Wild and Knotty Worlds: The Psychological Crucible

Crucible Pic

Photo Credit: a crucible used in the Czochralski method (a method of extracting crystals), taken by Twisp on August 25, 2005: Twisp/Wikimedia Commons/PD self

“[T]he writer who possesses the creative gift owns something of which he is not always master—something that, at times, strangely wills and works for itself.” (Bronte, “Editor’s Preface”, location 561)

One plot device many writers use is the crucible. Literally, a crucible is a container that can withstand pressure and heat. I was first introduced to the idea of the crucible in fiction in Sol Stein’s book Sol On Writing. A literary crucible is about giving characters a limited space and watching the sparks fly. Jason Cantrell, in his blog post “The Crucible” describes the concept in this way:

“The idea is to take a group of characters in a setting or situation where they either physically cannot leave (such as characters sharing a prison cell or stranded on a deserted island), or where ‘the motivation of the characters to continue opposing each other is greater than their motivation to run away.’” (Cantrell, par. 6)

Cantrell and Stein’s concept of the crucible in fiction is primarily physical (prison cell or deserted island) or emotional (like a marriage). But there is also the psychological crucible. This takes the crucible and adds psychological elements. Many times, writers know these elements well, as they come from their own experience and this creates a more complex pressure cooker in for the characters and story. While literary crucibles are not pleasant places (because sparks don’t fly when everyone is having a good time), the psychological crucible adds an element of darkness and psychological reality that comes from the characters and the author.

A few weeks ago, I talked about Charlotte Bronte’s well-intended but misguided preface to the second edition of her sister Emily’s book, Wuthering Heights, in this blog post. Charlotte’s preface to the 1850 edition of the book uses an apologetic tone regarding Emily’s unconventional imagination. Charlotte acknowledges “‘Wuthering Heights’ must appear a rude and strange production.” (“Editor’s Preface”, location 504) to many people, especially the audience reading books in mid-19th century Britain – upper middle class and upper class Londoners. It is to this readership Charlotte apologizes for the troubling and disturbing nature of Emily’s work:

“Men and women who, perhaps, naturally very calm, and with feelings moderate in degree… will hardly know what to make of the rough, strong utterance, the harshly manifested passions, the unbridled aversions, and the headlong partialities of unlettered moorland hinds.” (“Editor’s Preface”, location 504-510)

This rough and harsh world of the Northern England moors was what Emily knew best and because of this, she transformed this strange crucible into a masterpiece. Charlotte explains Emily, like all the Bronte children, grew up isolated from the cosmopolitan worlds of London and the bigger cities and remained so for most of her life. In spite of this, “she knew [the people]: knew their ways, their language, their family histories; she could hear of them with interest, and talk of them with detail, minute, graphic, and accurate…” (“Editor’s Preface”, location 527). These are the details from which she creates the world of Wuthering Heights, filled with fascinating if coarse and violently passionate characters. The book is a classic because Emily did not simply copy the books being written by women at the time (many of them sentimental genteel romances) but created a book “hewn in a wild workshop, with simple tools, out of homely materials” (“Editor’s Preface”, location 568).

Another writer who incorporated a psychological crucible out of what he knew into his fiction was Paul Bowles. In his second book Let It Come Down, Bowles explains in the preface the circumstances that led to writing the book. The setting is Tangier where Bowles lived off and on for more than forty years. The area went through political strife in the 1950’s in the International Zone, a neutral area of Tangier with its own governing body where many expatriots from different countries lived in the first half of the 20th century. The book was published in 1952, the same year of riots that broke the International Zone and delivered it into the hands of the Moroccan government. Yet the book tells the story of characters living in the International Zone as if it still existed. Bowles himself admits the strangeness of a story that “even at the time of publication… already treated … a bygone era, for Tangier was never the same after the 30th of March 1952” (Let It Come Down, “Preface”, location 80-86). The world Bowles depicts is one that is dream-like and nightmarish, off-putting and attractive, warm and hostile. Strange people with their own agendas and their own definition of morality populate the book. One of the fascinating things about Bowles’ novels is how he makes Tangier an active character in the story. In the preface to this book, he writes:

