Late nineteenth century literary naturalism insists on the determining forces of heredity and environment. Realism concentrates objectively on the social and historical conditions of experience, but it allows for a greater independence in the principal characters. Arnold Bennett’s fiction is marked by a blending of these two literary movements. He cultivated detachment and technique in his writing because he felt that the English novel had neglected what he called a “scientific” eye; satire and sentiment, from Henry Fielding to Charles Dickens, had colored the English author’s presentation of reality. Bennett turned to France for new models. By absorbing realism and naturalism, he became a master of the “impressions of the moment,” but he retained an English sense for the uniqueness of character.
The Old Wives’ Tale is his masterpiece. The title is revealing in that, instead of describing a superstitious tale, it dramatizes his objectivity by obliging readers to interpret the phrase literally. The novel is about two women who become old; their story, despite its inevitability, is far more wondrous in its simple reality than any fantastic or “superstitious” tale. What is remarkable about them is that despite their having lived entirely different lives, they emerge, at the end, remarkably similar. This is primarily because of the moral fiber woven into their characters from earliest childhood. Neither woman “has any imagination” (which was Bennett’s intention), but each has the stability of a rock. Constance leads a conventional life and never leaves St. Luke’s square; Sophia runs off with an attractive salesman, is deserted in Paris, and runs a successful boardinghouse during the siege of Paris and the Commune. (It is no coincidence that Bennett chose to name each symbolically for her main character trait: constancy and wisdom, respectively.) Despite the difference of circumstance in their lives, they remain the self-reliant middle-class daughters of John Baines. Bennett achieves his desired effect of parallelism amid contrast. This pattern is illustrative of what Bennett meant by technique and craftsmanship; it also reveals the interweaving of naturalist and realist techniques in fiction.
The “judicial murder” of Daniel Povey, Samuel’s cousin, in the prison at Stafford parallels the public...
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