The Problem of Structure in Trollope

Jerome Thale
1960 Nineteenth-Century Fiction  
NOVELS have always had a reputation for being loose and rambling. The Way We Live Now, for example, has three or four major plot strands and three or four subplots-and even in this accounting there are a good many characters and situations left over. Trollope himself said that he was not very concerned with plot, and spoke of it as "but the vehicle," "the most insignificant part of a tale" (An Autobiography, chap. vii). In Trollope's time, when most readers accepted the novel as a picture of
more » ... as a picture of life, this was well enough. But we have come to expect more from the novel: discursiveness and inclusiveness no longer seem virtues in themselves, and the lack of structure has become a radical fault. There is surely no question that Trollope presents one of the fullest and most interesting pictures of nineteenthcentury England, and if this is his only accomplishment it is a considerable one. But if we accept his novels primarily as documents, we may begin to wonder whether by our standards his works are really novels, whether we ought to hedge about his greatness. We do not need to see Trollope's novels simply as pictures; nor do we need to confine ourselves to rigorous formulas about structure and unity. One of the things we have learned as modern criticism has developed is that we can look for more than one kind of structure; and one of the things we have learned in applying Jerome Thale is a member of the department of English at Marquette University. [147] 148 Nineteenth-Century Fiction modern critical standards is that it is often necessary to do so. The process has been a mutually fruitful one: modern criticism has led us to better readings of the novels, and the novels have often led to enlargement and sophistication of our critical equipment. The problem I am concerned with in Trollope-the structure of the large, multiplot novel-is not peculiar to him. It is to some extent a problem with many of the large sprawling novels of the last century-Dickens, Thackeray, George Eliot. It is, for that matter, a problem with War and Peace and with Anna Karenina, or with Guard of Honor. Trollope's work, however, offers a better vantage point than any of these novels for studying the problem. The issue is forced most clearly in Trollope; there are few other attractions or distractions. The only thing there is the novel itself -and it must be either a simple picture of life, or a picture that interprets, evaluates, and gains some total coherence by virtue of its structure. In speaking of the Trollope novel I am referring not so much to the familiar shorter books like The Warden and Barchester Towers, but principally to the longer and (as most critics now seem to feel) major Trollope novels, such books as The Way We Live Now, He Knew He was Right, The Last Chronicle of Barset, and The Duke's Children. Let me take, as a representative example, The Last Chronicle of Barset. Trollope thought of it as "the best novel I have written" (Autobiography, chap. xv). In any event it has a high reputation and is representative of the type. Certainly it is not plot that structures The Last Chronicle. Mr. Crawley, the imipoverished perpetual curate of Hogglestock, is accused of stealing a check for twenty pounds-though we are pretty sure that he did not, or that at worst he is guilty of inadvertence. Archdeacon Grantly's son is in love with Mr. Crawley's daughter, but because of her father's situation she will not tell him that she loves him. Mr. Crawley's troubles (and to a lesser extent the love affair) are much talked about in Barsetshire, and Bishop Proudie appoints an ecclesiastical commission to investigate Mr. Crawley's fitness to continue in his living. Six or seven hundred pages later it turns out that there is a perfectly simple explanation, which completely clears Mr. Crawley. The solution of the check mixup is deferred for so long because Trollope wants to get in as much incident and as many characters as possible (and
doi:10.2307/2932452 fatcat:jwuakm26pfcynpe2jy5ou7uk6i