Kristopher Jansma on
"An Unwritten Novel" by Virginia Woolf:
Who's the God of Minnie Marsh?
I teach two hours from where I live, so I spend a lot of time writing on the bus. It’s quiet and the route is scenic––once we get through North Jersey. Each day I engage in various strategies so I can get a seat to myself: feigning sleep, opening my laptop, or hiding under a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. Of course most people dread a seatmate, especially a chatty one, but for me it isn’t a matter of the distraction. It’s that I simply cannot resist dwelling on them: a student, the mother of a small child… grandfatherly men are my kryptonite. Even if they don’t say anything at all, my mind starts racing. Who are they? Who are they, really?
I’m not alone in this, I think. There’s a short story by Virginia Woolf called “An Unwritten Novel” in which the narrator, riding in a crowded train car, notices an unhappy woman across from her. She’s swiftly drawn into puzzling over the source of her pain. She thinks to herself, “Life’s what you see in people’s eyes; life’s what they learn, and, having learnt it, never, though they seek to hide it, cease to be aware of—what?”
What has this woman been through that she’s now hiding? She doesn’t hide it very well, which is kind of the problem. While the others nearby are busy behind cigarettes, the Times, their pocketbooks, this woman “does nothing at all. She looks at life.” Mutely, the narrator pleads with her to be a better liar. “Ah, but my poor, unfortunate woman, do play the game—do, for all our sakes, conceal it!”
The others disembark and she’s left alone with the woman. They start polite, awkward small talk. The woman mentions her sister-in-law bitterly, calls her a “cow” and the conversation peters out. She then rubs a spot on the window, which prompts the narrator to do the same. They share a quick smile of “infinite irony, infinite sorrow” and the narrator realizes she has “passed her poison; she would speak no more.”
But this brief, intimate connection propels the narrator into a seven-page odyssey of the imagination. First she dreams up a name for the wretched sister-in-law (Hilda Marsh) and then returns to unravel the woman across from her, who she dubs Minnie Marsh. Soon she decides there is a man in Minnie’s life, James Moggridge, who travels in buttons, reads Truth, and loves roses. Woolf’s narrator is helpless to escape; details begin to emerge without permission. As she thinks about James’s wife she pleads, “—for God’s sake let me have one woman with a name I like!” But it’s too late. The wife actually must be cut, even though she likes her much better than James––it’s hopeless. She’s been carried off. Soon an entire “Unwritten Novel” lies before her.
This is the turbulent path we writers take in creating a fictional character, the same way we figure people out in real life. We begin with a handful of clues and soon rush to develop a sense of who they are.
Typically, we begin with things like: statements, expressions, gestures, nervous tics, etc. Flannery O’Connor referred to these as a character’s “manners," the first of two essential qualities in fiction. Just like real people, we experience our characters initially through the way they speak, what they look like, and how they behave. We watch and listen. We make estimations and then revise our first impressions as more information comes to light.
Before very long we begin to imagine that we know what they think and feel. We may, even, think we know better than they do––or that we know what’s really going on beneath whatever fronts their manners are putting up. How honest are they, even to themselves?
The further we go down this road of questions, the more complex characters become and the more riddled with contradictions. In other words, they’re more like us. Real.
Herein lies the second essential quality of great fiction for O’Connor, which she dubs, like Woolf, “the mystery,” and it is what every writer hopes to create in a character—but how?
Critic James Wood supports an idea coined by Stephen Greenblatt, that instead of using E.M. Forster’s traditional concepts of “flat” and “round” characters, we should think of them as “transparent” or “opaque.” Writers can then create a sense of mystery partly through managing this opacity.
Looking at the novels of Dostoevsky, Wood further argues that there are three levels to truly great characters. First, there is the layer of “announced motive”––why the character says they are doing what they are doing. (O’Connor’s “manners” would exist in this layer.) Second, there’s the “unconscious motive”––deeper reasons why a character does what they do, not always fully known to themselves, but which readers can deduce through careful reading and analysis.
Then below this Wood argues there exists still a third layer of motive which is “beyond explanation and can only be understood religiously.” A character’s actions are a kind of confession to something they can’t understand, but by which they wish to be known. If that sounds cryptic, well, it should. Therein lies the mystery.
So how do we reach this third and mysterious layer? Woolf’s story, “An Unwritten Novel,” shows one interesting way to get down there and to make clear the opaquest parts of a character.
The narrator in her story, after considering Minnie externally, through her manners, tries to imagine what Minnie thinks about as she stares out the window. From the way Minnie picks at the spot on the window, the narrator guesses it is some sin in her past––layer one. She thinks Minnie might be praying, rubbing the window in some unconscious attempt to see God better––layer two. But then the narrator wonders something else that takes her down into layer three.
