Monday, October 10, 2011

Anthony Trollope does not believe in Spoiler Alerts

I was in high school when the Lord of the Rings movies were coming out, and I was obsessed with them as perhaps only a high schooler who had few friends or after school activities to distract her could be.
This image is playing the role of a LOTR message-board-nerd secret handshake.
The main fuel and outlet for this obsession was a message board of which I was a devoted citizen for years and years. Of course spoilers were a major source of contention; although it wasn't always clear what was a spoiler (were plot points from the books spoilers?), it was widely agreed upon that Spoilers Must Be Marked. If I recall correctly, our antiquated bulletin board software even had a feature where if you checked the "spoilers" box, a little red tag would show up by the title of your post to warn people not to click. Some people preferred to be surprised, and the people who didn't were the party poopers who had to be careful not to let their own enthusiasm taint others.

In a slightly less dorky corner of the world (and getting closer to the main focus of this post), it seems that we, the consumers of entertainment, love the "will they-won't they" romance. I was just chatting with some friends this weekend about The Office, and of course the orthodox view is that the show went downhill once Jim and Pam got married. We liked it best when we weren't sure whether or when they were going to act on their feelings and just go for it.

Well, it seems Trollope has a somewhat different view. I apologize for the very lengthy quotation, but it's so interesting, I think it's worth it.

     But let the gentle-hearted reader be under no apprehension whatsoever. It is not destined that Eleanor shall marry Mr. Slope or Bertie Stanhope. And here perhaps it may be allowed to the novelist to explain his views on a very important point in the art of telling tales. He ventures to reprobate that system which goes so far to violate all proper confidence between the author and his readers by maintaining nearly to the end of the third volume a mystery as to the fate of their favourite personage. Nay, more, and worse than this, is too frequently done. Have not often the profoundest efforts of genius been used to baffle the aspirations of the reader, to raise false hopes and false fears, and to give rise to expectations which are never to be realized? Are not promises all but made of delightful horrors, in lieu of which the writer produces nothing but most commonplace realities in his final chapter? And is there not a species of deceit in this to which the honesty of the present age should lend no countenance?
     And what can be the worth of that solicitude which a peep into the third volume can utterly dissipate? What the value of those literary charms which are absolutely destroyed by their enjoyment? When we have once learnt what was that picture before which was hung Mrs. Ratcliffe's solemn curtain, we feel no further interest about either the frame or the veil. They are to us merely a receptacle for old bones, an inappropriate coffin, which we would wish to have decently buried out of our sight.
     And then how grievous a thing it is to have the pleasure of your novel destroyed by the ill-considered triumph of a previous reader. "Oh, you needn't be alarmed for Augusta; of course she accepts Gustavus in the end." "How very ill-natured you are, Susan," says Kitty with tears in her eyes: "I don't care a bit about it now." Dear Kitty, if you will read my book, you may defy the ill-nature of your sister. There shall be no secret that she can tell you. Nay, take the third volume if you please—learn from the last pages all the results of our troubled story, and the story shall have lost none of its interest, if indeed there be any interest in it to lose.
     Our doctrine is that the author and the reader should move along together in full confidence with each other. Let the personages of the drama undergo ever so complete a comedy of errors among themselves, but let the spectator never mistake the Syracusan for the Ephesian; otherwise he is one of the dupes, and the part of a dupe is never dignified.
(Hooray for Project Gutenberg, saving me having to type it all out.)

First of all: love the reference to Mysteries of Udolpho, which I have actually read of my own volition, once upon a time. Secondly: Kitty and Susan remind me of Belinda and Bettina, the twin pig daughters of Kermit-Bob Cratchet and Piggy-Mrs Cratchet in The Muppets Christmas Carol.
"I'm Belinda, she's Bettina!"
But beyond those shallow reactions, what seems so odd about this little philosophy of Trollope's is that, really, on the whole, I like it. He does this in The Warden, too, I think, with less fanfare.

I think what I like about it is that you know (or you hope) that the author won't be so cruel as to let a main female character get tricked into marrying some piece of scum -- although, to give Trollope his due, he dishes out good and bad in a fairly realistic way, so I wouldn't quite put it past him. But note what he does: he tells you what won't happen, not what does. In a way it ratchets up the suspense; you know how it won't end even as the events all seem to be pushing in that direction.

This is another good example of what I mean when I say that Trollope is very present in the book. In the passage above, and elsewhere, he talks about himself as the novelist, someone inventing the tale. In other places he writes as though he had met the characters in person.
I never could endure to shake hands with Mr. Slope. A cold, clammy perspiration always exudes from him, the small drops are ever to be seen standing on his brow, and his friendly grasp is unpleasant.
 I wouldn't say that the two modes are contradictory, exactly, they just make a nice little ambiguity.


  1. Dude, you're making me like Trollope more and more without me having read him.

    Ok, if I may relate this to television: Chris Carter, X-Files creator, spent YEARS saying M&S would never get together. Leaving the fans to overanalyze all their moments together, hoping for some slight shippy thing that we could pounce upon. It was a little draining, and rather agonizing when it would again seem like it was never going to happen (it, of course, eventually did).

    HOWEVER, in Bones, the creator immediately said 'Oh, they're totally eventually getting together. It'll just take a while, because when the tension's gone, it's gone.' Which was FINE then, and we could just relax and watch the show, and if they got together with other people for a while, eh, 'cause they'd end up together.

    All this to say, despite my eternal love of UST, I agree with him.

    Also I read that entire Trollope quote. ALL OF IT.

  2. I'm luring you in!

    That's an excellent (pair of) example(s), much better than anything I could come up with. Your fandoms win... this time.

  3. So first up I heart LotR and Flight of the Conchords so that top image makes me happy.

    Anyway, I like this quote. I think there are some stories that hurt by spoilers but the really strong stories don't need to worry about it. I don't know Trollope but I do know Shakespeare certainly isn't harmed by already knowing how Othello is going to turn out.