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Atmosphere





Definition--General Atmospheric Value of Fiction--Tone of
Story--Preparation of Reader for Climax--Examples--The
Story of Atmosphere--Short Story--Setting--Slight Dramatic
Value of Type.


Atmosphere--as the term is used by the writer of fiction--is a most
indefinite word; it may be well to preface discussion of what it stands
for by a definition. And in defining it is often conducive to clearness
to state what a thing is not before stating what it is.

In the first place, atmosphere is not setting, although the setting of a
story may aid in producing its atmosphere. The frozen wastes of a
sub-arctic region or the man-made squalor of a slum may operate
powerfully to produce on a reader of a story placed therein an
impression of desolation or of misery, but that impression will derive
from something other than the setting, and will merely be reinforced
thereby. If a slum story is essentially cheerful and light-hearted in
content, its reader will not be oppressed by the setting, however
truthfully touched in, unless the writer deliberately makes his people
seem miraculous in point of their capacity to avoid the contagion of
their surroundings. The young girl in "The Dawn of a To-Morrow" is an
instance of what is meant by the qualification.

Atmosphere is not setting, nor is it anything at all that is in a
story. It is not the quality of the environment; it is not the general
quality of the people or their acts; it is not the quality of the theme
or plot. What is it? It is the general emotional impression made on a
reader by the whole story. It is nothing that is in a story; it is the
emotional effect produced by the story on a reader. Just as a scene, an
event, or a person, unless very commonplace, will have some emotional
effect on an observer, any story that is told so as to create the
illusion of reality will have some emotional effect on a reader. As
Stevenson said to Balfour: "I'll give you an example--'The Merry Men,'
There I began with the feeling of one of those islands on the west coast
of Scotland, and I gradually developed the story to express the
sentiment with which the coast affected me."

A distinction should be noted here. "The Merry Men" is a strict story of
atmosphere; its author, as he implicitly states, started with an
emotional effect, or "sentiment," and devised only such persons and
action as would deepen on a reader the emotional impression initiated in
this case by the setting. But, as has been stated, any story told so as
to create the illusion of reality will have some totality of emotional
effect on a reader, apart from its specific emotional effects in various
parts, unless the fiction is very commonplace. That is to say, the
strict story of atmosphere, which has been touched on briefly in
discussing story-types, subordinates its action and its people to its
totality of emotional effect; in the normal story, whether it stresses
personality or event, atmosphere, or totality of emotional effect on a
reader, is a subordinate consideration, resulting from the necessity
that an observer of persons and events be affected thereby in some
general way. At least it is true that the writer of a story of
complication of incident or of character cannot permit any
consideration of atmosphere to interfere with the events in the first
case or the persons in the other. Whatever totality of emotional effect
may reside in his work will be inherent in the conception, as it would
be inherent in such a spectacle for an observer, if the story should
happen in actuality.

The sensible--because the most profitable--way for the writer of fiction
to fit the matter of atmosphere into his general artistic philosophy is
to disregard it entirely, except where it constitutes a primary
consideration, that is, except in relation to the strict story of
atmosphere. The reason for this cavalier treatment of the matter has
been brought out. If any story is told so as to create the illusion of
reality, some general emotional effect will be produced on its reader,
will be inherent in the conception, as it would be inherent in the
spectacle, if actual. It all comes down to this: by telling his story
justly as a course of events involving real people in a definite
environment, the writer will produce on a reader whatever totality of
emotional effect is inherent in the conception. If there is no totality
of emotional effect inherent therein the writer cannot produce it except
by changing the whole conception and writing a different story. In the
case of the strict story of atmosphere the writer's attitude is
different. He sets out, not with a story, but with an emotional effect,
and devises people and events and setting to produce it.

The point can be made clearer by more specific discussion. Assume that a
writer has conceived a story with a definite plot, involving definite
people, set in a New England village. Anybody who knows New England or
has read Alice Brown or Mary E. Wilkins Freeman can testify that such a
story, justly told, will have a definite and peculiar atmospheric value.
But its atmosphere, its totality of emotional effect on a reader will
be inherent in its setting and people, perhaps even in its events. The
story itself will determine its atmosphere, which can be only the
peculiar impression that a New England village, its people and their
lives, produce on an observer. By choosing to write such a story, or by
choosing to write any definite story, a writer debars himself from
creating any atmosphere not involved in the story selected for writing.
On the other hand, if a writer desires to put together a story of
atmosphere, he starts with an emotional effect as the basic conception,
and then casts about for a setting, people, and incidents that will
produce such emotional effect. It all depends upon what the writer
starts with. If he starts with an emotional effect, he may narrate any
course of events, and draw any sort of people, and place the tale in any
sort of setting, provided only that events, people, and setting be such
as to produce the desired atmosphere or effect. But if the writer starts
with a definite story, the only atmosphere he can create thereby is the
atmosphere inherent in the conception.[P]

