Evolution of Background in the History of Painting : The First Stage.In the history of figure painting it is interesting to study the evolution of the element of back-ground. This element is non-existent in the earliest examples of pictorial art. The figures in Pompeüan frescoes are limned upon a blank bright wall, most frequently deep red in color. The father of Italian painting, Cimabue, following the custom of the Byzantine mosaicists, whose work he had doubtless studied at Ravenna, drew his figures against a background devoid of distance and perspective and detail; and even in the work of his greater and more natural pupil, Giotto, the element of background remains comparatively insignificant. What interests us in Giotto’s work at Padua and Assisi is first of all the story that he has to tell, and secondly the human quality of the characters that he exhibits. His sense of setting is extremely slight; and the homely details that he presents for the purpose of suggesting the time and place and circumstances of his action are very crudely depicted. His frescoes are all foreground. It is the figures in the forefront of his pictures that arrest our eye. His buildings and his landscapes are conventionalized out of any real reference to his people. These are examples of the first stage of evolutionthe stage in which the element of background bears no significant relation to the main business of the picture.
The Second Stage.In the second stage, the back-ground is brought into an artistic, or decorative, relation with the figures in the foreground. This phase is exhibited by Italian painting at its period of maturity. The great Florentines drew their figures against a back-ground of decorative line, the great Venetians against a background of decorative color. But even in the work of the greatest of them the background exists usually to fulfil a purpose merely decorative, a purpose with immediate reference to art but without immediate reference to life. There is no real reason, with reference to life itself, why the “Mona Lisa” of Leonardo should smile inscrutably upon us before a background of jagged rocks and cloudy sky; and the curtains in Raphael’s “Sistine Madonna” are introduced merely as a detail of composition, and are not intended as a literal statement that curtains hung upon a rod exist in heaven.
The Third Stage.In the third stage, which is exhibited by later painting, the background is brought into living relation with the figures of the foreground,a relation suggested not merely by the exigencies of art but rather by the conditions of life itself. Thus the great Dutch genre painters, like the younger Teniers, show their characters in immediate human relation to a carefully detailed interior; or if, like Adrian van Ostade, they take them out of doors, it is to show them entirely at home in an accustomed landscape.
This stage, in its modern development, exhibits an absolutely essential relation between the foreground and the backgroundthe figures and the settingso that neither could be imagined exactly as it is without the presence of the other. Such an essential harmony is shown in the “Angelus” of Jean-François Millet. The people exist for the sake of giving meaning to the landscape; and the landscape exists for the sake of giving [meaning to the people. The “Angelus” is neither figure painting nor landscape painting merely; it is both.
Similar Evolution of Setting in the History of Fiction: The First Stage.In the history of fiction we may note a similar evolution in the element of setting. The earliest folk-tales of every nation happen “once upon a time,” and without any definite localization. In the “Gesta Romanorum,” that medieval repository of accumulated narratives, the element of setting is nearly as non-existent as the element of background in the frescoes of Pompeii. Even in the “Decameron” of Boccaccio the stories are seldom localized: they happen almost anywhere at almost any time. The interest in Boccaccio’s narrative, like the interest in Giotto’s painting, is centred first of all in the element of action, and secondly in the element of character. But his stories are all foreground. When the scene is out of doors, it is set vaguely in a conventional landscape: when it is indoors, it is set vaguely in a conventional palace. Because of this, his narrative is lacking in visual appeal. Most of his novelle read like summaries of novels, setting forth an abstract synopsis of the action rather than a concrete representation of it. He tells you what happens, instead of making it happen before the eye of your imagination. His characters are drawn in outline merely, instead of being livingly projected in relation to a definite environment. The defect of his narrative, like the defect of Giotto’s painting, is mainly lack of background.
