ENG 101F, Section 1010
MW, 11:00 AM – 12:15 PM
April 20, 2013
Rules Were Made to be Broken (Sometimes)
by Gary Pullman
In “Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses,” Mark Twain accuses James Fenimore Cooper of having broken eighteen of the nineteen or so “rules” that govern “literary art in the domain of romantic fiction.” If breaking the rules were to enhance, rather than to frustrate, the author's purpose, Cooper's breaking them might be justified. What, then, is Cooper's purpose as a writer? According to Professor Lounsbury, of Yale University, Cooper aims to thrill his readers, and the element of his work that is intended to thrill them, Professor Matthews, of Columbia University, suggests, is the “extraordinary fullness of invention” with regard to “the craft of the woodsman, the tricks of the trapper,” and “the delicate art of the forest” that Cooper's novels depict. However, Twain charges that, in breaking the rules, Cooper hinders, rather than helps, his purpose; Cooper's fiction does not “thrill,” Twain contends, because, among its other “offenses,” its “inaccuracy of details throw a sort of air of fictitiousness and general improbability over it.” How does one of Twain's own works, the short story “Mrs. McWilliams and the Lightning,” measure up against these rules? Does the great American humorist break, or keep, them, and, if he does break any, does he thereby help or hinder his own purpose as a writer? Although, in this story, Twain seems to violate rule eight, he actually violates only rule ten, and, in doing so, in both cases, he enhances, rather than hinders his purpose, which is to amuse his readers.
Twain seems to violate rule eight, playing “crass stupidities. . . upon the reader,” but he does not actually do so. The story certainly contains “crass stupidities,” but they are not “played. . . upon the reader”; rather, they represent the beliefs of the gullible, superstitious, irrational, and emotional Mrs. Evangeline McWilliams concerning the attraction, causes, and conduction of lightning. She believes that lying in bed during a thunderstorm may attract lightning, that standing “near a window in a thunder-storm” may attract lightning, that lighting a match during such a storm may cause lightning, that the donning of woolen clothing may attract lightning, that running water may attract lightning, that opening a door and causing a draft may attract lightning, and that cats may attract lightning because they are “full of electricity.” Mrs. McWilliams also believes that swearing may cause lightning; that acts of impiety, such as forgetting to say one's prayers, swearing, or blaspheming, may cause lightning; and that singing may cause lightning by producing “vibrations in the atmosphere which interrupt the flow of the electric fluid.” She believes, furthermore, that “an open fireplace” conducts lightning, as does a wall. Mrs. McWilliams' husband, Mortimer, does not agree with his wife that any of his actions or any of the conditions in their house attract, cause, or conduct lightning, as is clear by his rejection of her claims and by his own attempts to counter her beliefs with scientific explanations as to the cause of lightning. He denies that his swearing causes lightning, attempting to offer a scientific account as to the cause of this phenomenon: “I didn't swear. And that [a lightning bolt] wasn't a result of it, any way. It would have come just the same, if I hadn't said a word; and you know very well, Evangeline,—at least you ought to know,—that when the atmosphere is charged with electricity—.” When she chastises him for lighting a match, he responds, “Hang it, woman, where's the harm?” A match, he maintains, “don't [sic] cause lightning.” Likewise, when she orders him not to sing, he asks, “Now where's the harm?” He denies, too, that there is “harm” in opening a door. His rejections and attempted refutations of her claims concerning the attraction, cause, and conductuction of lightning show that he does not share her beliefs. Readers are free to join him in his disbelief of her claims. In fact, Twain counts upon his readers to do just this, for, should they believe as she does, there would be no humor, and no point, in his ridiculing her absurd ideas. The story's humor derives from Twain's ironic treatment of the gullible, superstitious, irrational, and emotional woman whose absurd beliefs reduce her to a state of hysteria.
