The Epistolary Novel, Revisited
The epistolary novel structure, first produced by accident in The Persian Letters by Charles Secondat de Montesquieu, is a series of fictional letters or other forms of communication. The structure allows a writer to present different people’s perspectives and experiences, often while they are in separate locations, while still advancing the plot of the novel. However, the epistolary technique depends on two things: the natural limitations of the individual letter writer’s perspective and the fact that the letter writer cannot communicate directly or in “real time” with the letter recipient. Although the epistolary structure can be extremely useful in terms of conflict and character development, it presents challenges to the author when the needs of the plot require characters to “write” in an unnatural way that interferes with the reader’s suspension of disbelief. This essay, using examples chiefly from The Persian Letters, will identify the key ways in which the epistolary structure contributes to character and plot development. It will discuss the weaknesses inherent in the structure, address problems presented by modern communication, and present an example of a modern science fiction novel that relies on epistolary tradition in a very successful way.
The Persian Letters were first published in 1721. A great commercial and critical success, the Letters were not originally intended to be a novel so much as a collection of interesting, though fictional, discussions and satires. It was not until well after publication that Montesquieu and others noticed that The Persian Letters had all the characteristics of a novel and could be marketed and presented as such, particularly after Montesquieu added a few key letters to the sequence to emphasize the dramatic elements of the story. As the work was translated and distributed, other authors noticed the potential of the “letter novel” and began using the structure themselves.
The epistolary novel provides outstanding opportunities for character development. Since the characters in an epistolary novel cannot respond to one another conversationally, they must “speak” at length in their unique narrative voices. In the process they reveal their biases, their mannerisms, their level of education, their emotional states, and their perceptions of other people. The reader sometimes receives more than one description of a character or event, and how a character describes something can say as much about the narrating character as it does about the subject being described. Usbek, for example, reveals himself as a self-absorbed hypocrite who lies to his friends.
One of the first challenges of writing an epistolary novel is in creating a plausible letter. Lengthy descriptions of settings, events, emotional reactions, and other subjects are believable only when the thing being described is unfamiliar to the letter writer, the recipient, or both. The satirical descriptions of the Pope, King Louis XIV, the Opera dancer, and others work brilliantly because the Persian travelers are looking at French culture and politics through foreign eyes with narrative voices that are already well established. The format also works when the characters are sharing allegorical stories about the Troglodites or events out of Islamic legend: one character is communicating something to another character that he or she cannot be expected to know.
The epistolary structure provides all the benefits of the first person singular narrator, including limitations in perspective that allow characters to guess wrongly, make mistakes, and make important decisions based on incomplete or wrong information. Misunderstandings are a useful source of character development and plot conflict. In The Persian Letters, Usbek punishes one of his Zachi for Zéphis’s indiscreet behavior with a female slave. He uses the Eunuchs to control and punish his wives, but the women play Usbek off against the Eunuchs and sometimes against one another. Meanwhile, one of Usbek’s wives has corrupted the Chief Eunuch and possibly others, and is using him to deliberately betray Usbek in the most hurtful way possible. The Chief Eunuch, confiding in a man he considers to be an old friend, says that he has been compromised and manipulated by a beautiful young woman, but he does not say who it is. The letter format allows anything not explicitly stated in the letter to be ambiguous. An astute reader might guess that the traitor in the seraglio is Roxana, because Usbek’s account of the young woman’s decision to run and hide in the seraglio corresponds a little bit with the Chief Eunuch’s account of the circumstances surrounding his moral problem, and because the Chief Eunuch dies suddenly after informing Usbek about the trouble in the seraglio.
Unreliable narrators are extremely useful to an author: there is no good way to know for certain who, if anyone, is telling the truth. In The Persian Letters events proceed until the disorder becomes obvious enough to be noticed outside the seraglio. The Chief Eunuch, for example, communicates only the vaguest version of the goings-on to Usbek, who responds furiously. Had Usbek and the Chief Eunuch been able to simply speak to one another, many of the misunderstandings could have been averted.
When using an epistolary structure, the author is in full control of timing and pacing. By allowing time to pass between letters, the author can compress the time and move to the next relevant event much like a Shakespearean play is divided into scenes that are always sequential but sometimes separated in time by hours, days, or more. To increase the reader’s sense of tension, the author can introduce other letters, subplots, and discussions of unrelated subjects. This has the effect of pausing one story line while advancing another. Even the time delay between when a letter is written and when it is received can advance the plot. In The Persian Letters, Montesquieu allowed four to six months of travel time for each letter to go from Isfahan to Paris or vice versa. Having to wait up to a year for a response to a question guaranteed that urgent matters could not actually wait upon Usbek’s decision. Usbek’s orders to enforce order in the seraglio do not arrive in time: the Chief Eunuch dies suddenly and is replaced by a man who does not open Usbek’s letter. Usbek’s next letter disappears because the courier is robbed. Such events, completely plausible in the 17th century, allow the disorder in the seraglio to grow unchecked until Usbek orders the sadistic Solim to enforce his will. The rigor and severity with which Solim obeys sets off a final rebellion. As a plot device, the delays work because of the distance and technology involved in corresponding by letter. Indeed, Samuel Richardson, known for his 18th century epistolary novels including the two-volume Pamela published in 1740, made use of purloined or intercepted letters as a plot device.
