". . . 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
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
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. . ."