Though it is true that a writer may and should disregard the matter of
atmosphere in writing a story which he has conceived as a definite
course of events involving definite people, since any atmospheric
possibilities of the fiction will be inherent in the conception and will
be realized by telling it justly as to people, events, and setting,
nevertheless a qualification must be stated. No story is conceived as
definitely as it is written; the writer first grasps the plot or main
situation, perhaps also the characters, and then expands the outline
into a congruous presentation of a phase of life by filling in details
as to environment, people, and events. This filling-in process may and
should be performed partly at least before writing, but even if the
writer postpones it until he is wrestling with the problem of execution,
he must remember one thing. Any story has a general tone, largely
determined by its climax or main situation. This tone or key of a story
is not its atmosphere strictly, perhaps, but the dividing line between
the two matters is very faint. The atmosphere of a story is its general
emotional effect upon a reader, and its tone is very nearly the same
thing, being the result of its writer's having justly performed his
selective task by transcribing only such matters as harmonize with the
main situation, tragic or comic. And a writer must regard the matter of
the tone of a story in developing and writing it, if it is to have the
significant simplicity and unity which alone can give the fiction
maximum power and effect.

The practical problem can be stated most simply thus: a reader's
intelligence and sensibilities must be prepared for the crisis, climax,
or main situation by incorporating in the story only such matters of
environment, personality, or event as harmonize with the emotional
character of the main situation. The necessity is most stringent, of
course, in the case of the short story, but it is a consideration to be
borne in mind in writing any type of fiction. It is merely another
aspect of the general question of preparation, which has been touched
upon before. The situations of a story must be prepared in a mechanical
sense, that is, the writer must prepare to place his people where each
situation demands that they be placed; the people themselves must be
developed and individualized, that the situations may have full dramatic
value; and the mind and heart of a reader of the story must be prepared
for the climax, which is the whole story in little.

If the main situation of any story is essentially tragic, it will never
do not to hint the fact until the climax is reached, when a reader will
be overwhelmed, rather than upborne and stimulated, by the torrent of
battle, murder, or sudden death. The opening scene of "Macbeth" presages
the lurid character of the whole play, and serves to key reader or
spectator for murder. Likewise, in the case of a story essentially light
and happy in content, the purpose of the writer is to develop and
present one of life's many attractive phases, and that purpose will be
defeated or at least hampered if woebegone people and unpleasant
situations are given place in the fiction.

Considerations of contrast may lead the writer to incorporate in his
story matter out of keeping with its general tone and main situation,
but the effort is really to emphasize the general tone by striking a few
discordant notes. Contrast is too delicate a matter to be discussed with
any profit; whether or not the device shall be employed in any story is
a problem that only the artistic sense of the writer of the particular
story can answer.

It is very easy to say that a story should be told so as to prepare a
reader for the climax, that he may accept it, yet, in a sense, the thing
can be achieved only by adequate practice of the whole art of fiction.
The general necessity is to make the whole course of events seem real
and actual; the more specific necessity is to give a reader a definite
clue to the nature of the story, that he may not be shocked into
disbelief by the climax. This must be done unobtrusively, as every other
technical device must be employed, under penalty of failing in its
office.

A quotation showing effective employment of the device will not be
useless. Stevenson's short story "Thrawn Janet" leads up to an encounter
with the devil, and the author loses no time in preparing a reader for
the entrance of his satanic majesty. The story begins thus:

"The Reverend Murdoch Soulis was long minister of the moorland parish of
Balweary, in the vale of Dule. A severe, bleak-faced old man, dreadful
to his hearers, he dwelt in the last years of his life, without relative
or servant or any human company, in the small and lonely manse under the
Hanging Shaw. In spite of the iron composure of his features, his eye
was wild, scared, and uncertain; and when he dwelt, in private
admonitions, on the future of the impenitent, it seemed as if the eye
pierced through the storms of time to the terrors of eternity. Many
young persons, coming to prepare themselves against the season of the
Holy Communion, were dreadfully affected by his talk. He had a sermon on
1st Peter, v. and 8th, 'The devil as a roaring lion,' on the Sunday
after every seventeenth of August, and he was accustomed to surpass
himself upon that text both by the appalling nature of the matter and
the terror of his bearing in the pulpit. The children were frightened
into fits, and the old looked more than usually oracular, and were, all
that day, full of those hints that Hamlet deprecated. The manse itself,
where it stood by the water of Dule among some thick trees, with the
Shaw overhanging it on the one side, and on the other many cold, moorish
hill-tops rising towards the sky, had begun, at a very early period of
Mr. Soulis' ministry, to be avoided in the dusk hours by all who valued
themselves upon their prudence; and guidmen sitting at the clachan
alehouse shook their heads together at the thought of passing late by
that uncanny neighborhood."