Not only are Mrs. McWilliams' notions as to what attracts, causes, and conducts lightning absurd, but so are her ideas as to how to repel such an electrical charge. Taking her cues from an absurd book of German mysticism, which contains some sentences that neither she nor her husband can understand, she tells her husband that the way to protect himself from lightning is to stand upon a chair the feet of which have been placed inside “glass tumblers,” for insulation, while wearing his night-dress, a metallic fireman's helmet, a “militia sabre,” and a pair of spurs. He is also called upon to ring a “large dinner-bell.” Although he humors her by complying with her directions, it is clear that he does not believe that his strange garb and odd behavior are going to have any effect in deterring lightning. “I complied,” he tells the readers, when she asked him to “buckle on” the “militia sabre,” and he complies again, when she asks him to don his spurs, although “in silence,” keeping his “temper as well as” he can do so. Readers are justified in rejecting Mrs. McWilliams' beliefs about how to fend of lightning for the same reasons that they are justified in rejecting her beliefs about what attracts, causes, and conducts lightning: Mr. McWilliams rejects them and such a rejection is necessary in order for Twain's ironic humor to operate, which is his intention as a humorist. Therefore, in no way are the story's “crass stupidities. . . played upon the reader.” While it may seem that Twain violates rule eight, careful consideration of his use of the story's “crass stupidities” for humorous effect shows that, in fact, he does not do so.
Although he does not violate rule eight, Twain does violate rule ten; however, in doing so, he enhances his purpose, which is to amuse his readers. According to rule ten, “the author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and in their fate.” The readers of “Mrs. McWilliams and the Lightning” are unlikely to care much, if at all, about either the husband or the wife or any fate, fortunate or otherwise, that might befall him or her. The characters are not developed; rather, they are flat characters. Their personalities consist of only a few traits. Mrs. McWilliams is gullible, superstitious, irrational, and emotional. Her husband, who is her foil, is skeptical, empirical, rational, and relatively unemotional. Moreover, these characters are static; in the course of the story, neither of them undergoes a change in belief or behavior; each is the same at the end of the narrative as he or she was at the story's beginning. Rather than being individualized, life-like characters, both Mrs. McWilliams and Mr. McWilliams are mere types. It is difficult, indeed, if not impossible to care about a mere type of character and equally difficult to care what happens to him or her. However, this lack of sympathetic identification with these characters on the part of Twain's readers helps, rather than hinders, his purpose as a writer, because fondness and sympathy for literary characters works against humor. Most people do not laugh at people—or “the personages” of a “tale”—whom they like or admire. However, readers often laugh at characters for whom they have little or no affection or regard. Humor, especially when it is at the expense of a story's characters, depends upon emotional distance between the story's characters and its readers. Twain's use of flat, static characters provides the emotional distance necessary for his ironic humor, helping him to ridicule the absurd beliefs and behaviors of his characters. Therefore, in breaking rule ten, Twain assists his purpose as a writer; he does not hinder it.
Cooper's violations of the “rules governing literary art” work against his purpose as a writer, which is to thrill his readers with his protagonists' woodcraft, “tricks of the trapper,” and “delicate art of the forest,” because the “crass stupidities” and other “literary offenses” he commits detract from his goal, making his work unintentionally humorous, rather than thrilling. Therefore, his breaking of these rules is unjustified. Twain seems to break the rule prohibiting the playing of “crass stupidities” upon his readers, but these “stupidities” are merely the thoughts and deeds of the characters themselves, especially Mrs. McWilliams. Readers are not intended to believe them and, in fact, laugh at the absurdity of these “crass stupidities,” thanks to Twain's treatment of them in his story. Twain does breaks rule ten: his story's characters are not of “a deep interest” to his readers, and his readers, therefore, are unlikely to care about their fate. However, in doing so, Twain creates the emotional distance that is necessary to derive laughter from these same characters' absurd beliefs and behaviors. Therefore, both Twain's apparent and actual violations of these rules help, not hinder, his purpose as a humorist, aiding him in amusing his readers at the expense of his story's absurd characters, and his breaking of the rules is justified.