Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

The Meaning of Structure: Toward a New Reading of John Peale Bishop's Act of Darkness

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

The Meaning of Structure: Toward a New Reading of John Peale Bishop's Act of Darkness

Article excerpt

The critics of John Peale Bishop's Act of Darkness seem to have been compelled strangely to qualify their praise of the story by cavilling at its technique. Relying on the old dichotomy between form and content, Leslie Fiedler, for instance, confidently asserts: "Any teacher of composition could tick off its flaws; yet the tale it tells survives its technical ineptitude." (1) The two major flaws to which even well-disposed critics take exception relate to the handling of the point of view and the structure. In fact, Bishop's manipulation of viewpoints appears quite justified when, instead of looking for possible psychological motivation one examines its effects on the narration. (2) One of these already touches upon matters of structure. For the shift in focus emphasizes the absence of the act of darkness from the narration and its replacement by another scene--a substitution of great significance in a novel conspicuously concerned with desire and its displacements. But it is necessary to take a longer and closer look at the structuration of Act of Darkness.

The structural feature of the novel which has drawn the greatest critical fire is what Robert White calls "the collapse of the novel into two disjointed parts." If Leslie Fiedler mentions only in passing "its two halves which fall apart in tone and tempo," Mr. White deals less cursorily with this failing and his comments deserve to be quoted at length:

   The first half deals, in rather diffuse fashion with the death of John's
   father and with John's adolescent delights and misgivings. This section
   reports upon his relations with members of his family and with various
   citizens of Mordington, his boyhood readings, his companionship with other
   boys of the town, and the pangs and doubts attendant upon the first
   stirrings of his sexual urges. The second half focuses upon the "act of
   darkness" which gives the novel its title, and upon the consequences of
   that act: the denunciation of Charlie as a rapist, Charlie's trial and
   eventual imprisonment, and John's sickening after he has witnessed the
   shattering of the ideal he had imagined Charlie to be. (3)

"To a certain extent," Mr. White adds in all fairness, "these halves of the novel are not unrelated." But such connections as may exist seem in the end too weak to the critic:

   Ultimately (...) the first portion of the book fails to link up with the
   second half. Although the trial and shame of his uncle lead directly to
   John's illness, and are therefore bound up with his youthful fears and
   hopes, Charlie's trial is not consequent upon most of what goes on in the
   first half of the book. Charlie's trial is a public drama, but the opening
   half deals with the private world of John's adolescence. In the second
   half, until after the close of the trial, John's thoughts and actions are
   minimized. At the novel's close Bishop attempts to link up the two parts,
   but large fragments of the varied material of the first part refuse to lend
   themselves to such a fusion--and contribute little to what becomes the
   dominant concern of the book. (4)

The lack of unity of Act of Darkness is therefore to be explained by Bishop's failure to "weld into a coherent whole" his "two separate ends"--conveying the joys and terrors of John's adolescence and "establishing in firm outline the character of the community which finally brings Charlie Marston to trial." (5)

On the whole this interpretation of Act of Darkness seems to rest on a misconception of what the novel attempts to do. (As to what the novelist intended to do, only Bishop's notes and correspondence would enable one to advance a theory, and I can only work here on the evidence provided by the text of the Avon edition.) Certainly Charlie's trial is "not consequent upon most of what goes on" before, and neither is Rush's death, to give another example, because the unity of the book does not lie in the plot, understood as a causal sequence of events. …

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