George Eliot loved the world with idealism and a passionate moral sense; Herman Melville loved the world with manic, violent glee; Joy Williams loves the world’s innocence with a steely-eyed protectiveness; Alice Munro loves the world in a long-sighted, longsuffering way, with a twist of irony; Marilynne Robinson loves the world with great and generous attention to its detail. You can make your own list.

I’m not saying that being an artist makes you right about the world all the time—it’s certainly possible to love based on an error of perception, like Anna does in “The Lady with the Pet Dog,” and I’m not saying that just because a person is in love with the world she will be able to make good art—because you also need to be able to command whatever set of tools is needed for your art form. In my own novel, I found plenty of goodness mixed into the character of the bad husband, but that couldn’t save the book. Still, I think the instinct to follow him was a true one, even if I couldn’t manage my own ambition. I think the desire to make art comes partly out of a recognition that the world we know through our five senses is capable of bearing meaning, and what’s more, that it is good. For writers of fiction, as opposed to, say, abstract painters, that marbled goodness is especially present in the world’s people.

Being sensitive to a particular quality of goodness in the world doesn’t automatically translate into the ability to make uplifting fiction—since the quantity of good any one writer sees is likely to be mixed with a quantity of equally vivid and particular evil. However, if you want to experience a full sense of the world’s goodness, this is an argument for reading as many writers as possible, and for looking at and listening to the work of many painters and musicians.

Permit me a little giddy speculation: I think if it were possible to combine all the idiosyncratic ways of being infatuated with the world that have belonged to all the artists who ever lived in a single consciousness, of O’Connor and Chekhov and Austen and all the rest, you would have a mind a little like God’s on the sixth day of creation when he looked at his work and called it very good.

That is part of the pleasure of reading, and part of the work that reading good fiction or looking at good art or hearing good music does on you: every time you connect with the work of another artist, and look for a moment at the world with a new kind of love, you get a molecule’s width closer to seeing what God saw on that day.

 


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