So that on the afternoon when he saw the swallows in the electric wires, he reviewed the past from his earliest memory, he reviewed his chance loves, the countless pitfalls he had been obliged to avoid in order to reach a postion of authority, the events without number that had given rise to his bitter determination that Fermina Daza would be his, and he would be hers despite everything, in the face of everything, and only then did he realize that his life was passing. – Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera.
While following the travails of Florentino Ariza, I fell into thinking about the instances in which writers reveal in detail the innermost thoughts of their protagonists. These instances appear in many forms – as letters written by one character to another; as journals maintained by a character; in the course of a long dialogue; and occasionally a descriptive paragraph in which the character is caught in introspection. It is this last type that I was thinking about today, trying to remember novels which have devoted many paragraphs to their protagonists as they look back on the past with “the perverse clarity of nostalgia” (García Márquez).
Many of my favorite novels have had such intense and irresistable passages. I remember for instance, the awful moments in The Portrait of a Lady, that Isabel Archer spends, reminiscing near the fireplace, contemplating her fatal relationship with Gilbert Osmond. Towards the end of A Suitable Boy, Lata looks back on the past year and wonders what would happen if she married the man her mother had chosen for her. In more recent memory, Arren in The Farthest Shore, alone in a boat after a long journey with Sparrowhawk, wonders what role he will have to play when they arrive at the end of the world. Or, in The Name of the Rose, Adso wonders repeatedly about the murders in the abbey and about his own inability to reconcile asceticism with the sexual stimuli around him. Or in those delightful stories from the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, in which Mma Ramostwe ponders the state of the world over a cup of bush tea.
These moments of introspection, make the story more personal, more immediate. They make us think about related events from our own lives and, at least in my experience, they are the beginnings of empathy. (In rare cases, they may also be sources of irritation: a case in point being Holden Caulfield’s seemingly arbitrary thought processes in the early parts of The Catcher in the Rye – I understand him, but cannot suppress my irritation.) I wonder whether these broad swathes of a character’s internal thoughts are more responsible for making the novel good, or rivetting, than the actual events of the story itself. Often, it is during these moments in the story that the reader’s audio-visual rendering of the novel is in overdrive. The images of Isabel Archer by the fireplace and of Adso in front of the lascivious painting and of Florentino Ariza in a cemetary full of rose bushes take on a certain sharpness. They serve as anchors in a way, because after the moment of introspection has passed, the images remain in the mind and they color one’s imagining of the rest of the novel.
If you have loved novels in which a character introspects at length, I would be keen to hear about them. Given past experience, there is a good chance that I shall enjoy reading more of them.