In his own time, Robert Louis Stevenson was admired as a careful technician of language, a stylist to be put in the company of de Quincey or Pater. In our time, he is known primarily as the author of potboiling plot-driven Gothic tales and adventure yarns. Stevenson himself saw no contradiction in pursuing what Lionel Johnson called his “stylistic nicety and exactitude” in fiction aimed at the mass market, but critics both then and now have largely sidestepped the question of how to reconcile these twin allegiances. In this essay I read The Wrecker (1892), arguably the most densely plotted of Stevenson’s novels, as an extended meditation on the historicity of words. The novel continually calls attention to the “refractive” quality of certain keywords around which the story is structured. At the same time, The Wrecker is concerned with the dynamics of narrativity. It is concerned not just with the procedures by which fictional events are translated into intelligible story, but also with the many ways in which narratives are generated through collaboration: between writers and the literary traditions they work in, between writers and words in their historicity, between writers and their readers—real, imagined, and unforeseen.
Corps de l’article
“That’s a good, catching phrase, ‘hebdomadary,’ though it’s hard to say. I made a note of it when I was looking in the dictionary how to spell hectagonal. ‘Well, you’re a boss word,’ I said. ‘Before you’re very much older, I’ll have you in type as long as yourself’.”—The Wrecker (Chapter VII)
The careful writer and the conscientious reader are alike, writes Walter Pater in his 1887 essay “Style,” in cultivating an “historic sense” of language: a finely-tuned awareness of the archeological depths of individual words. Says Pater: “A lover of words for their own sake, to whom nothing about them is unimportant,” will take care always to be “a minute and careful observer of their physiognomy” (20). In this way, what he calls “the finer edge” of even the most familiar words becomes visible (16). Those who are sensitive to etymologies are perpetually alert to the ways in which meaning is refracted through the historical layers of language. They never, writes Pater, “treat coloured glass as if it were clear” (20).
In 1892 Lionel Johnson wrote an admiring essay on Robert Louis Stevenson for the Academy magazine. In it he applauds Stevenson for “the nicety and exactitude” with which he uses language (403). In Johnson’s view, Stevenson’s distinguishing mark as an artist is his recognition that “it is no light task . . . to communicate your precise sense of things, in set phrase, to another man” (403). To endeavor to do so is an act with moral implications. “Thus it is,” writes Johnson, that for Stevenson the “choice of an adjective, [the] composition of a phrase, or [the] disposition of incidents, is . . . an exercise in good conduct” (403). He continues: “Of modern writers, only Mr. Pater shares with Mr. Stevenson this fine anxiety not to play life false by using inaccurate expressions” (403).
Comparing Stevenson to Pater was a familiar gesture in the 1880s and ’90s. Though he is known today primarily for his adventure tales and Gothic melodramas, Stevenson first made his reputation as what late-Victorian critics liked to call a “stylist”—that is, as a writer more in the tradition of de Quincey than of R. M. Ballantyne. For critics such as Johnson, Stevenson’s virtue lay in the care with which he handled the materials of his art. By “materials” was meant not his characteristic themes or subjects or his personal obsessions but language itself. Stevenson was fascinated by the recalcitrance of words, their stubborn unwillingness to do only the work asked of them. Like Pater (and like Mikhail Bakhtin a generation after him), he recognized that words, in conveying a writer’s meaning, have the exhilarating habit of conveying so much else besides. This surplus is the inevitable consequence of the historicity of language. Words come to the writer heavily, richly laden, having passed through many hands on their way to the present. Writing in 1851, the philologist R. C. Trench began his book On the Study of Words by noting that many a single word is “itself a concentrated poem” with an historical narrative embedded within it (1). Here is Pater again: “The material in which [the writer] works is no more a creation of his own than the sculptor’s marble. Product of a myriad various minds and contending tongues, compact of obscure and minute association, a language has its own abundant and recondite laws.” He goes on to argue that the writer, if he is a “real artist,” will, through the “punctilious observance of the proprieties of his medium,” come to think of those laws not “as a restriction” but as an “opportunity” (12-13).
These ideas—that language is autonomous, that it follows its own laws of internal organization and of historical development, that it has capacities for expressivity that will always exceed the needs of the rhetorical moment, that it possesses, in short, a life of its own apart from the lives of the women and men who use it—have a rich life in the philological traditions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, especially in England and Germany. Stevenson is an heir of that tradition just as surely as Pater is, or Swinburne, or Wilde, or Nietzsche. Each of these writers is entranced by the way that language works not against our intentions but in complex interaction with them. The glass is colored, not clear. Refraction bends the white light of authorial intention into overlapping delineations of light and shadow and vibrant patternings of color. In his essays, Stevenson returns often to the idea that the literary artist produces his effects not by mastering language but by collaborating with it. When the collaboration is successful, he writes in “On Some Technical Elements of Style in Literature” (1885), the result is a prose exhibiting what he calls the “highest degree of elegant and pregnant implication unobtrusively” (249). Such a prose, Stevenson contends, is stylistically “the most perfect” (249). Careful stylist that he was, Stevenson strove for precisely that form of stylistic perfection.
