Henry James called the nineteenth-century novel a ” loose and baggy monster.”
James thought the novel ought to discipline itself to a single character’s point of view. This character need not be the narrator because the novelist’s art consists in finding a way to say everything necessary within these voluntary limits. What results is not the omniscient voice of the culture, but the consciousness of the individual, who grows more and more alienated as we enter the twentieth century. If nineteenth century novels are typically long, twentieth century novels are inevitably hard because there is no more all-knowing narrator to tell us what to think and feel.
George Eliot’s Middlemarch is loose and baggy, because it is filled with an unusually wide range of characters across the society of Middlemarch at a time of historical transition. Anna Karenina has fewer characters, a more intense focus, but it is built on the parallel fates of Anna Karenina and Constantine Levin, who is a version of Tolstoy himself. Anna is a tragic figure while Levin is a spiritual seeker. The novel has two endings that prevent conventional closure.
How do these and other novels of the time take us to the very edge of Modernism?
Anna Karenina has two endings that prevent conventional closure. Tolstoy’s style is “simple,” lucid, irrefutable—it is quite simply like no one else’s which is why, by everybody’s measure, Leo Tolstoy is the greatest of the nineteenth century novelists.
James’s The Portrait of a Lady poses American innocence against the Old World’s sophistication, which is seen through the eyes and assumptions of Isabel Archer. Its ending is very provocative, and James is no help at all: his characters are as independent of their author as any in the nineteenth-century—an independence that turns into modern alienation and puts us at the edge of Modernism.
None of these differences diminishes any one of the novels. They are all masterpieces and the grounds for a nice debate about the relationship between the exigencies of real life and the freedoms of fiction’s aesthetics.
“The Novel Moves to Modernity” begins Thursday, September 7 from 1:00 – 3:00.
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