Life and Art in the Novel

Life and Art in the Novel

Life and Art in the Novel

Life and Art in the Novel

Excerpt

We all read novels. Ever since the novel as we know it came into being as a literary form, in the first half of the eighteenth century, the intelligent public has delighted in it. But it has been one of the clichés of criticism for many years now that no serious examination of the art of the novel exists before Flaubert, and that Henry James alone among English-speaking artists followed in his footsteps. We have been told that earlier novelists regarded themselves as entertainers and that they and their public existed in a state of critical innocence.

This was true of the public, though never of the writers. Fielding pointed out that the whole flavor of a novel depended on "the cookery of the author." But it was true that critics did not bother themselves with much serious treatment of the form during most of the nineteenth century. Recent research, however, has proved that persistent discussion went on in reviews and essays during the last half of the century. All the topics we examine now: structural unity; objective versus subjective presentation; the place of the didactic; the limits of naturalism; the current prejudices on the subjects of sex and of tragedy; -- all these were aired and argued. And, as in the eighteenth century, the novelists themselves knew very well what went into the creation of novels. Dickens was the greatest "entertainer" of them all, but listen to Dickens on the subject of his calling:

I hold my inventive capacity on the stem condition that it must master my whole life, often have complete possession of me, make its own demands on me, and sometimes for months together put everything else away from me . . . Whoever is devoted to an Art must be content to deliver himself wholly up to it and to find his recompense in it.
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