Thursday, March 12, 2015

An Excerpt: The Novel as Protestant Art

Joseph Bottum

". . . If the individual soul's journey increasingly defines the social line of the English novel from Fielding through the 18th-century picaresques of Smollett and on to Thackeray and Dickens—together with writers as diverse as Mrs. Gaskell, Mark Twain, and James Joyce; novels as different as Moby-Dick, Crime and Punishment, and Herzog—so even more does it define the personal line that runs from Richardson through Jane Austen and Henry James and down to Alice Walker and innumerable others.

I confess there's something in this kind of novel I find tedious. Austen and James, many others in the Richardson line, are beyond carping; to prefer Dickens to them is as individually revealing and critically pointless as preferring the planet Mercury to the planet Mars. Still, I do prefer Wuthering Heights to Jane Eyre, War and Peace to Madame Bovary, Death Comes for the Archbishop to The Awakening (and Rabelais to them all). Reading even much of Virginia Woolf, I find myself tiring of the relentless search inside the psyche, the endless dwelling on internal reality, as though feelings and thoughts about the self were as important and interesting as actions and thoughts about the external universe.

Except that feelings and thoughts about the self actually are important. They were important even in the premodern Aristotelian and Stoic rational accounts of the good life, although they were understood mostly as tools: instruments to be left behind once virtue had been achieved. And feelings and internal consciousness become more than important—they become vital—in the modern turn to the self.

This is what the novel as an art form emerged to address, and what the novel as an art form encouraged into ever-greater growth. The inner life, self-consciousness as self-understanding, becomes the manifestation of virtue and the path for grasping salvation. It's there in 1813 when Jane Austen has Elizabeth Bennett declare, "Till this moment I never knew myself," at the great turning point of Pride and Prejudice, and it's there in 1908 when E. M. Forster has Lucy Honeychurch exclaim that she has at last seen for herself "the whole of everything at once," at the great turning point of A Room with a View—Forster's most Austen-like book, intended (as he described it in his diary) to be "clear, bright, and well constructed. . ."