The Second Stage.Somewhat later in the history of fiction, as in the history of figure painting, we find in-stances in which the element of setting is used for a decorative purpose, and is brought into an artistic relation with the elements of action and character. Such a use is made of landscape, for example, in the “Orlando Furioso” of Ariosto and the “Faerie Queene” of Spenser. The settings depicted by these narrative poets are essentially pictorial, and are used as a decorative background to the action rather than as part and parcel of it. If we seek an example in prose rather than in poetry, we need only turn to the “Arcadia” of Sir Philip Sidney. In this again the setting is beautifully fashioned, but is employed merely for a decorative purpose. The back-ground of pastoral landscape bears no necessary relation to the figures in the foreground. It exists for the sake of art rather than for the sake of life. This employment of the element of setting for a purpose essentially pictorial subsists in many later works of fiction, like the “Paul and Virginia” of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre. In this the setting is composed and painted for the sake of its own sentimental beauty, and is obtruded even at the expense of the more vital elements of character and action. The story is, as it were, merely a motive for decorative composition.
The Third Stage: 1. Setting as an Aid to Action.It is only in fiction of a more modern spirit that the element of setting has been brought into living relation with the action and the characters; and it is only in the last century that the most intimate possibilities of such a relation have been appreciated and applied. Of course the most elementary means of making the setting “part and parcel of the business of the story” is to employ it as a utilitarian adjunct to the action. Granted certain incidents that are to happen, certain scenery and proper-ties are useful, in the novel just as in the theatre; and if these are supplied advisedly, the setting will, as it were, become a part of what is happening instead of remaining merely a decorative background to the incidents. The first English author to establish firmly this utilitarian relation between the setting and the action was Daniel Defoe. Defoe was by profession a journalist; and the most characteristic quality of his mind was an habitual matter-of-factness. Plausibility was what he most de-sired in his fictions; and he discerned instinctively that the readiest means of making a story plausible was by representing with entire concreteness and great wealth of specific detail the physical adjuncts to the action. The multitudinous particulars of Crusoe’s island are therefore exhibited concretely to the reader one by one, as Crusoe makes use of them successively in what he does.
2. Setting as an Aid to Characterization.But though in Defoe the element of setting is merged with the element of action, it is not brought into intimate relation with the element of character. The island is a part of what Crusoe does, rather than a part of what he is. But the dwelling-room of the Boffins, which was described in the paragraph from “Our Mutual Friend” quoted toward the end of the preceding chapter, is a part of what the Boffins are, rather than of what they do. The setting in the latter case is used as an adjunct to the element of character instead of to the element of action. Fielding and his contemporaries were the first English novelists to make the setting in this way representative of personality as well as useful to the plot; but the finer possibilities of the relation between setting and character were not fully realized until the nineteenth century. The eighteenth-century authors, in so far as they elaborated the element of setting, seem to have done so mainly for the sake of greater vividness. The appeal of setting ‘being visual, the element was employed to illustrate the action and to make the characters clearly evident to the eye. By rendering a story more concrete, a definite setting rendered it more credible. This the eighteenth-century novelists discerned; but only with the rise of the romantic movement was the element applied to subtler uses.
Emotional Harmony in Setting.A new and very interesting attitude toward landscape setting was disclosed by Rousseau in the “Nouvelle Héloise” and developed by his numerous followers in early nineteenth-century romance. The writers who advocated a “return to nature” spelled nature with a capital N and considered it usually as an anthropomorphic presence. As a result of this, when they developed a natural background for their stories, they established a sympathetic interchange of mood between the characters and the landscape, and imagined (to use the famous phrase of Leibnitz) a “pre-established harmony” between the shifting moods of nature and of man. Thus the setting was employed ne longer merely to subserve the needs of action or to give a greater vividness of visual appeal, but was used rather to symbolize and represent the human emotions evoked in the characters at significant moments of the plot, When the hero was suffering with sadness, the sky was hung with heavy clouds; and when his mind grew illumined with a glimmering of hope, the sun broke through a cloud-rift, casting light over the land.