Here Stevenson loses no time in keying his reader to the general pitch
of the story. It is a task that the writer of any story must undertake.
The general nature of the tale should be suggested as soon as possible,
and the story should not be allowed to falsify its introductory hints,
but should reaffirm them constantly, until all the divergent strands of
the fiction are knotted together in the climax, which will need no
interpretation. Take another instance from Stevenson, the beginning of
"Markheim," where Markheim murders the dealer in curios.

"'Yes,' said the dealer, 'our windfalls are of various kinds. Some
customers are ignorant, and then I touch a dividend of my superior
knowledge. Some are dishonest,' and here he held up the candle, so that
the light fell strongly on his visitor, 'and in that case,' he
continued, 'I profit by my virtue.'

"Markheim had but just entered from the daylight streets, and his eyes
had not grown familiar with the mingled shine and darkness of the shop.
At these pointed words, and before the near presence of the flame, he
blinked painfully and looked aside."

A little farther on:

"The dealer once more chuckled; and then, changing to his usual business
voice, though still with a note of irony, 'You can give, as usual, a
clear account of how you came into the possession of the object?' he
continued. 'Still your uncle's cabinet? A remarkable collector, sir!'

"And the little pale, round-shouldered dealer stood almost on tiptoe,
looking over the top of his gold spectacles, and nodding his head with
every mark of disbelief. Markheim returned his gaze with one of infinite
pity, and a touch of horror."

Note how strongly and withal how naturally the whole of this, and
particularly the last sentence, suggests that Markheim has come into
the shop to do murder. The story is keyed to tragedy at once, its reader
with it. His mind is prepared in advance, that the significant event,
when it is related, may be accepted without question.

As stated, this matter of keying the story and its reader to the pitch
of the main situation or climax is not precisely the matter of
atmosphere, but it has close affiliations therewith. It is even more
important to the writer of fiction. Any atmospheric value in a story
will be brought out by telling it justly as a course of events involving
real people in a definite environment, and preparation of a reader for
the main situation of a story is a part of just and adequate narration.
The writer's hints of the character of what is to come must be unforced
and natural, but they must be effective.

It is obvious, of course, that the more tense or strange the main
situation of a story, the greater the necessity that a reader be
prepared for it. If the main situation consists in commonplace
characters doing some commonplace thing, a reader will accept the
spectacle without artificial preparation, but if the main situation is
highly dramatic, the normally placid course of a reader's thought and
feeling must be agitated and stimulated in advance, or he will not rise
with the climax. In other words, the fiction will not have
verisimilitude emotionally. A story is both a physical spectacle and an
emotional progression; the author must write both for the reader's eye
and for his soul. If any story touches emotional heights, its reader
must be stimulated thereto by proper preparation.

It remains to consider the matter of atmosphere, as the term is used
with relation to the strict story of atmosphere, which emphasizes the
emotional value of the whole for a reader rather than the significance
of the events or characters.

The intrinsic difficulty to blend such diverse matters as people,
events, and setting or environment into an even emotional unity requires
that the strict story of atmosphere be a short story. Even if it is not
a short story in point of actual length, it will be a short story in
point of structure, that is, it will lead relatively few characters
through little diversity of setting to a single main situation, or
perhaps even to no main situation, in a dramatic sense. As noted in
discussing story types, the progression of the particular atmosphere to
the point of highest intensity gives the strict story of atmosphere much
of its story-character. The human element is incidental and subordinate.
However, the task of keeping people, events, and setting true to a fixed
emotional tone is so difficult that a writer cannot sustain the effort
for long. Many novels or relatively lengthy stories have high
atmospheric value; Hardy's Wessex novels possess the quality, as does
much of Joseph Conrad's work, "Almayer's Folly," for instance; but it is
generally true that the intrinsic difficulty of the story of atmosphere
tends to confine it within brief limits. It is certainly true that only
the skilled hand can compass the feat of writing it at all.

I have stated that the setting of a story is not its atmosphere, and
that is true. Nevertheless the setting is most often what determines the
emotional effect of the whole. A hundred instances might be cited--"The
Merry Men," "The Fall of the House of Usher," "Almayer's Folly," "The
Return of the Native." This results from the fact that setting or
environment is much more potent to produce a relatively definite
emotional effect on an observer than either a person or an event, the
two other elements of a story. A murder may produce a very definite
feeling of horror in an observer or reader, but the emotion, while
definite, is not linked inevitably to murder alone. Many other
spectacles will horrify. Likewise, a person may produce a feeling of
disgust in an observer or reader, but so will an infinite number of
other persons, all radically different from each other and the first.
But the emotional effect of the west coast of Scotland is special and
peculiar to that setting; there is no single word in the language
characterizing it. That is why Stevenson had to write "The Merry Men" to
state it, just as Poe had to write "The Fall of the House of Usher" to
state the specific emotional effect of that particular house, and Hardy
had to write "The Return of the Native" to state the emotional value of
his Wessex moors.

