Walter Mencken 11:31 a.m., Feb. 1
- Community Blog
THE COHERENT PLOT OF GABRIEL CONROY (I)
This portion of the thesis discusses the skills and techniques Bret Harte uses to create a strong plot in Gabriel Conroy. One of these techniques is affective reading, which has been undervalued in critical analysis since the rise of New Criticism. A Harte scholar should consider affectively the sentimentality Harte is known for using in his writing. Central to pathos, Harte’s narrator in Gabriel Conroy uses diction and situation to create sentimental attachments between the novel’s reader and the Conroy family. The importance of family, especially from an anthropological awareness of human cohesion, contains a legitimate rhetorical strategy using an appeal to pathos. The technique of arousing a reader’s sympathies also makes the narrator seem credible because of his attention to the audience’s familial expectations. The narrator himself has the expectation that the reader, too, will feel. This thesis analyzes passages Harte uses to evoke sympathy or humor purposefully and with artistry. These affective qualities advance the plot such as in the death of Jack Hamlin. The ability to make a reader “feel” a text is crucial to record impressions of subjective and objective uses of rhetoric. These emotions even extend to Harte who dedicated the novel to Thomas Musgrave, Esq., a New York broker and financial benefactor who would support Harte at his lowest, living in abject poverty in Washington, D.C. during the winter of 1877 “relying on loans… in debt to hostellers, publishers, tailors, and grocers” (Scharnhorst, Letters 5). Harte’s purpose in the first chapter of Gabriel Conroy is to set a number of characters in motion with a targeted description of nature to show the diverse panorama of California in the years immediately preceding and following the Gold Rush. In Book First, set in 1848, snow is beautiful, introducing the novel, describing a snowy emptiness that hardens into the challenges of survival at Starvation Camp. The snow absorbs sound. A silence is affectively instilled, helping the reader drift into Harte’s characteristically long, absorbing descriptions of nature. The snow of the Sierras in winter is described as treacherous, devoid of sustenance (primarily food), obscuring pathways and tracks. It sets the stage for Harte’s wide-canvassed novel by offering a colorless locus. As the snow falls, it makes unintentional structures, such as a kind of snow cave amid cold wintry conditions. These structures become Starvation Camp. Describing a notice, Harte mirrors the historical example of the Donner Party, a “party of emigrants lost” with a list of character names (Gabriel 18). Isolation turns some of the pioneer party into animals, revealing killer instincts. It is here, in this setting that the principle characters of Gabriel Conroy, Grace Conroy, and Peter Dumphy emerge. It is in this place of treacherous desolation that Arthur Poinsett becomes an impostor. Peter Dumphy indulges in cannibalism. The revelation of silver by Dr. Devarges moments before dying is affectively suspenseful. The revelation of silver is additionally concentrated into an ideological structure (the beginnings of a plot) for the reader, who learns of lovers’ promises and oaths before dying. At night, Grace Conroy has a revelation by dream of a search party. The lovers, Grace Conroy and Arthur Poinsett (the latter known only by a false name, Philip Ashley), either elope or escape depending on one’s interpretation. Grace leaves the physical presence and care-giving obligations of Olympia “Olly” Conroy to her older brother, Gabriel. Nature provides a means of escape and rescue: first a descent (symbolic of moral turbidity and the inverted ascent of lovers’ hopes, especially of the naive and trusting, fifteen-year-old Grace Conroy). Then, a “barge” (a floating log) takes the lovers downstream where the setting becomes verdant and warm. The first introduction of civilization is coincidently presented by Harte as a wooden house with the first signs of hierarchy and class (Gabriel 49). Illustrated by the hospitable trapper and his “half-breed” wife, Harte seems to rationalize miscegenation. The miscegenation of the trapper and his mestiza wife signal the first sign of native Californian identity in the novel. At this moment of rescue, Harte places an interracial couple in a very favorable context. The trapper and wife are restorers of life for the desperate duo, Ashley and Conroy. Death as contrasted by life (the lovers’ rescue) shows how inverted orders arise in Starvation Camp: the civilized become savage; women are like men, men like women (referring to contemporary ideas of gender); snowy bleakness is predicted to give way to green woods and rivers in two months by the narrator; and a nearby respite amidst desolation occurs in that prophecy of dream-rescue, which had some faint resemblance of the self-fulfilling prophecy of Manifest Destiny. There is another more grotesque inversion. A cloth facsimile of a baby replaces a real one who had previously died on the pioneers’ trail. These inversions are clues to the tensions implicit in the pioneers’ situation: cannibalism, hopes of rescue, romantic love, character development through archetypes (clues of traits that continue through the narrative), survival instincts, madness, murder, the promise of wealth and fortune, as well as the conflicts of nature (snow, winter, the Sierras), biology, and psychology. These tensions reflect and enhance the motivations that introduce the first claims of identity in Gabriel Conroy.