Dickens is especially fond of imagining an emotional harmony between his settings and his incidents. Consider for a moment the following well-known passage from the funeral of Little Nell (“The Old Curiosity Shop,” Chapter LXXII) :–
“Along the crowded path they bore her now; pure as the newly-fallen snow that covered it; whose day on earth had been as fleeting. Under the porch, where she had sat when Heaven in its mercy brought her to that peaceful spot, she passed again; and the old church received her in its quiet shade.
“They carried her to one old nook, where she had many and many a time sat musing, and laid their burden softly on the pavement. The light streamed on it through the coloured windowa window where the boughs of trees were ever rustling in the summer, and where the birds sang sweetly all day long. With every breath of air that stirred among those branches in the sunshine, some trembling, changing light would fall upon her grave… .
“They saw the vault covered, and the stone fixed down. Then, when the dusk of evening had come on, and not a sound disturbed the sacred stillness of the place when the bright moon poured in her light on tomb and monument, on pillar, wall, and arch, and most of all (it seemed to them) upon her quiet gravein that calm time, when outward things and inward thoughts teem with assurances of immortality, and worldly hopes and fears are humbled in the dust before themthen, with tranquil and submissive hearts, they turned away, and left the child to God.”
Here the mood of the scene is expressed almost entirely through the element of setting; and the human emotion of the mourners is realized and represented by the aspect of the churchyard.
The Pathetic Fallacy.The excessive use of this expedient is deplored by John Ruskin in a chapter of “Mod-ern Painters” entitled “The Pathetic Fallacy.” His point is that, since concrete objects do not actually experience human emotions, it is a violation of artistic truth to ascribe such emotions to them. But, on the other hand, it is indubitably true that human beings habitually translate their own abstract feelings into the concrete terms of their surroundings; and therefore, in a subjective sense at least, an emotional harmony frequently does exist between the mood of a man and the aspect of his environment. The same place may at the same time look gloomy to a melancholy man and cheerful to a merry one; and there is therefore a certain human fitness in describing it as gloomy or as cheerful, according to the feeling of the character observing it. Doubtless to a man tremendously bereaved the very rain may seem a weeping of high heaven; and surely there are times when it is deeply true, subjectively, to say that the morning stars all sing together. What we may call emotional similarity of setting is therefore not necessarily a fallacy. Even when it subverts the actual, as in the fable of the morning stars, it may yet be representative of reality. In its commoner and less exaggerative phases it is very useful for purposes of suggestion; and only when it becomes blatant through abuse may it be said to belie the laws of life.
` Emotional Contrast in Setting.Frequently, however, emotional similarity between the setting and the characters is less serviceable, for the sake of emphasis, than emotional contrast. In the following passage from Mr. Kipling’s “Without Benefit of Clergy,” the serene and perfect happiness of Holden and Ameera is emphasized by contrast with the night-aspect of the plague-infested city:
” `My lord and my love, let there be no more foolish talk of going away. Where thou art, I am. It is enough.’ She put an arm round his neck and a hand on his mouth.
“There are not many happinesses so complete as those that are snatched under the shadow of the sword. They sat together and laughed, calling each other openly by every pet name that could move the wrath of the gods. The city below them was locked up in its own torments. Sulphur fires blazed in the streets; the conches in the Hindu temples screamed and bellowed, for the gods were inattentive in those days. There was a service in the great Mahomedan shrine, and the call to prayer from the minarets was almost unceasing. They heard the wailing in the houses of the dead, and once the shriek of a mother who had lost a child and was calling for its return. In the gray dawn they saw the dead borne out through the city gates, each litter with its own little knot of mourners. Wherefore they kissed each other and shivered.”
Irony in Setting.An emotional contrast of this nature between the mood of the characters and the mood of the setting may be pushed to the point of irony. In a story by Alphonse Daudet, entitled “The Elixir of the Reverend Father Gaucher,” a certain monastery is saved from financial ruin by the sale of a cordial which Father Gaucher has invented and distilled. But the necessity of sampling the cordial frequently during the process of manufacturing it leads the reverend father eventually to become an habitual drunkard. And toward the end of the story an ironic contrast is drawn between the solemn monastery, murmurous with chants and prayers, and Father Gaucher in his distillery hilariously singing a ribald drinking-song.
