Reflections on The Novel

Novel: ‘a fictitious prose story of book length.’ (Oxford English Dictionary)

The Great Tradition

F.R. Leavis says the Great Tradition of the English Novel effectively starts with Jane Austen. Then George Eliot, Henry James, Joseph Conrad. (And, he later adds, D.H. Lawrence). All the rest during that period (1815-1930) is entertainment (Dickens, Thackeray) or 2nd rate (Trollope, Disraeli, Hardy). But if the Great Tradition has a beginning – doesn’t it also have an end?

From the 1920s ‘the novel’ presumably becomes simply too varied, too large. Joyce is great but doesn’t belong to the Tradition, Woolf probably belongs to the Tradition but isn’t great – Waugh? Greene? Huxley? Isherwood? Orwell? Great? Nope.

The novel gets smaller, more divided into specialist or niche areas (thriller, crime, detective, horror, fantasy, historical etc).

The Tradition is allegedly defined by a grown-up interest in grown-up, ‘felt’ experience. I.e. not the vivid but shallow entertainments of Fielding or Dickens or Thackeray. Not Walter Scott where the effort has gone into historical recreation and character and plot is secondary. Not the ‘nastiness’ of Laurence Sterne. Of 18th century writers Richardson comes closest to the moral seriousness of the Tradition, but his scenarios are ultimately too narrow to express ‘Life’.

The early novels not novels

The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) is emphatically not a novel; it is a religious tract in the form of an allegory, with flashes of novel-ish effects.

Defoe, similarly, is writing didactic tracts, not novels. All Defoe’s long prose works claimed to be honest autobiographical accounts. [‘The editor believes the thing to be a just history of fact; neither is there any appearance of fiction in it…’] Like Bunyan, he knows his audience is suspicious of ‘made-up’ stories.

Thus The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1720) claims to be the true and morally improving story of a young man’s rebelliousness punished by long suffering. There are no chapter breaks and precious few other fully ‘developed’ characters, no time-shifts or sophisticated manipulation of plot & story. Things happen one after the other exactly as in a diary, which it at one stage becomes – a straightforward journal (Just as in Moll Flanders, no chapter breaks, just headlong narrative) continually larded with the chastened older & wiser narrator’s heavy moralising about his young foolish self.

In fact religion underpins the story, justifies it, is its main motive:

The story is told… with a religious application of events to the uses to which wise men always apply them, viz. to the instruction of others by this example, and to justify and honour the wisdom of Providence in all the variety of our circumstances, let them happen how they will.

[Note the echo of Paradise Lost]

From his earliest conversation with his father, Crusoe presents himself as obstinate to Providence & God. Once he’s settled on the island the book develops a steadily more religious bent as Crusoe begins to peruse the Bible & experiences a classic Puritan conversion experience as deep despair gives way to a slow realisation of the blessings of Providence. Witness the entirely religious framework in which he responds to the sight of the footprint in the sand. His first thought is: Is it the Devil? The strength of the contemporary religious framework into which the book was received is evidenced by the fact that Defoe published a book of Crusoe’s religious musings in the light of the book’s success.  And it sold out.

Similarly, Moll Flanders is

a) just one damn thing after another, a chronicle
b) takes great pains in the preface to assure readers of the moral applicability of its story

I don’t think it’s a very good piece of ventriloquism; throughout Moll, you hear only Defoe’s voice. For example, around p.80 there’s a long section of practical advice to women about how to maximise their value on the marriage market; Moll spends more time detailing the precise financial transactions pertaining to each of her marriages – you don’t learn the names of most of her husbands, but you get a full account of their financial circumstances.

There’s a crudeness in Defoe’s account of Moll being deflowered & her generally mercenary view of relationships; it’s difficult to tell whether this is Defoe’s deficiency of politeness – he’s in a hurry to

a) tell a ripping yarn
b) make various practical ‘projecting’ asides
c) deliberate satire

Basically Moll approaches relations between the sexes like a man. Or is she simply an honest example of an unromantic scheming trollop?

