Playful etiology (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
Charles Baudelaire’s novella La Fanfarlo (1847; the flaunter) attributes the idiosyncrasies of the protagonist, Samuel Cramer, to his mixed parentage (German and Chilean), his French education, and his heaven-bestowed partial genius. Baudelaire is thus practicing etiology—diagnosing the causes of a condition—but not with the seriousness a physician would adopt. Instead, he explains a condition through a whimsical mixture of rationales based on nature, nurture, and God. Such jocular syncretism (or, indeed, any extensive etiology) is common in fiction only from the eighteenth century onward. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses (c. 8 c.e.; English translation, 1567), Myrrha’s incestuous passion for her father creates the kind of situation that later fascinated psychologists, but the narrator simply comments on that passion as criminal and disgusting without investigating why Myrrha had such an unusual craving. Presumably, fate or the gods are somehow responsible.
With the rise of the sciences in the eighteenth century, however, tacit reference to supernatural influence was not enough to explain personality differences. Before the Romanticism of the early nineteenth century, the characters to be diagnosed seldom deviated far from normality and thus were little in need of lavish elucidation. Thereafter, however, neurotics and psychotics began multiplying through a growing interest in extreme expressions of individuality.
To demonstrate this individuality, authors must at some point diagnose characters’ deviance from the norm; paradoxically, since what can be thus cataloged is not uniquely individual, the authors must also show a distaste for diagnosis itself....
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Unrepentant confession (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
In classic psychoanalysis, discovering etiology is largely the doctor’s role. The patient engages in a secular form of confession, as a result of which (unlike the religious version) no one is required to repent. Literature has followed a similar path. In Fyodor Dostoevski’s Zapiski iz podpolya (1864; Letters from the Underworld, 1913; better known as Notes from the Underground), the narrator’s almost gloating self-exposure, without purgation or salvation, broke with Christian contrition and set a model for twentieth century confessional fiction. According to literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, Dostoevski’s later novels, at their best, consist of a dialogue of voices presented without a commenting narrator. This would make Dostoevski’s works confessional throughout, but, as Bakhtin admits, Dostoevski sometimes resorts to diagnosis and etiology, as in the epilogue to Prestupleniye i nakazaniye (1866; Crime and Punishment, 1886), with an obtrusive psychology based on Christianity.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, André Gide’s L’Immoraliste (1902; The Immoralist, 1930) took the confessional mode further toward the secular. Until near the book’s conclusion, its protagonist, Michel, is unaware of his homosexuality, so he cannot divulge it, except by reporting behavior he understands less than do the readers. Furthermore, since homosexuality in the novel is not an action but a tendency, it is not, in Christian terms, a sin; despite the guilt it instills, it does not seem susceptible to purgation. By persuasively associating the human condition with embarrassing impulses, The Immoralist sets a despairing tone for French fiction.
This tone continued at least as late as Albert Camus’s La Chute (1956; The Fall, 1957). Its protagonist, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, is unwilling to risk his life to save a drowning man. Disillusioned by his own cowardice, Clamence abandons conventional behavior and slips into cruelty, intent on convincing...
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Stream of consciousness (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
According to Keith M. May, stream of consciousness—an attempt to represent barely conscious thinking—belongs to a relatively brief period when the two world wars led people to once again recognize human irrationality. Significantly, May omits mention of Édouard Dujardin’s stream-of-consciousness novel Les Lauriers sont coupés (1887, serial; 1888, book; We’ll to the Woods No More, 1938; also known as The Bays Are Sere, 1991), which was published generations before World War I. More perceptively, Dorrit Cohn contends that ungrammatical fragments in stream of consciousness approximate a deep stratum of the mind, since the psycholinguist Lev Vygotsky has demonstrated such incoherence to be its nature.
According to Shiv Kumar, psychologist-philosopher William James originated the phrase “stream of consciousness” in 1890, but it was introduced to literary criticism in a 1918 article by May Sinclair about the novels of Dorothy Richardson. In Pilgrimage (1938, 1967), Richardson confines herself to her protagonist’s consciousness, without providing the customary information readers expect early in a book. Fifty pages into the novel, the reader learns the character is a teenager. As Katherine Mansfield did for the short story, Richardson brought to the English novel the technique of stream of consciousness, whose major practitioners were Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and William Faulkner.
The first of Woolf’s novels to employ the technique is Jacob’s Room (1922), about the life of an Englishman who dies in World War I. It repeatedly marks characters’ inattention to traditional religion even when church bells chime in the background. (Her generation associated stream of consciousness with a world that was replacing theology with psychology.) By focusing on a single day, her next novel, Mrs. Dalloway (1925), achieves greater intensity in the depiction of relatively plotless mental flux. A unifying element, though, is repeated reference to Septimus Smith, who consults a psychiatrist and kills himself to avoid another physician. On an extreme level,...
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Kafkaesque fantasy (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
Stream of consciousness views characters’ minds as if the author were separate from them. In Kafkaesque literature, however, characters and their authors converge. Indeed, Kafkaesque writers tend to place images of themselves within their works. Franz Kafka names the protagonist of Das Schloss (1926; The Castle, 1930) with the initial K., while the main character of Der Prozess (1925; The Trial, 1937) is Joseph K. (Kafka was named Franz for the emperor Franz-Joseph). Kurt Vonnegut puts himself in his own novel, Slaughterhouse-Five: Or, The Children’s Crusade, a Duty-Dance with Death (1969), as a minor character who describes the book’s composition and thereby tells the readers that the action is imaginary. Billy Pilgrim slips back and forth through time because of an association of ideas in Vonnegut’s mind.
Milan Kundera makes his part in composition even more explicit by interrupting action with essays explaining how he created one character or another. In his novel L’Insoutenable Légèreté de l’être (1984; The Unbearable Lightness of Being, 1984; in Czech as Nesnesitelná lehkost bytí, 1985), he shapes the protagonist through meditations on living in truth as this idea is expressed by Kafka and Václav Havel. Although Kafka himself was subtler, examination of his works demonstrates that he structured events in quite as artificial a way as Kundera, with almost no...
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Bibliography (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
Cohn, Dorrit. Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction. Rev. ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988. Cohn divides the fictional rendering of consciousness into three modes: “psycho-narration,” which is both diagnosis and summary of mental contents; quoted (interior) monologue; and narrated monologue, a third-person narration that adopts the style of the character described.
Crosthwaite, Paul. Trauma, Postmodernism, and the Aftermath of World War II. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. Argues that the postmodern novel is not, as many critics claim, ahistorical, but deeply attuned...
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