Reading Like a Writer: Showing Through Telling in Wide Sargasso Sea
Show, don't tell. Right? Or maybe we're past that. Maybe we all know to do a little showing and a little telling, but to choose carefully the moments for each—when to glide quickly, when to linger in scene. Yes, much better advice.
But it still denies the complicated relationship that showing can have to telling. There are beautiful moments in literature that show through telling, that pretend to tell, but actually show a truth that is much more exquisite.
Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea is a novel about a Creole woman in early 19th century Jamaica who slowly, maybe, goes mad. It's also a prequel to Jane Eyre, but that seems secondary to the real story in the Caribbean.
I'd like to look at the spiraling emotions of Rochester (unnamed by Rhys), as they are shown to us, through his telling about his wife.
The brief passage I'm concerned with occurs after Rochester has married a woman he barely knows, loved her, and then been told horrible things about her. Rochester narrates the passage, but in it, the action has passed and he is just thinking.
In a technical sense, nothing is happening. It's only a man pacing a room (at least, that's how I picture it—even that action is uncertain) and stewing. For this reason, I believe most experts would consider it an example of telling. It's not the scene in which two characters love each other or the scene in which he learns of her past or the scene in which he locks her away—it's only him telling about those things.
But it's more complicated than that. Despite the way it ostensibly tells, this is as showing a scene as I've ever read. It shows the crescendo of a man's emotion—his temper, his rage, his growing certainty. Even though events are not unfolding action by action, in the real time of the story, something profound and explosive is happening in his mind.
When the character enacts a conversation with himself, we see him make decisions in real time. He's telling facts about his wife, but we also see his reactions to the things he tells through the way his perspective and his intentions change throughout the scene.
"She'll moan and cry and give herself as no sane woman would—or could. Or could." He's experimenting with language, searching for the right word and correcting himself as his feelings shift. We see that he is making sense of his situation as we watch. As Rochester tells about his wife, the author, Rhys, shows Rochester's words adjusting to the feelings that are swirling beneath them.
And these feelings are changing—that's the action that makes the passage a scene rather than a summary.
Rochester is re-imagining the past. The things that he once thought to be good about his wife are recast, reframed. And that's happening in this moment, as we read it. "You say I did? No. That was love's fierce play. Now I'll do it." He's not just telling the story, he's inventing the story as he goes. What he once saw one way, he now reinterprets. He asks himself questions, changes his mind, and alters his understanding of past events.
And when he summarizes his future plans, he's not just telling about the future, he's determining it. "She'll not laugh in the sun again. She'll not dress up and smile at herself in that damnable looking-glass. So pleased, so satisfied." There's the sense that he is making up his mind, in the moment, as he narrates. His decisions are emerging and evolving in response to his reflections.
"She said she loved this place. This is the last she'll see of it." The fact, the memory of what she said, inspires the promise. A sentence springs up in response to the previous one. So these two sentences are showing a cause and effect. An action and a reaction.
Think of every action having an equal reaction. A recoil. A backfire. We see this happening. As Rochester remembers a thing, he responds with a new thought—not a planned one, but one that emerges in direct response to the old thought.
So this part of the novel, which seems to be merely summary, has immense action in it—the action of surging emotions.
I think that showing and telling, and the occasions for each, are important things to think about when writing fiction, but I don't think the two are mutually exclusive or easy to separate. A close read of Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea and the rants of her narrator can illustrate the complicated relationship between them.
Do you agree that good writing requires both showing and telling? Have suggestions for future book reviews? Join the bookish conversation on Twitter with hashtag #ReadingLikeAWriter.
Allison Wyss is teaching "Reading Like a Writer: The Best Book Club Ever" and "Flash Fiction: The Power of Brevity in a Multitasking World" this fall at the Loft. Her stories have appeared in [PANK] Magazine, The Southeast Review, The Golden Key, Metazen, MadHat (Mad Hatters' Review), The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, and Juked. She has an MFA from the University of Maryland. She tweets, mostly about writing, as @AllisonWyss.