ewman opens Callista: A Tale of the Third Century, his novel about early Christian trials and tribulations, with a kind of formal, latinate prose characterized by interspersed clauses that start and stop the flow of the sentences, thus reminding the reader of the style of eighteenth-century authors, such as Dr. Johnson. However, once he turns to the actions and thought of individual characters, he departs from the opening quasi-augustan style best suited to witty statements and broad, authoritative generalizations, to a more staccato post-romantic style suited to presenting the experience of thinking rather than resulting conclusions.
One of the author’s more interesting narrative strategies involves presenting the reactions of a pagan character disappointed by his failure to convert (or return) his Christian nephew Agellius to worship of the Roman gods. After mentioning the distress of the not very articulate nephew, Newman’s narrator explains that “his distress was not greater than his uncle’s disappointment, perplexity, and annoyance,” and then presents Jucundus’s increasing anger that begins with the thought that he “had been making everything easy for Agellius, and he was striking, do what he would, on hidden, inexplicable impediments, whichever way he moved. He got more and more angry the more he thought about it.” We then observe the uncle’s self-justifying inner monologue, which begins with annoyance at Christian stubborness:
An unreasonable, irrational coxcomb! He had heard a great deal of the portentous stubbornness of a Christian, and now he understood what it was. It was in his blood, he saw; an offensive, sour humour, tainting him from head to foot. A very different recompense had he deserved. There had he come all the way from his home from purely disinterested feelings. He had no motive whatever, but a simple desire of his nephew’s welfare; what other motive could he have? “Let Agellius go to the crows,” he thought, “if he will; what is it to me if he is seized for a Christian, hung up like a dog, or thrown like a dead rat into the cloaca of the prison? What care I if he is made a hyæna’s breakfast in the amphitheatre, all Sicca looking on, or if he is nailed on a cross for the birds to peck at before my door? Ungrateful puppy! it is no earthly concern of mine what becomes of him. I shall be neither better nor worse. No one will say a word against Jucundus; he will not lose a single customer, or be shunned by a single jolly companion.
By the end of this inner rant, Newman has managed, despite Jucundus’s self-justification, to show not only that his actions combine both generosity and self-interest, thus enriching the characterization of Jocundus, but also to convey an idea of third-century attitudes towards Christians and the return of earlier Roman persecutions of them. Interestingly, Jocundus concludes that Agellius’s behavior derives not so much from another belief but from a personal flaw — pride: “But a man can’t be saved against his will. Here am I, full of expedients and resources for his good; there is he, throwing cold water on everything, and making difficulties as if he loved them. It’s his abominable pride, that’s the pith of the matter. He could not have behaved worse though I had played the bully with him, and had reproached him with his Christianity. But I have studiously avoided every subject which could put his back up. He’s a very Typhon or Enceladus for pride.” Pride and his desire for a particular woman, Callista: “he wants to have this Callista; he wants to buy her at the price of his religion.” The reader knows that Jocundus is partially correct, for although his nephew is a sincere believer, he does in fact desire Callista.
Newman’s convincing narration of this character's thoughts, which, as we have seen, works on several fronts, exemplifies what we may term his narrative sympathy; that is, the narrator thinks and feels along with Jocundus, so rather than explicitly criticizing the pagan Jocundus, he presents the character from within, from Jocundus’s own point of view. Our judgement then grows out the recognition that Agellius’s actions combine self-interest with genuine worry about his nephew.
Such narrative sympathy works well with complex situations in the narrative, one of the most obvious of which lies in the situation of third-century North African Christians, who, Newman makes clear, lived during a time when the first period of devoted belief had dissipated. In fact, the novel opens with Christianity in crisis, or multiple crises, which makes it appear at least in some ways similar to Christianity in the 1840s, or so Newman believed.
Newman, John Henry. Callista: A Tale of the Third Century. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1904. Project Gutenberg [Ebook #30664] online transcription which Al Haines produced. Web. 26 June 2018.
Last modified 27 June 2018