Maurice Beebe (essay date 1964)

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SOURCE: Beebe, Maurice. “Honoré de Balzac: The Novelist as Creator.” In Ivory Towers and Sacred Founts: The Artist as Hero in Fiction from Goethe to Joyce, pp. 175-96. New York: New York University Press, 1964.

[ In the following essay, Beebe assesses the work of French writer Honoré de Balzac...

(The entire section contains 55265 words.)

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SOURCE: Beebe, Maurice. “Honoré de Balzac: The Novelist as Creator.” In Ivory Towers and Sacred Founts: The Artist as Hero in Fiction from Goethe to Joyce, pp. 175-96. New York: New York University Press, 1964.

[In the following essay, Beebe assesses the work of French writer Honoré de Balzac and concludes that contrary to most appraisals of Balzac, as a writer, he was both a romantic and a realist.]

“The crossroad of sensibility and social history,” we have seen, is the area from which the finest fiction comes.1 Because the greatest novelists achieve a balance between individual vision and the life which they must use in their art, they seem to reside midway between the Ivory Tower and the Sacred Fount. Such a novelist was Honoré de Balzac. When we consider his total work after his early apprenticeship as a hack writer, we must be impressed by its evenness of quality: some of the novels and stories in the Comédie humaine are, of course, better or worse than others, but it is impossible to discover a clear pattern of improvement or deterioration in Balzac's literary career. It is as if he had from the beginning a vision so complete that it could never be exhausted and so balanced that it need never be rejected. He had only to draw upon that total vision as long as he lived.

Because Balzac's fiction falls within the middle area, both realists and romantics claim him as their own. Ferdinand Brunetière argued that “if romanticism consists especially in the display of the writer's ego, or, further, in the systematic reduction of the spectacle of the vast world to the range of the poet's or novelist's personal vision, who will deny that the whole work of Balzac is, on the contrary, a perpetual effort to subordinate his individual manner of viewing things … to the restraint of a reality which, by its very definition, is exterior, anterior, and superior to it?”2 Much of the more recent criticism of Balzac, however, sees him as a romantic and uses as its starting point Baudelaire's assertion, “I have often been astonished that the great glory of Balzac was to pass for an observer. It has always seemed to me that his principal merit was to be a visionary and a passionate visionary.”3 That to this day much of the criticism of Balzac assumes the unnecessary task of trying to classify him as either a realistic chronicler of his world or a romantic visionary creating a private world and that convincing cases can still be made for both classifications seems to me sufficient proof that Balzac was both a realist and a romantic, an observer and a visionary. Perhaps it is time for criticism to call a truce between the opposing camps and to investigate that “middle area” in Balzac where sensibility and history blend.4

The blending occurs in the vision of the artist. There is one who sees, and there is something seen; but what really distinguishes one artist from another is the way of seeing. Of the important aspects of the art of fiction which distinguish it from other forms of literature, none has been more neglected by critics than what Henry James described as

the projected light of the individual strong temperament—the color of the air with which this, that, or the other painter of life … more or less unconsciously suffuses his picture. … This is of the nature of the man himself—an emanation of his spirit, temper, history; it springs from his very presence, his spiritual presence, in his work, and is, in so far, not a matter of calculation and artistry. All a matter of his own, in a word, for each seer of visions, the particular tone of the medium in which each vision, each clustered group of persons and places and objects, is bathed.5

For want of a better term, we may substitute aura for “projected light”: aura, the dictionary assures us, is “a distinctive air, atmosphere, character”; “a subtle emanation proceeding from a body and surrounding it as an atmosphere.” Aura is the -ian in “Dickensian,” “Jamesian,” or “Balzacian.”

