Covering the Basics: “The English Novel–An Introduction.”

 

The English Novel- An Introduction” by Terry Eagleton

By British literary critic Terry Eagleton, The English Novel—an Introduction is much more than simply an introduction, though he does limit its scope to the canonical writers.

Eagleton is an eclectic and prolific scholar. He oeuvre contains works on post-modernism, Marxism, religion, and of course, literature. In The English Novel—An Introduction, he covers roughly two centuries: from the the periods known as Realism to High Modernism, which ended around WWI.

Eagleton does not shy away from psychological, political and social analyses of his subjects nor from noting some of the more opprobrious aspects of these revolutionary artists, not all of whom were liberal humanists. (A hundred years later, you would be hard pressed to find a Western writer that doesn’t subscribe to this particular philosophy, or who hasn’t been written off as a crack pot by his/her academic contemporaries.) 

Eagleton is also not afraid to reassess the works of these literary lions, soberly and somewhat free from the long shadows of their renown.

There is so much touched upon in the book.

In the next few posts, I will discuss some of the things that I learned reading this capacious work. Hopefully the reader will find it likewise enlightening. 

  1. The Novel Was the Voice of the Middle Class.

If it [the novel] is a form particularly associated with the middle class, it is partly because the ideology of that class centres on a dream of total freedom from restraint.

 

If the epic, the predominant form before the novel, celebrated the exploits of kings, heroes, and warrior-poets, the novel’s primary concern was the burgeoning European middle class, focussing on the individual in an increasingly atomized world.

This may seem self-evident, but we should remember that before the social upheavals that led to the emergence of the middle class, life in Medeival Europe was largely static in terms of class. There was little opportunity for upward mobility. 

The emergence towards the end of the 18th century of the middle class and its unimaginable freedom, (which is probably not all that impressive, by today’s standards) came with an increasing hostility towards the scaffolds of power. The middle class, as Eagleton writes, developed a whole slew of interests: “…its relish for the material world; its impatience with the formal, ceremonial and metaphysical; its insatiable curiosity about the individual self; its robust faith in historical progress.”

Yet, the same sensibilities that freed the middle class individual from the shackles of tradition also set her adrift, anchorless. Or perhaps more accurately, anchored solely in the self. 

The novel’s struggle and mission from the get-go was to articulate the experience of this new free-floating individual. If the epic had been concerned with the archetype and the past, the novel was concerned with the mundane multi-faceted individual and the present. It affirmed the commonplace rather than the supernatural or heroic (though overflow of the supernatural reared up in early Gothic novels, which one could interpret as a sort of bridge between epic literature and realism.)

At the time, the novel was a form that didn’t require a specialized education.

In doing so [depicting the world in its everyday, unregenerate state] art finally returned the world to the common people who had created it through their labour, and who could now contemplate their own faces in it for the first time. A form of fiction had been born in which one could be proficient without specialist erudition or an expensive classical education.

 

But one doesn’t see many people who are not educated reading these novels, which is proof of just how much the “face” of the middle class has changed in a hundred years.

In fact, could the explosion of genre writing (as wang-dang-doodle as it can often be) be interpreted as a similar disruption to the literary scene as that that occurred upon the emergence of the novel over two hundred years ago? (And is this number longer? Eagleton opens the book with a treatise on Don Quixote.) The response of the authorities would seem to bear this analogy out: then and now, the new literary form was largely dismissed as useless, puerile, mean, base, etc. 

I don’t think that this is an academic question: With a dwindling middle class and the rise of a new breed of 21st century people (cyborgs by the look of it, or Post-Humans, as they are called in the Universities), will the novel, with its focus on realism, humanism, and liberalism finally give up the ghost? 

Of course, Eagleton opens the book with a swift kick in the pants of the reader, reminding the reader that the novel is an extremely slippery beast, and one that by its mercurial nature defies categorization.

As adaptable as humanity itself, this is what has accounted for its longevity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements