A Rule of Storytelling and Unhappiness

As my friend began reading William Morris’s News From Nowhere, or, An Epic of Rest, I thought I might take that journey too–and the existence of an audio recording guaranteed it

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. (Plus, what a great damn subtitle to entice a guy like me!)

I’ve only just started, just now finishing Chapter 5 on this morning’s dog walk.

One thing I wanted to note and think about was this scene about “story-telling” from Chapter 3.

When he was well gone, I said: “Is it wrong to ask what Mr. Boffin is? whose name, by the way reminds me of many pleasant hours passed in reading Dickens.”

Dick laughed. “Yes, yes,” said he: as it does us, I see you take the allusion. Of course his real name is not boffin, but Henry Johnson; we only call him Boffin as a joke, partly because he is a dustman, and partly because he will dress so showily, and get as much gold on him as a baron of the Middle Ages. As why should he not if he likes? only we are his special friends, you know, so of course we jest with him.”

I held my tongue for some time after that; but Dick went on:

“He is a capital fellow, and you can’t help liking him; but he has a weakness; he will spend his time in writing reactionary novels, and is very proud of getting the local colour right, as he calls it; and as he thinks you come from some forgotten corner of the earth, where people are unhappy, and consequently interesting to a story-teller, he thinks he might get some information out of you. O, he will be quite straightforward with you, for that matter. Only for your own comfort beware of him!”

“Well, Dick” said the weaver, doggedly, I think his novels are very good.”

“Of course you do,” said Dick; birds of a feather flock together; mathematics and antiquarian novels stand on much the same footing.

Perhaps you’ll recall how Tolstoy opens Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Again, apparently, this is a rule of storytelling, yes? If all happy families are alike there is one Happy Story (boring!). But unhappiness is legion!

This calls into question the value of making unhappy stories doesn’t it? If the Greeks tell us we learn by suffering (and not by choice), should we wish to learn at all? Of course, all this seems to mean is that if you live you learn that suffering is what living is!

As for mathematics and antiquarian novels, I suppose I’ll need to read/listen farther to get Morris’s point.

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