Recently, JM at thelivingnotebook provided a helpful reminder about how Freytag’s Pyramid demonstrates narrative and dramatic structures by diagram. The diagram begins with exposition, then follows through with rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement. This is by and large the structure that an overwhelming number of novels and plays and even some works of nonfiction follow, and we are probably all familiar with its rhythms, though we may never have heard of the terminology or the title before (though of course, it is often taught in beginning drama classes or in creative writing classes). So used to this pattern can one get, in fact, that the continual frustration of it in a work of art can seem like a meandering lack of artistry, like in fact the sheep named “Virginia Woolf,” who wanders in and out of the scenery in Alice Thomas Ellis’s The Sin Eater nibbling the shrubbery, a sort of weird objective correlative for the plot, which often seems missing, to say the least. Yet, I maintain that The Sin Eater turns out to be “much ado about something” after all, and here’s the course of my logic:
The novel is gossipy, without many events standing forward boldly as events; even the travel to the little tourist town of Llanelys in Wales that the family makes to the bedside of their dying father and the later cricket match against town visitors which they and the villagers play are overshadowed by the many, many conversations featured in the novel. The family sits at table or elsewhere and argues and bickers an unconscionable number of times, and one keeps expecting to see a climax somewhere, or at least some rising action, developing from all the chatter. Rose, who has married into the clan and who is Irish, not Welsh, manages all the hosting going on, and also controls a lot of the conversation by being as controversial as possible and continually contradicting the statements and preferences of her brother-in-law’s wife, Angela, an Englishwoman by birth who is very up-to-date and at the same time is more conventional even given her wanderings from the marital path than Rose is. In fact, much of the tension of the novel, such as it is, is generated in the dialogues between the two women, Angela carrying on a flirtation with Edward, a visiting guest, to which her husband and son of the house Michael seems to be indifferent, Rose attempting to sabotage the flirtation and criticizing it constantly in backbiting asides. Henry, Rose’s husband and Michael’s brother, is largely clueless, and the youngest member of the family, the young woman Ermyn, is beginning a study of the Bible and forming her own grotesque opinions about how modern reality and ancient text coincide. The “sin eater” of the title is Phyllis, their hired help, who like Rose shares a belief in the occult, and who will probably be the one who eats the crumbs of the “funeral baked-meats” off the dead man’s chest when he dies, in order to consume away his sins with them, an old Welsh country tradition. Her son Jack the Liar and his son Gomer, her idolized grandson, make up the rest of the household along with the Captain, the old man who is lying in bed near death.
That this Freytagian Pyramidal structure is not suited to The Sin Eater becomes glaringly obvious even by the middle of the book lengthwise, because there is no action being taken. The cricket match, which occurs every year and should provide a crowd scene replete with action, seems to be organized almost as an afterthought, though with Rose’s usual careful spitefulness and deliberate attentions to the refreshments. Meanwhile, Angela flirts with Edward, Edward gets drunk, people come and go, Michael ignores the flirtation, Henry makes inane and pointless comments, Rose repeatedly tries to incite others to anger, Ermyn, shut in by partial deafness, misreads cues and interprets the actions of others in line with her new study of the Bible, which in a humorous twist she hides in a copy of Country Life to read because she knows that the others will think Biblical study odd. And Phyllis, in a power-grabbing dynamic perpetuated against the very family she works for, saves all the best tidbits for her grandson Gomer, and constantly plots against the family’s happiness, though until the end in a futile and repetitive way.
What happens at the end is after all the “kicker.” For, the short-lived rising action, foreshortened even, arises just after the end of the cricket match near the end of the book, when the visiting hooligans are trashing the cricket field and refreshment tent at night, and the family have all gone home to the farm house. Ermyn is sent out in the dark with a flashlight to look for a visitor’s purse, and she comes across Michael and Gomer having a sexual encounter in the dark in the bushes. When Michael is startled and runs for the house, Gomer grabs Ermyn instead and attempts to rape her, in line with what she has been reading in the Bible about the visitor’s concubine in the land of the Benjamites. A house visitor, one of the local gentry, comes along and rescues her, though she finds his heroic attitude humorous, and it’s unclear whether or not he manages actually to save her before she is violated. By the next day, Gomer has gone into hiding elsewhere, and Ermyn is driven even further into herself, telling no one about what happened, not even Rose, whom she admires, when Rose has her come to help clean up the blood where the fight took place the night before.
The climax comes at the very end of the novel instead of earlier, and there is no denouement–instead, Ermyn sees Phyllis (apparently in revenge for what Ermyn now knows has been going on between Michael and Gomer before and for which Phyllis hates Michael) tampering with Michael’s car, but again says nothing. Suddenly Rose announces that Gomer has been located, and that Henry has borrowed Michael’s car to take him and Jack (Phyllis’s son) to pick up Gomer. Phyllis dashes out the door, too late to undo what she has done, with the emotional certainty that she has killed or maimed her own grandson and two others who were not guilty of offending her. The novel ends with this climax: “Phyllis was running as fast and as futilely as the wind from the sea. Somewhere, in another world, someone was howling as the sin eaters of old must have howled, fleeing the houses of sorrow weighed down with strange sins. Up on the hills the wind swept softly around the old church where the saint slept on undisturbed.”
I say, however, that Phyllis has the “emotional certainty” that she has killed or maimed three people, because the novel ends where it does and there is no active conclusion to it, but only the thematic one given in the text I’ve provided in the paragraph immediately above. If there is certainty, it is in all the omens and magic words and reiterations of the word “bloody” which occur, the word “bloody” occurring in swearing contexts, but coming true in literal ones, and mentions of the “hounds of hell” and other old country traditions appearing repeatedly in Rose’s and in Ermyn’s thoughts. Ermyn’s readings from the Bible also seem to have a literal component. So, the novel ends with the climax; the only way in which the reader is not cheated of the dramatic element is in fact contained in the picture of Phyllis, trying unavailingly to catch up with the car before it leaves, taking Henry and her son Jack (instead of the miscreant Michael) to get Gomer, and not knowing at what point the brakes will fail, or the engine falter, or whatever she has perpetuated come about. Thus, the novel is “much ado about something,” after all: Phyllis has a lingering resentment against Michael from the beginning, which is never articulated except when she all-but-deliberately breaks a dish or gives Gomer the best of the food. The family is taking from her family by the old droit du seigneur standards, in spite of the fact that they put up with her querulousness and cantankerousness. It’s just that in this novel (and it turns out to be an exciting novel, after all), the real action is submerged beneath at least two or three layers of other realities: 1) the literal conversational reality, casual and fairly meaningless 2) the level at which Angela is attempting to start a relationship with Edward and Rose shows a desire to mock and frustrate her 3) the level at which Rose and Ermyn celebrate their different perspectives on life, the occult and the nascent Biblical. All of these are levels which Alice Thomas Ellis, the mischievous novelist, flourishes in the reader’s face, being deliberately misleading until the very end of the book as to where the dramatic motivations and energies of the novel are going to finish up. It is up to the discerning reader to allow himself or herself to be entertained and edified by the picture of dysfunctionality long enough to ask the important question: “What is all the tension about?” and to reach that startling and evocative ending in which all becomes apparent.