Yet he was at the same time a passionate devotée of narrative, a celebrant of the pleasures of “pure story.” In Stevenson’s view, the desire for narrative is for all intents and purposes a feature of human biology. We need plot like we need food or sex. I have begun by attempting to recover Stevenson’s connections with a tradition of philologically self-conscious writing exemplified by Pater and Nietzsche because this aspect of his work has received less attention than it should. Yet it is just as important to see that Stevenson did not set aside his commitment to “implication” in the plot-driven romance and adventure tales that earned him his more lasting fame.
Lionel Johnson recognized this. The bulk of his Academy essay is devoted to a review of Stevenson’s 1892 potboiler, The Wrecker. That Johnson uses The Wrecker as an occasion for celebrating Stevenson’s commitment to stylistic nicety and exactitude is at first glance surprising. If the critical literature is any indication, The Wrecker is not near the top of anyone’s list of favorite Stevenson texts. Response to it has seldom been other than tepid. The Wrecker is the longest work in the Stevensonian canon, and most critics have dismissed it as overly diffuse, shapeless, and more than a little self-indulgent—the closest thing to a loose baggy monster that Stevenson ever produced. Frank McLynn’s assessment is representative: while The Wrecker, he says, is “in some ways the oddest and most intriguing” of Stevenson’s novels, it is finally a failure because it lacks a “proper story structure” and because “there are far too many diversions and irrelevancies that clog the action” (359). The novel is full, overfull, of action—it is positively bursting with events—but in McLynn’s view it has no “proper story.” At the same time, stylistically The Wrecker is seen as an uncharacteristically sloppy performance on Stevenson’s part. In other words, in this case both Stevenson the stylist and Stevenson the fabulist are thought to have fallen short of the mark.
So what was Johnson responding to in The Wrecker that prodded him to assert that it “contains, as it were in solution, all the perfections of Mr. Stevenson” (404)? An answer to that question can be found by taking seriously his suggestion that The Wrecker is a Paterian performance. It therefore solicits—and rewards—closer reading than it has been given. In this novel, Stevenson continually draws our attention to the refractive quality of certain words, and he deploys those words in such a way as to draw out their elegant and pregnant implications. The Wrecker also proves to be a canny meditation on narrativity: that is, on the procedures by which fictional events are translated into intelligible story. Finally, the novel exemplifies Stevenson’s commitment to the idea of writing and reading as forms of ritual collaboration.
The Wrecker is notable for the complexity of its plot. Here is a brief summary: Loudon Dodd, the son of a successful Michigan businessman, persuades his father to allow him to drop out of business school and go to Paris to become a sculptor and painter. In Paris he befriends a fellow American named James Pinkerton, a failed painter but an energetic and quite talented entrepreneur. Pinkerton tries to entice Dodd to go with him to San Francisco as a business partner. Dodd declines the offer, but shortly after his friend’s departure, Dodd’s own fortunes take a turn for the worse. His father dies a bankrupt, and Dodd discovers that he is unable to earn a living as an artist. So he travels to California and, throwing aside his artistic aspirations, becomes Pinkerton’s partner. For a time they are wildly successful. Many of Pinkerton’s ventures are morally questionable, though Pinkerton himself remains the picture of sunny American innocence. The turn comes when they decide to mortgage everything they own in order to purchase the wreck of a ship lying in the lagoon of a deserted island in the middle of the North Pacific. They do this because they are convinced that the wreck contains treasure—not pieces of eight as in Treasure Island, but smuggled opium. They hire a ship, a captain, and a crew, and Dodd, at last aflame with “the romance of business,” travels with them to locate and plunder the wreck of the Flying Scud. The venture proves disastrous, however: the expected stash of opium is nowhere to be found, and Dodd returns to San Francisco to discover Pinkerton a bankrupt and his own finances in complete disarray. Happily, though, at this moment Dodd receives a legacy from his recently-deceased grandfather in Edinburgh that solves all his and Pinkerton’s financial worries. More important, it allows him to pursue his inquiries into a series of tantalizing mysteries concerning the crew of the Flying Scud, clues to which Dodd had uncovered in San Francisco, in Hawaii, and in the wreck of the ship itself. His investigations eventually lead him to England and then back to Paris, where he at last tracks down Norris Carthew, the ne’er-do-well scion of an aristocratic English family who holds the key to all the mysteries. The last part of the novel is given over to Carthew’s story, which I am not going to rehash, mostly because it is not strictly necessary for my purposes but also because the complexities of his narrative simply beggar my powers of concise summary.
