The novel became the dominant genre of
fiction from the eighteenth century onwards, adopting a chosen literary genre
to best represent itself and the society for which it was a mirror.
The history of the novel is an unofficial
history of humanity’s developments in the sciences, psychology, and sociology.
It is a mirror through which we can study
depth of history from a perspective beyond the blunt chronology of dates and
. This essay aims to show how the predominant literary genre
of a period reflects the scientific innovations of the time, as well as the
dominant system of thought concerning how we perceive reality, time, and the
self. Since the beginning of the novel, the question of “how to translate
knowing into telling” (White 1990, 5) was an issue of monumental importance
whose solutions reflect each writer’s philosophy and style.
As “the novel is the only developing
genre” (Bakhtin, cited in McKeon, 324), the process of reflecting and capturing
“reality itself in the process of unfolding” (ibid) was more accessible to it
than to any other written mediums. From the Renaissance onwards there was a
need to redefine reality through individual experience, and to let go of the
collective mentality of the Middle Ages. This redefinition was congruent with
the philosophical advancements of the eighteenth century. Key philosophical
texts like those of Descartes’
on First Philosophy
An Essay Concerning Human Understanding
laid the basis for the formulation of the individual and the self. As a result,
characters in a novel “can only be individualized if they are set in a
background of particularized time and space” (Watt 2015, 2). The novel became
the experimenting ground to define what the individual was and how best to
describe them three-dimensionally.
During its rise, the novel adopted “‘Realism’ as the literary mode of choice” (Watt 1999, 8); Realism lies in the way reality is presented using our senses. It has close connections with the writing of Locke, Descartes’ determination “to accept nothing on trust” (ibid, 12), and Defoe’s “primacy of the individual experience in the novel” (ibid, 12). Starting with Realism we see literature go towards the ‘low mimetic’ mode of representation as presented by Northrop Frye in Anatomy of Criticism . The hero is a normal human being like any of us, just “one step more heroic than the ironic” (Frye 2020, 125). It is important to remember that the word ‘realistic’ is used to illustrate a tendency in the novel and fiction in general, and it would be erroneous to use it as an adjective.
Anna of the Five
is a perfect example of Realism in a novel that illustrates some of
the conventions mentioned above. We read a story placed in a certain time, in a
set place, developed through the memories of its characters, as is common with
the development of the Realist novel. Differently from previous stories in
which the setting was mostly left unspecified,
Bennett gives a detailed description of the setting for the start of the story:
The Park rose in terraces from the
railway station to a street of small villas almost on the ridge of the hill.
From its gilded gate, to its smallest geranium-slips it was brand new, and most
of it was red. The keeper’s house, the bandstand, the kiosks, the balustrades,
the shelters – all these assailed the eye with a uniform redness of the brick
and tile which nullified the pallid greens of the turf and the frail trees. The
in order to
circulate, moved along the
tight processions, inspecting one after the other the various features of which
they had read full descriptions in the “Staffordshire Signal” (Bennet 2009, 11).
Here we notice a “‘particularity of
description’ or ‘realistic particularity’” (Watt 1999, 16) that is
characteristic of the Realist novel of the eighteenth and nineteenth century.
This Particularity, according to Ian Watt, is one of the innovatory aspects of
the novel that “reflects the philosophical shift” (ibid) of the period. Another
important feature that comes out from this passage is highlighted in the
extract’s characteristic of being a description of a description that the
people read in the newspaper, the “Staffordshire Signal”. From this, we can
deduce the increasing importance that the printing press had on writing, and
the new dimensions that the novel was addressing “simultaneously represented
and representing” (Bakhtin, cited in McKeon, 332).
The realist novel was not called as
such only because it was realistic. If it merely “saw life from the seamy side,
it would be an inverted romance” (Watt 1999, 10).
The novel in its emergent form has some
common elements that form its basic canons: attention to backgrounds and a plot
established through the memories of the characters like mentioned previously,
followed by the increased importance of the “individual mind under the impact
of temporal flux…[or] the development of its characters in the course of time”
(ibid, 21), the central role of this newly defined character not only in
his/her life but in the bigger picture of events, hence leading to new
importance attributed to categories of “space” and “time”. Another key
component of the novel is expressed through “an authentic account of the actual
experiences of the individual” (ibid, 26) given in language, as can be seen in
the following passage from
Anna of the Five Towns
These particularities form the cornerstone of
this new developing genre:
‘There’s nobbut one point, Mr
‘and that’s the interest on
’ capital, as must be
deduced before reckoning profits. Us must have six per cent.’
