Applying the Emotion Theory of William James to Fiction Writing

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Applying the Emotion Theory of William James to Fiction Writing

Tyler Sagardoy

As a student-writer of fiction, I perpetually seek articles, essays, or works of literature that carry either valuable and direct information that may further me in my writing or literary theory, or contains information from which I am able to deduct something applicable to writing, and I believe "What is an Emotion" by William James is the later. I see within his article a logical theory declaring emotion, the element that either convince or dissuade a reader's mind of a character's existence, not as a vague abstraction, but as a detailed physical event, and, I think, it is this view of emotion as physical that can allow a writer to craft an emotion accurately for his or her own purpose, efficiently for the reader to grasp, and poetically for both the writer's and reader's sakes.
For fiction writers, like me, accuracy in words and ideas are paramount above all else when we write stories, for our words serve as vessels two-fold: they must store the stories as we see them in our minds, and then transport these images into the mind of a reader. Should the words not describe a scene vividly, the writer runs a great chance of the reader not paying attention to the story, but rather trying to make sense of befuddled feelings and judgments, and then that story would fail.
Some young writers, including myself, often frustrate ourselves by trying to put into words emotions as we can best consciously remember from only the realm of the mind. In a scene where a vicious dog is about to consume a woman, we understand the woman is in an overwhelming state of fear; therefore, we impose, from previous harrowing experiences, our vague sense of fear:
"Afraid, the woman watched the rabid dog open its jaws, revealing a jagged set of sharp teeth."
That sentence would work well in fairy tales and yarns, for in those genres laws of reason are generally suspended. However, for a serious realist writer, that simply won't do. To be "afraid" will not arouse the reader the way the writer ideally intends. The fault, of course, rests with the writer. But how?
William James, if he lived today, would point out that nothing was transmitted by the word "afraid" because nothing was what the reader thought about when he thought about fear. "What kind of an emotion of fear would be left," James writes, "if the feelings neither of quickened heart-beats nor of shallow breathing, neither of trembling lips nor of weakened limbs, neither of goose-flesh nor of visceral stirrings, were present, it is quite impossible to think."
James's theory propounds that "bodily changes follow directly the perception of the existing fact, and that our feeling of the same changes as they occur IS the emotion." That is, there can not be an emotion without a physical reaction to an outside event, and any "emotion" disembodied from its body is "a nonentity," an "intellectual perception" void of human qualities. For the woman to be "afraid" is for the reader to understand she is afraid, but that does not excite the reader, nor present the scene as vividly as possible. A better sentence would be:
"Her limbs, ignorant of her desire to run, lay helpless on the floor. Her mind static, only acknowledging the pair of jagged teeth as it lunged toward her throat."
No mention of fear or of being afraid is made, yet, it is more than the first sentence in accurately describing the state of fear. Why is this so?
Referring to James's theory, emotion is not instantaneous. Emotion is a process—a sequence of causal events provoking other events from "the perception of an existing fact" to "the bodily changes, whatsoever it be, is felt, acutely or obscurely, the moment it occurs" to the feeling of these changes. The sentence implies that the woman has seen the dog, and from it has undergone a physical reaction that paralyzes her limbs and her mind to the extent of only being able to recognize the teeth of the dog, which we presume to carry negative connotation for the woman.
Not only does the writer specifically depict the woman's consternation in the above sentence, but the reader feels it too. If the writer has done a good enough job of depicting the physical effects of a character in a specific context (including the perception of a character or an unnamed narrator through which the context is given), the reader, theoretically, should be able to recall an instance where he or she were physically affected in the same manner and apply it to the story as their consciousness perceives it. For instance, the reader reads the effects in the above sentence, and recollects a similar event, say, his or her first rollercoaster ride. Again, theoretically, the reader should be able to transport those effects into the story in their head and be able to get a rather full dose of that emotion.
With all the challenges for a writer, the writer does have, at least, one advantage: there are not too many emotions a writer can write about. In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner paraphrases novelist Nicholas Delbanco, who "remarked that by the age of four one has experienced nearly everything one needs as a writer of fiction: love, pain, loss, boredom, rage, guilt, fear of death (15)." Emotions are not complicated, and not only good writers, but also good readers, recognize this. So, I maintain that through appropriate graphic depiction of context and physical effects, a writer can invoke an emotional response from both a character and a reader.
But there's much more to practicality when applying William James's theory to emotional writing; there is also poetry. For example, read the following sentence from an English translation of The Double by Fyodor Dostoevsky:
"But the counsellor measured [Mr. Golyadkin] with a stare that was like a sudden drenching tubful of icy water (34)."
Albeit a translation, we still have all the components to fill in James's theory of emotion: the provoking event, and a context where Mr. Golyadkin is obviously uncomfortable, and a bodily reaction as if someone dumped upon him "a sudden drenching tubful of icy water." But this is rather ambiguous, and can mean many coexisting effects. For example, Mr. Golyadkin was taken by surprise, and/or the stare was cold and made him shiver, and/or he was overwhelmed. In this instance, where the writer (and translator) obviously has a smart handle of the language, I believe it to mean all three.
Sometimes, when it suits the writer's interests, it is best to retain an ambiguity when describing a character's emotions. Take the final line from Henry James's The Turn of the Screw:
"[Miles and I] were alone with the quiet day, and his little heart, dispossessed, had stopped (403)."
If we are to take it literally, and therefore assume that Miles's heart did stop, then the physical change is death, and the only emotion is one of sympathy from us for the young boy. Should we infer "heart...had stopped" as idiomatic, then Miles received nothing but a great shock. In most other works, this sentence, should it be the ending and not elsewhere, would be unacceptable, but Henry James, in keeping with the mystery shrouding the story, is permitted to use it.
Incorporating William James's theory into writing poetical sentences on emotion does not just produce similes and reinvigorate idioms. It also brings about an economy with words. Looking at the above Dostoevsky sentence, he very easily could have said "But the counsellor measured [Mr. Golyadkin] with a cold stare that surprised him, brought about him a shiver, and made him feel insecure," but he felt no need when he could condense those affects into a few, powerful words, and save the reader some time and patience.
Further on the topic of powerful words, emotional sentences will remind the writer to use sparingly, if at all, words and styles he or she would find in an essay, such as this one. No good reader of fiction wants to be told everything, or take words for pure face value. The reader wants to be involved, and how can he or she be involved when everything is spelled out for them? To a good reader, involvement makes literature interesting. James's theory, when applied to writing, can do just that.

Works Cited:
Dostoevsky, Fyodor. "The Double." Great Short Works of Fyodor Dostoevsky. New York: HarperCollins, 2004.
Gardner, James. The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers. New York: Random House, 1991.
James, Henry. "The Turn of the Screw." The Turn of the Screw and Other Short Novels. New York: New American Library, 1995.
James, William. "What is an Emotion?" York University. January 5, 2006. .

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