Reading for the Plot

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

Students of literature are often taught that “reading for the plot” is a low and undignified way to approach literature, appropriate perhaps to the consumption of popular works such as Peter Benchley’s Jaws (1974) but certainly not to the higher appreciation of Henry James. In his last book, The Melodramatic Imagination (1976), Peter Brooks showed that Henry James himself owed much to the popular tradition of melodramatic plotting. In this lucid and elegant sequel, he makes another, more theoretical attempt to restore the dignity of plot. In analyses of canonical narratives, ranging from Honoré de Balzac’s La Peau de chagrin (1831; The Wild Ass’s Skin) and Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le noir (1830; The Red and the Black; 1898) to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902) and William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! (1936), with excursions into the fairy tale, Eugène Sue’s Les Mystères de Paris (1842-1843; The Mysteries of Paris, 1843) and Sigmund Freud’s “Wolf Man” case, Brooks argues that, far from being an atavistic vestige of more primitive levels of storytelling, plot is an inescapable human universal, essential to the mind’s structuring of reality and, more important, a model of the structure of the mind itself.

Human beings can only make sense of the world, Brooks asserts, by making up stories about it, organizing the chaos of experience into orderly narratives with beginnings, middles, and ends. Even criticisms of those stories are themselves further stories. So, for example, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, appalled by the story of his false accusation of Marion in the Confessions (1782, 1789) and vowing never to say another word about it, can only respond to the horror it reveals about himself by revealing more, by producing a succession of further narratives. Everything, for Brooks, is narrative. He has little interest in debating the philosophical question of whether all meaning must take narrative form—whether, as Fredric Jameson claims in The Political Unconscious (1981), narrative is the unique, paradigmatic instance of how meaning is produced. The real center of his concern is psychological. Plot is a universal, first and foremost, because its basic mechanism duplicates the dynamics of the psyche. Freud’s theory of the self, Brooks concludes, is also the “masterplot” of human narrative.

This thesis immediately distinguishes Reading for the Plot from the two approaches that come closest to it and from which it has learned the most: narratology and psychoanalytic criticism. In his appeal to psychoanalysis, Brooks turns away from what he sees as the “formalism” of narratology, whose search for elementary units of narrative has made it blind to the dynamics of time and to human desire. In contrast, however, to the better-known proponents of Freudian criticism—for example, Marthe Robert in The Origins of the Novel (1981)—Brooks does not simply apply Freud’s theory to the analysis of characters, authors, or even readers. For him, as for the New Criticism and for Jacques Lacan’s reading of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Purloined Letter,” the text itself can be seen as a libidinal system of desires and resistances analogous to that of the psyche. As such, each of the classic nineteenth and twentieth century texts he examines is shown to be, simultaneously, a critical commentary on its own plottedness.

This project remains an application of Freud; Brooks does not claim that narrative teaches one anything about Freud that one did not already know but only that the Freudian model generates fresh insights into the texts of the canon. This claim is abundantly substantiated. In the novels of the early and middle nineteenth century in particular, which Brooks refers to as the “Golden Age” of narrative, his perspective reveals an admirable and unexpected self-consciousness about plots and plotting. In the indifference to worldly marriage, the abdication of worldly ambition, and the return to the maternal embrace of Madame de Rênal that end The Red and the Black, for example, Brooks finds not merely material for a case study of Julien Sorel’s psychology but also a throwing into question of the transgressive energies of plot itself. Much the same point is made about the conclusion of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (1861). Again, the end of the plot coincides with the death of desire, “a life that has outlived plot, renounced plot, been cured of it: life that is left over.Plot comes to resemble a diseased, feverish state of the organism caught up in the machinery of a desire which must eventually be renounced. Plot, we come to understand, was a state of abnormality or deviance.” In Balzac, Stendhal, and Dickens, where plot and desire had seemed so powerful and straightforward, what Brooks discovers and praises is this understanding of an ultimate quiescence which waits beyond all desire and all plot.

To that extent, however, he is not so much praising plot as revealing modernist misgivings about plot even in its realist exemplars. This raises the problem of precisely what plot Brooks is reading for. He uses the term in two contradictory senses. When he speaks of “its potential for summary and retransmission: the fact that we can still recognize ’the story’ even when its medium has been considerably changed,” he is clearly identifying plot with what narratologists call “story,” which the Russian Formalists call fabula and Roland Barthes in S/Z (1970) calls the “proairetic code” or the simple order of events as they occurred. It is for the defense of this unlikely and unfashionable object that his title implicitly takes credit. Brooks’s explicit account of plot,...

(The entire section is 2377 words.)