Yesterday we discussed how a memorable character need not be described in more than a few phrases to stick in our mind (as seen in Jane Austen’s minimalistic approach in describing Elizabeth Bennet). When an author uses this approach, we may not know the character’s hair color, their overall height or appearance, but a feature or two can be sufficient. To quote from Jane Austen in Persuasion, “A word, a look will be enough.”
Today, I wanted to examine the second option of describing a character. This time, the author gets to add some very specific details, but still refrains from giving a complete, entire dossier, covering form, figure,face, and features. I think Anna Karenina falls under this category.
The novel starts with her brother expecting her visit, which he hopes will clear up all his marital complications. Yet chapters pass by before she finally shows up, and when she does make her appearance, it is in the following paragraph.
“Vronsky followed the guard to the carriage, and at the door of the compartment he stopped short to make room for a lady who was getting out. With the insight of a man of the world, from one glance at this lady’s appearance Vronsky classified her as belonging to the best society. He begged pardon, and was getting into the carriage, but felt he must glance at her once more; not that she was very beautiful, not on account of the elegance and modest grace which were apparent in her whole figure, but because in the expression of her charming face, as she passed close by him, there was something peculiarly caressing and soft.
As he looked round, she too turned her head. Her shining gray eyes, that looked dark from the thick lashes, rested with friendly attention on his face, as though she were recognizing him, and then promptly turned away to the passing crowd, as though seeking someone. In that brief look Vronsky had time to notice the suppressed eagerness which played over her face, and flitted between the brilliant eyes and the faint smile that curved her red lips. It was as though her nature were so brimming over with something that against her will it showed itself now in the flash of her eyes, and now in her smile. Deliberately she shrouded the light in her eyes, but it shone against her will in the faintly perceptible smile.”
And that’s it. We don’t know her hair color until she takes off her hat and kerchief in the next chapter (and then we’re told it’s black and curly). We don’t hear about her throat, neck, and shoulders until the ball, when her dress shows off such features. And later, when she’s talking expressively, we hear about the rings on her hands and the elegance of her fingers.
Through Tolstoy’s skilled handling, we learn the details as we go. Despite the fact that this is an Omniscient narrator, we don’t get an info-dump of everything at once. We learn it all, piece by piece, as the details enter the minds of the characters and the plot of the story, and I think it works well. It satisfies readers who want some idea of what these people look like, but it avoids creating massive paragraphs that the non-visual reader will just skip.
Tomorrow, we will finish off our examination of memorable characters’ appearances by looking at the most involved description: everything more or less at once, as seen with Dickens’ Miss Havisham.
Copyright 2016 Andrea Lundgren
Photo courtesy of Gratisography, Creative Commons