Photo Credit: The title page for the first edition of Charlotte Bronte’s The Professor (when she was writing under the male pseudonym of Currer Bell), published by Smith, Elder, 1857: INeverCry/ Wikimedia Commons/PD Old
“Adaptation is a kaleidoscopic way of understanding human nature, and a novelistic technique for showing that character isn’t fixed.” (Nichols, par. 2)
I recently read an article that interested me by Catherine Nichols called “One Weird Trick That Makes A Novel Addictive”. The “weird trick” Nichols refers to is adaptability. Nichols’ idea is that women writers (especially those of the past) use this trick more often than male writers and that it makes fiction more compelling.
According to Nichols, women writers show the shape shifting that occurs in female and male characters when it comes to relationships. Their characters pick up cues on how to think, behave, and speak and roll with them. The result, Nichols says, is that adaptability “makes a romantic plot like a murder mystery; the readers have the same clues as the detective.” (par. 8) In other words, instead of telling readers that the relationship has gone from friendship or attraction to love, readers are shown how that relationship came to develop.
An interesting perspective, this idea that male writers tend to portray relationships as more linear and somewhat more mysterious while women writers tend to favor adaptation as a way to show the development.
When you look at gender relations from a historical perspective, this becomes a bit more understandable. Feminist theory contains the idea of objectification. Although objectification is usually thought of in more sexualized terms (i.e., women being used as objects of desire in the beauty industry and pornography) there is also the idea that, historically, the woman was the object and (until fairly recently) on the peripheral of society and social norms. The male was the subject and the standard by which she was judged and by which she measured herself. The standard (male) was almost never asked to see himself in relation to the peripheral so he saw things as more straight and stagnate. Woman-as-object, on the other hand, was constantly required to move, adjusting and readjusting. In many ways, women are still on the peripheral and required to adjust and adapt. In this light, we might imagine that women writers are used to adapting more than male writers, or, rather, they have to consider it more, even if they are subjects of their own lives.
It’s not only feminists that consider the idea of adaptability but psychologists as well. In his book, When The Body Says No: Understanding The Stress-Disease Connection, Gabor Mate highlights the fact that humans are social beings and as such, are constantly behaving and feeling in ways that are in tune or go against what is around them:
“Our biological response to environmental challenge is profoundly influenced by the context and by the set of relationships that connect us with other human beings.” (Gabor, Ch. 14, page 188; emphasis added)
Our emotional connections are influenced, in other words, by everything that surrounds us – the people we chose to associate with, the places we live, the things we like and don’t like. Nothing happens in a vacuum and ” ‘[a]daptation does not occur wholly within the individual.’ ” (Gabor, Ch. 14, page 188)
I was recently rereading Henry James’ 1880 novella Washington Square. The work has always been a favorite of mine, both because I always admired James’ psychological fiction and also because of the amazing 1949 film The Heiress based on the book that won Olivia de Havilland an Oscar. In the book, Catherine Sloper, the rather plain-looking and not-very-bright daughter of a prominent doctor with monetary prospects is wooed by Morris Townsend, a dashing but mercenary young man. In the book, the reader, never really see the full development of Catherine’s love for Morris, so undying that she is willing to defy her father, give up a big part of her inheritance, and elope with him. James draws the psychological reality of Catherine’s character so well that we can understand why she would fall in love with Morris but we never really see the development of her emotions from shyness to adoring love. We never see the process. In fact, James seems much more interested in showing us how Morris manipulates his way into Catherine’s life and the lives of those around her, playing on their weaknesses with his charm and good looks. Morris, however, isn’t adapting but rather playing his cards carefully with the full expectation that they will win him the prize he is after. This is very different from adaptability, where the shape shifting occurs more in an unconscious way of managing the relationship.
This contrasts Charlotte Bronte’s 1857 novel The Professor which I just started rereading. Bronte seems to comply with Nichols’ idea that women writers seem more attuned to adaptability and not just in male/female relationships but in any relationship. Bronte shows this adaptability between two brothers. William, the youngest son of a merchant, has finished his studies at Eton and is now a young man of nineteen looking to make his fortune. Rejecting his uncles’ offer of a clergyman position, he decides to follow in his dead father’s footsteps and go into business. His older brother Edward runs a successful mill so William writes him for a job, which he reluctantly agrees to give. Their first conversation in Edward’s office about the job demonstrates Bronte’s awareness of how important adaptability can be. Edward, a hard, stoic man, puts control and pride above everything else and freely bullies his younger brother. William, whom Bronte has presented as an easy-going and eager young man, adapts quickly to his brother’s personality. He reacts with a self-righteousness that makes him appear almost as prideful as his brother. When Edward outlines the terms for William’s employment in his mill (making it clear that he should expect to work hard for his salary and not expect special treatment), William’s response contains the same coldness and distance that his brother’s conveyed:
“ ‘I suppose you mean that I am to do my work for my wages; not to expect favour from you, and not to depend on you for any help but what I earn; that suits me exactly, and on these terms I will consent to be your clerk.’
I turned on my heel, and walked to the window; this time I did not consult his face to learn his opinion: what it was I do not know, nor did I then care.” (Bronte, Ch. 2, location 387)
William has now figured out how the relationship with Edward is going to go down and has adopted himself accordingly.
One of my fascinations as a writer has always been the way in which people respond not only to others in a given context but also how they watch themselves responding to these others. This is part of their psychological reality. In my novella The Order Of Agrios, the main character, Jake Alderdice, not only responds and adapts to the emotionally cruel treatment of his mother and the overprotective love of his sister, but also to the more hypermasculine demands of Stevens, the man he befriends during the family’s annual summer vacation in Waxwood. His desire to find his own definition of masculinity, both in the eyes of his mother and his friend, becomes the crux of the story.
I’m not sure I agree with Nichols’ assertion that adaptability is a literary trick (and I object to the word “trick”, since it implies something that is meant to deceive) or that it is mainly used by women writers. But adaptation engages readers because it gives them a map to follow in the relationship.
Bronte, Charlotte, Anne Bronte and Emily Bronte. The Complete Novels Of The Bronte Sisters. Karpathos Collection. 2016. Kindle digital file.
Mate, Gabor, M.D. When The Body Says No: Exploring The Stress-Disease Connection. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley and Sons, Inc. (2003). Kindle digital file.
Nichols, Catherine. “One Weird Trick That Makes A Novel Addictive”. Jezebel. Gawker Media. 2 August 2016. Web. 17 August 2016.