The State of the Art, part 4

by | Nov 29, 2006 | Literature

What am I saying here?  That allegory always makes for bad writing?  Absolutely not.  Orwell himself wrote an effective little allegorical number called Animal Farm.

Neither Animal Farm nor Nineteen Eighty-Four is intended primarily as a work of art.  Both books are what Orwell would classify as propaganda.  But how do you catch people’s ears?  Nineteen Eighty-Four uses the methods of modern, ‘realistic’ fiction.  We care about Winston Smith, and are pulled into his world, because he is so recognizably human.  In the other book we get a bunch of talking animals.  It is an allegory, an animal fable, and completely unrealistic.  On the other hand, the animals think and act precisely as did the human models they represent.

Animal fables are certainly one of the oldest forms of narrative.  Chuck Jones, creator of Wile E. Coyote and director of many of the classic Warner Brothers cartoons, says that he does not know why, but it is a fact that there is pleasure in watching animals behave like human beings.

Animal Farm is a tragedy and the Warner Brothers cartoons comedies, but here are three things they have in common; a consciously and radically unrealistic style, character-driven, as opposed to plot-driven, story lines, and brevity.

Hermann Hesse’s allegories go on and on in a world that, while it purports to be a version of the real one, is more like a backdrop.  The characters do this or that without much more motivation than the fact that they are representative of some mindset or other.  Thomas Mann does the same thing, as does Sartre and Camus and the rest of that crew, and now you find it again in Magical Realism.

When, in Animal Farm, the animals begin chanting ‘four legs good, two legs bad,’ it gives us a chill because they are acting precisely like people would act, and have acted.  We care about loyal old Boxer, and it breaks our hearts when he is sent off to the knacker’s.  We love to watch Wile E. Coyote fail yet again to catch the Roadrunner because we can see in him a reflection of ourselves.  We laugh, of course, as Robert Heinlein points out in Stranger in a Strange Land, in order to not to cry.

Why do we care about and respond to these unrealistic characters in an immediate, visceral way, whereas our response to Narcissus, or to Goldmund, or to Hans Castorp, is really an intellectual one?  Charles Dickens knows the answer: Because a character based on the exaggeration of an all-too-human foible is, by the same sleight of hand by which fiction is truer than fact, more sympathetic, memorable, and ultimately effective than one whose raison d’Ltre is to symbolize some abstract concept.

So the question posed earlier, whether what you say or how you say it is what really matters, misses the point.  Whether you have something to say or not, the first job of the writer is to say it well enough that people listen.  And that seems to have something to do with creating characters who are either as real as Winston Smith or as obviously unreal as Daffy Duck.