I "read" this just the other day (heard it on my morning commute) and it struck me as an example of when telling rather than showing is actually far more evocative. I'm a sucker for the truly well written generalization, though as Austen pastiches quickly teach one, there is nothing worse than one done badly.
Certainly the tense nerves of men of action -- less notorious than those of imaginative men -- are not to be minimized. This was true of my father, who, like many persons who believe primarily in the will -- although his own will was in no way remarkable -- his in his heart a hatred of constituted authority. He did his best to conceal this antipathy, because the one thing he hated, more than constituted authority itself, was to hear constituted authority questioned by another but himself. This is perhaps an endemic trait in all who love power, and my father had an absolute passion for power, although he was never in a position to wield it on a notable scale. In his own house, only he himself was allowed to criticize -- to use a favorite phrase of his -- 'the powers that be'. In private, he would, for example, curse the Army Council (then only recently come into existence); in the presence of others, even those 'in the Service' with whom he was on the best of terms, he would defend to the last ditch official policy of which in his heart he disapproved.
Anthony Powell, The Kindly Ones
They loyalties we hold are complex things. Often we're willing to criticize ourselves that which hearing the same criticism from nearly anyone else will cause us to defend. And then the description itself is simply so delightful. In one paragraph one feels one knows Nick's father rather well. Perhaps he is someone in your family, or at work. No scene has been played out, nothing has been shown, and yet this description is both specific and general enough to flesh out a character to a degree that a great deal of less deft dialogue and descriptive narration would have still failed to do.
This other was brought to my mind by a line of argument I came across lately. It is an example of why I like No Exit so much, and find so much truth in it, despite the fact that my own view of the world is so nearly opposite to that of Sartre.
Garcin: Listen! Each man has an aim in life, a leading motive; that's so, isn't it? Well, I didn't give a damn for wealth, or for love. I aimed at being a real man. A tough, as they say. I staked everything on the same horse.... Can one possibly be a coward when one's deliberately courted danger at every turn? And can one judge a life by a single action?This planning of great virtues while excusing small virtues is so typical of how we justify each individual sin -- all the sins of the "good person". The description is so incisive I find myself feeling as if Screwtape must have said the same thing at some point.
Inez: Why not? For thirty years you dreamt you were a hero, and condoned a thousand petty lapses -- because a hero, of course, can do no wrong. An easy method, obviously. Then a day came when you were up against it, the red light of real danger -- and you took the train to Mexico.
Garcin: I "dreamt," you say. It was no dream. When I chose the hardest path, I made my choice deliberately. A man is what he will himself to be.
Inez: Prove it. Prove it was no dream. It's what one does, and nothing else, that shows the stuff one's made of.
Garcin: I died too soon. I wasn't allowed time to -- to do my deeds.
Inez: One always dies too soon -- or too late. And yet one's whole life is complete at that moment, with a line drawn neatly under it, ready for the summing up. You are -- your life, and nothing else.
Jean-Paul Sartre, No Exit