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April 7, 2012

What’s missing and why do I care?

I’m taking two courses at Brandeis’ Osher Lifelong Learning Institute this semester, and in one of them a classmate asked an interesting question.  Why, she wanted to know, had the author not included a particular piece of information about the protagonist and his/her history that she wanted to know? She felt it would have greatly enriched the story if she had more information.

After some discussion around the table, the group leader noted that no matter how long any work is, it cannot encompass everything about the characters in the story. It doesn’t matter if the novel is 400 or 4000 pages, he said, something would be left out.  And perhaps, he added, what’s left out is as much a part of the story as what’s put in.

I totally empathize with my fellow student.  I too want to know everything about a character–his family, his past, his goals. That’s one of the reasons I enjoy reading mystery novels rather than the genre’s short stories.  Even if a book doesn’t completely satisfy my curiosity about the detective, I can hope the picture will get clearer in succeeding novels.  But I know that won’t happen to characters in a short story.

Although, of course, as there are exceptions to every rule, there’s an exception to what I just wrote.  Somewhere in the Sherlock Holmes canon there’s a throwaway line about his being distantly related to the French artist Emile Vernet, but there’s really almost nothing else about his family.  It’s not until “The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter” that the reader discovers that Sherlock has an older brother, Mycroft.  And aside from telling the reader about Mycroft’s eccentricities, there’s nothing in this story sheds light on Sherlock’s family or his background.

But because Doyle wrote so many stories about Holmes, if you read one after the other, it’s almost as if you’re reading a novel, so there’s the very slight possibility of learning more about Holmes and Watson as you continue to read about them.  But it’s a rare author who has written as many short mystery stories about one character as Doyle had; in fact, I’m sure no other author has.

Given this information gap, does that give the reader permission to, in effect, write his own history? As a friend in my book club has said on more than one occasion, we can only discuss what’s in between the covers of the book.  Anything else is our thought, not the author’s.  It’s only in fairy tales that the story closes with “And they lived happily ever after.”  For everything else we read, we don’t know how things will work out after we close the book, and we simply have to deal with that.


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