Academic journal article German Quarterly

Constructing Interiority in Eighteenth-Century Narrative Fiction: Wieland's Geschichte des Agathon

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Constructing Interiority in Eighteenth-Century Narrative Fiction: Wieland's Geschichte des Agathon

Article excerpt

The representation of interiority is often thought of as the special preserve of fiction, in fact as one of the signal characteristics that distinguish fiction both from non-fictional genres like historiography and from other media, like film.1 In fact, this turf, which fiction has indeed very successfully cultivated in the course of its history, is not immune from the encroachment of other types of writing and media, not just because techniques developed by novelists can be borrowed and imitated or because genres are unstable and evolving, but because the links between fiction and mind-reading, between mind-reading and a specific set of verbal techniques, and between interiority and its linguistic expression are arbitrary and conventional. A semiotics of interiority different from the one that arose within the history of the novel is thinkable; visual conventions for conveying interiority, not just emotions that are legible on the body but complex, invisible thought processes can be (and are being) devised for film and dance. If they are not as rapidly readable and as automatically reusable as the modes for rendering interiority in fiction, it is because they still lack the repetition and re-use that made fictional techniques so codifiable by the second half of the twentieth century. The novel, in any case, having had the advantage of operating in a medium (language) which itself was rich in expressions for interiority, has over the centuries succeeded in developing an impressive number of techniques for opening a window onto a character's mind. It has been able to lay his (or her) brain upon the board and pick the acrid colors out, to paraphrase Wallace Stevens' aspiration for the Man with the Blue Guitar.

How did interiority get into the novel to begin with? What parts of what kinds of minds found their way into novels, and why? By what tricks of conveyance? Answering these questions is well beyond the scope of this essay, which seeks merely to contribute to an answer by calling attention to an innovative mid-eighteenth-century work that appears to mark an important point of entrance of psychology into the third-person novel. Oddly, the work is German. Brilliant innovations in the genre of the novel had thus far not originated in Germany; they came from England, France, Spain. But then, considering the rise of psychology in eighteenth-century Germany, perhaps it is not so odd.2 The work is Wieland's Geschichte des Agathon, first published just two years after Rousseau started writing his Confessions. I argue that Wieland combined existing narrative techniques for constructing interiority and devised new ones, thereby outdoing previous attempts at psychological portraiture in the European third-person novel. His purpose was to showcase the emotions of a young man in love. In his quest to represent his hero's changing passions in words, he experimented with style, even to the point of developing a technique of free indirect thought, to which narratology traditionally assigns a later date of origin. Wieland's pathbreaking achievement in representing human psychology and thus changing the genre of the novel was noticed and applauded by Agathon's first admirer, Christian Friedrich von Blanckenburg, in 1774, but of course that admirer did not discuss its complicated formal machinery, much less in today's terminology. That will be my undertaking here.

Wieland's Geschichte des Agathon, first published in 1766-67 and subsequently revised and expanded twice, has been repeatedly singled out as a turning point in the history of the German novel. Wieland's contemporary Blanckenburg lavished praise on it in his Versuch über den Roman of 1774, upholding it as a model that finally made the genre respectable (VII 9). Blanckenburg asserted that Agathon showed the novel-form its destiny by placing character rather than plot at the center, by revealing the inner state of people, and by demonstrating how their inner state affected their actions (337, 19, 335, 264). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.