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Chapter 1

I.

You are very welcome to the Alderling incident, my dear Acton, if you think you can do anything with it, and I will give it as circumstantially as possible. The thing has its limitations, I should think, for the fictionist, chiefly in a sort of roundedness which leaves little play to the imagination. It seems to me that it would be more to your purpose if it were less pat, in its catastrophe, but you are a better judge of all that than I am, and I will put the facts in your hands, and keep my own hands off, so far as any plastic use of the material is concerned.

The first I knew of the peculiar Alderling situation was shortly after William James's "Will to Believe" came out. I had been telling the Alderlings about it, for they had not seen it, and I noticed that from time to time they looked significantly at each other. When I had got through he gave a little laugh, and she said, "Oh, you may laugh!" and then I made bold to ask, "What is it?"

"Marion can tell you," he said. He motioned towards the coffee-pot and asked, "More?" I shook my head, and he said, "Come out and let us see what the maritime interests have been doing for us. Pipe or cigar?" I chose cigarettes, and he brought the box off the table, stopping on his way to the veranda, and taking his pipe and tobacco-pouch from the hall mantel.

Mrs. Alderling had got to the veranda before us, and done things to the chairs and cushions, and was leaning against one of the slender fluted pine columns like some rich, blond caryatid just off duty, with the blue of her dress and the red of her hair showing deliciously against the background of white house-wall. He and she were an astonishing and satisfying contrast; in the midst of your amazement you felt the divine propriety of a woman like her wanting just such a wiry, smoky-complexioned, black-browed, black-bearded, bald-headed little man as he was. Before he sat down where she was going to put him, he stood stoopingly, and frowned at the waters of the cove lifting from the foot of the lawn that sloped to it before the house. "Three lumbermen, two goodish-sized yachts, a dozen sloop-rigged boats: not so bad. About the usual number that come loafing in to spend the night. You ought to see them when it threatens to breeze up. Then they're here in flocks. Go on, Marion."

He gave a soft groan of comfort as he settled in his chair and began pulling at his short black pipe, and she let her eyes dwell on him in a rapture that curiously interested me. People in love are rarely interesting—that is, flesh-and-blood people. Of course I know that lovers are the life of fiction, and that a story of any kind can scarcely hold the reader without them. The love-interest, as they call it, is also supposed to be essential to the drama, and friends of mine who have tried to foist their plays upon managers have been overthrown by the objection that the love-interest is not strong enough in what they have done. Yet lovers in real life are, so far as I have observed them, bores. They are confessed to be disgusting before or after marriage when they let their fondness appear, but even when they try to hide it, they are tiresome. Character goes down before passion in them; nature is reduced to propensity. Then, how is it that the novelist manages to keep these, and to give us nature and character while seeming to offer nothing but propensity and passion? Perhaps he does not give them. Perhaps what he does is to hypnotize us so that we each of us identify ourselves with the lovers, and add our own natures and characters to the single principle that animates them. The reason we like, that we endure, to read about them, may be that they are ourselves rendered objective in an instant of intense vitality, without the least trouble or risk to us. But if we have them there before us in the tiresome reality, they exclude us from their pleasure in each other and stop up the perspective of our happiness with their hulking personalities, bare of all the iridescence of potentiality, which we could have cast about them. Something of this iridescence may cling to unmarried lovers, in spite of themselves, but wedded bliss is a sheer offence.

I do not know why it was not an offence in the case of the Alderlings, unless it was because they both, in their different ways, saw the joke of the thing. At any rate, I found that in their charm for each other they had somehow not ceased to be amusing for me, and I waited confidently for the answer she would make to his whimsically abrupt bidding. But she did not answer very promptly, even when he had added, "Wanhope, here, is scenting something psychological in the reason of my laughing at you, instead of accepting the plain inference in the case."

"What is the plain inference?" I asked, partly to fill up Mrs.
Alderling's continued silence.

"When a man laughs at a woman for no apparent reason it is because he is amused at her being afraid of him when he is so much more afraid of her, or puzzled by him when she is such an incomparable riddle herself, or caring for him when he knows he is not worth his salt."

"You don't expect to put me off with that sort of thing," I said.

"Well, then, go on Marion," Alderling repeated.

William Dean Howells

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