“pausing in a puddle”: Conversation in Little Women (or so I claim)
Updated: Nov 8, 2020
There is a tendency in conversation in novels to split the words spoken and the way they are spoken apart. There are, of course, exceptions, emphasising and expressing tone – “Yes, it’s late, and I’m so tired” (Alcott 748) – and pauses or digressions: “Friedrich, why didn’t you ...” (751), “I like to know all about the — the boys” (744). A creative use of form – of punctuation and typography – allows for this.
In many cases, however, the indications as to tone of voice are presented in a manner closer to this one: “‘We thought you had gone,’ said Jo, hastily, for she knew he was looking at her” (743). First the words, then the manner of delivery. When reading these utterances, readers seem to be forced to revise them – or reimagine them – as they go along: “We thought you had gone” belatedly turns into ‘wethoughtyou’dgone.’ No space to breathe.
There is also the odd occasion, where tone proceeds utterance:
Mr. Bhaer saw the drops on her cheeks, though she turned her head away; the sight seemed to touch him very much, for suddenly stooping down, he asked in a tone that meant a great deal, – “Heart’s dearest, why do you cry?” (749)
In this case, we are prepared for what is to come. Even though “a tone that meant a great deal” is not a very specific description, it does provide readers with relational information: it “mean[s] a great deal” to the woman he speaks to. Besides, a man “pausing in a puddle to regard” his beloved “with grateful delight” (751) must be very serious.
Or quite confused.
Back on track: when looking more systematically at the conversation all the preceding examples have been taken from – i.e. Professor Bhaer’s proposal to Jo March in Luisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868 and 1869) –, the way Alcott manages this split of word and tone may appear a little less random. The split itself, of course, is necessitated by the medium. Alcott is off the hook. Mostly. Novels are linear. First they tell one thing and then the next. They cannot tell several things at once. There must be order and hence there must be choices. Part of the reason why vocal and other behavioural information is sometimes positioned before and sometimes behind the words spoken, is probably rather simple: variety. Some authors, of course, do ignore this urge to the most hilarious results:
‘Oh, help!’ said Pooh. ‘I’d better go back.’ ‘Oh, bother!’ said Pooh. ‘I shall have to go on.’ ‘I can’t do either!’ said Pooh. ‘Oh, help and bother!’ (Milne chapter 2, n.p.)
It goes without saying (does it, though? Confusing. Anyway…) that most vocal information in A. A. Milne’s classic comes after the utterance. Doesn’t exactly make reading Winnie-the-Pooh (1926) aloud a walk in the park. Except for when you know it by heart. Of course.
Back on track (II): when Professor Bhaer speaks, additional information on his voice relatively often precedes his words, especially before the actual proposal takes place (about four times before and four times after – but who’s counting?). With the proposal gotten over and done with – “Can you make a little place in your heart for old Fritz?” he added, all in one breath” (749) –, the pace speeds up and the ratio changes (one to seven – I’m counting!). It seems important to get the tone right as long as the confession remains unspoken from “politely” (742) to “gravely” (743) to the ominous “tone that meant a great deal,” after that, we know what’s what. Apparently: “‘Ah! thou gifest me such hope and courage, and I haf nothing to gif back but a full heart and these empty hands,’ cried the Professor, quite overcome” (759). There’s another form of vocal information here, too: foreign accent. Very nice. (Or not.)
What – if anything – can we take from this? Prose is bound to order. While it cannot escape this fact, it can make use of it. In our example, putting tonal information first may be taken literally. If it is positioned before the utterance itself, there may be a very good chance that it is of crucial importance at this point in the story and that – just maybe – it tells us more about the intentions, wishes and thoughts of the characters than their words do or can disclose. It also makes reading (aloud) easier. But that’s just my personal opinion. And as we all know: REVISION IS ALWAYS FUN. So they tell us. Imagination might grow rusty if we don’t use it.
And when seriously in doubt, there’s luckily always action: puddles and all that. They really say it all.
Alcott, Louisa May. Little Women. 1868, 1869. Puffin Books, 2014.
Milne, A. A. Winnie-the-Pooh. 1926. Egmont, 2010.