One of the things I’ve been fascinated by for years is the relationship between landscapes and characters in fiction. I wrote a senior thesis my junior year (I know) about the way Elizabeth Bennet and Margaret Hale experience their changing landscapes as part of their inward journeys. And it’s something I think about all the time as I’m reading and writing.
Apparently, Churchill once said “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” But I always have to look up that quote because I misremember it; I remember it as landscape. Buildings are part of landscapes, at least in the modern world, but they’re not the sum of it. And it’s both the buildings and the natural world that often shape that character and their journey.
What I’m talking about isn’t quite as simple as an author having a good sense of description. There are plenty of vivid settings that remain just settings. It is partly the details and the sense of place that the author provides, the tiny things that show us both what kind of place this is and the character’s relationship to it. But it’s also the intertwining of both character and setting so that the setting is almost an agent of the story itself.
I’ve mentioned North and South already, but it’s one of the stories that really started me thinking about this, so I’m going to pull it out a little bit more. Over the course of the story, Gaskell shows us Margaret’s changing relationship to both North and South; she starts off pretty whole-heartedly partisan for the south of England, for the gentle, beautiful, lost Helstone. It’s only as she comes to appreciate both the people and the land of the northern city of Milton that she can learn to also appreciate Mr. Thornton and join forces with him to unite the best of both. (And that also goes for Thornton himself, as the movie draws out.)
When I reread Gaudy Night recently, one of the things that struck me the most was Oxford’s role in the story. Throughout the previous books, Harriet and Peter have been on an unequal footing, both in terms of their worldly and romantic positions. Oxford acts as an equalizer and a tie between them: that still center that allows both to be their truest selves, to let down their barriers and admit the other. “
I also keep thinking about Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching series. In this case, it’s a little less of a clear-cut change in relationship. Tiffany is always a child of the Chalk. But I do think that we see her role evolve over the course of the books, as she grows into her powers, and as she becomes more and more part of the landscape itself. It’s in her nature and her power and her name, and it shows that there don’t necessarily need to be huge dramatic shifts for a story to be really effective.
Finally, I wanted to mention Mildred Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, because it is so centered on the Logan family’s land, the land that gives them strength and is a reminder of their rich heritage. I can’t think of another book where the characters and the landscape are so incredibly intertwined, where their struggle and journey and fate are so much a part of each other. (I have only read the first book in the series, so I don’t know how this changes, or doesn’t change, in the later books.)
This connection between the places we’re a part of and ourselves can be a really valuable tool in the hands of a thoughtful author. I can think of many more examples that I could highlight here–Sarah McCarry’s About a Girl comes to mind, for instance. But I’ll stop here and just say that I’m sure I’ll keep coming back to this theme in various ways, because it’s one that has a very potent resonance for me.