“Trilby” by Arthur Quiller-Couch

Story type: Essay

Sept. 14, 1895. Hypnotic Fiction.

A number of people–and I am one–cannot “abide” hypnotism in fiction. In my own case the dislike has been merely instinctive, and I have never yet found time to examine the instinct and discover whether or not it is just and reasonable. The appearance of a one-volume edition of Trilby–undoubtedly the most successful tale that has ever dealt with hypnotism–and the success of the dramatic version of Trilby presented a few days ago by Mr. Tree, invite one to apply the test. Clearly there are large numbers of people who enjoy hypnotic fiction, or whose prejudices have been effectively subdued by Mr. du Maurier’s tact and talent. Must we then confess that our instinct has been unjust and unreasonable, and give it up? Or–since we must like Trilby, and there is no help for it–shall we enjoy the tale under protest and in spite of its hypnotism?

Analysis of an Aversion.

I think my first objection to these hypnotic tales is the terror they inspire. I am not talking of ordinary human terror, which, of course, is the basis of much of the best tragedy. We are terrified by the story of Macbeth; but it is with a rational and a salutary terror. We are aware all the while that the moral laws are at work. We see a hideous calamity looming, approaching, imminent: but we can see that it is the effect of causes which have been duly exhibited to us. We can reason it out: we know where we stand: our conscience approves the punishment even while our pity calls out against it. And when the blow falls, it shakes away none of our belief in the advantages of virtuous conduct. It leaves the good old impregnable position, “Be virtuous and you will be happy,” stronger than ever. But the terror of these hypnotic stories resembles that of a child in a dark room. For artistic reasons too obvious to need pointing out, the hypnotizer in these stories is always the villain of the piece. For the same or similar reasons, the “subject” is always a person worthy of our sympathy, and is usually a woman. Let us suppose it to be a good and beautiful woman–for that is the commonest case. The gives us to understand that by hypnotism this good and beautiful woman is for a while completely in the power of a man who is ex hypothesi a beast, and who ex hypothesi can make her commit any excesses that his beastliness may suggest. Obviously we are removed outside the moral order altogether; and in its place we are presented with a state of things in which innocence, honesty, love, and the rest are entirely at the disposal and under the rule of malevolent brutality; the result, as presented to us, being qualified only by such tact as the author may choose to display. That Mr. du Maurier has displayed great tact is extremely creditable to Mr. du Maurier, and might have been predicted of him. But it does not alter the fact that a form of fiction which leaves us at the mercy of an author’s tact is a very dangerous form in a world which contains so few Du Mauriers. It is lamentable enough to have to exclaim–as we must over so much of human history–

See also  Idler 028 [No. 28: Wedding-day. Grocer’s wife. Chairman] by Samuel Johnson

“Ah! what avails the sceptred race
And what the form divine?…”

But it must be quite intolerable when a story leaves us demanding, “What avail native innocence, truthfulness, chastity, when all these can be changed into guile and uncleanliness at the mere suggestion of a dirty mesmerist?”

The answer to this, I suppose, will be, “But hypnotism is a scientific fact. People can be hypnotized, and are hypnotized. Are you one of those who would exclude the novelist from this and that field of human experience?” And then I am quite prepared to hear the old tag, “Homo sum,” etc., once more misapplied.

Limitation of Hypnotic Fiction.

Let us distinguish. Hypnotism is a proved fact: people are hypnotized. Hypnotism is not a delimited fact: nobody yet knows precisely its conditions or its effects; or, if the discovery has been made, it has certainly not yet found its way to the novelists. For them it is as yet chiefly a field of fancy. They invent vagaries for it as they invent ghosts. And as for the “humananum nihil a me alienum” defence, my strongest objection to hypnotic fiction is its inhumanity. An experience is not human in the proper artistic sense (with which alone we are concerned) merely because it has befallen a man or a woman. There was an Irishman, the other day, who through mere inadvertence cut off his own head with a scythe. But the story is rather inhuman than not. Still less right have we to call everything human which can be supposed by the most liberal stretch of the imagination to have happened to a man or a woman. A story is only human in so far as it is governed by the laws which are recognized as determining human action. Now according as we regard human action, its two great determinants will be free will or necessity. But hypnotism entirely does away with free will: and for necessity, fatal or circumstantial, it substitutes the lawless and irresponsible imperative of a casual individual man, who (in fiction) usually happens to be a scoundrel.

See also  The Greatest Good Of The Greatest Number by Gertrude Atherton

A story may be human even though it discard one or more of the recognized conditions of human life. Thus in the confessedly supernatural story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the conflict between the two Jekylls is human enough and morally significant, because it answers to a conflict which is waged day by day–though as a rule less tremendously–in the soul of every human being. But the double Trilby signifies nothing. She is naturally in love with Little Billee: she is also in love with Svengali, but quite unnaturally and irresponsibly. There is no real conflict. As Gecko says of Svengali–

“He had but to say ‘Dors!‘ and she suddenly became an unconscious Trilby of marble, who could produce wonderful sounds–just the sounds he wanted and nothing else–and think his thoughts and wish his wishes–and love him at his bidding with a strange, unreal, factitious love … just his own love for himself turned inside out–à l’envers–and reflected back on him as from a mirror … un écho, un simulacre, quoi? pas autre chose!… It was not worth having! I was not even jealous!”

This last passage, I think, suggests that Mr. du Maurier would have produced a much less charming story, indeed, but a vastly more artistic one, had he directed his readers’ attention rather upon the tragedy of Svengali than upon the tragedy of Trilby. For Svengali’s position as complete master of a woman’s will and yet unable to call forth more than a factitious love–“just his own love for himself turned inside out and reflected back on him as from a mirror”–is a really tragic one, and a fine variation on the old Frankenstein motif. The tragedy of Frankenstein resides in Frankenstein himself, not in his creature.

See also  Bruce At Bannockburn by Charles Morris

An Incongruous Story.

In short, Trilby seems–as Peter Ibbetson seemed–to fall into two parts, the natural and supernatural, which will not join. They might possibly join if Mr. du Maurier had not made the natural so exceedingly domestic, had he been less successful with the Trilby, and Little Billee, and Taffy, and the Laird, for all of whom he has taught us so extravagant a liking. But his very success with these domestic (if oddly domestic) figures, and with the very domestic tale of Little Billee’s affair of the heart, proves our greatest stumbling-block when we are invited to follow the machinations of the superlative Svengali. That the story of Svengali and of Trilby’s voice is a good story only a duffer would deny. So is Gautier’s La Morte Amoureuse; perhaps the best story of its kind ever written. But suppose Thackeray had taken La Morte Amoureuse and tried to write it into Pendennis!

Leave a Reply 0

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *