A Novel Is a Pattern

Colm Toibin:

The novel is not a moral fable or a tale from the Bible, or an exploration of the individual’s role in society; it is not our job to like or dislike characters in fiction, or make judgments on their worth, or learn from them how to live. We can do that with real people and, if we like, figures from history. They are for moralists to feast on. A novel is a pattern and it is our job to relish and see clearly its textures and its tones, to notice how the textures were woven and the tones put into place…. A novel is a set of strategies, closer to something in mathematics or quantum physics than something ethics or sociology. It is a release of certain energies and a dramatization of how these energies might be controlled, given shape.

Toibin isn’t writing about contemporary postmodernists or post-postmodernists who emphasize pattern; he’s writing about Henry James and Jane Austen. More specifically, he’s writing about how those two authors tend to remove mothers from their plots. The passage comes from Toibin’s forthcoming essay collection, New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and Their Families. (The essay is also available at the London Review of Books website, albeit behind a paywall.)

11 thoughts on “A Novel Is a Pattern

    1. Part of the pleasure of novels—or any well-written piece of writing—is recognizing how its structure produces its effects. Structure isn’t the only thing—Toibin doesn’t discuss style, for instance. But I think he’s right to say that novels are machines of a sort, artificial by definition, and part of what we enjoy about novels is the comfort of a familiar pattern or the surprise of an unfamiliar one.

  1. I know. Shelley was trying to see if you could help Toibin out. She knows that patterns are part of the pleasures of novels.

    Or is Toibin saying the moralists should feast on real people and figures from history? That’s even worse! I’ll keep gnawing on the patterns.

    1. I think Toibin is saying that it’s better that moralists feast on real people and historical figures than force fiction into shapes they weren’t meant to be bent into. They can pick the historical figures they like to fit the ideology they prefer; they can bend the ears of friends, colleagues, and perfect strangers, who can choose to ignore or interact with them as they see fit. A moralist judging a novel is (to pick another metaphor) effectively screaming at a wall, though maybe I should read “On Moral Fiction” to see what John Gardner might have to say about that.

      1. That’s horrible! I pray he is not saying that it is better to feast on real people!

        The mockery here, Mark, is not of Toibin’s ideas – it is of his weird mixed metaphor. Maybe you are making it worse on purpose now.

  2. I had a English professor who talked about the novel the way Toibin seems to be talking in the quote. He emphasized pattern and play. He liked to quote “not text, but texture” from “Pale Fire”, a novel he taught. At the end of this professor’s lecture on “The Great Gatsby” he decided to read the final passage. When he got to the words, “a fresh, green breast of the new world,” his voice caught. By the time he got to the words “borne back ceaselessly into the past” he could barely speak. Then he grabbed his papers and rushed from the hall. The novel may be a pattern and machine we can appreciate for its abstract beauty, too. But if the novel is not — first — a deeply engaging, deeply human experience, it is nothing.

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