Empty Houses: Theatrical Failure and the Novel

Empty Houses: Theatrical Failure and the Novel

Empty Houses: Theatrical Failure and the Novel

Empty Houses: Theatrical Failure and the Novel


According to the dominant tradition of literary criticism, the novel is the form par excellence of the private individual. Empty Houses challenges this consensus by reexamining the genre's development from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century and exploring what has until now seemed an anomaly--the frustrated theatrical ambitions of major novelists. Offering new interpretations of the careers of William Makepeace Thackeray, George Eliot, Henry James, James Joyce, and James Baldwin--writers known for mapping ever-narrower interior geographies--this book argues that the genre's inward-looking tendency has been misunderstood. Delving into the critical role of the theater in the origins of the novel of interiority, David Kurnick reinterprets the novel as a record of dissatisfaction with inwardness and an injunction to rethink human identity in radically collective and social terms.

Exploring neglected texts in order to reread canonical ones, Kurnick shows that the theatrical ambitions of major novelists had crucial formal and ideological effects on their masterworks. Investigating a key stretch of each of these novelistic careers, he establishes the theatrical genealogy of some of the signal techniques of narrative interiority. In the process he illustrates how the novel is marked by a hunger for palpable collectivity, and argues that the genre's discontents have been a shaping force in its evolution.

A groundbreaking rereading of the novel, Empty Houses provides new ways to consider the novelistic imagination.


Theater Demetaphorized

In at least one version of the story, the modern novel is born from theatrical failure. Henry James is famously supposed to have learned his lesson in the theater, and the lesson was to stay out of the theater. Fortunately for literary history, this account goes, he alchemized his personal embarrassment into narrative innovation. In the years immediately following the Guy Domville disaster of 1895, James conducted a series of formal experiments in his fiction, arriving at a set of rules that made the novel into an object of undeniable artistic merit. Chief among these were the strict limitation of point of view to one or two focalizing characters and the avoidance of narrative summary in favor of tightly recounted scenes. The name James gave to these dicta, which were to have major implications for his explorations of interiority in the novels of the new century, was the “scenic method.” This was a canny rhetorical recuperation of his theatrical failure, at once praising the theater and sidelining it: if on the one hand the novel thus conceived appears to aspire to the condition of theater, on the other it is understood adequately to displace and replace the drama as an embodied social event. In the scenic method the theater is remade as metaphor. James’s theatrical debacle has become one of the better-known critical allegories for the birth of the modern novel for a number of reasons, perhaps the most obvious being the pleasure of seeing humiliation reworked as aesthetic triumph. But this account also confirms our sense that the privileged subject of modern literature is the psychic interior, and, more darkly, buttresses a story of the modern novel as the exemplary genre of social forgetting, a sublimation of collective life into a self-enclosed technicism and aestheticism.

Empty Houses troubles this story by noting, first, that the Jamesian transmutation of dramatic frustration into narrative accomplishment has resonances in other important novelistic careers. In addition to analyzing James’s . . .

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