As I hope this brief summary indicates, broadly speaking, three narrative strands interwine in The Wrecker: one having to do with art, one having to do with business, and one having to do with adventure and romance. Given that Loudon Dodd is the protagonist of all three plots—he is also the narrator of the novel—it makes sense that the text as a whole would be vitally concerned to put those three modes of life—art, business, adventure—in dynamic relation to one another. And so it is. But not in any explicit way. Indeed, Dodd offers relatively little explicit commentary on the strange trifurcation of his existence, nor does he spend much time speculating on how his three lives might mutually illuminate one another. What his narrative fails to provide at the thematic level, however, it abundantly supplies at that level that Stevenson and Pater (and Lionel Johnson) call the domain of style. More specifically, in telling his story Dodd relies on a cluster of a dozen or fifteen words that he returns to repeatedly, indeed obsessively—words such as interest, appreciate, figure, type, capital, speculate, talent, office, study, cipher, value, and style.
What distinguishes these words is that they signify in more than one realm of Dodd’s tripartite life. By continually returning to them, the text solicits our attention to the array of meanings that each of them activates. Appreciate is what Dodd learns to do in Bohemian Paris and what his money learns to do in commercial San Francisco. Dodd becomes adept at drawing figures at one stage of his life, then becomes nearly as adept at deciphering figures in a double-entry ledger book, and finally succeeds in figuring out the mystery of the Flying Scud. As a young man, he is commissioned to sculpt a statue that will sit atop a capital on the Michigan state capitol building, but his father runs out of capital and so he is unable to capitalize on his opportunity. Early in life Pinkerton trains as a tin-typist, later he becomes obsessed with defining the features of the American type, and later still he hires Harry Miller, the celebrated “writer and typewriter,” to pound out public lectures for Dodd to deliver. When their financial schemes go bust, Dodd and Jim Pinkerton gloomily speculate on the fate of their speculations.
And so on. In one sense, this is just word play of a kind that Stevenson is very good at. But it is word play with a purpose, serving not only to bridge the realms of art, commerce, and adventure in the novel but also to bring them into productive conversation with one another. Here is one example: “[I put] Mamie in full value, the rest of the party figuring in outline only” (241). That is Dodd describing a pencil sketch he has made of his friends (Mamie is Pinkerton’s wife) on the evening before he embarks on his Pacific adventure. In this context value has a quite specific meaning having to do with the relation of the different parts of a picture with respect to their relative brightness and clarity. But by this point in the story, we have become highly sensitive to the changes being rung on that word. Mamie herself is a locus of value in more than one sense. She is the moral center of the social world Pinkerton and Dodd move in, and its most attractive catch. When Pinkerton wins her over, he can be said to receive “full value” for the effort he has invested in courting her, but he also receives the benefit of the moral education she offers. She is “full of values” that he has as yet imperfectly learned.
Dodd may, and Stevenson almost certainly does, have in mind John Ruskin’s famous meditation on “value” in Unto this Last (1860), in which he seeks to redeem that word by returning it to its Latin roots: valere, to be well or strong in life. During this stretch of the novel, Dodd has been openly asking himself whether the path he has chosen will make him strong in life, whether it is “valuable” in that ancient sense. He strives to see the connection, if there is one, between the aesthetic value of his artwork and its commercial value, just as he struggles to parse the relation of commercial values to ethical ones. Shortly before the scene in which he sketches Mamie, Dodd admits to himself that smuggling in general is “one of the meanest of crimes” and that smuggling opium is “an offence particularly dark,” yet he justifies his actions on ethical grounds by appealing to what he calls the “poor, private morality” of sticking by one’s friends (223). Dodd nevertheless continues to nurse reservations about the ethics of his actions, reservations that find oblique expression in his description of Mamie being “in full value” at the front and center of his picture with the remainder of the party “figuring” in the background. A few sentences later he says “the figures vanished”—meaning literally that everyone went home but suggesting also (suggesting figuratively, as it were) that Dodd’s financial calculations, his incessant “figurings,” have been momentarily eclipsed by the moral values represented by Pinkerton’s new spouse.
Stevenson thus invites us to be alive to the expressive range of a word such as value, alert to its full denotative and connotative possibilities. Throughout The Wrecker, he also solicits our attention to the historical resonances of individual words, their palimpsestic quality. As businessmen, Dodd and Pinkerton spend a great deal of time in the office, but Stevenson makes sure we also keep in mind older meanings of office—an office as an (“official”) duty or responsibility, or an office as a ritual observance—as a way of reminding us of that artistic office that Dodd once assumed and which, shamefully or not, he comes to neglect in order, as he himself says, to assume the “office” of superfluous “supercargo” aboard Captain Nares’s ship. Similarly, Stevenson plumbs the historical depths of the word interest, whose primary meaning until well into the eighteenth century had to do with one’s legal rights to the possession of property or goods. Layered on that is a more attenuated sense of interest as indicating a stake in a particular endeavor, which in turn modulates into the contemporary meanings of interest as curiosity or attention. The phrase business interests, which recurs frequently in Dodd’s narrative, suggestively encompasses aspects of all these older and newer definitions. This rich layering is discernable at numerous moments in the text, even non-commercial ones, as when Stevenson describes a group of sailors trading yarns about legendary wrecks and treasures “in a far-off, dilettante fashion, as by men not deeply interested” (9).