Moreover, when the writer finds the germ of his story in a person seen
actually or in imagination, it is more than likely that the emphasis of
the completed work will be on character, and when he finds it in an
event or situation, it is more than likely that the emphasis of the
completed work will be on plot. But when a countryside or house or
stretch of sea-coast suggests a story, it can hardly result otherwise
than that the completed work will emphasize the emotional value of the
setting.

The setting of the strict story of atmosphere may determine its
emotional effect, but the emotional tendency of the setting must not be
affected adversely by the people or the events. That is why the setting
is not atmosphere, though it may determine the atmosphere. A gloomy and
terrific setting will have small emotional effect upon a reader if the
people and events of the story are not such as to deepen the impression
initiated by the setting, for the people and events cannot be
emotionally neutral. If they are seemingly real, that is, if the story
is well told apart from the matter of atmosphere, they will make some
impression on a reader. Unless their impression is of a piece with that
of the setting, the unity of emotional effect will be destroyed. And if
there is no unity of emotional effect, there is no atmosphere, in the
strict sense.

Confession is good for the soul; let me say that if there is a technique
of writing so as to produce a unity of emotional effect I am unable to
state it. The matter is exceptionally delicate, and only the broadest
sort of abstract statement can be made. One can state--as I have
stated--that the emotional effect of a story of atmosphere is usually
initiated by and dependent on the setting, and that the emotional effect
initiated by the setting must be reinforced by the writer's choice and
handling of people and events. But that is about all that can be said. A
specific story of atmosphere might be taken and examined in detail with
profit, if space were available; yet the devices employed by its writer
would not completely exhaust the resources of atmospheric writing, and
abstract statement of them here will not cover the whole technique.
Poe's technique in "The Fall of the House of Usher" is not identical
with Stevenson's in "The Merry Men," nor with Conrad's in "Almayer's
Folly."

Fortunately, the strict technique is not of great practical importance.
Any story will gain in power by possession of an atmospheric quality,
but that quality will be present if the basic conception is not trivial
and feeble, and if the story is told adequately as to its three elements
of setting, personality, and event. Any emotional value inherent in the
thing will then be felt by a reader, as he would feel the emotional
value of the spectacle, if real. Any story that is lived vicariously by
its writer in the person of the character from whose viewpoint it is
told, and is written justly as a course of events involving real people
in a definite environment, will have all the effect on a reader
attainable by the particular conception. And as to the strict story of
atmosphere, it will be hopeless for the writer of fiction to attempt it
until he can handle the less artificial and less difficult forms with
some approach to real facility and adequacy.

One specific point of the technique of writing the strict story of
atmosphere should be noted, for it is important. The emotional effect is
usually initiated and determined by the setting, natural or artificial,
as a tropical island or a house. Characters and events must be
subservient to the particular emotional value. It results that there can
be no real dramatic opposition of characters and traits in the strict
story of atmosphere, for the moral nature of an individual has no
affiliation with the emotional quality of a countryside or any other
setting. Development of strict traits of character, which are essential
to drama, will not serve to deepen for a reader the emotional suggestion
of a setting. The writer of the strict story of atmosphere must seek to
invest his people with such traits as will reinforce the emotional
suggestion of the setting, and these traits cannot be strictly of
character. Rather they will be attributes of appearance, action, mind,
and soul. Insanity is an instance of such an attribute of mind, not
strictly of character. The point is difficult to state abstractly, as is
the whole of the technique of atmosphere, but a reading of either "The
Fall of the House of Usher" or "The Merry Men" will clarify my meaning.
The people of either story are less human beings than humanized
emotional abstractions, of the same stuff of gloom or mystery as the
house or sea. It is needless to state that the whole weakness of the
story of atmosphere as a fiction results from the necessary devitalizing
of its characters, for fiction primarily concerns man, his conflicts and
his loves.


FOOTNOTES:

[P] Of course, the initial conception of a story of atmosphere may limit
the writer's power to manipulate his material. Thus when Stevenson
pitched upon the emotional effect of the west coast of Scotland as that
to be produced by "The Merry Men," he debarred himself from placing his
story in any other setting, though he could pick and choose freely among
possible events and people. A general emotional effect, as of beauty, is
somewhat indefinite, and may be produced alike by stories differing
widely in their three elements of setting, people and events.





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