James had little difficulty describing the characteristic aura of Dickens, Hawthorne, George Eliot, and Charlotte Bronte; but of Balzac's he could say only, “It is rich and thick, the mixture of sun and shade diffused through the Comédie humaine—a mixture richer and thicker and representing an absolutely greater quantity of ‘atmosphere,’ than we shall find prevailing within the compass of any other suspended frame.”6 As James's borrowing of images from the art of painting suggests, aura derives from the individual artist's unique way of seeing and is conveyed primarily through images of what is seen; hence, it is visual and, unlike those aspects of fiction more frequently discussed of late, closer to the plastic arts than to poetry or music. Like a painting, aura is spatial and static. Borrowing “color of the air” from the times of day or seasons of the year favored by the novelists (Dickens is an early-morning novelist, Hawthorne a late-afternoon novelist), it captures time and transforms it into something that may be perceived visually. The action of the Comédie humaine ranges in time from 1308 to 1846, but Balzac's aura varies little from work to work; and in spite of his painstaking documentation of his historical backgrounds, the world of his novels seems universal and timeless.

We are more conscious of aura in Balzac than in many other novelists because he took the trouble to create a fictive world which, however similar to the real world it may seem to be, is nonetheless uniquely personal. A private world at once better (more logically controlled) and worse (more evil and distorted) than the real world, it is not depicted in its entirety in the novels Balzac lived to write; but whereas many novelists give us recognizable fragments of the world they and we know only in part, Balzac's novels are fragmentary reflections of a world which we feel he knew in its entirety, a world which was somehow within him before he created it in fiction. Thus for any one work of Balzac the author has, in the other books of his series, a readymade frame of reference. Characters reappear naturally from book to book, and, in spite of the artificiality of a scheme which was imposed after many volumes of the series were already written, the novels complement one another in a remarkably consistent way. Balzac, faithful to his vision, had to be consistent.

Although Balzac's aura gains much from his private world, it is not entirely dependent upon it. (James, Dickens, Dostoevsky have their characteristic auras without using recurring characters or imposing a private sociology.) Aura may be discerned in the individual works of the Comédie humaine, though we cannot be sure that it is characteristically Balzacian unless we are familiar with many of the other works as well. How often we are struck by the casual way in which Balzac warms up to his subject, how, in a typical novel, he begins by describing a scene in exhaustive detail, brings on to this setting an individual with an obviously dominant trait, describes him physiologically (sometimes even phrenologically), pauses to analyze his personality, and yet, in spite of this mechanical progression, manages to convey the illusion of life. In a good Balzac novel things suddenly come into focus. When the light is not working, the picture of life is blurred.

Ramón Fernandez wisely remarked that the reader of Balzac never knows “precisely if the feeling which he has of the reality of a scene is not an illusion due to the truth of the abstract commentary framing it.”7 Although it is usually assumed that Balzac began with a generalized type in mind, then illustrated it, I suspect that he did just the opposite. He began with elaborate descriptions because only by first visualizing his characters was he able to interpret and understand them. Just as he proceeded almost always from physical appearance to moral nature, he seems to have determined the type only after he had seen the individual. His approach was inductive, a deliberate observing of something already within his vision. Many details in his descriptions are irrelevant to the context; usually his inserted essays on such topics as the manufacture of paper or the legal procedure of bankruptcy are like the cetological chapters in Moby-Dick in that they give us more information than we really need to understand the action in the story. Yet these descriptions and digressions are never entirely irrelevant, for they are the means by which Balzac keeps us aware of his posted presence in his works, his control over the materials of his fictive world. Unity in a Balzac novel depends not on the complete dramatic relevance of detail, but on our awareness of the creator in whom every detail has its source and who brings all details into relation.