“The hero is a nonentity, a ‘victim’, as he describes himself, whose personality, defined solely in terms of situation, elicits sympathy only to the extent to which he is victimized.” (“Preface”, location 111l; emphasis added)

In other words, Nelson Dyer, the main character, is unlike most heroes who direct his own destiny. Dyer is swept along by the strange and shady characters he meets who are part of the tapestry of the International Zone and reacts rather than acts in accordance to their agendas rather than creates his own.

Bowles also uses the psychological crucible of North Africa in his first novel, The Sheltering Sky. Published in 1949, the novel captures the kind of inertia and aimlessness many post-WWII Americans felt at the time exacerbated by the alienation of the North African deserts. However, Bowles incorporated, as he usually did, people from his own life into the characters of his books. He tells an interesting story in the preface of how the character of Kit Morseby came about:

“I knew that I was embarking on a long voyage, but I felt I should be in the company of a woman – a wife preferably – who would be in an adjacent room. The only girl I had ever traveled with was my wife Jane. And so, I invented the wife immediately, knowing that she would accompany me throughout the journey. Thus a counterfeit Jane became my companion” (The Sheltering Sky, “Preface”, pg. 5).

Unlike F. Scott Fitzgerald, who used his wife Zelda in an exploitative way to build his own literary success (something I talk more about here), Bowles modeled Kit after his wife, quirky and fascinating writer Jane Bowles but he was less interested in capturing her unique personality for his own ends and more interested in building a character that would accompany him throughout the writing journey and also because he knew some of Jane’s characteristics (like her phobias) would create more tension in the psychological crucible of the story.

I like to use the psychological crucible in my own fiction as well. I have always been fascinated by small towns somewhat isolated but still in relative proximity to larger cities so the characters’ seclusion becomes self-imposed, a way to protect themselves from the larger world the cities represent. For my Waxwood series, I chose a fictional town I named Waxwood for the setting of all three novellas. Though somewhat inspired by visits to seaside towns in Northern California like Carmel and Monterey, I was interested in creating a crucible that would mirror the overblown standards of the Alderdice family (the Alderdices are a wealthy San Francisco family and the matriarch, Larissa, has an outdated sense of her position in society even as she is aware the privilege and entitlement wealthy people had in the Gilded Age is long gone). I also wanted the crucible to psychological significance for the family and edge the family into facing the secrets they don’t want to face and end up destroying some members while rebuilding others.

A project I’m currently working on, House of Masks, creates a psychological crucible inside a house. The house belongs to the main character’s neighbor, a young woman who, on the face of it, attracts people with her free spirit and open heart, but isn’t all she seems. She lives in a large house with a dome ceiling and spiral staircase where she and her endless trail of guests eat in a dining room encased in a glass hothouse. She and her guests spend most of their day confined to the house and gardens. It has a fantastic and fatalistic feel to it, a Garden of Eden for Nancy, the main character, that becomes a prison as the book progresses.

Setting and experience come together with the crucible when authors use location as a character in their fiction. But some authors go further, exposing and exploring the crucible in the minds of their characters, weaving past, fears, and pleasures that create the conflicts and changes the characters experience in the book.

Works Cited

Bowles, Paul. Let It Come Down. Harper Collins e-Books, 2006 (original publication date: 1952). Kindle digital file

Bowles, Paul. The Sheltering Sky. Harper Collins e-Books, 2005 (original publication date: 1949). Kindle digital file.

Bronte, Emily. Wuthering Heights. G Books. (original publication date 1847 under the pseudonym Ellis Bell). Kindle digital file

Cantrell, Jason. “The Crucible”. Writing Possibilities. WordPress. 8 August 2014. Web. 19 July 2017.

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