Society in the Novel

Society in the Novel

Society in the Novel

Society in the Novel


The distinctive and varied formal roles that a fictional society might play in a novel is the subject of this pioneering work. Langland opens with a discussion of novel theory, placing her perspectives within contemporary theory, and follows with a discussion of novels from the British, American, and Continental traditions from the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. She also raises questions about society in the novel as an expression of Western and Eastern values.

Originally published in 1984.


For several years now, critics working with structuralist and deconstructionist models of fiction have raised significant questions about how texts mean. Their questions have freed us from sometimes automatic assumptions about the relation of fiction to the world and have reminded us that fictions, or texts, are not merely mirrors of an external reality.

Structuralist and deconstructionist studies have cleared important semiotic ground, and they now invite us to build upon their understanding. This study begins with the assumption that fictions are meaningful. This meaning, however, is not simply self-referential; neither do fictions mechanically imitate a reality outside themselves. They are discrete systems of discourse, which have distinct interpretive structures.

Although critics recognize that the purpose of literature is not simply to imitate an external reality, discussions of society in fiction still rely heavily on the notion that the function of a fictional social order is to represent some outside world. Society in the novel is thus seen as replicating an historical, a contemporaneous, or an imagined milieu, its depiction governed by fidelity to an outside order. This book, Society in the Novel, takes as its starting point a writer's need to create a society consonant with the formal ends of the work itself. It sees society as performing a precise function in novels, that function dictated by the artistic principles governing the work. Society in novels, then, never simply replicates a world outside, and the relationship between fictional society and real world is not primarily a mimetic one but an evaluative one. We read not for fidelity to worlds we or others have experienced but for a perspective on those worlds through the autonomy of art, the ability of art to generate terms for evaluation independent of, yet connected to, an existent world.

In shaping form in fiction, an artist expresses values. As artistic function, society finds its meaning and coherence not in "truth to reality" but in those patterned values that are the corollary of form. Thus, when we talk about the function of society in the . . .

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