Ordeal by Aristotle

Literary criticism, when its purpose is to improve the object, is an arcane art, and any means of structuring the approach is welcome, however flawed it may be.

Many critics claim to have discredited Aristotle's Unites, which are summed up as follows:

  • Place. The setting of the play should be one location: in comedy often a street, in Oedipus Rex the steps before the palace.
  • Time. The action of the play should represent the passage of no more than one day. Previous events leading up to the present situation were recounted on stage, as Prospero tells Miranda of the events which led to their abandonment on the island.
  • Action. No action or scene in the play was to be a digression; all were to contribute directly in some way to the plot.
(from this post)

Clearly very few novels follow this sort of convention. However, an examination of a novel's deviations from the convention can reveal weaknesses.

I just finished work on two very different books, both of which have most of their action restricted both geographically and in a short time period.

Because of this, in both cases, when the action jumped out of the restricted location (in once case from inside a prison to outside, and in the other from Key West to New Orleans), it weakened the story. I think this is because stories that are restricted by any of the Unities become more intense, more absorbing. When the unity is broken, some of the intensity is lost.

Curiously, both novels also broke the unity of time in places. One of them suddenly allowed three weeks to skip by - an unfortunate necessity for the plot, but which broke the narrow focus of the action. The other had frequent tangential events and scenes that broke the flow of the main action.

In both cases I have yet to see how the authors deal with my remarks. One of the pleasures of the job is discovering both when they have accepted AND when they have rejected them!

In both cases, the comparison with the Unities shows that the more restrictions there are, the more intense the reading experience, and the greater the consequences of breaking the Unity.

No comments: