Don’t Tell Them Everything


Good books have an inner life; you can’t see all the way in. The pages become windows that throw light onto landscapes and into rooms, but keep some secrets hidden from view. Perhaps they reveal more at second glance – perhaps they leave the reader to deduce more.

The reader certainly doesn’t need to know everything, and we like to feel that there’s more to discover. There’s a reason why JK Rowling created the bluntly named Pottermore, to fulfil that need in children. But some novels actively defy understanding. Frank Baker’s ‘The Birds’ never explains the cause of the drama. Joan Lindsey’s ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ famously had its final chapter excised to create more mystery. Sometimes we like to try and work out the answer for ourselves. Great characters may be unknowable. Part of Anna Karenina stays forever hidden.

In literature you don’t need to explain why two people have fallen in love, although it helps to know why they hate each other. Victor Hugo’s ‘Les Miserables’ is one of literature’s longest books at approximately 1,500 pages, but a full quarter of this consists of digressions and mini-essays. Hugo describes the novel thus:

‘The book which the reader has before him at this moment is, from one end to the other, in its entirety and details … a progress from evil to good, from injustice to justice, from falsehood to truth, from night to day, from appetite to conscience, from corruption to life; from bestiality to duty, from hell to heaven, from nothingness to God. The starting point: matter, destination: the soul. The hydra at the beginning, the angel at the end.’

Not that any explanation entirely deals with Javert’s dogged pursuit of Valjean. It’s clear to us that Javert recognises that the law is immoral as it stands – Valjean’s treatment at its hands has revealed this to him – but he can’t reconcile the truth with his own devotion to the law. Even so, absolving Valjean would have surely assuaged his conscience, while leaving the story with nowhere to go.

Flaubert’s ‘Madame Bovary’ is often described as a perfect novel from the realist school. It’s about the gap between reality and illusion – Emma Bovary wants a romantically ideal life, and is repeatedly let down because either she or her suitor loses interest. Revelatory at the time, the beauty of its language still shines through but it now feels rather soap opera-ish and repetitive because we get it – she’s selfish and spoiled and bored. And yet.

How much should the reader see? Enough to understand the plot, but not enough to fully understand everything about the main character. Recent darker-toned Agatha Christie TV series have managed to make the material fresh because Christie barely put any flesh on her characters’ bones, leaving them open to re-interpretation. It’s harder to ring changes on the great historical novels because they are so precisely written.

When everything is explained away for us, we have nothing to contribute as readers – and the reader should always be allowed to provide a personal take on events. You can read several of my non-crime novels from different angles, an idea I’ve always been drawn to. If you watch TV shows like ‘Ozark’ you’ll find yourself with a spinning moral compass that alters your view on characters.

The writer John Sutherland is fascinated by what we’re not told in literature. He delves into stories to spot the textual lacunae that throw up unanswered questions. Among his books are Is Heathcliff a Murderer? Puzzles in Nineteenth-century Fiction, Can Jane Eyre Be Happy? More Puzzles in Classic Fiction, and Who Betrays Elizabeth Bennet? Further Puzzles in Classic Fiction.

Carefully analysing every word of the text, Mr Sutherland alights on inconsistencies and oversights, although he is careful to note that sometimes authors simply forget details. But it’s fun to speculate why there are missing or misplaced moments in novels. Perhaps there’s something is going on below the surface of a book that’s not described, such as his explanation for why Sherlock Holmes mis-addresses Miss Stoner as Miss Roylott in The Adventure of the Speckled Band. To me it’s clearly an editorial slip, but isn’t it fun to speculate?

Life begins and ends in the middle of everything, and this desire to replicate real life informs the choices you find in videogames. But readers like to be told stories, and every new attempt to place choice in the hands of the reader/viewer usually ends badly – as the new interactive episode of Black Mirror once again proves.

5 comments on “Don’t Tell Them Everything”

  1. Vivienne says:

    John Sutherland latches on to the feeling that, somehow, books have a life of their own and sometimes authors do not manage complete control, so it is great to find these odd bits when the characters outwitted the author and lived their own lives.

  2. Wayne Mook says:

    Turn of the Screw is splendid for this, and Chandler is another who springs to mind in The Big Sleep is who killed the chauffeur (but this maybe due to it being a cut and paste job.)

    To be honest the quality of the writing and characters plus plot are what bring me back to stories not the hidden or unexplained parts, or even a deeper meaning.


  3. Ian Luck says:

    I read Victor Hugo’s ‘Magnum Opus’ many years ago. What a con! 1500 pages, and not one mention of a bloke called ‘Miserable Les’ anywhere. I imagined that he’d be like Blakey, from ‘On The Buses’, but no. Not one mention. A better title would surely have been ‘Hoi Polloi Of Paris’.

  4. Ian Luck says:

    I was very, very amused to hear about the complaints from some viewers about the new version of ‘Les Miserables’, in which people said that they were giving up on watching it… because there were no songs in the production. That’s the sort of thing that makes me want to round these people up, and beat them soundly round their thick heads with a hardback copy of the source novel. They obviously have no idea of the novel (the previous comment of mine was made in jest – the book is a firm favourite of mine), which is a work of delicious grimness, a genre of which several great French novelists excelled at. The complaint, therefore is akin to me saying something on the lines of: “I looked forward to the new dramatisation of Emile Zola’s ‘Thérèse Raquin’, but was dissuaded from watching it when I discovered that it had no tap-dancing scene, or huge ice dance finale.’

  5. Wayne Mook says:

    I’m always upset when ‘Les Miserables’ they never mention The Glums, June Whitfield or Jimmy Edwards.


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