Balzac's well-known method of working—the hours from midnight to eight in the morning, the monkish robe, the black coffee made from a special oriental formula, the precise ordering of his working tools, and his trancelike state—constituted a ritual whereby, isolated from the world and free from distractions, he could become completely absorbed in the visional world of his creating. According to Stefan Zweig, the “monk's robe unconsciously reminded him that he was in service to a higher law and bound, so long as he wore it, to abjure the outside world and its temptations.”8 At times he undoubtedly felt not only monklike, but godlike—else he would not have allowed one of the characters in Albert Savarus to say of another, “While all the world is sleeping, he is awake—like God!”9 As early as 1830 in an essay on “Les Artistes,” he set up Christ as the supreme type of the artist: “As he was despised and rejected, so are all artists hated, because they are the apostles of some truth hateful to the multitude.”10 In another work Balzac anticipated Flaubert and Joyce in comparing the novelist to God: “The true poet … ought to remain hidden, like God, in the centre of his universe, and be visible only in his creations.”11 The world of the Comédie humaine is, as Albert Thibaudet remarked, “l'imitation de Dieu le Père.”12 It is a kind of divine comedy as well as a human one and, since Balzac is playing at being a god, it is also what he originally intended to call it, a diabolical comedy. Like the Shakespeare-as-God of Stephen Dedalus' Hamlet theory in Ulysses, Balzac's creative self is diffused through all his characters. “He is not so much hidden, mysteriously intact, deep in the center of his work, like Stendhal or Flaubert,” Samuel Rogers has written, “as diffused all through it, identified equally with every part and yet distinct from every part. He is himself both the one and the many.”13

Like Anton Reiser and other solitaries, Balzac believed that solitude led to loss of self and the gift of second sight, the ability to enter the lives and thoughts of others.14 But if Balzac was able to enter the selves of others, he brought to them much of himself. His power of self-absorption within the personages of his fictional world explains what Baudelaire, another “Man of the Crowd,” meant when he said, “Bref, chacun, dans Balzac, a du génie.”15 Although not only his celebrated monomaniacs, but all of Balzac's characters have something of his genius, the many artists in his fictional world provide perhaps the most direct means of determining the sources of that visual aura which pervades the Comédie humaine. Not any one artist stands as the surrogate for Balzac's creative self, but all together; considered as a group, they enable us to understand how Balzac was able to maintain a balance between observable reality and visionary insight.

So strong is our image of Balzac in his monkish cell that we are likely to forget that he was capable of flinging himself into the world of reality—into business, politics, love, treasure hunts—with the same intense passion and absorption he revealed in the creation of his fictional world. Long before James and Proust, Balzac recognized the disparity between the public and the creative lives of the artist and realized that a man may be “completely out of tune with the products of his mind.”16 Stefan Zweig's biography of Balzac is one of the most convincing of all literary portraits in part because of the biographer's awareness of the ironic difference between the two Balzacs: “Yet again and again we find in Balzac's career the paradoxical phenomenon, repeated with uncanny precision, that the brain which was able to pierce unerringly to the heart of every situation in the fictitious world of its own creation, functioned in the world of reality with a naive and childlike credulity.”17 After months of intense creative activity, Balzac would plunge once again into society not only to replenish his store of impressions, but also to bring about those frustrations and failures that would send him back to the secluded life of his study and the strict regimen that enabled him to pay for the life he had just spent. In his fiction Balzac is obsessed by the conflict between art and life, and he expressed the conflict more convincingly than most other writers of his century because art and life held equally powerful appeals for him.18

Le Chef-d'oeuvre inconnu and La Peau de chagrin, both published in 1831 near the beginning of Balzac's career as a serious novelist, serve as complementary warnings to their author of the fate which awaits the artist who fails to maintain the precarious balance between the Ivory Tower and the Sacred Fount. The pattern revealed by these two early stories is repeated again and again in the later works.

