The Modern Novel I



What is a Novel?

Realism and Modernity



Mimesis and Poiesis: (Between Naturalism and Symbolism)



Impressionists and Moderns:

A world spinning into anarchy

What is a Novel? Realism and Modernity


A literary genre as not a timelessly existing template that writers can adopt at will in order to express their thoughts.  A genre evolves with the works themselves providing the writer with a conventional literary history, the forms of which can be developed, extended, hybridised with others, subverted or parodied, but rarely invented out of the blue, as if there had been no precursors or precedents.


The novel form as we know it emerged in the early part of the eighteenth century with three writers, apparently working independently, who produced the first great examples of a genre that was to dominate literature throughout the century that followed, the long nineteenth century, into a modernist era, whose writers would almost, apparently deliberately, destroy it.


Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, and Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, each in slightly different ways, determined how the form was to develop.  The key word is realism.


The Modern Novel (after the 1890s)


On or about December 1910

“On or about December 1910 human nature changed” Virginia Woolf.  The first British exhibition of Post-Impressionism


Blast: 1914 (vorticism and synaesthesia).


The Great War and its devastations.


 The novel, once the ideal “formless” form for capturing impressions of a world built on apparently stable foundations (captured by the exquisite prose of e.g., Henry James), looks to 1) symbolist principles and 2) modernised mythologies, i.e., an intensified aesthetic, to capture the shifting and fundamentally symbolic nature of human experience.  Realism is allied to symbolism and mythology in a brand new hybrid form exemplified by Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf, D. H. Lawrence, Wyndham Lewis and James Joyce.  In a trend begun by Henry James, numerous stories and novels feature artists and/or writers as main protagonsists.


Landmarks (historical, intellectual, aesthetic):


1890s: Henry James and H. G. Wells: London contra Oxbridge (the stuffy centres of traditional learning): “Wells was typical of the young men to whom Oxford and Cambridge meant Latin and Greek, obscurantism and reaction, where London meant science, a cheap education, and falling class barriers.  Young men like Wells looked to science to transform the world--Wells’s youth was the time of the first telephones, gramophones and automobiles [...] Men were dreaming of the possibility of heavier-than-air flying machines; science was going to transform the world.”  G. S. Frazer 1964, 74-5.


James and the art of the novelist: “The task of the novelist in our century has been to recognise that a high civilisation, whose stability James took for granted, though he knew that it was built on oppression and exhibited innumerable moral flaws, is not stable.  The novelist must recognise that the foundations of the world he walks are dangerously shifting, that we are living in a world of rapid and disturbing change, so that we can neither say with certainty when some new pattern of relative stability will emerge, nor what sort of pattern it might be.  Yet the task of the novelist also, since the human heart hungers after permanence, is to project some image of permanence and to give the novel a coherence that life at large does not obviously posses.”  Frazer, 78.


The Symbolist Movement (Premature Millenialism--Will-to-power/Will-to-art) There is a tradition, from The German Romantics to the Symbolist movement associated with Arthur Symons and W. B. Yeats, that acknowledges the need apparently felt by human societies, for a mythology that can give structure to human experience (see Symons, The Symbolist Movement in Literature, 1899).  In 1800 Frederich Schlegel had said that “modern literature lacks a centre, such as mythology was for the ancients.”  Schlegel is writing in an era dominated by the same enlightenment science and scientific realism that was later to so disturb Fedor Dostoevsky as post-enlightenment trends invaded Russian intellectual life in the 1860s.  W. B Yeats, at the beginning of the twentieth century, wrote his book called A Vision, in which an alternative mythological system is developed as an attempt to replace the decimated Christian mythology now worthless in the light of evolutionary science and advanced pragmatic philosophies.  His short and much quoted poem “The Second Coming” charts the fizzling out of 2000 years of Christianity and hints at the coming new millennial shift that is projected to emerge out of the chaos and anarchy of the present.


James Joyce and Ulysses. James Joyce’s magnum opus, Ulysses, is signed, “Trieste-Zurich-Paris, 1914-1921,” indicating significantly that this great work had been written during Joyce’s travels across war torn Europe.  The novel appropriates its structure from the Homeric epic the Odyssey (Ulysses is the Latin, Roman name for the Greek Odyssey) which tells of the travels and homecoming of the hero Odysseus.  Joyce’s book, however covers a few short hours (in over 740 pages) in the lives of his (anti-)heroes.  T. S. Eliot: “I hold this book to be the most important expression which the present age has found; it is a book to which we are all indebted and from which none of us can escape.” “Ulysses, Order and Myth” Selected Prose, 175.


Notice that Eliot calls it “a book” rather than a novel.  The following passage explains why: “Mr Joyce’s parallel use of the Odyssey has a great importance.  It has the importance of a scientific discovery.  No one else has built a novel on such a foundation before: it has never before been necessary.  I am not begging the question in calling Ulysses a “novel”; and if you call it an epic it will not matter.  If it is not a novel then that is simply because the novel is a form that will no longer serve; it is because the novel, instead of being a form which will no longer serve; it is because the novel, instead of being a form, was simply the expression of n age which had not sufficiently lost all form to feel the need of something stricter.  Joyce has written one novel--the Portrait; Wyndam Lewis has written one novel--Tarr.  I do not suppose that either of them will ever write another “novel.”  The novel ended with Flaubert and with James.  It is, I think, Because Joyce and Lewis, being in advance of their time, felt a conscious, or probably unconscious dissatisfaction with the form, that their novels are more formless than those of a dozen clever writers who are unaware of its obsolescence.” (Eliot, 177).


Articles to Read (if you want)

T. S. Eliot. “Ulysses, Order and Myth.” Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot. London: Harvest, 1975.

David Trotter. “The Modernist Novel.” The Cambridge Companion to Modernism. Ed. Michael Levenson. Cambridge: CUP, 1999.


For responses by the generation immediately following the modernist era you might be interested in looking into the following:

G. S. Frazer. The Modern Writer and His World. Pelican, 1964. (Historical interest).

Walter Allen. The English Novel. Penguin, 1954.

Ian Watt. The Rise of the Novel. Penguin, 1963.