Artistic and Philosophical Employment. The uses of setting that have been thus far considered have been artistic rather than philosophical in nature; but very re-cent writers have grown to use the element not only for the sake of illustrating character and action but also for the sake of determining them. The sociologists of the nineteenth century have come to regard circumstance as a prime motive for action, and environment as a prime influence on character; and recent writers have applied this philosophic thesis in their employment of the element of setting.
1. Setting as a Motive Toward Action.The way in which the setting may suggest the action is thus discoursed upon by Stevenson in his “Gossip on Romance”
“Drama is the poetry of conduct, romance the poetry of circumstance. The pleasure that we take in life is of two sortsthe active and the passive. Now we are conscious of a great command over our destiny; anon we are lifted up by circumstance, as by a breaking wave, and dashed we know not how into the future. Now we are pleased by our conduct, anon merely pleased by our surroundings. It would be hard to say which of these modes of satisfaction is the more effective, but the latter is surely the more constant.
“One thing in life calls for another; there is a fitness in events and places. The sight of a pleasant arbour puts it in our mind to sit there. One place suggests work, another idleness, a third early rising and long rambles in the dew. The effect of night, of any flowing water, of lighted cities, of the peep of day, of ships, of the open ocean, calls up in the mind an army of anonymous desires and pleasures. Something, we feel, should happen; we know not what, yet we proceed in quest of it. And many of the happiest hours of life fleet by us in this vain attendance on the genius of the place and moment. It is thus that tracts of young fir, and low rocks that reach into deep soundings, particularly torture and delight me. Something must have happened in such places, and perhaps ages back, to members of my race; and when I was a child I tried in vain to invent appropriate games for them, as I still try, just as vainly, to fit them with the proper story. Some places speak distinctly. Certain dank gardens cry aloud for a murder; certain old houses demand to be haunted; certain coasts are set apart for shipwreck. Other spots again seem to abide their des-tiny, suggestive and impenetrable, `miching mallecho.’ The inn at Burford Bridge, with its arbours and green garden and silent, eddying riverthough it is known already as the place where Keats wrote some of his “Endymion” and Nelson parted from his Emmastill seems to wait the coming of the appropriate legend. Within these ivied walls, behind these old green shutters, some further business smoulders, waiting for its hour. The old Hawes Inn at the Queen’s Ferry makes a similar call upon my fancy. There it stands, apart from the town, beside the pier, in a climate of its own, half inland, half marinein front, the ferry bubbling with the tide and the guardship swinging to her anchor; behind, the old garden with the trees. Americans seek it already for the sake of Lovel and Oldbuck, who dined there at the beginning of the “Antiquary.” But you need not tell methat is not all; there is some story, unrecorded or not yet complete, which must express the meaning of that inn more fully. I have lived both at the Hawes and Burford in a perpetual flutter, on the heels, as it seemed, of some adventure that should justify the place; but though the feeling had me to bed at night and called me again at morning in one unbroken round of pleasure and suspense, nothing befell me in either worth remark. The man or the hour had not yet come; but some day, I think, a boat shall put off from the Queen’s Ferry, fraught with a dear cargo, and some frosty night a horseman, on a tragic errand, rattle with his whip upon the green shutters of the inn at Burford.”
In this way, the setting may, in many cases, exist as the initial element of the narrative, and suggest an action appropriate to itself. But it may do more than that. In certain special instances the setting may not only suggest, but may even cause, the action, and remain the deciding factor in determining its course. This is the case, for example, in Mr. Kipling’s story, “At the End of the Passage,” which opens thus:
“Four men, each entitled to `life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,’ sat at a table playing whist. The thermometer markedfor themone hundred and one degrees of heat. The room was darkened till it was only just possible to distinguish the pips of the cards and the very white faces of the players. A tattered, rotten punkah of whitewashed calico was puddling the hot air and whining dolefully at each stroke. Outside lay gloom of a November day in London. There was neither sky, sun, nor horizonnothing but a brown purple haze of heat. It was as though the earth were dying of apoplexy.
