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Narrative, Culture, and the Development of the Novel

The earliest narratives developed in oral cultures when minstrels sang and committed to memory the long accounts of heroic and mythological exploits that we call epics (see Chapter 1, Oral Narrative Verse). As written alphabets evolved, writing became a prized skill mastered by only a few professional scribes. What ancient civilizations chose to have their scribes preserve in writing, therefore, were the traditional documents by which they defined themselves, saving for posterity a variety of epic, historical, and religious narratives of utmost cultural significance. Eventually, as writing became more common, story tellers invented fictional narratives with less weighty aims, purely for pleasure (Chapter 4, Passage from Tales from A Thousand and One Nights); travelers made notes describing the sights they saw and the people they met in distant lands (see Chapter 4, Passage from Islamic Travel Narratives); introspective individuals recorded their thoughts in diaries and journals (see Chapter 4, Passage from Medieval Vernacular Literature in Japan). Telling stories, it appears, is a common human activity, but how to tell them and how seriously to regard them depends upon social circumstances and personal needs.

The first long prose narratives of the type generally labeled novels, like so many of the literary forms now familiar to us, probably developed in Asia. In the West, critics debate the precise moment when the novel came into being but they agree that in the nineteenth century, the genre achieved its most inclusive form, incorporating within itself traces of virtually every kind of previously known narrative. For our purposes, we will broadly define the novel as an extended prose fiction that tells the story of an essentially private experience set in a recognizable social context. The novel thus differs from the satiric fantasies so prominent in the eighteenth century (see Chapter 6, New Literary Forms) and the romance, with roots in ancient Hellenistic culture (see Chapter 3, The Hellenistic Age). Both of these narrative types emphasize improbable situations and resolve incredible plots through wild coincidences and the intervention of the divine. The novel, by contrast, strives for an aura of verisimilitude in its management of events; that is to say, the novel tries to look like truth.

The novel suggests truth in character as well, imparting a degree of psychological depth to its leading personalities at least. In the West, as new conceptions of human nature grew out of the scientific and philosophical inquiry discussed in Chapter 6, The Beginning of the Modern World, narratives increasingly examined individual psychological experience, investigating the relation between the doubting, rational Cartesian self and a material world in which that self sifted the evidence of sense experience in the process of deciding how to act. The evolving conceptions of individualism that developed in Europe led, as we have seen, to the Romantic emphasis on the imaginative capacity of the individual human mind. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, however, new insights into the way society functioned made it harder to believe that human beings were truly free agents. Instead, personality was understood to emerge from encounters with environmental circumstances beyond individual control. This collision between self and society produced a distinctive narrative genre.

Nineteenth-Century Social Analysis

Picture of Karl Marx.
  Karl Marx. (8.1)

Most of the major nineteenth-century novelists narrate the conflicts endured by individuals seeking to carve out a destiny in the face of external constraints. Some of these constraints today bear the names of the scientists who first identified them, foremost among them being three analysts of different forms of determinism(1) whose ideas had enormous impact on late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Europe. The first is the German philosopher Karl Marx (1818-1883), whose multi-volume work Capital (the first volume appeared in 1867) elucidates a theory of economic determinism; the second is the English naturalist Charles Darwin (1809-1892), whose Origin of Species (1859) proposes a theory of evolution that implies biological determinism; the third is the Austrian physician Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), whose Interpretation of Dreams, first published in November 1899, outlined a view of psychological determinism stressing the influence of the unconscious on human action.

Picture of Charles Darwin.
Charles Darwin. (8.2)

The nineteenth-century novelists, it should be emphasized, need not have read Capital to describe a world in which money takes on such unprecedented importance that human beings are seen as the sum of the objects they can buy, nor studied The Communist Manifesto (1848) to paint a comprehensive picture covering a wide range of socioeconomic classes and styles of life, while showing the determining influence of working conditions, financial pressures, and productive technologies. They need not have read Darwin to see human choices determined by a web of family relationships, caused by hereditary factors over which they lack control, or forged in power struggles in which only the fittest survive. They need not--indeed, they could not--have read Freud, who was not born until the middle of the century, to perceive personalities deformed by childhood trauma and damaged by repressed and displaced sexual energies.

Picture of Sigmund Freud.
Sigmund Freud. (8.3)

What marks these writers, the novelists and the critics, as typical nineteenth-century thinkers is the comprehensiveness of their imaginative range. Each in a unique way projects a panoramic interpretation of human experience. The grand ambitions of their theories typify the age in which they lived as surely as the great marketing innovation of the era, the department store. Like a multi-level building covering an entire city block and offering under one roof every variety of merchandise that could be found, the nineteenth-century novel or social theory gives a magisterial overview of the world. These grand bookkeeping enterprises account for private needs by entering them in the appropriate space in schematically arranged ledgers. Not coincidentally, one of the major French novelists of the century, Émile Zola (1840-1902), actually wrote a novel about a department store, Au Bonheur des Dames (1883).

Picture of Le Bon Marche, from a 19th century illustration.
Le Bon Marche, from a 19th century illustration. (8.4)

Among the first works of fiction to be organized around the workplace (and thus an ancestor of dozens of recent television series), it demonstrates some of the pitfalls inherent in the genre. The title, which means "At the ladies' good fortune" and is sometimes translated as Ladies' Delight, suggests the book's intended scope. As the name of the department store, it comments on the way the store exploits its female consumers while the man who controls the store exploits women in his pursuit of success. Zola's efforts in writing Au Bonheur des Dames exemplify the intensity of the realist writers' commitment to detailed authenticity; he paid frequent visits to Le Bon Marché, the prototype of New York's Macy's and Bloomingdale's and a focal point of Parisian life by the end of the nineteenth century, taking extensive notes on its customers, wares, decor, and management. As a result, the novel is perhaps a better piece of realistic description than fiction, showing the defects to which nineteenth-century novels, those "large loose baggy monsters,"(2) were prone. Such criticism notwithstanding, we shall see that the market for this new commodity grew to tremendous proportions as literacy increased. This unit charts the novel's development by citing two women's narratives of personal struggle within social constraints and by considering the artistic modes -- realism and naturalism -- that evolved to render a clearer picture of such struggles.


(1) A philosophical doctrine that events have causes determined by external phenomena independent of the human will.

(2) This term was coined by Henry James (1843-1916), the American novelist who lived in France and England, and appears in his preface to The Tragic Muse. A fastidious critic, James thought that writers like Zola and Leo Tolstoy sacrificed artistic control of their materials in attempting to connect disparate plot elements and situate them in realistically described settings. Such efforts to sew together too many different materials, he wrote, "betray the seams."


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Women's Voices in the Novel

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