‘But I thought we had settled it at
with sudden firmness.
as you shall have five on your fifteen hundred,’ the miser replied with imperturbable
audacity, ‘but us
have our six.’ (Bennett 2016,
In this passage, we can distinguish
clearly between the persons speaking by their accent. This characterization and
attention to detail are particular to the novel.
accent shows a lack of proper education, his place of origin, and through it,
we can construct a mental image of him more easily and accurately than if this
detail had just been described to us. Here we can also see the importance
attributed to names. “The problem of individual identity is closely related to
the epistemological status of proper names; for, in the words of Hobbes:
‘proper names bring to mind only one thing; universals bring to mind one of
many’” (Watt 1999, 17). In
Anna of the Five Towns
we see various examples
of names which have a secondary connotation or implied meaning added to them.
can be “tell it right” or he who thinks he is
often right (Bennett 2016).
is a name that a
villain would typically have; hence it is supposedly difficult to sympathize
with him. The trend of naming characters who are heroes with local English
names, and characters who are antagonists with formal Latin or Greek names has
been part of the literary tradition of the novel that reflects the distinction
between the group and the “other”. We see the same trend continuing up to
modern works of fiction such as J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter (1997-2007), where
the villains have Latin names such as Lucius Malfoy, Bellatrix Lestrange, Voldemort,
All these characteristics distinguish
the realist novel from previous fiction, reflecting the changes that were
happening in the way of thinking due to the change of philosophical and
scientific thinking of the time. However, as Bakhtin says, “the novel is the
sole genre that continues to develop, that is yet uncompleted” (cited in
McKeon, 321); hence it was only natural that as the world changed, the novel
would change with it. What characterized Realism would soon be not enough to
constitute an authentic portrayal of the individual’s apprehension of reality.
On the contrary, the characteristic traits of Realism seem simplistic and
incomplete because as Virginia Woolf stated, “they are not concerned with the
spirit but with the body” (2002, 83).
The changes in how the individual
perceives reality and his surroundings become more obvious when we notice how
the concept of time has changed from Arnold Bennett to Virginia Woolf.
In Bennett, characters are placed in a linear
temporal dimension, while for Woolf that was not enough to capture the
complexity of human nature. The descriptive style, particular to details of Realism
in Modernist writing in general, we see the introduction of the ‘stream of
consciousness’ or of the ability to be simultaneously in the present, in the
past, and inside the mind of the character. One specific passage
describes the complexity of Modernist writing:
At the far end was her husband, sitting
down, all in a heap, frowning. What at? She did not know. She did not mind. She
could not understand how she had felt any emotion or any affection for him. She
had a sense of being past everything, through everything, out of everything, as
she helped the soup, as if there was an eddy – there – and one could be in it,
or one could be out of it, and she was out of it…Lily Briscoe watched her
dripping into that strange no-man’s land where to follow people is impossible
and yet their goings inflict such a chill on those who watch them that they try
at least to follow them with their eyes as one follows a fading ship until the
sails have sunk behind the horizon (Woolf 2006, 72).
In less than a page, we get a vivid
picture of Mrs. Ramsey’s outer/physical world versus her inner/spiritual one.
The description of Mrs. Ramsey helping with the soup around the table is given
simultaneously with her inner world by allowing a glimpse into her thoughts as
she performs this. The narrative perspective then shifts to a similar dualistic
portrayal from her to Lily. This concept of “simultaneity of past and future in
an instantaneous present” (Anderson, cited in McKeon 2000, 422) is closely
connected to the development of science and especially to the emergence of the
novel and the newspaper. News travelled faster; people started reading in the
newspapers about places they had never been. The perception of reality shifted.
The concept of time itself changed due to Einstein’s advancements in physics. Throughout
the novel, Woolf herself adopts the juxtaposition of events to get a grasp of
the passage of time.
To the Lighthouse
can be simplistically reduced to
juxtaposing the holiday house when Mrs. Ramsey was alive to the same setting
ten years later after her death. What is left is that “Time Passes” (Woolf 2008,
103-117), or as Proust called it, “pure time” (Frank, cited in McKeon 2000,
In Modernism, we see a need for a break
with the mimetic tradition of the past. The plot, the characters, and the settings
matter, but they are viewed differently. Describing what someone sees or how
somebody sees him/her is not enough to compose a realistic, believable
character. Woolf was greatly affected by the writing of Freud and Einstein;
hence the complexity of their new worldview was mirrored in her writings. The
artistic movements of the time also influenced Woolf’s style. In her books we
see the “Cubist presentation of all sides of an object ‘simultaneously’” (Kelly,
and Sherman 2007, 120) being applied
After the Second World War, Modernism
became unable to convey the changes that the two World Wars had brought, and it
started to represent “the stagnant orthodoxies of ‘high culture’” (Widdowson
20045, 258). In the pre-World War societies, the world was more clearly
stratified; it was easier to distinguish literary genres and their
specificities, as well as to adhere to a genre. In comparison with Realism and
Modernism, the novel started to move even further down Norton Frye’s five modes
of mythic, romantic, high mimetic, low mimetic, and finally ending in the
mode with heroes “inferior in
power or intelligence to ourselves, so we have the sense of looking down on a
scene of bondage, frustration, or absurdity” (Frye 2020, 123).