“From time to time clouds of tawny dust rose from the ground without wind or warning, flung themselves tablecloth-wise among the tops of the parched trees, and came down again. Then a whirling dust-devil would scutter across the plain for a couple of miles, break, and fall outward, though there was nothing to check its flight save a long low line of piled railway-sleepers white with the dust, a cluster of huts made of mud, condemner’ rails, and canvas, and the one squat four-roomed bungalow that belonged to the assistant engineer in charge of a section of the Gaudhari State Line then under construction.”
The terrible tale that follows could happen only as a result of the fearful loneliness and, more especially, the maddening heat of such a place as is described in these opening paragraphs. The setting in this story causes and determines the action.
2. Setting as an Influence on Character.But in many other tales by recent writers the setting is used not so much to determine the action as to influence and mold the characters; and when employed for this purpose, it becomes expressive of one of the most momentous truths of human life. For what a man is at any period of his existence is largely the result of the interaction of two forces,namely, the innate tendencies of his nature and the shaping power of his environment. George Meredith, and more especially Mr. Thomas Hardy, therefore devote a great deal of attention to setting as an influence on character. Consider, for example, the following brief passage from Mr. Hardy’s “Tess of the D’Ubervilles”:
“Amid the oozing fatness and warm ferments of Froom Vale, at a season when the rush of juices could almost be heard below the hiss of fertilization, it was impossible that the most fanciful love should not grow passionate. The ready hearts existing there were impregnated by their surroundings.”
Zola, in his essay on “The Experimental Novel,” states that the proper function of setting is to exhibit “the environment which determines and completes the man”; and the philosophic study of environment reacting upon character is one of the main features of his own monumental series of novels devoted to the Rougon-Macquart family. His example has been followed by a host of recent writers; and a new school of fiction has grown up, the main purpose of which is to exhibit the influence of certain carefully studied social, natural, business, or professional conditions on the sort of people who live and work among them.
This incentive has been developed to manifest advantage in America by such novelists as Mrs. Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, Mr. George W. Cable, Mr. Hamlin Garland, Mrs. Edith Wharton, Frank Norris, Jack Lon-don, Mr. Booth Tarkington, and Mr. Stewart Edward White. Each of these authorsand many others might be mentionedhas attained a special sort of eminence by studying minutely the effect upon impressionable characters of a particular environment. The manifold diversity of life in the many different districts of the United States affords our fiction-writers a predestined opportunity to endeavor to make the nation acquainted with itself.
Setting as the Hero of the Narrative.If the setting be used both to determine the action and to mold the characters, it may stand forth as the most important of the three elements of narrative. In Victor Hugo’s “Notre Dame de Paris,” the cathedral is the leading factor of the story. Claude Frollo would be a very different person if it were not for the church; and many of the main events, such as the ultimate tragic scene when Quasimodo hurls Frollo from the tower-top, could not happen in any other place. In Mr. Kipling’s very subtle story entitled “An Habitation Enforced,” which is included in his “Actions and Reactions,” the setting is really the hero of the narrative. An American mil. lionaire and his wife, whose ancestors were English, settle for a brief vacation in the county of England from which the wife’s family originally came. Gradually the old house and the English landscape take hold of them; ancestral feelings rise to dominate them; and they remain forever after in enforced habitation on the ancient soil.
