A curious incident of mercury poisoning in a story

It’s got to be difficult being a prose writer, especially a richly imaginative one. To create a compelling narrator or character, the author has to limit her powers and ventriloquize the narrator’s voice or inhabit the character’s personality. Because the author is different from the devices she employs, and because so many possibilities clamor for her attention, it sometimes happens that the tension between what the author wants and what the narrator/character requires is so great that the act of ventriloquism breaks down.

As Wharton stammers in Ethan Frome, so too does London in To Build a Fire. Throughout the story, London calls attention to the man’s slow wit. He lacks imagination, we’re told several times. “He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances.” His head is empty of thoughts, especially abstract and metaphorical thoughts.

How comes it, then, that the man, in extremis, and running desperately to recover his rapidly waning warmth, suddenly makes an intriguing metaphorical comparison? “Somewhere he had once seen a winged Mercury, and he wondered if Mercury felt as he felt when skimming over the earth.”

A winged Mercury! Really?

I suppose the image presented itself to London in a flash, and was simply irresistible. He had to use it, even if it meant stuffing it in the man’s head, where it couldn’t possibly fit. 

As outlandish as this misstep is, it doesn’t prevent London from getting back into character, fast. In less than two paragraphs, the man makes another comparison, as he attempts to confront death with a modicum of dignity: “His idea of it was that he had been making a fool of himself, running around like a chicken with its head cut off — such was the simile that occurred to him.”

Now this comparison isn’t as striking and original as the winged Mercury. No, but at least it’s consistent with the man’s non-poetic and non-philosophical cast of mind.

4 Responses to A curious incident of mercury poisoning in a story

  1. Kerry says:

    The problem of balancing the thoughts and insights of a highly literate and imaginative author with those of a character who likely thinks largely in cliches is a real one. As you know, I am not convinced that Wharton stammered in Ethan Frome (though I see your point and grant a reasonable difference of opinion), but this example is definitely a good one. It could be painfully dull to get in the heads of most people, which may be why so many writers end up writing about writers. But something is definitely lost there too.

  2. nicole says:

    Ditto Kerry—I was also not quite convinced on Ethan Frome, but this seems a great example of the problem. I’m a bit sad to think, though, that this might be what drives writers to write so much about writers. Mostly because I’m not such a fan of that practice, not being a writer myself, and it seeming so unattractively self-referential.

  3. Ama says:

    We are told nothing of the man’s background, but anyone could have seen a statue or 2-D depiction of Mercury and noticed the wings at his feet – and even the name ‘Mercury’ beneath it. It’s just plausible enough that London didn’t need to cut it. I think that’s why he words it so carefully: “Somewhere he had once seen a winged Mercury”, as if the man can’t remember the details because they were unimportant to him at the time.

  4. For a man who lacks imagination (we’re told this countless times), it’s incongruous for him to wonder if his condition is like that of a winged Mercury flitting across the snow. Emphasis on “wondered.”

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