Who put the overalls in Mrs Murphy’s chowder?

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  • Published 20101207
  • ISBN: 9781921656187
  • Extent: 264 pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm), eBook

EVERY WORK OF fiction, regardless of length or genre, is to some extent a kind of mystery offered to the reader; every work of fiction has its plot. Every work of fiction in some way troubles its reader, and tries to bring some form of solace, whether bitter or sweet. It is its own kind of question and its own kind of answer, taking the reader into itself as part of the fabric, part of the business that fiction has with the world.

This year is the sixty-fifth anniversary of Tove Jansson’s first Moomin book. One of the great treasures in my bookcase is a 1953 copy of a picture book called The Book about Moomin, Mymble and Little My. Moomintroll, in the course of carrying home a can of milk, helps Mymble to discover her lost sister, Little My. There is one episode per page, and the question is, will they find Little My and get the milk home to Mother? You are dealing with a page-turner, since each page ends with the question ‘What do you think happened then?’

Here is plot reduced to its simplest elements. Situation, character, danger, resolution. Not quite the regulation sometimes put forward: situation, complication, rising action, climax, falling action, denouement (which don’t have to happen in that order). But near enough. You get the question and the tension as the answer comes in steps, as new dangers are put in the way. In case you are wondering, they do get home safely, but unfortunately the milk has curdled. As a cute coda, Mother says they will have strawberry juice instead. Always, as it happens.

It is the repetition of the question ‘What do you think happened then?’ that often comes back to me when I am thinking about plot in fiction. Because I love the way the reader is involved in the business of it all. And in this particular story, the reader is constantly taken by surprise and thrown off balance by the trademark Jansson mixture of mild terrors and delicious, whimsical beauty.

I often find it difficult, analysing fiction in hindsight, to separate plot from other elements, such as character and situation. It is even more difficult when I am the creator of the story, on the other side of the business, to separate them during the process of writing the work. I sometimes talk to groups who are studying the art of writing fiction, and I find that frequently there is a deep-seated notion that fiction writers begin by writing an outline of the plot of their short story or novel. Perhaps some writers do this, and do it successfully, but I am inclined to agree with Stephen King who, in On Writing (2000), expresses a strong opposition to this view. And I think there is much for a student to lose by trying to begin with a plot outline. When the work is finished, it will be possible to look back on it and analyse the plot, if that is something required by teachers and supervisors. But not before.

Stephen King speaks of writing fiction as the act of digging out fossils, discovering part of an ‘undiscovered, pre-existing world’. He is vehement, saying that to make plot outlines is ‘clumsy, mechanical, anti-creative’. He points out that writing fiction is not a fully conscious and mechanical process, that much of what goes on is located in the writer’s unconscious.

But it is also useful and instructive for a reader (and a prospective writer) to analyse the plots of fiction when the fiction is complete. Hold up the fossil to the light. I mean, you can analyse the things you read, and I also think that in doing so you can gain insight and inspiration for your own Kingean excavations of the fossils from that pre-existing world.

An analysis of the psychological horror novel Misery, for example, is instructive in the light of what its author says about plotting. ‘Plotting and the spontaneity of real creation are not compatible.’ But of course there is a plot. He just didn’t put it there – he dug it up from the matrix of his own fertile imagination and let it loose.

EM Forster talks about plot in Aspects of the Novel (1927). He is, though, discussing the thing after the event, not what happens in the early stages of the writing process. He explains that there is a difference between ‘story’ and ‘plot’. He says that plot tells what happened and why, and gives meaning to it. But when speaking of ‘story’ his language grows ugly, and he says that story is ‘the chopped-off length of the tapeworm of time’, it is ‘mindless time-killing curiosity’. Ouch. Story, he says: ‘The king died and then the queen died.’ Plot, he says: ‘The king died and then the queen died of grief.’ All he has really done there is show how to make two facts interesting by making the second one consequential, something people do regularly when telling tales anyway.

I think Forster was splitting hairs by dividing up story and plot like that; however, his assertion that plot is a ‘writer’s arrangement of events’ that will express that writer’s ‘attitude to the human condition’ is fair enough, I suppose, if a bit grand.

Plot can often be boiled down to a very simple question like: Who killed Cock Robin? Who stole the tarts? Will Elizabeth Bennet marry Mr Darcy? This is not plot summary, but rather quick-fix plot essence. Some questions are more complicated than others, some answers more interesting than others. The how and why of the things that happened are what readers (and writers) love to know. Readers love the shocks and surprises, the twists and turns, the magical mystery tour of a well-managed plot as the writer’s ‘attitude to the human condition’ is gradually revealed. Main plots and sub-plots often have fun with each other too.

Just as the Moomin line ‘What do you think happened then?’ pleasantly rings in my mind when I think about plot, so does the title of an old song I used to love playing on the pianola when I was a child, ‘Who Put the Overalls in Mrs Murphy’s Chowder?’ See how the situation and the character are beautifully bound up in the question. You want to know, don’t you? You want the terrible mystery solved. The matter arose from the rather horrible fact that Mrs Murphy did her washing and her cooking in the same vessel. She left the overalls in the pot by mistake, and then made the soup, and when she dished it up the overalls were discovered. She had the decency to faint.

I speak here of mystery. Plot always, I think, involves mystery, however slightly, and therefore will invite suspense. Satisfaction comes with some form of resolution.


NOW THAT I have boiled plot down (influenced perhaps by Mrs Murphy) to a question and an answer, I must speak of the importance of structure in the delivery of the goods. For the simple chronological accounting of the adventures of creatures such as the Moomins will not always do the trick. There will often be more than one question posed, and not all puzzles will necessarily be solved. Daphne du Maurier’sRebecca (1938) is notorious for leaving several key questions dangling. For some readers these gaps are part of the beauty of the whole; for others they are maddening flaws in the story. If you read du Maurier’s ‘The Rebecca Notebook’ you will see that she did a lot of planning, but the notes really outline her writing process; they are not strictly a plot summary.

The structure of a story will provide the real strength. And structure is in any case intricately bound up with the characters and the events, as well as the language and the tone. How does a writer put the elements of the plot before the reader’s mind? Thinking about the structure of The Great Gatsby (1925) is a favourite pastime of mine. Where does the writer begin, at what moment in the sequence of events? And how does the writer organise those events to deliver not only the plot, but also the key ideas which inform the work? Think of how the death of Rebecca, the mystery that drives Rebecca, is woven into the fabric of the narrative, and seeps and spills into the story all along the way. Maybe it doesn’t really matter about the unsolved bits that will forever dangle and tantalise.

Because the structure of The Great Gatsby places the death of Gatsby at the beginning, the question is, who was he and why did he die? The hit-run accident that marks the turning point in the plot does not feel accidental, but inevitable. It feels like part of the dreadful heart of the tragic fossil Fitzgerald brought to the surface and held up to the light. By the way, you can dig back into Fitzgerald’s short fiction and find the Gatsby fossil in various stages of revelation: in ‘Winter Dreams’ and ‘Absolution’.


KATHERINE MANSFIELD AND Anton Chekhov have been noted for the ‘slightness’ of their plots, although I wouldn’t characterise them in this way. The stories work on the level of metaphor, subtly moving their people into view, revealing their hearts and predicaments with a particular melody that is captured by the reader’s own heart. They don’t appear necessarily to follow the rigid progress from situation to denouement, although often these elements are delicately present within the fabric.

Here is the plot of Chekhov’s short story ‘The House with the Mezzanine’, sometimes called ‘An Artist’s Story’. The boiled-down version of the plot is, will the foreign artist marry the younger sister? (From the beginning the reader hopes not.)

The narrator is a snobbish romantic French artist who is renting a grand house in a Russian provincial town. He is depressed and uninspired until he meets a family – a mother and two daughters. He falls in love with them and their house. One daughter is fiercely determined to work for the betterment of the peasants, and constantly argues with the artist, while the other, Missy, is clearly falling in love with him. Finally he kisses Missy, and watches the green light in her mezzanine room until it goes out. The next day Missy disappears with her mother. She has told her older sister what has happened, and has been sent away to protect her from the decadent fool of an artist. His response is to leave in a huff. He returns after seven years to learn that the older sister is having a certain success in local politics, and that nobody seems to know what has become of the younger. He admits that he is gradually forgetting the house, but imagines that Missy is waiting for him somewhere. He is just as big a prejudiced fool as he always was. Missy has had a lucky escape. The dramatic success of Missy’s original banishment to her aunt’s house, resulting in her seven-year disappearance from view, is quite brilliant. The power of that older sister.

When I had finished reading this story for the first time I kept thinking about it, mentally going back over the details, relishing the success of the tone of voice which delivers the narrator, in his own words, up to the reader as the tedious creature he is. The question is, will he end up with Missy, and the hope is that he won’t. He doesn’t, and he hasn’t learnt anything about anything. Missy is safe somewhere – even, it seems to me, safe in the reader’s heart. (Perhaps incidentally passing on her green light to Jay Gatsby. I like to think so.) It may be a simple question this plot is

asking, but it is set within a vivid, highly textured and complex fabric of Russian life in the 1890s. It is a beautiful story of Missy’s lucky escape. The story is finely tuned to itself, working within its own metaphor to trouble and untrouble the reader’s mind and heart.

Katherine Mansfield’s ‘Miss Brill’ is another little masterpiece whose plot is often described as slight. The question hovers and quivers – a ‘chill from a glass of iced water before you sip’. Working always within her complex and subtle metaphoric fabric, Mansfield has this story quietly pose the question, is Miss Brill dying? Is this afternoon in the park her last? To say that the answer is yes is too crass, really, but the answer is yes. All the story asks you to do is to walk with it, and look deep into Miss Brill’s heart.

After reading a story by Mansfield or Chekhov you have a deep sense that something has happened. When I read my first Mansfield story, ‘The Fly’, at fifteen I knew with a jolt that something had happened in the story, almost when I wasn’t looking, and something also happened to me – I was in love with the short-story form. In The Common Reader (1925) Virginia Woolf explained that when you read Mansfield ‘the horizon widens, the soul gains an astonishing sense of freedom’. That seems right.


ONE OF THE dearest novels on my shelves is Austerlitz (2001), by WG Sebald. You could perhaps think that this book did not have a plot. Oh, but it does. The question is a simple one: who is Austerlitz and what does his life mean? The answer is the whole glittering melancholy hypnotic transcendent cello music of the grand and flowing narrative which enunciates the dispersal of the Jews from Prague and their ultimate destruction. In this novel the writer’s style and the plot are so entwined as to create their own form, but truly the plot is deep and strong and essentially simple.

I find it is a nice exercise – boiling stories and novels down to the simple plot questions, and then considering how the questions and their answers are inextricably woven into the other elements of the narrative. The simple questions remain throughout, underneath everything, tapping away at the reader, keeping the reader going, turning the pages to find the answers, taking pleasure in the twist and turns and highs and lows. In a sense every work of working fiction is a puzzle the story poses to the reader. Will the son inherit after all? Will the young man write the great man’s biography? Will Little Dorrit marry Arthur Clennam? Will Jane Eyre find happiness? Who killed Cock Robin?

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