How does the critical argument offered in Robert Louis Stevenson's essay A Humble Remonstrance relate to the nineteenth-century debates about the nature and function of fiction? Also, how would you...

How does the critical argument offered in Robert Louis Stevenson's essay A Humble Remonstrance relate to the nineteenth-century debates about the nature and function of fiction?

Also, how would you relate this argument to Dombey & Son?

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Jamie Wheeler | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

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Stevenson writes this essay in 1884, during the peak of a literary movement known as "realism." Realism, as it names implies, seeks to represent things as they appear in life....objects and people.

The author of Treasure Island had an occasion to meet with two other authors of renown: Walter Besant and Henry James. He found himself immersed in a discussion taking place between the two very different writers (Stevenson describes Besant as "genial" and James as "cunning") on the subject of the "art of fiction." Both of the men, while wildly divergent on most topics, oddly seemed to agree on the "art of fiction."

Stevenson, however, finds the term "the art of fiction" to be "both too ample and too scanty." As for being too ample, Stevenson argues that is too much of a catch-all and that there is "no substantive art but an element which largely enters all the Arts but architecture." As such, the term becomes meaningless.

Yet, paradoxically, it is still too narrow. For while James and Besant claim that the art of fiction is a label that can only be applied to prose and poetry, Stevenson points out that works like Boswell's Life of Johnson, a biography, relies as heavily on the tools of fiction as do works of pure fiction. Why, then, are these types of writings excluded, he wants to know.

Taking a deeper look at what constitutes art, Stevenson finds that ALL art is a pale imitation at life and that no artist can ever achieve the realism the genre strives to create. "Life is monstrous, infinite, illogical, abrupt and poignant a work of art, in comparison, is neat and self-contained." To illustrate his claim, Stevenson asks the reader to consider a fictitious account of a battle (whether that battle is made up or is a historical remembrance). A well-written piece of prose will exact a reaction, perhaps even a horrific one, Stevenson says, but ultimately, it is a pleasure. We do not, as a reader, far removed, have to actually experience the pain and horror of being on that battlefield. The art of fiction "imitates not life but speech."

As to how this relates to Charles Dickens's novel Dombey and Sons, think about how Dickens tries to convey the tenets of realism which tries to depict everyday life and activities. Here is an example of that realism in the novel

Florence lives alone in the great dreary house, and day succeeded day, and still she lived alone; and the blank walls looked down upon her with a vacant stare, as if they had a Gorgon-like mind to stare her youth and beauty into stone.

Then consider whether Stevenson is correct: are we getting a full picture or only the view that the author chooses to show us?

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