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There is Life in Inanimate Objects

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Very often in fiction, inanimate objects simply lie there without doing anything. You’d think they’d be more…lively – that they’d get up and do something!

It happens the novels I love are all about human relationships and whether they are successful or not. Great novelists attempt to explain how relationships work and what life those relationships can give to the soul, or what damage they can cause it.

A marriage at the end of a Jane Austen novel between the two main protagonists is an event truly blessed with happiness, especially when the betrothed have spent the majority of the book misunderstanding each other. The emotional realignments as each comes to understand the other’s true feelings reveal almost everything about the two, so that by the time the champagne comes, the reader is as emotionally satisfied as it is possible to be.

On the other hand, when disaster courts the end of a book, it often does so because the characters have either continued to misunderstand each other or, indeed, have intentionally deluded each other. The nature of this lack of good judgment is revealed by the great novelist in all its detail and foolishness.

When Gustave Flaubert’s poor Madame Bovary dies, the reader is crestfallen, maybe not so much because of his particular feelings for her, but because her stupidity and self-deception have been so feelingly portrayed by Flaubert. Her self-deception is her character, and it has been revealed entirely.

When Tommy Wilhelm is weeping at the side of the coffin in Saul Bellow’s Seize The Day, the reader is the only one attending the funeral who realizes that Wilhelm understands — clearly, finally, on this day — that he is a complete failure. His relationship with his wife did not bring this to him, nor did his relationship with his father, and certainly not his connections in Hollywood. Rather it’s the unknown corpse in the coffin with whom Wilhelm establishes the connection that ushers him to his ultimate mourning for himself and his life.

How does the author reveal these things? It’s one of the great secrets to the meaning of a great book, and like all secrets, it is many-, many-faceted. The manner in which you describe the things outside of a character, and his surroundings at a particular moment, is one of the ways you can get into his soul.

Inanimate objects, in other words.

You have a scene in which a couple is talking. They’re angry with each other. One has betrayed the other, and in the betrayal they’ve both found things in their own character that are either difficult or vivifying – or both at the same moment. Do you say something as prosaic as “Miriam felt both betrayed and vivified by Eddie’s secret”? You could, but then you would have ushered yourself into the centuries-old cathedral of dull writing so filled with past and, especially, present parishioners.

An alternative is to invest the inanimate objects surrounding Eddie and Miriam with lives – or at least feelings of their own. The saltshaker, for example.

You can describe a saltshaker in innumerable ways. If you give it a personality that reflects Eddie’s feelings in the conversation, you can allow the saltshaker to comment on the nature of his emotional state, his honesty, his elusiveness, or the sadness that led him to misuse his wife’s savings. It’s a matter of detail and emotional color.

So you dwell for a moment on the actual color of the object. You give it whatever color you think necessary to reflect the mood of Eddie’s feelings. You describe the color in variegated ways, influenced by the light or the sound of the rain outside or the reflections on the saltshaker’s surface from the dahlias in the vase next to it – the shadows or maybe the direct, maddening sunlight that surrounds them and sends their light onto the curve of the shaker on the table. The salt itself, the way it sounds when it passes from the shaker, barely listenable, wounding to the cut surface of Eddie’s heart or purposefully damaging, he hopes, to Miriam’s foolish expectations of him.

Is the saltshaker on its side, salt spilled across the stained tablecloth? Is it empty? How does that emptiness somehow fill Eddie’s heart?

Do its contents provide a life-giving, innocent celebration to Miriam herself, the small detail that heralds her final, sought-after freedom from Eddie? Does the salt provide the applause that electrifies her understanding that she is a woman finally on her own, finally in possession of her own feelings? Or will she miss Eddie, seeing him now, the way he made love to her so feelingly, the smile he gave her so often, as scattered in the white inconsequence of the few grains of salt on the empty plate?

The selection you have of such objects is of course endless. You have the whole world to choose from, and every possible combination of details from the world, every one of them waiting in your imagination. Everything you put into a scene that is intended to anchor it in some sort of “reality” can be used to shape that reality, color it, give it emotions, give it life, and give it meaning.

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About Terence Clarke