Reading Jay Parini's The Last Station soon after writing that last post about Dickens, I start to think about the older writer's similes and metaphors, because Parini in this matter is an unDickens or an anti-Dickens. His metaphors fall into the story and out again without leaving a lasting impression. Meanwhile Dickens is a hot octopus, his tentacles start at one point and go out in all directions, clutching things together, so that Mr Tulkinghorn's clothes represent Mr Tulkinghorn's personality and behaviour, and the personality and behaviour represent the clothes.
He is of what is called the old school ... and wears knee-breeches tied with ribbons, and gaiters or stockings. One peculiarity of his black clothes and of his black stockings, be they silk or worsted, is that they never shine. Mute, close, irresponsive to any glancing light, his dress is like himself. He never converses when not professionally consulted.
The effect is so holistic that it changes the properties of light itself in a private zone around Mr Tulkinghorn's clothes -- "they never shine" -- and he becomes a kind of small planet with its own atmosphere and law. Dickens is a cosmology of these people, these characters who are Types rather than Stereotypes, extremely forceful and exaggerated. If a person is not already an eccentric then they become one because Dickens is writing them.
Meanwhile the Last Station author chops his metaphors off dead. Parini writes brief descriptions --
... the long serpentine drive with parallel rows of silver birches rising along it like an honour guard.
Varvara Mikhailova, who has the sensitivity of a granite monument
... each moment shines separately, like cobbles on a strand. One yearns to repossess them, and mourns their distance.
His fingers opened and closed mechanically, like the mandibles of an insect.
-- and never takes the idea further. Varvara Mikhailova's granite behaviour does not infect her clothes, as Tulkinghorn's behaviour infects his; she never does anything stonelike, her skin does not look hard, her manners are not monumental, and so this comparison to granite vanishes. The man connected to the insect-fingers is not insectlike, the scenery around him is not transformed sympathetically into a insect-nest, and the doctor who comes along in the next sentence to help him with his fearsome convulsions is not compared to a predatory and insectivorous bird, or to an ant helping the queen ant, or to anything else that might carry the idea of insects onwards. This is how he appears: "Dushan Makovitsky gave orders like a military captain." With that the idea of insects is utterly gone. The military captain has erased the insect, and the reader can expect that when the next metaphor or simile comes along it will obliterate the military captain.
Here we are. Three lines later Dushan is "a scientist."
Dushan remained cool and dispassionate, a scientist through and through.
"A scientist" in turn drops through the text and vanishes.
To the mind behind Parini's prose, the important thing is that the fingers are moving, not that they're moving "like the mandibles of an insect." You could substitute anything for these mandibles and nothing would happen to the next sentence, or the sentence before. You could say that the fingers open and close "like the claws of a dying crab." You might call them the toes of a falcon clutching and releasing its prey. Dushan Makovitsky would still give orders like a military captain and soon he would turn into a scientist. Parini's description-things keep to themselves. They're private and self-contained. They are Mr Tulkinghorn. They don't talk to their fellow metaphors, they don't share themselves around, and they don't reflect light. The state of Parini's metaphor-objects (the mandibles, the granite, etc) is the state that Dickens won't let Tulkinghorn achieve, since the motto of Bleak House is connection, and the motto of Parini's metaphor-objects is isolation. Mr Tulkinghorn can behave with as much reticence as he likes, but the author still obstinately puts him in relationships with other people and gives consequences to his actions.
He never converses when not professionally consulted. He is found sometimes, speechless but quite at home, at corners of dinner-tables in great country houses and near doors of drawing-rooms, concerning which the fashionable intelligence is eloquent, where everybody knows him and where half the Peerage stops to say “How do you do, Mr. Tulkinghorn?” He receives these salutations with gravity and buries them along with the rest of his knowledge.
Sir Leicester Dedlock is with my Lady and is happy to see Mr. Tulkinghorn. There is an air of prescription about him which is always agreeable to Sir Leicester; he receives it as a kind of tribute. He likes Mr. Tulkinghorn’s dress; there is a kind of tribute in that too. It is eminently respectable, and likewise, in a general way, retainer-like. It expresses, as it were, the steward of the legal mysteries, the butler of the legal cellar, of the Dedlocks.
Even in his reticence he can't escape the observant eyes of other characters. They take him and insert him in their worldviews just where they want him. But in The Last Station nobody comments on the insect mandibles except the first-person narrator, nobody thinks that Varvara has a granite sensitivity except the narrator -- the wider world goes by unaffected. Parini's sunlight doesn't start swerving around a certain set of clothes because a certain character is wearing them. The hand can be a pair of insect mandibles, or a housebrick, or a whisker on a tiger, and the prose does not care. It ploughs on. Dushan Makovitsky persists in being a military captain. The mandibles occupy their part of the sentence undisturbed and viginal. For them, there are no consequences. In his saddest and most hopeful fantasies, Mr Tulkinghorn is a metaphor by Jay Parini.