“…but what God does she see? Who’s the God of Minnie Marsh?”
With this single question she opens a door into that most mysterious and hidden part of Minnie. After asking it, she begins understanding who Minnie really is, what she want and fears. Why her life has gone as it has, and where it is going now. She sees what’s even unknown to Minnie.
Note, also, that the narrator isn’t asking what religion or denomination thereof Minnie belongs to. Nor is she asking about any abstraction Minnie worships (money, fame, power, etc.). No, Woolf is very concrete here. She wants to know what God looks like, to Minnie.
She imagines that the God of Minnie Marsh is “More like President Kruger than Prince Albert—that’s the best I can do for him; and I see him on a chair, in a black frock-coat, not so very high up either; I can manage a cloud or two for him to sit on; and then his hand trailing in the cloud holds a rod, a truncheon is it?—black, thick, horned—a brutal old bully, Minnie’s God!”
I love everything about this, from the way that she apologizes a little (to herself) for making a political reference, to the way that she “manages” a cloud or two for him—the narrator is creating this God herself, and at the same time he seems to take her by surprise at the end. How could he be such a jerk? But alas, just as she has no say in James’s wife’s name, neither does she here. God is just a jerk, at least for poor Minnie.
I’ve tried this trick and found it to be extremely reliable. Now, whether I’m getting to know a new character on the page, or chatting with a stranger on the bus, I find myself asking the same question. “Who’s the God of _________?”
I try to picture the way he/she/it might appear to this person, or character. Would they envision a bearded fellow with flowing robes? A venerable Earth Mother erupting in flora and fauna? A lightning-chucking revenger? Or something bodiless and smiling, Cheshire Cat-like, from on high? Maybe they believe in some ever-winding spiral of stars, or a frumpy bookkeeper, forever tallying up good deeds and bad. A student of mine once told me in some seriousness that his God was Beyoncé. Whatever works, I say.
Again the point isn’t really anything to do with designating a character’s common faith, but rather to get closer to their larger understanding of life. What matters, ultimately? Is it all a joke, or a gift, or a curse? Is there something after it? What’s the point? These are heavy, difficult questions, but Woolf shows us an easy way through them. By making God into a character she can represent how Minnie makes sense of what life has taught her so far—that same thing she saw in her eyes in the beginning.
Would this work for a character who is an atheist or agnostic? I’m reminded of Catch-22, when Yossarian argues with Lt. Scheisskopf's wife. “‘I thought you didn't believe in God,’” he cries. She doesn’t, she replies, but “‘the God I don't believe in is a good God, a just God, a merciful God. He's not the mean and stupid God you make Him out to be.’” Ultimately Yossarian offers a compromise. “‘You don't believe in the God you want to, and I won't believe in the God I want to. Is that a deal?’”
And so sometimes I’ll try asking instead, “Who’s not the God of _________?” and it’s fortunately just as useful in getting into the mysteries of a character. If they don’t believe in God, then who is the God they don’t believe in? The one Portnoy doesn’t believe in isn’t the same as the one Meursault doesn’t believe in, and isn’t the same as the one that Kilgore Trout doesn’t believe in, etc.
At the end of Woolf’s story, Minnie abruptly leaves the train and meets a strange man who is not James Moggridge on the platform. The narrator is “confounded,” wanting to yell at her not to go with him, when she remembers that this woman is not Minnie at all and “there never was a Moggridge.”
Minnie exists only in her own mind. Whoever this woman really is remains a mystery. The narrator is momentarily disappointed, until she looks at the busy street outside the window, flush with “mysterious figures” and becomes elated. “It’s you, unknown figures, you I adore; if I open my arms it’s you I embrace, you I draw to me—adorable world!”
This is very beautiful, but it’s also an awful lot to feel every time one boards a train or a bus. So I keep going with the headphones and the laptop and pretending to be asleep. Even still sometimes, when I look up, I’ll see someone looking at me from across the row. Who do they think I am? Maybe they can really see me there, praying to the God I don’t believe in, that I’ll finish a few more pages of my own unwritten novel before we arrive at our destination.
Kristopher Jansma is the winner of the 2014 Sherwood Anderson Award for Fiction. His first novel, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, received an Honorable Mention for the 2014 PEN/Hemingway Award and was longlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence and the Center for Fiction's First Novel Prize. He has written for The New York Times, Story, ZYZZVA, Slice, The Believer, Adult and the Blue Mesa Review. He is an assistant professor at SUNY New Paltz College and a graduate instructor at Sarah Lawrence College. His new novel is Why We Came to the City.
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