hroughout Phantastes, Anodos alternates between having clearly defined goals and simply wandering. The latter state dominates most of the time, and Anodos often finds himself unable to articulate the logic behind his actions. But though he does not understand his motives, he senses their strength: Anodos does not operate merely on whims or basic curiosity. Quite to the contrary, over and over again he cites as his motive a powerful, inescapable, but altogether mysterious force: "vague feeling" (8), "irresistible attraction" (59), "strong impulse" (115), "irresistible desire" (60), "an inexplicable, though by no means unusual kind of impulse" (36), and so forth. After coming upon a steep hill, Anodos decides to climb it for no obviously rational reason, justifying simply that "over this my way seemed to lie" (35). "I wish to see all that is to be seen" (13), he explains at one point; "Something compels me to go on, as if my only path was onward" (57), he says later on.
Somewhat counterintuitively, Anodos meets his greatest successes — or, perhaps more accurately, he manages to hold back failure — when guided purely by impulse. This pattern becomes most pronounced in the Fairy Palace, when Anodos seeks to enter the halls of sculptures and catch the dancing statues off guard, in the hopes of finding his beloved white lady among them. After numerous attempts to sneak up on the statues, he recognizes a problem in his methodology:
The difficulty was, to surprise the dancers. I had found that a premeditated attempt at surprise, though executed with the utmost care and rapidity, was of no avail. And, in my dream, it was effected by a sudden thought suddenly executed.
Anodos realizes that simulated spontaneity cannot be as effective as truly instinct-driven action. For romance to function — MacDonald might have meant to imply — the lack of premeditation must be sincere. Nevertheless, Anodos, undaunted by his revelation, hatches a plan to deceive his own mind (disciples of Orwellian doublethink might nod approvingly) and artificially provoke a spur-of-the-moment decision:
I saw, therefore, that there was no plan of operation offering any probability of success, but this: to allow my mind to be occupied by other thoughts, as I wandered around the great centre-hall; and so wait till the impulse to enter one of the others should happen to arise in me just at the moment when I was close to one of the crimson curtains. For I hoped that if I entered any one of the twelve halls at the right moment, that would as it were give me the right of entrance to all the others, seeing as they all had communication behind. I would not diminish the hope of the right chance, by supposing it necessary that a desire to enter should awake within me, precisely when I was close to the curtains of the tenth hall.
At first the impulses to see recurred so continually, in spite of the crowded imagery that kept passing through my mind, that they formed too nearly a continuous chain, for the hope that any one of them would succeed as a surprise. But as I persisted in banishing them, they recurred less and less often; and after two or three, at considerable intervals, had come when the spot where I happened to be was unsuitable, the hope strengthened, that soon one might arise just at the right moment; namely, when, in walking round the hall, I should be close to one of the curtains.
At length the right moment and the impulse coincided. I darted into the ninth hall. (119)
The plan works, and Anodos manages to coax his white lady out of the shadow. With success so tantalizingly close, however, he can no longer maintain the illusion of spontaneity; Anodos's desire seizes him, and he moves to simply reach out and grab what he so badly wants, to take it — in some sense — by force. In doing this, Anodos loses the white lady forever:
She was a statue once more — but visible, and that was much gained. Yet the revulsion from hope and fruition was such, that, unable to restrain myself, I sprang to her, and, in defiance of the law of the place, flung my arms around her, as if I would tear her from the grasp of a visible Death, and lifted her from the pedestal down to my heart. But no sooner had her feet ceased to be in contact with the black pedestal, than she shuddered and trembled all over; then, writhing from my arms, before I could tighten their hold, she sprang into the corridor, and with the reproachful cry, "You should not have touched me!" darted behind one of the exterior pillars of the circle, and disappeared. . . . A white figure gleamed past me, wringing her hands, and crying, "Ah! you should have sung to me; you should have sung to me!" and disappeared behind one of the stones. (127)
When Anodos tries to hold tightly to whom he loves, he loses her, and when he resolves to — in the proverbial sense — set her free ("Well if he is a better man, let him have her." (131)), the way clears for him. How might this connect to the story Anodos reads about the woman in the mirror, and what could MacDonald mean to imply by this pattern?
Twelve halls of sculptures reside in the Fairy Palace, with the white lady housed in the tenth. Why, in a symbolic sense, might MacDonald have made a point of granting Anodos success in the ninth hall — the wrong one? Why complicate the plot by having a dozen halls, instead of just one?
The mysterious driving force that compels Anodos to walk in the proper direction, find necessary landmarks, sing at appropriate moments, and cut away precisely the right patches of moss seems reminiscent of the deus ex plot devices often found in dreams. Why would MacDonald choose to use attention-grabbing terms like "irresistible attraction" (59) and "strong impulse" (115) to justify Anodos's actions when mere curiosity might have sufficed as an explanation?
In Jane Eyre, Jane occasionally pauses to explain a feeling or event from the perspective of looking back on the past. At times, Brontë's writing feels almost like meta-storytelling: Jane takes care to step out of the action and highlight any seemingly minor detail that might be significant later on. "A new chapter in a novel is something like a new scene in a play" (113), she says at very beginning of her exit from Lowood, thereby drawing a thick line between one part of her life and another. More subtly, Jane tends to slow down and speed up the pacing of her narration according to the significance of the events being portrayed: the eight years of her life preceding adulthood pass by in a matter of paragraphs, whereas her first encounter with Rochester takes up several pages.
Despite exercising a degree of control over what the reader should find significant, Jane refrains from foreshadowing upcoming revelations and future changes of heart, keeping reflections that take the style of little-did-I-know-then out of her narration. Anodos also narrates in the past-tense, and his future-to-past commentary also stays to a minimum. Unlike rontë, though, MacDonald mentions symbolically important details only in passing, almost as if to deliberately mask or downplay their significance. The tempo remains more or less constant throughout Phantastes, and no event receives the slow-motion treatment Bront‘ gives to crucial moments. Early on, for example, fairies taunt Anodos with a deeply ominous assertion — "Look at him! Look at him! He has begun a story without a beginning, and it will never have any end. He! he! he! Look at him!" (23) — but the line comes with no fanfare, and within context only up to that moment in the novel it can almost be overlooked. Anodos's recurring "strong impulse" — which relates very closely to the fairies' accusation — also receives little attention, but it eventually proves critical to the story as a whole. Why might MacDonald have chosen to obscure important details in this way? How would the tone and effectiveness of the novel be different if the bit about fairies taunting Anodos were replaced with a line to the effect of "I had begun a story without a beginning . . ."?
Last modified 10 February 2004