It’s striking that Defoe wrote historical novels, all set in the past. Crusoe, published in 1719, is supposedly born in 1632, returns to England after all his adventures in 1687. The last words of Moll Flanders are ‘Written in 1683’. The Journal of a Plague Year is set in 1665. Why? One reason might be to avoid the complicated political realities of his times in which Defoe was all-too-implicated. The past may be a foreign country, but it is also a much simpler one.

Compared to Defoe, Samuel Richardson does appear to break completely new ground with his novel Pamela in 1740, focusing in detail on human psychology rather than religious experience, divided into sections (letters) unlike Defoe, and set in the contemporary world, unlike Defoe.

Myths in the novel

Critics talk about the way myths can be incorporated into novels, most famously in James Joyce’s sprawling epic Modernist novel, Ulysses. But surely there’s another aspect of myth, which is that many modern myths come out of novels. Stories that say something so profound, speak so directly to some aspect of human experience, that they have endured for centuries and been adaptable to all the new media we can invent. Robinson Crusoe, Frankenstein, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Dracula, 1984.

Leavis et al talk about books in terms of exploring issues, morality, depicting life, realism, naturalism etc. [Leavis is himself a product of that earnest Puritan tradition which lies at the root of the novel]. But a simpler function of novels has been to provide us with some of the enduring mythical figures under which we live.

(These myths can perhaps be ranked in order of power and endurance; in a crude way by the number of adaptations, copies, parodies they’ve generated. There might be a Second Division of nearly-myths: Heathcliff & Wuthering Heights is powerful but not as universal as Frankenstein. In terms of number of copies and rip-offs, maybe 50 Shades of Grey is the talismanic book of our time…)

And in fact most novels have been written to provide transient pleasure to its reading public, and to make the author some money. Most texts exist to provide pleasure.


Can you create a hierarchy of the pleasures which reading provides? Could you codify them?

1. There is the physical pleasure of sitting & focusing – people often talk about snuggling up with a good book – the pleasure of holding a book.

2. The pleasure of solitude – complex psychological pleasures of being utterly alone – and yet your mind being filled to overflowing with information, emotion, colour, drama, intrigue etc. All without getting out of bed or moving from the window seat.

3. Then a hierarchy of mental pleasures:

  • Stories – mimesis – completion – escape – fantasy – but also indulgence of various drives & fantasies.
  • Fantasy of omniscience – whatever happens you the Reader are invulnerable, above it all.
  • Part of this is that any story has a ‘completion’. Ends are satisfactory.
  • Solving a puzzle – same part of the mind as enjoys Sudoko, crossword: detective novels as puzzles, Holmes, Agatha Christie
  • We (fondly) identify with the superman genius who solves the crimes
  • The pleasures of suspense –
  • Stories are pleasurable in themselves because they:
    • gratify our mimesis-faculty
    • are complete, unlike life
  • Specific psychological pleasures, for example:
    • identifying with the tired, drunk, lonely detective – Philip Marlowe, isolated odd Sherlock
    • some kind of Greek catharsis at the sheer extremity and exorbitance of the murders (cf Hannibal or Game of Thrones)
    • fulfillment of our sadism – we want others to suffer
    • fulfillment of our masochism – we want to suffer & endure
    • fulfillment of various sex drives (mixed up with the above)
  • The pleasure of solitude –
  • Incidental details:
    • Vicarious tourism – interesting settings: Edinburgh, Manchester, small-town Sweden.
    • Secondary characters, Penhaligon, Rystadt – as novel readers know, there is a special pleasure in the depiction of supporting characters; as if the pressure is off, they don’t bear the weight of the narrative or the responsibility for selling the book, so author and ready can play.
    • Their hobbies.

These incidental details create a warmth and comfort of familiarity: which explains the paradox that, although crime novels are often about brutal murders, they give such great pleasure – because the majority of the text is full of reassuring, calming, familiar, ordered lives and lifestyles and details and the comedy routines of sidekicks and secondary characters who evoke fondness and affection.

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