Plotting, Prophetic Martineau

Martineau’s comments on the inability to invent a unique plot are fascinating and baffling considering her own later admission that the plot of Deerbrook actually is, though unintentionally, unique. Here is Martineau’s explanation as to why the creation of unique plot is impossible:

“…the creating a plot is a task above human faculties.  It is indeed evidently the same power as that of prophecy; that is, if all human action is (as we know it to be) the inevitable result of antecedents, all the antecedents must be thoroughly comprehended in order to discover the inevitable catastrophe.  A mind which can do this must be, in the nature of things, a prophetic mind, in the strictest sense; and no human mind is that. The only thing to be done, therefore, is to derive the plot from actual life, where the work is achieved for us, accordingly, it seems that every perfect plot in fiction is taken bodily from real life” (189).

Accordingly, she did take the plot of her Deerbrook from “real life,” but her understanding of the real events was mistaken, and so she later realized that, “Deerbrook was a fiction, after all, in its groundwork.”  What a chuckling irony.

But I wonder what Martineau conceives a plot to be, exactly.  Is it the exact progression of events?  Because in that case, why do Dickens’ plots not qualify?  And how do Scott’s really improbable plots make the grade?  (Honestly, King Richard, Robin Hood, Ivanhoe, and the passionate Jewess all in one book?…)  If the most original plot must be from a “prophetic” mind, then what is that?

What if it is possible to be a prophet.  Not, obviously, the doomsday “The-sky-is-falling” prophet, but the sort with the important antecedent “if you keep doing what you are doing, then the sky will fall.”  Is this not precisely what a novelist does?  Invent a situation, and then explore the result of that situation when engaged with by invented characters?  Of course, a situation, or problem, must have antecedents or causes.

And in fact, Martineau’s conception of the prophet is one who understands antecedents, but not conclusions.  If “all antecedents must be thoroughly comprehended in order to discover the inevitable catastrophe,” then is she not suggesting that the “inevitable catastrophe” is the conclusion?  What about the solution to the catastrophe?  What about the conclusion?

The implication of this claim, too, is that journalists can comprehend all the antecedent causes of a catastrophe.  That seems a bit cocky. But I wonder if this does not also provide us a solution.  If we acknowledge that even in factual cases, the causes, the effects, the response of characters cannot be fully comprehended or anticipated, then the novelist’s job becomes a great deal more similar to the journalist’s than Martineau originally thought.  And perhaps this is why she could accidentally write what she initially called impossible – an original plot. She actually didn’t even understand the catastrophe. And at that point of failure, Martineau really was a plotting prophet.


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