In such ways does Stevenson fulfill his end of the bargain that Pater says all good writers strike with their readers. Writerly craftsmanship, writes Pater, has “for the susceptible reader the effect of a challenge for minute consideration; the attention of the writer, in every minutest detail, being a pledge that it is worth the reader’s while to be attentive too” (14). As an exercise in readerly attentiveness, let us consider minutely a single, oft-repeated word in The Wrecker—the word is observe—so as to suggest how Stevenson makes use of its “refractive” quality.
The words observe, observing, observant, and observation recur with unmistakable frequency in The Wrecker. As Stevenson demonstrates, while the finer edge of observe may have been considerably dulled by common usage, it is nevertheless a word whose history is rich with affiliation. To observe is to engage in a practice with multiple social connotations. The word is at home in a luxurious congery of contexts: theological, psychological, discursive, scientific, anthropological. Once alert to this fact, we become alert too to the use Stevenson makes of the refractive qualities of observe. The OED gives three common definitions. To observe can refer to a form of visual attention, or a ritual practice, or a mode of address. These usages correspond to abiding preoccupations of Stevenson as a writer—broadly speaking, to his interest in writing as word-painting, as historically-conditioned deployment of generic (that is, of ritual) conventions, and as intimate conversation. (Pater uses the word in the first two of those senses in the passages I quoted at the start of this essay. Pater says that the good writer is a “careful observer” of the physiognomy of words and that he practices a “punctilious observance of the proprieties of his medium.”)
Observation as visual attention: “[Are you] an observer, sir?” one character asks of Loudon Dodd, to which he concisely replies: “It is my trade” (193). Indeed, in his roles as painter, sculptor, and narrator Dodd is perpetually engaged in acts of observation. He is a highly-trained looker. His interactions with the world are primarily visual, and they tend to issue in what Dodd himself likes to call “sketches.” A “sketch” can, of course, be either a visual performance or a verbal one, either a drawing or a description, and Dodd often blurs the distinction between the two. Dodd the narrator will give us a detailed verbal sketch of a scene that Dodd the protagonist is himself sketching or drawing. An example would be the sequence I mentioned earlier, in which Dodd describes the sketch he has made of Mamie and her companions at the dinner party and gives us a separate verbal description of the scene that he sketched. The Wrecker is punctuated at regular intervals by moments of narrative stasis, when the action comes to a complete halt while Dodd observes and then sketches. Indeed, one of his distinguishing marks as narrator is his fondness for tableaux. “As when anything impressed me,” he acknowledges upon first meeting the crew of the Flying Scud, “I got my sketch-book out, and began to steal a sketch of the four castaways” (170). Even when his sketch-book is not at hand, Dodd likes to compose evocative word-pictures as a way of capturing the essence of a particular point in time. Recalling the moment when the crew of the Norah Creina begins savagely to rip apart rice-sacks aboard the Flying Scud in the hopes of uncovering smuggled opium, Dodd writes: “We made a singular picture: the hovering and diving birds; the bodies of the dead discolouring the rice with blood; the scuppers vomiting breadstuff; the men, frenzied by the gold hunt . . . shouting aloud; over all, the lofty intricacy of rigging and the radiant heaven of the Pacific” (308).
Dodd’s narrative is regularly brought to a momentary standstill by such tableaux. In a tale where event crowds on breathless event, these intervals of stasis allow him, and us, not only to compose ourselves but also to compose elements of the narrative into pictorial compositions. The benefit of this procedure is that it provides a space in which we can, as it were, observe the story. At one point, Dodd talks about acquiring “a new picture [for] my mental gallery, to hang beside” all his previous acquisitions (197). For him, the sequence of these vivid mental pictures—a wrecked ship under a canopy of birds, four seamen grouped around a card table, a man mopping his brow in anguish, another man paralyzed with fear with a telephone receiver pressed to his ear, a forlorn troop of castaways huddled over a bonfire, and so on—comprise the essence of his tale. Only through contemplating these pictorial compositions can Dodd begin to make sense of the story in which he is caught. Only through careful observation of them can he extract the meaning of events. On several occasions this procedure leads Dodd directly to a discovery concerning the mystery of the Flying Scud. The world “vanished from the field of consciousness,” he says of one such moment. “My mind was a blackboard, on which I scrawled and blotted out hypotheses; comparing each with the pictorial records in my memory: cyphering with pictures” (286). In the course of what he calls “this tense mental exercise,” Dodd says he eventually “recalled and studied . . . one memorial masterpiece” that provides him with the clue he needs (286). (Similarly, after the violent action that forms the climax of his tale, Norris Carthew stares over the deckrail of his ship and transforms the day’s disturbing events into a series of what he calls “bright pictures” (517) that help him come to terms with his experience.) For Dodd and for Carthew, the translation of event into image leads to insight. And the implicit promise of Dodd’s and Carthew’s accounts is that if we follow their lead of careful observation, these tableaux, impressed vividly upon our readerly imaginations, can likewise be a vehicle of revelation.