Uses of the Weather.All that has been said thus far of setting in general applies of course to one of the most interesting of its elements,the weather. In simple stories like the usual nursery tale, the weather may be non-existent. Or it may exist mainly for a decorative purpose, like the frequent golden oriental dawns of Spenser’s poem or the superb and colorful symphonies of sky and sea in Pierre Loti’s “Iceland Fisherman.” It may be used as a utilitarian adjunct to the action: at the end of “The Mill on the Floss,” as we have already noted, the rains descend and the flood comes merely for the purpose of drowning Tom and Maggie. Or it may be employed to illustrate a character: we are told of Clara Middleton, in “The Egoist,” that she possesses the “art of dressing to suit the season and the sky”; and therefore the look of the atmosphere at any hour helps to convey to us a sense of her appearance. Somewhat more artistically, the weather may be planned in pre-established harmony with the mood of the characters: this expedient is wonderfully used in the wild and wind-swept tales of Fiona MacLeod. On the other hand, the weather may stand in emotional contrast with the characters: the Master of Ballantrae and Mr. Henry fight their duel on a night of absolute stillness and stifling cold. Again, the weather may be used to determine the action: in Mr. Kipling’s early story called “False Dawn,” the blinding sandstorm causes Saumarez to propose to the wrong girl. Or it may be employed as a controlling influence over character: the tremendous storm toward the end of “Richard Feverel,” in the chap-ter entitled “Nature Speaks,” determines the return of the hero to his wife. In some cases, even, the weather itself may be the real hero of the narrative : the great eruption of Vesuvius in “The Last Days of Pompeii” dominates the termination of the story.
Although the weather is a subject upon everybody’s tongue, there are very few people who are capable of talking about it with intelligence and art. Very few writers of fictionand nearly all of them are recenthave exhibited a mastery of the weather,-a mastery based at once upon a detailed and accurate observation of natural phenomena and a philosophic sense of the relation between these phenomena and the concerns of human beings. Perhaps in no other detail of craftsman-ship does Robert Louis Stevenson so clearly prove his mastery as in his marshalling of the weather, always vividly and truthfully described, to serve a purpose al-ways fitting to his fictions.
Romantic and Realistic Settings.Let us next consider the main difference between the merits of a good romantic and a good realistic setting. Since the realist leads us to a comprehension of his truth through a careful imitation of the actual, the thing most to be desired in a realistic setting is fidelity to fact; and this can be attained only by accurate observation. But since the romantic is not bound to imitate the actual, and fabricates his investiture merely for the sake of embodying his truth clearly and consistently, the thing most to be desired in a romantic setting is imaginative fitness to the action and the characters; and this can sometimes be attained by artistic inventiveness alone, without display of observation of the actual. Verisimilitude is of course the highest merit of either sort of setting; but whereas verisimilitude with the realist lies in resemblance to actuality, verisimilitude with the romantic lies rather in artistic fitness. The distinction may perhaps be best observed in the historical novels produced by the one and by the other school. In the setting of realistic historical novels, like George Eliot’s “Romola” and Flaubert’s “Salammbô,” what the authors have mainly striven for has been accuracy of detail; but in romantic historical novels, like those of Scott and Dumas père, the authors have sought rather for imaginative fitness of setting. The realists have followed the letter, and the romantics the spirit, of other times and lands.
A Romantic Setting by Edgar Allan Poe.As an ex-ample of a pure romantic setting, far removed from actuality and yet thoroughly truthful in artistic fitness to the action and the characters, we can do no better than examine the often-quoted opening of Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher” :
“During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country, and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher. I know not how it was-but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible. I looked upon the scene before meupon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain, upon the bleak walls, upon the vacant eye-like windows, upon a few rank sedges, and upon a few white trunks of decayed treeswith an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveler upon opium: the bitter lapse into everyday life, the hideous dropping off of the veil. There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart, an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime. . . . It was possible, I reflected, that a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate, its capacity for sorrowful impression; and acting upon this idea, I reined my horse to the precipitous brink of a black and lurid tarn that lay in unruffled lustre by the dwelling, and gazed downbut with a shudder even more thrilling than beforeupon the remodelled and inverted images of the gray sedge, and the ghastly tree-stems, and the vacant and eye-like windows.”
