classic, don't tell, free indirect style, graham greene, great, Literary, novel, prose, show
I’m almost finshed reading Graham Greene’s “The Power And The Glory.” I highly recommend it; though many consider it a boring read.
I have a picture in my writing room of a Mexican scene. It’s outside achurch with a bunch of peasants sitting on the ground with mats covered in unknown wares. It’s outside a church door with a blurred entrance. For me it’s a vision out of this novel.
Here’s a quick snapshot of it, cropped with a lamp out of view on the right.
Greene doesn’t use much exposition to describe scenery. His work is a great example of showing versus telling, use of symbols and themes, and in painting a very deep character.
Last night a couple of lines caught my attention: They were down off the hills and in a marshy plain. Soon the whole state would be subdivided by swamp. The rains had really begun.
I thought wow!
This was page 198 of 222, and it had already rained quite a bit in the story with numerous thunderstorms passing over and drenching everything. Another had just passed the previous pages.
I noticed the first line right away as a bit odd; because it was my first recollection of any physical description of the landscape. [a quick review found more early on, and these were brief one or two liners.] The second line made me stop: subdivided? I could immediately picture areas I’ve lived in. My current community used to be nothing but trees and bog, and now it’s nothing but trees and bog and homes. I could easily envision my neighborhood with all the homes replaced by swamps. The rain had begun indeed. I now imagined those recent 22 inch florida rains hitting my subdivision and filling up all the yards and driveways.
Powerful images; simple techniques?
So what did Greene do to whack me upside the head with these powerful visions with so few words? It was simple really. First he prepared the situation with many thunderstorms and people taking shelter. Call it foreshadowing: the repeated subtle incidents prepared us subconsciously for more. He slowly built up the images of heavy rains and taking cover, so when he finally does use expostion to describe the scenery, we already have visions of heavy rain and its resulting hardships. It’s symbolism at work. Every time it rains, bad things happen. Now near the end, the really heavy rains hit, and it hints at a disastrous ending.
Then he uses simple contrast: it’s like this now, but it will be like that very soon. It’s much more effective and visually stimulating than writing “The marshes will turn into swamps.”
But the key to the lines is the word subdivided. It’s an extraordinary use of the concept called free indirect style. With free indirect style we see things both through the character’s eyes as well as the author’s. We already know this priest has lived in the midst of peasant Mexico sometime during the first half of the 20th century. This novel was published in 1940. The priest had no knowedge of such concepts as subdivision, not of turning the wild into plots for homes, but the author did. We are being presented a picture of the land in both the priest’s vision and the author’s, a double-hit.
Greene uses free indirect style is several passages, and I found this novel a masterful piece of work on may levels. I highly recommend reeading it.
Free Indirect Style – About
Free Indirect Style – How Fiction Works
Free Indirect Style – The Blank Page
Free Indirect Style – Susan Swan
The Power And The Glory – SparkNotes
The Power And The Glory – Wikipedia