Yet Dodd also recognizes that a sequence of tableaux is finally no substitute for narrative. Shortly after the scene in which Dodd “ciphers with pictures,” he and Captain Nares try to reconstruct what happened on the Flying Scud from the evidence they have collected. “Well, what is this?” Dodd finally asks Nares in exasperation. “What is it about?” Nares replies that the problem is that “there’s no story to it” (291). The Wrecker is in part a detective novel, and as in all detective novels much energy is devoted to reconstructing a lost or suppressed story. Dodd’s account can come to a close only once he has tracked down Norris Carthew and exchanged, as it were, his sequence of pictorial records for Carthew’s coherent narrative of events.
The mystery elements in The Wrecker are a special instance of a more general case. Dodd—and he is not alone in this respect—is deeply intrigued by the procedures by which stories get made. As all commentators on this novel point out, The Wrecker is full of narrative “stuff.” It is positively overflowing with material out of which to assemble plots. Dodd’s challenge as a narrator is the challenge all narrators face, namely how to arrange his material so that it registers not simply as a succession of discrete events but as an intelligible story. What to tell, what order to put things in, whose perspective to adopt, what to emphasize, what to mention only in passing, what to leave out altogether—Dodd grapples with these issues throughout the novel, and he lets us know that he is doing so. Especially in his awareness of the vital distinction between event and story, fabula and szujet, he shows himself to be an astute narratologist avant la lettre. Faced with having to explain to Pinkerton and Mamie his failure to bring anything of value from his Pacific expedition, Dodd finds himself “trying for the thousandth time to find some plausible arrangement of my story” (359). He recognizes that for his story to be credible it has to be “arranged.” A story, to be a story, must do more than recount a sequence of events. It must also establish the criteria by which we understand the relation of one event to the next. Dodd’s problem in this particular case is that he has given his word to one of his informants not to reveal certain important bits of information concerning the wreck of the Flying Scud. Absent the missing bits, the story Dodd tells his friends is not credible as a story. It does not hang together, a fact that Pinkerton and Mamie register instinctively. “But how do you explain it?” Mamie asks when Dodd concludes. “I can’t explain it,” Dodd abashedly replies (360), an admission of a storytelling failure that leads to his temporary estrangement from his erstwhile business partner.
As Dodd recognizes, the “plausible arrangement” of narrative elements involves identifying the genre in which they best fit. As he also knows, to follow the conventions of a genre is to engage in a form of observance—observance in the sense of obeying or adhering to the customs of a discipline or a vocation. Just as a priest engages in the ritual observance of religious rites, or a craftsman in the rites of his craft, so too do writers necessarily practice a form of observance in abiding by the rules of genre. As he narrates the different (and largely incommensurate) segments of his life—in Michigan, Paris, Edinburgh, San Francisco, Hawaii, Midway Island, and so on—Dodd seeks to match each life-experience to its appropriate genre. He self-consciously shifts genres in order to convey the meanings of different episodes as well as their textures. The power of genre to shape the understanding of experience is most conspicuously on display in the Paris episodes of The Wrecker, in which Dodd acknowledges that he filtered even the smallest details of his life through the generic nets provided by Balzac and Murger. Only “a genuine devotion to [the] romance” (39) of la vie de Bohème that he imbibes from these writers enables Dodd to find excitement and fulfillment in a life that might, by the light of another genre (Zola’s, for instance, or Gissing’s), register as dreary self-delusion. At least in Paris Dodd knows what genre he wants to work in. Later, as mystery piles on mystery, we often find him casting about for the generic protocols that will help him to make sense of what is happening around him. As they uncover one inexplicable detail after another in the wreck of the Flying Scud, for instance, Dodd and Captain Nares engage in a running gag about having fallen into a dime novel. Earlier, Nares explains to Dodd that to understand a captain’s log book you have to read it like you would one of Dickens’s serial novels. Earlier still, he prefaces a yarn about a prior voyage by saying that it was like “Gilbert and Sullivan on the high seas” (290; 272; 252).
