Traditional Chinese Fiction and Fiction Commentary: Reading and Writing between the Lines

By David L. Rolston | Go to book overview

7
From Plot-Centered to Character-Centered Narratives

From Plot to Characterization

Henry James protested against the "old-fashioned" division between the "novel of incident" and the "novel of character": "What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character? . . . It is an incident for a woman to stand up with her hand resting on a table and look out at you in a certain way; or if it be not an incident I think it will be hard to say what it is. At the same time it is an expression of character."1 He apparently felt that his fiction was an attempt to integrate these two foci in fiction and that this was a change from previous practice. Other Western critics from his generation also saw a shift from incident toward character:

And as the realistic writers perfected their art, the more acute readers began to perceive that the hero who is a doer of deeds can represent only the earlier stages of culture which we have long outgrown. This hero came to be recognized as an anachronism, out of place in a more modern social organization based on a full appreciation of individuality. He was too much of a type and too little an individual to satisfy the demands of those who looked to literature as the mirror of life itself. ( Brander Matthews, "Introduction," C. Hamilton, p. xvii)

Chinese fiction critics proclaimed the achievement of a similar move from a concentration on incident to characterization. This chapter charts this development as it is evident in both fictional works and the writings of the fiction critics. The latter had no small impact on this process, especially through their editing and reevaluation of earlier novels.

In Ming novels, this change of focus from incident to character can be seen in even a cursory comparison of the Jin Ping Mel and its predecessor, the Shuihu zhuan. Zhang Peiheng has characterized the Shuihu zhuan and

____________________
1
James, pp. 186-87. Cf. Sean O'Faolain: "Action reveals character, and that character demonstrates itself in action" ( Sean O'Faolain, The Short Story, Trask and Burkhart, pp. 37-38).

-191-

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