O. Henry’s The Skylark Room: A peeking at Mrs. Parker’s roundness.
Round characters do not immediately come to us as round and clasp us in a rotund embrace. At first glance however and at first meeting, they are usually two dimensional – that to mean that they are isotopes and epitomes or at best stereotypical of human virtue or vice. In most cases, a round character comes across as flat, that is, until we really get to meet them. But that impression of their flatness will not last until we subject them to the true test of what they really are – tragic heroes.
Nearly all of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes – Othello, Hamlet and Caesar – are round, that is, apart from being characters that willingly comply with Aristotelian parameters of who and what qualifies to be tragic. Round characters possess a component of humanity that often makes them real and believable – they have a psychological trait that belies the equanimity of a calm mien. They have demons inside of them that goad them to dare what society conjectures as normal, and therefore they make ‘mistakes’. Round characters may be impatient with(in) a society or community that would probably concur with the aphorism that patience is a virtue, or that ignorance is bliss. If there was any round character without an indiscretion, flaw or idiosyncrasy that consciously or unconsciously the propels a character to fall, then real life as we know it would be an abuse, would be wicked, extremely dull and we lose the didactic ramifications that the quasi-mortals in the stories and fantasies we have created by ourselves would give us.
What comes across immediately after ‘meeting’ Mrs. Parker in O. Henry’s short story, The Skylark Room is a flat character, a caricature of strength – of will, character and arrogance. Perhaps as representative of an ecosystem which values entrepreneurship and economic independence over and above community and interdependence, this is not altogether a surprise. Shrewd Mrs. Parker was presented at first as a landlady with tenants and boarders that cut across the gamut of a society insensitive and cold to the needs of others, and starkly contrasts with others environments where building strong relationships and social rapport score points. She came across as a snob and who had no interest whatsoever in her clients but in their ability to pay her rent – but all of that her façade cascade and fall down on us one day after one of her boarders (Miss Leeson) took ill and had to be taken to the hospice for treatment. Her epiphany occurred.
‘On the first landing she met him coming back bearing the astronomer in his arms. He stopped at let loose the practiced scalpel of his tongue, not loudly. Gradually Mrs. Parker crumpled as a stiff garment that slipped down from a nail. Ever afterwards there remained crumples in her mind and body. Sometimes her curious roomers would as her what the doctor had said.’
From this point on to the denouement of The Skylark Room, we come to terms with the humanity of Mrs. Parker. Her entire existence as a cold, calculating capitalist cascades and crashed on us, giving way to the realization that we misjudged her at first, as we mostly often do before a first impression. Her ‘crumple in mind and body’ drag us to a point of realization again, that human relationships matter, and that instead of the boredom and despondency prevalent in our secret lives, and which guide us along the vast plains of fantasy, we can actually inject some hope and life into our own lives only if we find happiness in making sure others have and enjoy life because of us.
‘Ever afterwards there remained crumples in her mind and body’…
And as a matter of fact, for us to properly come to terms with how a Mrs. Parker or any Mrs. Parker would be considered round and thereafter ‘crumple in mind and body’ there must at first be a realization that only a thin line separates us from our creatures – our characters. Distances between creator and creatures can be vast or slight depending on the physical or abstract relationships that we may have formed with our Creator, and HE formed with us. For Forster (1970), we are sapiens and our characters are our alter-egos and our fictus, almost the same way that we have or do not have any physical or abstract relationship with our creator.
It is the responsibility of the creator, the author, therefore to ensure that round characters have a body and a mind just the same way that we were created with a body and a mind to drive our body. Seeds of what we hear our characters say, or what is said about them and what they say about other characters are first sown in the mind. The mind is a garden and things said of, or are said about and said from the character are a reflection of the garden of the mind.
Therefore, the litmus tests for the reader in deciding whether or not a character is round or flat is not in coming to terms with the technical details of the of flatness or roundness of the character – the first test would be the willing suspension of disbelief - to wait and hear what the characters says about itself and about others, what others say about the character – in spite of the impression we may have formed of the character at first. The next step in the process would be to determine what goes on in the mind of the character. What is the stream of consciousness of the character? Is there inner speech? Are there non-verbal thoughts? Does the character use expressions that appear intelligible but are actually unintelligible?
That psychoanalysts like Freud, Skinner and Jung were a great influence on the works of post-World War II writers like Joyce, Conrad and Lawrence is not debatable. What is of interest is that their books were an application of the results of the exciting theories of human behavior that psychoanalysis presented and an attempt to give the round characters a body as well as a mind.