Certainly this setting bears very little resemblance to the actual; but just as certainly its artistic fitness to the tale of terror which it preludes gives it an imaginative verisimilitude.
A Realistic Setting by George Eliot.As an example of a realistic setting, closely copying the actual, let us ex-amine the following passage from “Adam Bede” (Chapter XVIII):
“You might have known it was Sunday if you had only waked up in the farmyard. The cocks and hens seemed to know it, and made only crooning subdued noises; the very bull-dog looked less savage, as if he would have been satisfied with a smaller bite than usual. The sunshine seemed to call all things to rest and not to labor; it was asleep itself on the moss-grown cowshed; on the group of white ducks nestling together with their bills tucked under their wings; on the old black sow stretched languidly on the straw, while her largest young one found an excellent spring-bed on his mother’s fat ribs; on Alick, the shepherd, in his new smock-frock, taking an uneasy siesta, half-sitting, half-standing on the granary steps.”
There is no obvious imaginative fitness in this passage, since in the chapter where it occurs the chief characters are going to a funeral; but it has an extraordinary verisimilitude, owing to the author’s accurate observation of the details of life in rural England.
The Quality of Atmosphere, or Local Color.These two passages differ very widely from each other. In one thing, and one only, are they alike. Each of them exhibits the subtle quality called “atmosphere.” This quality is very difficult to define, though its presence may be recognized instinctively in any work of graphic art, like a painting or a description. Without attempting to define it, we may discover the technical basis for its presence if we seek out the sole deliberate device in which these two passages, different as they are in every other feature, are at one. It will be noticed that in each of them the details selected for presentation have been chosen solely for the sake of a common quality inherent in themthe quality of sombreness and gloom in the one case, and the quality of Sabbath quietude in the otherand that they have been marshalled to convey a complete sense of this central and pervading quality. It is commonly supposed that what is called “atmosphere” in a description is dependent upon the setting forth of a multiplicity of details; but this popular conception is a fallacy. “Atmosphere” is dependent rather upon a strict selection of details pervaded by a common quality, a rigorous rejection of all others that are dissonant in mood, and an arrangement of those selected with a view to exhibiting their common quality as the pervading spirit of the scene.
This is obviously the technical basis for the “atmosphere” of a purely imaginary setting like that of the melancholy House of Usher. The effect is undeniably produced by the suppression of all details that do not contribute to the central sense of gloom. But the same device underlies (less obviously, to be sure) all such descriptions of actual places as are rich in “atmosphere.” What is called “local color”the very look and tone of a definite localityis produced not by photographic multiplicity of details, but by a marshalling of materials carefully selected to suggest the central spirit of the place to be depicted. The camera frequently defeats itself by flinging into emphasis details that are dissonant with the informing spirit of the scene it seeks to reproduce: so also does the author who overcrowds his picture with multifarious details, however faithful they may be to fact. The true triumphs of “local coloring” have been made by men who have struck at the heart and spirit of a place have caught its tone and timbre as George Du Maurier did with the Quartier Latinand have set forth only such details as tingled with this spiritual tone.
Recapitulation.We have studied the many uses of the element of setting, and have seen that in the best-developed fiction it has grown to be entirely coordinate with the elements of character and action. Novelists have come to consider that any given story can happen only in a given set of circumstances, and that if the setting be changed the action must be altered and the characters be differently drawn. It is therefore impossible, in the best fiction of the present day, to consider the setting as divorced from the other elements of the narrative. There was a time, to be sure, when description for its own sake existed in the novel, and the action was halted to permit the introduction of pictorial passages bearing no necessary relation to the business of the story,”blocks” of setting, as it were, which might be removed without detriment to the progression of the narrative. But the practice of the best contemporary novelists is summed up and expressed by Henry James in this emphatic sentence from his essay on “The Art of Fiction”: ”I cannot imagine composition existing in a series of blocks, nor conceive, in any novel worth discussing at all, of a passage of description that is not in its intention narrative.”