I recently finished reading Barchester Towers, the first novel I have read by the nineteenth-century English writer Anthony Trollope. And I had a strange reaction to it. I was intrigued enough, amused enough, to keep reading to the end. And yet at the same time I felt bored by it. Or perhaps more specifically, it was an apathy; it was a not-caring about the outcome or very much about the characters. Why?
At first glance, a few things about the book hampered my involvement with it. For long sections it had almost no description of setting, weather, mood—leaving all the work of storytelling to be done by dialogue. In a sense the whole “setting” was the social world, a times like reading a stage play. Pragmatically I think this lessens a feeling of involvement, certainly it impoverishes the mental drama playing out in my imagination. But still, why this not-caring about the characters?
What it came down to, as I considered further, was this: the banality of their desires, and how little of importance was at stake for them to lose if they didn’t get their desires.
To recap a little storytelling theory, a character’s desire is the thing they want that drives the action of the narrative. (In most traditional narratives.) The plot is formed as things get in the way of the character(s) actively trying to get their desire. Desire will usually be fuelled by some motivation, i.e. the reason they want what they want. And usually, there is something at stake: something that will be lost if the desire is not won.
So, to take an example from Great Expectations by Dickens, published in 1861 four years after Barchester Towers: Pip’s desire is to become a gentleman; his motivation is to impress Estella whose opinion is synonymous with his own self-respect; and the thing at stake is his own happiness. He declares the stakes quite neatly and puts it unequivocally: “[…] I never shall or can be comfortable—or anything but miserable—[…]unless I can lead a very different sort of life from the life I lead now.” (Vol. 1 Ch. xvii)
What these elements do for a reader is generate suspenseful questions. He’s on a quest—will he achieve it? And the stakes give a sense of danger—if he doesn’t achieve it, he’ll be miserable for life! These questions, our feeling for how important they are, and our eagerness to find the answers, are what drive our involvement with a story. Or, to put it another way, what make us care about it.
But back to Barchester Towers, that I couldn’t feel I cared much about. I started looking at the characters’ desires. We have two “parties” in the story, the warring church factions of Dr Grantly—bitter because ousted from the bishopric he hoped for—and the new bishop, Dr Proudie. Oddly for a story about church factions, nobody cares much about theological or pastoral differences, though they are hinted at as presumably the reasons for the different factions. But the main conflict is political. The driving force for both men is simply to satisfy their own desire to be in power. So there we have the desire and the conflict of the story: two sides on a fight, both of whom mainly want themselves to be in power.
The motivations of the two men are rather sketchy. But as far as I can tell, Dr Grantly is mainly moved by resentment at being ousted, and Dr Proudie by a feeling of his own greatness, combined with a desire for a cozy home life. And once I looked at it that way, of course I felt that—for me at least—these are desires and motivations that are hard to root for or to consider important. They are mainly about a pleasant life and ego gratification. None of them stand on principle or aim at anything above their own personal satisfactions. And the dramatic question they generate is along these lines: Who will get the political power in the end? And will it matter?
Interestingly, because both men’s motivations, and methods, are so similar, globally speaking it does not seem to matter greatly who wins. And since neither man’s goals command our obvious cheering or sympathy, it’s hard to care personally about the outcome.
Very well. I don’t think we are supposed to like Grantly or Proudie especially. What of the other characters?
A few are more obviously likeable. There is Eleanor, a young widow, her father Dr Harding, and her eventual suitor Dr Arabin. These characters are much “nicer” people who care about others and not only themselves, and Arabin at least seems to have some belief and principle fuelling his pastoral role. What’s interesting in these characters is that they do not have overarching desires that drive the story. Or inasmuch as they do want anything, it is quotidian: Arabin eventually comes to want a home life with a wife. Which is nice, but in fact not substantially different from the Bishop Proudie’s desire for the same thing. Note, too, that it’s not especially heroic or principled, or even especially difficult to achieve; Eleanor is right there to help him achieve it (by marrying him) if he can only get his act together!
Now let’s look at what’s at stake for these characters, that is, what they stand to lose if they don’t achieve their desires. One good example from the book is the Quiverful family. Mr Quiverful wants a new appointment with a better stipend because he has fourteen children (the hint is in the name, as for many characters in this book). So his desire is to get a better income to support his family. What will happen if he doesn’t? Not disaster, really. They will just go on as they already do. Apparently they have to cut a lot of corners in education and finery for the children, but they are eating Irish stew and have a place to live; there’s no hint of debilitating poverty. So if the Quiverfuls get what they want, they will get a garden and a piano (this is what the children imagine), and if not, they lose, in fact, nothing.
Nor do Grantly, Proudie, Eleanor or Arabin really lose anything by losing their quests. That is, they will not be worse off than they are already. Eleanor and Arabin will, of course, lose each other if they fail to win each other; but interestingly this is a novel in which the characters nor narrator ever propose that this will be a devastating loss, or that their only possibility of happiness rests in each other, or that to lose each other is to live a life of perpetual singleness. Nobody here says anything like Pip in Great Expectations, who claims his lifelong happiness rests on the quest. Eleanor and Arabin want to marry each other; but if it doesn’t work out, it seems life will go on as before, and be fine.
I would say that in Barchester Towers, the characters’ desires run the gamut of banal, quotidian, average, or plainly selfish. And the stakes are usually low.
I don’t mean this, in fact, as a criticism of the novel. If I had my critic’s hat on, my guess is that all I’ve said is part of the whole point of the novel: it is not about ideals or heroics or things that appear, on the surface, world-changing. It is a novel that avoids the heightened melo(drama) of Dickens. It is realistic. It’s about the everyday wants, plans, and losses of normal people, and just as in real life, very often people will get on just fine even without their desires fulfilled, and equally their triumphs will be small in the scheme of the world. It also proposes that real changes in the world come about in these banal ways, not necessarily the ways we would like to see or believe in.
But as a reader, I do think my own feeling of passionate involvement with the book was less, precisely for the reasons above. That’s partly a matter of taste. But I think it’s also a useful lesson for a writer: the kind of desire that fuels your character will also determine the reader’s involvement. We are used to talking about, and working out, our characters’ desires. But it’s also worthwhile asking, “What kind of desire is this?” And also, “What kind of thing fuels it?” Is it big or little? Typical or unusual? Selfish or altruistic? Easy or hard to achieve? Local or global? Fuelled by an ideal or by pragmatism?
The answers to these questions tell you something about what kind of story it is, and also what readers will get out of it. What I got out of Barchester Towers was a pleasant read, food for thought, amusement (it’s funny), and an interesting social commentary. Perhaps it will stick with me in other ways, I don’t know. But it was undoubtedly a different experience from other novels where I have been caught up in the characters’ quest, felt its urgency, its threat of loss, its drivenness, or its nobility.