A pivotal scene in Middlemarch, George Eliot’s magnum opus and white whale of the average English fresher’s reading list, is the blossoming relationship between heroine Dorothea Brooke, and her dead husband’s younger, more attractive relative, Will Ladislaw. It reaches a sudden and immediately disruptive curveball as Will is caught by the ever-virtuous Dorothea in a compromising position with another woman, throwing a wrench in their courtship for a while, and leading to pages of Will’s introspective self-loathing as he berates himself for appearing unworthy of the impeccable object of his affections. Although the couple do find their happiness eventually, Will’s moment of apparent indiscretion almost destroys the dalliance before it begins.
The scandal in question?
Dorothea enters a room unannounced and spots another woman touching Will’s hand.
By modern standards, the summary of this crisis reads as almost slapstick in its minuteness. But the book itself has more or less withstood the test of time, and is even today widely regarded as one of the finest novels penned in the English language. And whilst the Will-Dorothea scandal is far from the most prominent plot point in the behemoth tome, it is still very much an inciting incident in the respective development of those characters and their relationship. It is, therefore, very much part of the success of the book – not simply a trapping of the social sensibilities of a bygone era that the rest of the novel’s prowess has managed to overcome.
The ability of classic literature to endure and strike us with as powerful and resonant emotional chords now as it did in its contemporaneous era is testament to the fact that the conflict characters and plots face does not necessarily need to be immediately or recognisably “relatable” to modern audiences to function.
It’s a sentiment that seems obvious. Lydia and Wickham running off unmarried, or Margaret Hale walking beside a man unaccompanied would hardly draw the kind of gossip in the current day and age as they do in Pride and Prejudice and North and South respectively. On the flip side, the rather more melodramatic conflicts at the center of ‘Tis a Pity She’s a Whore (in which a pair of siblings enter and adulterous, incestuous relationship and then the brother kills his sister and soliloquises to her heart as he holds it impaled on a dagger), or Wuthering Heights (in which Heathcliff and Cathy soliloquise to and about each other while generally doing their best to ruin lives in deliciously dramatic ways) don’t exactly ring of truth, as popular as they may be.
Whether by antiquated customs and ideals, or simply by being deliberately far removed from the realms of reality, the crises and conflicts that sit at the hearts of books are often alien to us in their most literal representation. But what makes literature such as Middlemarch or Wuthering Heights endure and capture the hearts and minds of readers even now is that their crises function on an emotionally resonant level, if not a practical or obviously accessible one.
The fact is that whilst the physical experiences undergone by various characters written into different worlds by different authors at different times cannot possibly retain universality, the substance of these various conflicts and crises stems from some of the most ubiquitous trials of human experience, both small and big. Will Ladislaw’s angst is accessible not because we understand Victorian ideas of propriety, but because most of us understand his feelings of inadequacy, the frailty that surrounds new and untested relationships, the worry that we may have done something to irreparably damage our chances.
Books can strive for anything from down-to-the-detail ‘realism’ to Gothic extravagances of the melodramatic, but the strength of their appeal lies in their understanding of the core of human experiences, no matter how they are dressed up and presented.
Conflicts in literature don’t work when they fail to resonate. A character having a crisis over something as removed from our understanding of reality as a scandalous elopement, but motivated by visceral and widely accessible human emotions (guilt, shame, or struggling with societal expectation) is far more impactful than a character struggling with a more ‘realistic’ problem but having no real depth for audiences to latch on to beyond plot-related concerns.
There’s no rule saying that the purpose of literature, or of any art, is to be relatable, but there is an undeniable power in art that is rooted in genuine experience. What makes the role of ‘crisis’ in literature over-the-top or out-of-touch, therefore, isn’t necessarily dramatic sequences of events or books set in worlds alien to our own. It is conflict written without an understanding of the emotional and internal forces that drive conflict in real life. It is an often-quoted piece of advice that writers should “write what you know,” but the sheer breadth of genre fiction makes it clear that taken literally, this sentiment is pointless and inapplicable.
What you know doesn’t have to be locations or events, but rather understandings of the interiority of people – the people who read your books and are by extension represented in them. Frodo Baggins’ quest to return the ring to Mordor whilst resisting its temptation may not be nearly as recognisable a crisis to us as Pippin and Merry’s constant concerns about their next meal, but the idea of temptation, of the insecurity and anxiety that surrounds an ordinary person being burdened with an overwhelming responsibility, is perhaps a far more widely recognisable struggle than a casual glance at an epic fantasy would betray.
Conflict, struggle, choice – all these things are the bread-and-butter of developing plot, raising stakes, and growing characters. But they also form the backbone of the kinds of struggles each of us face in daily life, and it is in understanding this commonality that they key to successfully writing a crisis lies.