These are small moments, insignificant in themselves, but they point to one of The Wrecker’s most pressing concerns, namely the role of genre in the construction of narrative meaning. If a writer sends indecipherable generic signals, if a reader fails to recognize the generic signals being sent, or if the elements of a tale refuse to conform to the received conventions of a genre, then the narrative enterprise collapses. Dodd says of a notably dense interlocutor that he was “no observer,” meaning both that he misses all sorts of visual cues in conversation and that he is unskilled in parsing even simple narratives. Here is another brief example: late in the novel (this is in Carthew’s tale) Captain Wick and Carthew pore over the log book of the murdered first mate Goddedaal to see if its contents can be made to conform with the story they plan to fabricate about their own identities. It turns out that the log, though meticulously accurate, records a nearly incredible sequence of events, what Wick in exasperation calls “an impossible kind of yarn.” When Wick then complains that “it don’t look like real life,” Carthew sensibly replies “it’s the way it was,” to which Wick even more sensibly retorts: “So it is; and what the better are we for that, if it don’t look so?” As Dodd remarks, with this shrewd comment Wick sounds “unwonted depths of art criticism” (532). Even real life—or, especially real life—can seem incredible or else unintelligible if it fails to fit within expected generic paradigms.
At this point, we can step back from Dodd’s and Carthew’s practices as narrators to consider Stevenson’s practices as a novelist. As the foregoing catalog of examples suggests, The Wrecker is an extended meditation on the dynamics of genre. In this novel, Stevenson explores with great sophistication the ways in which generic expectations condition interpretative response. He, in fact, considered The Wrecker as primarily an experiment in genre. In the letter to Will Low that he printed as the Epilogue to The Wrecker, Stevenson says that he wanted to improve on the “very modern form of the police novel or mystery story,” that recently-popularized genre that he found himself both “attracted and repelled by” (551). His improvement took the form of mixing genres in the novel, mingling elements of the detective novel with topoi taken from other genres. Much of the Epilogue, as well as most of the references to The Wrecker in Stevenson’s letters, frame the novel in terms of its generic hybridity. At different times he likens it to a novel of manners, an epic, an anthropological study, a romance, an adventure tale, and a “realist” novel (by which he means something in the manner of Zola) in addition to a police or detective story. The Wrecker is also explicitly autobiographical in places, drawing on and often only slightly modifying episodes from Stevenson’s life and from the lives of his friends. It is autobiographical in another sense as well, in that it reworks elements from earlier Stevenson texts, most conspicuously Treasure Island and The Master of Ballantrae. Critics unimpressed with The Wrecker often point to its frequent shifts in generic register as a sign of Stevenson’s failure to bring his materials fully under control. But Stevenson himself considered this energetic mixing of styles and registers as the novel’s key innovation and perhaps its greatest strength. Throughout the book, he enjoins us to notice how thoroughly our understanding of any event or sequence of events, whether textual or “real,” is conditioned by the generic expectations we bring to it. In the absence of such expectations, facts may not mean at all. Having assembled a vast array of information concerning the wreck of the Flying Scud, Dodd and Nares nevertheless admit they know nothing of value because they still lack the “thing that tells the story.”
“The thing that tells the story.” Stevenson knew that storytelling is fundamental to the ways in which human beings bring order to and derive meaning from experience, hence his frequent and eloquent defenses of story as an indispensable ingredient of any literature worth the name. Yet even in the most plot-driven of Stevenson’s own texts—and The Wrecker certainly falls into that category—there is also a vigorous anti-narrativizing impulse. Like Loudon Dodd, Stevenson possesses a strong pictorial imagination. Indeed, as Richard Ambrosini’s work has shown, Stevenson’s earliest efforts at “fine” writing invariably took the form either of landscape “painting” or of literary portraiture. (In a letter, Stevenson once described himself as an engraver and called his texts woodcuts.) Throughout his career, he took as great a pleasure in producing passages of finely-crafted word-painting as he did in forging his well-tooled plots. The dichotomy between the pictorial and the narrative that I have been tracing in Loudon Dodd’s text is a distinctive feature of Stevenson’s writing in general, and the effects his works produce are closely tied to the rhythm of their alternation. The opening paragraphs of The Wrecker provide an excellent example.
The Wrecker has a frame narrative, a “Prologue” told in the third person and set in Tai-o-hae, the French capital of the Marquesas Islands. It opens with a richly detailed description of the port and its inhabitants viewed from a perspective implicitly located somewhere just offshore. The description is the verbal near-equivalent of a panorama—a term, by the way, used by Stevenson in the Epilogue to describe his technique in The Wrecker as a whole. The narrative eye sweeps from one end of the port to the other before focusing on a single figure seated “at the end of the rickety pier.” This is “the famous tattooed white man” of Tai-o-hae, who despite his fame is never mentioned again after his brief appearance here. “His eyes were open,” the narrator tells us, “staring down the bay” (2). The man’s stare is both outward—he takes in the perspective before him—and inward as he views “broken fragments” from his past as they are projected on to the screen of his memory. “[B]rown faces and white, of skipper and shipmate, king and chief” mingle with recollections of “old voyages, old landfalls in the hour of dawn” (2-3). Other memories jumble together in the man’s mind of characters and events, scenes and episodes, until suddenly he is startled by the movement of a schooner entering the bay. As we soon learn, the ship carries Loudon Dodd, who by the close of the Prologue will begin telling the story of The Wrecker.
