McTeague’s Tooth

David Trotter

  • A Sense of Things: The Object Matter of American Literature by Bill Brown
    Chicago, 245 pp, £22.50, April 2003, ISBN 0 226 07628 8

When Robinson Crusoe tries to convey what it felt like to be the sole survivor of a shipwreck, he finds himself at almost as much of a loss now, in the telling, as he was then, gloomily pacing the shoreline of an uncharted and to all appearances inhospitable island; until, that is, objects come to his rescue. He cannot describe the ‘thousand gestures and motions’ he made, in his moment of crisis, without any hope of a response. Whatever form they took, the gestures and motions were, he thinks, an expression of despair, on his own behalf, and of sorrow on behalf of his dead comrades: ‘For, as for them, I never saw them afterwards, or any sign of them, except three of their hats, one cap, and two shoes that were not fellows.’

It seems that Crusoe’s narrative cannot encompass a state of mind which, having neither a past nor a future, is not strictly narratable. The gestures and motions are not recognisably the product of the man he once was, and they do not prefigure the man he will become (the one they prefigure would be unlikely to survive for very long on a desert island). As narrative fails, description takes over. The bits and pieces obtrude. A description of bits and pieces is concerned with neither memory nor desire. It insists on the presence of the present.

Of course, the hats, the cap and the shoes do stir memory, for an instant; they are a ‘sign’ of those who once wore them. But Defoe goes to considerable lengths to snuff out this flicker of a history in them. The two shoes don’t form a pair. Swept one way and another by the storm, they have come ashore at random. Had they been fellows, Crusoe could have set himself productively to work, and at the same time held communion with their original owner, by placing them on his feet. But since they do not match, the shoes can only be regarded as detritus. Dispersal has cut them off not only from the past, but from the future. They may have some way to go, as detritus, but since the island doesn’t boast a recycling plant, they will remain for the duration what they already are. They constitute the stuff of death rather than the stuff of life.

Narrative keeps fresh the capacity for memory and desire which, in turn, freshens narrative. What is kept fresh by the description of bits and pieces of clothing, or kept sour by it, is something else again: melancholy, perhaps. The hats, the cap and the shoes are not there for anyone. They don’t ask to be inspected. It matters little whom they appear to, and there is no sense to be made of them. This is what the world looks like when there is no one there to see it.

Defoe’s successors seem to have thought that an object was not truly fit to be described unless it was in a state of abject disrepair or decay. And they tended to reserve their most microscopically precise descriptions of rancid formlessness for moments when their protagonists, too, have been brought low, by bad luck or bad judgment. Heroes and heroines should expect to spend some time in the company of detritus. When they sink, the novel sinks with them from narrative to description. The most detailed description in the fifteen hundred pages of Clarissa is of the room in which the heroine, after her rape by Lovelace and her subsequent escape and recapture, has been imprisoned for debt. Entering it, Belford, Lovelace’s confidant, is struck at once by the ‘broken walls, which had been papered, as I saw by a multitude of tacks, and some torn bits held on by the rusty heads’. Belford takes note of a good deal else in the room before he takes note of Clarissa, who has so far remained motionless and silent. His unremitting catalogue of cheap furniture on its last legs is not just a bid for Lovelace’s sympathy. It stands in for narrative, doing what narrative would have done had there been anything left to narrate. Clarissa is already dead, in effect, even if it does take her a further three hundred pages to die.

A list of other heroines brought low would have to include Fanny Price, whose visit to her family in Portsmouth requires her to take note of ‘the table cut and notched by her brothers, where stood the tea-board never thoroughly cleaned, the cups and saucers wiped in streaks, the milk a mixture of motes floating in thin blue, and the bread and butter growing every minute more greasy’. Feeling the loss of Mansfield Park’s moral and physical comforts acutely, and expecting all the while to hear that Edmund Bertram has engaged himself to Mary Crawford, Fanny does a Belford on her own behalf: so effectively, indeed, that Austen, unable to tolerate the suspension of narrative, immediately supplies an event. The butter is not a moment greasier when her father broadcasts the news which will mean for her an immediate resumption of ‘active indispensable employment’, and an end to melancholy.

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