The epistolary structure has weaknesses. The narrative becomes artificial and unbelievable every time the author tries to present information that is known to one or both characters but unknown to the reader. Human beings never speak or write to one another about things that are familiar to both of them. They point out only what is novel or unexpected. For this reason, the reader never learns what colors the curtains are in Usbek’s seraglio or how many pillows Zachi has in her bedchamber. Nor do we have a reasonable physical description of Usbek himself. The reader’s imagination must fill in the blanks. When this principle is violated and the author sacrifices verisimilitude in order to convey information, such as in Usbek’s patronizing lectures about seraglio rules, suspension of disbelief becomes harder. Zachi’s spicy letter to Usbek, dated almost immediately after his departure, comes across as gratuitous eroticism at first. Only by the middle of the novel will the reader realize that each narrator recounts a version of the past that best appeals to them and that explains his or her actions in a positive way. Usbek’s decision to flee Ispahan, for example, cannot be based solely on his supposed inability to flatter people: he displays great skill in flattering learned religious men.
Lack of realism is a second major weakness of the epistolary convention. In order to suspend disbelief, the reader must believe that the letter writer is actually literate or writing through others. This is not always a reasonable assumption. Usbek’s wives and slaves show a remarkable level of literacy in a country and era wherein intellectuals were frequently put to death. Although it is plausible for Usbek, Rica, and the learned men with whom they communicate to be literate, the same assumption is not valid for the wives and lower-ranking slaves.
To be plausible, the epistolary novel requires physical separation between the letter writer and the addressee, because people only write things they cannot say in person. Usbek and Rica do not write to one another except when one of them is not in Paris, because it is more efficient to simply meet and talk in person. But the correspondence with Ibben in Smyrna and Rhedi in Venice is perfectly believable, because no other means for communication exists. This fact of logistics poses a problem for a modern author, because beginning in the late 19th and early 20th century, inventions such as the telegraph and telephone made it possible for people to communicate over long distances to have a real-time discussion. An epistolary structure is only possible if the novel is set in the distant past or if there is a reasonable explanation why the characters can’t simply talk to each other.
A final valid criticism of the epistolary convention is the impossibility of accurately or realistically depicting incidents in which there were no survivors. First-person death scenes are almost impossible to present plausibly. Roxana’s death, for example, is sensational but ridiculous. Having just murdered several of Usbek’s Eunuchs and taken poison, she supposedly has just enough strength to write one last letter of several paragraphs, address it, and send it off to be delivered by someone for whom delivering a letter is more important than a seraglio full of dead bodies. Contrast this with Gustave Flaubert’s Realist depiction of Emma Bovary’s death, with all its doubts, hallucinations, and gritty details. It required an omniscient narrator simply because the only person to experience Emma’s last interaction with Raoul, her troubled and hallucination-plagued walk home, her demands to the apprentice pharmacist to give her arsenic, and her agonizing death was Emma herself, yet part of the horror and pathos of her death comes from the sincere reactions of the other innocent people around her. Roxana’s death scene, by contrast, is almost comical.
Later authors found a way to modify the epistolary style to present objective information: they included other sources of written information such as newspaper articles, transcriptions of interviews, or diary style notes. In Dracula, published in 1897, Bram Stoker created a newspaper article and a ship’s log to describe an incident in which the crew and captain of a ship were all murdered during the voyage. These techniques allowed the modified epistolary novel to survive even into the modern day. The Martian was written primarily in a log-style format in which Mark Watney, an astronaut stranded on Mars, narrates his experiences in a verbal log because communications problems and physical distance prevent him from having a normal conversation with another human being. Modern authors also incorporate diary entries, interview transcripts, and other forms of written communication to vary the narrative style and to present information that cannot be conveyed by letter.
The epistolary format has changed significantly since its introduction. Reader expectations have shifted toward the vivid Realist-inspired descriptions of settings and characters, and changes in technology have rendered traditional letter writing almost obsolete. Unless a story is set in an era and culture when letter writing was common, the people doing the reading and writing were predominately literate, and the exchange of letters represented the most efficient form of communication between characters, a pure epistolary novel simply is no longer credible. But the influence of the epistolary novel can be found in the diary format, and hybrid formats that use epistolary structure selectively as plot and setting permit.
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