This opening section is a parable, designed to teach us how to read the novel it introduces. The sequence is organized around a tattooed man—that is, a man with pictures on his body, each of which tells a story. (Here we should recall Stevenson’s recurring interest in tattooed bodies in In the South Seas (1896), where they function, as the tattooed man does here, as the locus of a “primitive” art that is at once pictorial and incipiently narrative.) Seated motionless, the tattooed man is engaged in contemplating vivid mental images of people and landscapes as well as fragments of a life-story. Seen from the outside, the man himself occupies the center of the tableau on which the Prologue opens. The overall effect of the initial description of Tai-o-hae is one of profound stillness. That pictorial stillness is then broken by the schooner moving across the bay. In like manner, the static description of the Prologue is quickly displaced by brisk narrative movement as the way is prepared for Dodd to begin his tale. In multiple ways, then, Stevenson calls attention to the interplay of stillness and movement, picture and story, that is a defining feature of The Wrecker overall—as it is, indeed, of Stevenson’s novels generally, as it is, indeed, of novels generally.
Among the many things that good novels do well, two stand out. By words alone, they give us things to look at. And they organize the disparate elements of social and of personal life into meaningful narrative. This is why Henry James in “The Art of Fiction” (1884) can call the novelist both a painter and an historian. And this is why Stevenson insists both that the “goal of all art is to make a pattern” (“Humble Remonstrance” 346) and that the sign of a successful novel is that it compels its readers to “brush aside” everything—“eloquence and thought, character and conversation”—in pursuit of plot or what he calls “incident” artfully arranged (“Gossip on Romance” 327). These two modes of writing—pictorial and narrative—appeal to different but equally fundamental modes of human understanding. In “A Gossip on Romance,” Stevenson neatly combines them when he writes that a “story, if it be a story,” should bring “a thousand coloured pictures to the [mind’s] eye” (327).
Stevenson often calls our attention to the interplay of picture and story in his tales. There are, on the one hand, the always-important moments when the action is brought to a complete halt while the characters or the narrator or both view a scene that seems pregnant with implication—as, for example, when Utterson and Poole, having violently crashed through the door of Henry Jekyll’s laboratory, stand bewildered before the uninhabited tea-table within. At such moments a story we have been processing temporally is, as it were, re-presented to us spatially. It is no doubt an exaggeration, but not much of one, to suggest that the essence of Dr. Jekyll’s “case” can be read off that vividly-rendered tableau. On the other hand, Stevenson also presents the reverse process, where a pictorial composition in the text is designed to incite narrative. An example would be the opening of The Ebb-Tide, where the initial sketch of Herrick, Brown, and Huish “seated on the beach, under a purao tree” seems to call out for, indeed to provoke, the stories that will then explain what this sketch “means.” The Wrecker contains multiple examples of each of these techniques—tableaux that convey the essence of a preceding narrative (such as Dodd’s sketch of the treasure-crazed, blood-bespattered men digging through rice sacks) and tableaux that are incitements to narrative speculation (such as Dodd’s months-long efforts to uncover the story that accounts for his vision of Carthew, paralyzed with fear, holding a telephone receiver to his ear).
Observation as mode of address: more than most writers, Stevenson conceives of literary texts as exercises in collaboration. The Wrecker foregrounds the nature of that collaboration as well as its consequences. In his 1882 essay “Talk and Talkers” Stevenson contends that literature always strives (and necessarily fails) to attain the condition of conversation. Conversation is “fluid, tentative, continually ‘in further search and progress.’” “There are always two to a talk,” Stevenson continues, “giving and taking, comparing experience and according conclusions” (265). Writers cannot literally reproduce that dynamic, of course, but they can make it possible for their readers to engage actively in the creation of what Stevenson calls “life, meaning, and effect” within the space of the literary text (265). In The Wrecker we are continually invited to imagine other forms the story might take, as well as other stories the novel’s materials might give rise to. The Wrecker is unusually full of characters who appear only once but who are, nevertheless, not simply “minor” characters. Presented in what seems unnecessarily full detail, equipped with back-stories and plausible motivations for future actions, situated firmly within their various social matrices, these figures function like switching points on a rail line, prodding us momentarily to consider the possibility that the novel as a whole might get shunted on to that track and move off in an entirely new direction. In a like manner, Stevenson practices a kind of generic heteroglossia that allows him, and us, continually to assemble and reassemble the basic elements of Dodd’s story into new configurations.
