William Congreve

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William Congreve Short Fiction Analysis

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In the preface to Incognita, Congreve explains that the tale was written “in imitation of dramatic writing,” and he boasts that he observes in it the three classic unities of time, place, and action (which he renames contrivance). The story resembles nothing so much as William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (c. 1595) without a tragic ending. The two major male characters, Aurelian and his look-alike Hippolito, who have been schoolmates in Siena, arrive in Florence just in time to enter the festivities centering on the upcoming wedding of Donna Catharina, a kinswoman to the great Duke. The young men decide to participate in disguise, lest Aurelian’s father restrain their merriment. At the masquerade ball that evening, both young men fall in love, Aurelian with a beautiful young lady who wishes to be known as Incognita, and Hippolito with Leonora, who mistakes him for her cousin Don Lorenzo, whose costume he has bought. On the next day the two young students perform so admirably in the lists that they are granted the honor of the field. Recognizing his son, Don Fabio announces that the wedding of Aurelian and Juliana, which had been previously arranged by the parents, would take place the next day. As Aurelian and Hippolito had exchanged names upon entering Florence, Leonora thinks she is defying custom when she marries Aurelian (who is actually Hippolito). Incognita, who is really Juliana, swoons, runs away in male disguise, and suffers greatly because she feels that because of her love she must disobey her father and marry Hippolito (who proves to be Aurelian, after all). Two family feuds are settled by the marriage, which is approved by both generations after the mistaken identities are revealed.

Walter Allen in The English Novel says that “before ‘Incognita’ prose fiction had been artless in form; indeed, form can hardly be said to have existed at all.” He adds that Incognita represents in miniature “the formal aspects” of the fiction later associated with Jane Austen, Henry James, and Ivy Compton-Burnett. The civilized, polished, skeptical, and humorous voice of the author gives Incognita its unity, but because fiction writing was as yet not a socially acceptable occupation for a gentleman, Congreve abandoned that art form to write drama.

The importance of Incognita lies not only in the fact that it is such an early example of short fiction but also in that its form is so unusual, yet perceptible. It is so dramatic that readers can almost visualize the puckish stage-manager-author standing just offstage and commenting wittily to the audience. The young author indeed intrudes upon this narrative frequently, utilizing the same sophisticated, elegant humor that he is later to allow the protagonists in The Way of the World. Congreve includes directions for lighting, sound, and costume, employs theatrical imagery, and permits the tale to fall into an almost visible five-act comedy division. Antecedent action is revealed early, and, at what would surely be the end of Act I, the audience learns that the purchase of Lorenzo’s costume for Hippolito is going to cause the visitors some problems.

Just as Congreve the dramatist was later to withhold the introduction of his ladies until Act II, he acquaints us with Leonora and Incognita at the ball only after the reader has become well acquainted with their two young men. The ball and the tilting (which occur in what would be Acts II and V of a drama) contribute to the symmetry of structure, as both are gatherings of society to which Aurelian and Hippolito are admitted in disguise. The beginning of the tale involves preparations for...

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disguise and offers a balance to the conclusion, when all disguises are removed. Scenes complicated by mistaken identity abound, and after disclosures, discoveries, and recognition, the story ends in a comic celebration with the entire company awaiting the wedding of Aurelian and Juliana. SinceIncognita begins with the wedding of Catherine and Ferdinand, the symmetry is complete. All “knots” are easily untied, but the spectator-reader will see that the action has not been as probable as Congreve has promised in his preface. The four major characters remain disguised, literally or figuratively, for most of the narrative’s unfolding, affirming its artificiality and emphasizing the difference between appearance and reality, and illusion and life.


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