The postmodernist writer John Barth
renders the complexities of Postmodernism as follows:
After which she resumed her
and the radio the next musical selection until the
next race. This music affected Ambrose strongly: it was not at all of a stripe
with what they played on Fitch Bandwagon or National Barn Dance; this between
races was classical music, as you should say: the sort upper-graders had to
listen in class. Up through the floor of his bedroom came the rumble of tympani
and a brooding figure in low strings. Ambrose paused in his dressing to listen
and thinking on his late disgrace frowned: the figure stirred a dark companion
in his soul. No man at all! His family, shaken past tears,
in attendance at
his grave site. (Barth 1978, 38).
Not only do we have to read Barth by
reflexive reference and by continuously merging fragments of texts with
previous allusions until the final picture is clear, but even then, the image
that comes out is closer to a parody or irony. Moreover, it may not always
necessarily connect clearly and uniformly with what was before. The passage
between reality and fantasy is so subtle that if it is not read carefully, the
reader could lose sight of where one ends and the other begins. Hutcheon argues
that “it is part of the postmodernist stand to confront the paradoxes of
fictive/historical representation, the particular/the general, and the present/the
past” (Hutcheon, cited in McKeon 2000, 831) and that this confrontation is in
itself “contradictory, for it refuses to recuperate or dissolve either side of
the dichotomy” (ibid). Hence the result is a pastiche: a by-product of our
mass-media and capitalist society where nothing is clear cut anymore but a
mixture of the “plurality and recognition of difference” (ibid, 838).
Postmodernism contests the previous
genres by claiming it is impossible to “know reality, and therefore to be able
to represent it in language” (ibid, 834).
Barth’s extract on postmodernity in this new genre, as soon as a semblance of
order is established through writing, the author ‘destroys’ it. “Subjectivity,
intersexuality, reference, [and] ideology”
become problematic grounds for the postmodern doubts about approaching reality,
and the parody becomes parodied. All these uncertainties mirror a society that
is evolving at an incredible pace, and where there are no longer any givens.
In the last twenty years, there has
been no great technological or philosophical breakthrough. Science is at a
standstill; we live at the time of the “literature of exhaustion” (Barth 1982,
64); philosophy or psychology is not showing any new paths. How we think of
ourselves is still an evolving concept but different from what it used to be in
Realism, Modernism, or Postmodernism. But even in this literary standstill,
humanity will always search for answers. Our current reality and worries can be
concretely seen in Philip K. Dick’s novel
(2017) where the individual remains the centre of the search for truth or for
how to approach reality, but the conditions of this search have changed.
A “felt ultimacy from weaponry to
theology, the celebrated dehumanization of society” (Barth 1982, 70) is present
in most writings today, or alternately “a coherent alternative to this world
complete in every respect” (ibid). We pass beyond science taking all the
scientific and philosophical developments and hypothetically advancing them through
Science Fiction, or otherwise finding an out-of-reality or supernatural means
to experiment in what is possible through Fantasy. As one of the
representatives of literature today, Philip K. Dick’s
(2017) does an excellent job of summarizing our collective worries. A new world
described in the smallest particularities becomes our test field for a new way
to approach problems and opportunities not restricted by the laws that govern
our world. New worlds like
the liberty of mixing genres, of experimenting with concepts, and merging
theories or ideas that are difficult to put together otherwise.
history of the development of the novel shows how each period in history has a
classification that best represents the complex mix of scientific, social, and
cultural changes that our society goes through. By going through all the stages
of the growth of the novel we see a tendency of the particularities of an era
manifesting in an archetypal form in the novel. In Realism the plot,
characters, and setting gained a depth never had before. Time started playing a
major role in the novel and the search of the individual to comprehend reality.
Modernism advanced the research on time, hence giving a quasi-four-dimensional
essence to the characters. Postmodernism recognized the immense complexity of
the world and believed the only thing left was to parody life. Today the novel
is trying to go beyond the physical boundaries of this world in search of a
truth not conditioned by ever-changing scientific rules. Literature is the
continuous search of the individual of ways how best to represent reality; it
is an ever-changing art that mirrors the society’s constancy - or inconstancy. John
Barth cites John James E. Irby’s quotation, “all writers are more or less
faithful amanuenses of the spirit, translators, and annotators of pre-existing
archetypes” (Barth 1982, 277), and claims that all writers are therefore also the
historians of the subterranean collective history of humanity.
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Kiti Misha. This
article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0