Consider, for instance, what is unquestionably the strangest episode in The Wrecker. It comes early in the novel. Dodd, drunk one night, tries to return to his Parisian lodgings, which are on the fourth floor of a six-floor hotel. Once inside, though, he discovers that the building has monstrously distended in every direction. Looking hopelessly for his room, Dodd wanders down apparently endless corridors, descends five stories below ground into the building’s catacomb-like bowels, climbs three stories above what he knows to be the hotel’s top floor, and so on. Eventually, he stumbles into the room of an attractive young woman and entreats her aid. She leads him to his room. The next morning, Dodd sees the same woman in the Luxembourg Gardens and rushes after her, determined to offer his thanks. He does not catch her—she disappears into (what else) a picture gallery and is never seen again in the pages of The Wrecker—and he never discovers, or at least he never offers his readers, a plausible explanation of his unlikely late-night experiences. In chasing the young woman, though, Dodd runs into and makes his first acquaintance with Jim Pinkerton, a narrative switching-point that gives a new direction to Dodd’s life-plot.
I could speculate on Stevenson’s intentions in this episode, but I really have no idea what he had in mind. The scene in the hotel strikes me, as I suspect it does many readers, as a bizarrely prescient exercise in Kafkaesque paranoia, with Loudon Dodd cast momentarily in the role of Joseph K wandering through the mazes of the prosecutor’s offices in The Trial. For me, the aura of Joseph K continues to linger about Dodd for a while after this episode, and, strangely, it does not seem out of place. Indeed, thinking about Dodd in these terms brings into sharper focus questions of guilt, sacrifice, and paranoia that are in fact central to his story. While I am willing to concede—reluctantly—that Stevenson did not intend to offer The Trial, published thirty years after his death, as an intertext for The Wrecker, he did intend his text to be open to responses and readings that he himself could not either have imagined or planned for. This is not to imply that textual meaning is wholly indeterminate, or to suggest that all readings of a text are possible or that all possible readings of a text are equally valid. It is, though, to stress the collaborative nature of the interpretative enterprise and Stevenson’s commitment to it. Moments such as the Kafkaesque interlude, like other generic shifts in The Wrecker, are ways to ensure that our responses to the novel remain “fluid, tentative, continually ‘in further search and progress.’” Stevenson was committed to pattern but not to finish, to narrative but not to closure. His texts retain their roughened surfaces so that, as Henry James said in another context, there are “pegs for analysis to hang on” (123). Or, to change the metaphor, Stevenson strives to produce an art that aspires to the condition not of music but of conversation.
Any close reading of a literary text will generate many more responses, of varying degrees of validity and interest, than can be accommodated by any single interpretative paradigm. Many of those responses, perhaps even the most valid and interesting, cannot easily be traced back to authorial intention. Stevenson, like Pater, recognizes that authorial intention is continually being refracted not only through language but through the changing cultural, literary, and historical contexts that separate writers from their audiences. As Stevenson knew well, a literary text is the product of a series of collaborations: between writers and the literary traditions and conventions (including genre) they work in, between writers and words in their historicity, between writers and their readers—real, imagined, and unforeseen.
And here is where we can find a place for Lloyd Osbourne, Stevenson’s stepson and his co-author for The Wrecker and a handful of other texts. The exact nature and extent of Osbourne’s contributions are unknown, though like most readers I proceed on the assumption that the books are largely Stevenson’s work. Yet even if this is not the case, nothing about the way The Wrecker works is changed by the names on its title page. Texts are, to a limited but discernable degree, autonomous from their “authors.” They signify in ways that are not in the control of any one individual. Their signification is instead a function of all those various interchanges, those collaborations, that I have been outlining. Lloyd Osbourne is the name we give to one such collaboration, but it is only one among many. There is a recurring pun in The Wrecker (or maybe it is not there at all) about “Lloyd’s underwriter.” In this novel about wreckers and wrecked ships, insurance agencies such as Lloyd’s of London play a large off-stage role. At several points in the story, Dodd talks with characters who warn him about the importance of staying on the good side of “Lloyd’s underwriter.” Can I claim that this is a clever reference to Stevenson’s status as Lloyd’s co-author? Can I make a plausible case that Stevenson, or Osbourne, or both of them, inserted this pun on purpose for us to enjoy? Can I demonstrate that the pun fits into some larger or even some local reading of the novel, or, indeed, that it has any purpose at all? Can I even prove that this bad pun is anything other than the product of misguided critical ingenuity? The answer to each of these questions probably is no. But I still want to insist that the word-play is there, in the text, and that it forms a legitimate portion of one critical response to The Wrecker.
He is Associate Professor of English and the Richard A. & Sarah Page Mayo Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of Virginia. He is the author of Fictions of Loss in the Victorian Fin de Siècle (Cambridge UP, 1996) and of articles on nineteenth- and early twentieth-century British literature and culture.
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