Le Chef-d'oeuvre inconnu opens with the visit of Nicolas Poussin and Frenhofer to the studio of François Porbus. Frenhofer criticizes a recent painting by Porbus, remarking that the throat seems a “dead” thing. Porbus replies that he studied the throat with great care in the model, and Frenhofer responds indignantly, “The mission of art is not to copy nature, but to give expression to it! You are not a base copyist, but a poet! … We have to grasp the spirit, the soul, the features of things and beings.”19 Frenhofer then demonstrates that he can make a painting seem alive, for he takes one of Porbus' brushes and, with “passionate ardor” but few strokes, makes the necessary alterations in the throat. Intrigued and curious, the young Poussin learns from Porbus that Frenhofer, though little known, is the greatest of living painters and that for years he has worked on a painting of Catherine Lescault which he will permit no one to see. However, when Poussin and Porbus finally gain access to the old man's studio, they see on his canvas only a conglomeration of colors and a mass of chaotic lines. “On drawing nearer,” though, “they spied in one corner of the canvas the end of a bare foot standing forth from that chaos of colors, of tones, of uncertain shades, that sort of shapeless mist; but a lovely foot, a living foot! They stood fairly petrified with admiration before the fragment, which had escaped that most incredible gradual, progressive destruction.”20 Overhearing the two painters discuss his work, Frenhofer realizes that what is in his mind's eye is not on his canvas. That night, after burning all his paintings, the disillusioned Frenhofer dies.

The perfect foot suggests, however, that Frenhofer is not a false visionary. For a time at least he did grasp an ultimate reality, and Balzac leaves little doubt that he believes in the validity of Frenhofer's quest, in the existence of an ideal which may be captured. The perfect foot is a typical touch of Balzacian irony, similar to that in La Recherche de l'absolu, in which another of Balzac's visionaries, Balthazar Claes, returns to his ancestral home after years of exile imposed because his experiments to discover the secret of matter had brought his family to the brink of poverty and destruction. He finds his children on the eve of good marriages, the family fortunes restored, and the home as well-furnished as before he began his experiments. Here, we are likely to say, is the triumph of common sense, self-sacrifice, and hard work over the impractical ideals of the deluded visionary. But when Balthazar's servant goes up to the abandoned laboratory, he discovers that the chemicals left there have produced, by chance and with no one to observe the process, one perfect diamond. The one perfect foot, like the diamond, represents the validity of Frenhofer's ideal.21

Further evidence that Balzac believed in the reality of Frenhofer's ideal is given in his repetition of the theme in several later stories. Frenhofer the painter and Balthazar Claes the alchemist are joined by Gambara the musician, Seraphita the religious mystic, and Louis Lambert in Balzac's gallery of visionaries. Just as Frenhofer seeks the core of reality beneath appearance so that he can represent it in painting and Balthazar Claes seeks the basic element common to all things so that he can create matter, so Gambara would discover the celestial powers that cause the sensuous effects of music. Once he attains a vision of the ideal, however, his music seems only noise to earthbound mortals and he is forced to compose for himself alone. The closer Louis Lambert comes to understanding the secret of the universe, the more insane he appears to be; and his ultimate insight, like Balthazar's cry of “Eureka!”, is reserved for the moment of death. In a turgid chapter which Balzac claimed to have written under divine inspiration, Seraphita-Seraphitus, the angelic girl-boy of Balzac's Swedenborgian romance, ascends to Heaven, leaving behind her/him disappointed lovers, male and female. In all these works, the visionaries have a passion for unity which forces them to seek the link between spirit and matter, but once they learn the secret—as several do—they are unfitted for life. Balzac thought highly of these stories, and though he wrote them during the 1830's, the first of his two decades of serious effort, he placed them at the end of the Comédie humaine as if to illustrate a Dantean progression from the diabolical to the divine, from self-interest (“Scenes of Private Life” is the first grouping) to self-transcendence in a vision of absolute unity.

Just as the artist's vision of the ideal may unfit him for life, his love of mortal pleasures and worldly glory may unfit him for art. Such is the theme of La Peau de chagrin. The story deals with Raphael de Vallentin, an impoverished young writer who sets himself a three-year apprenticeship in a Parisian garret, much as Balzac did, where he writes the Treatise on the Will that Balzac is said to have composed as a schoolboy. The treatise completed, he falls in love with Fedora, a beautiful but cold lady of fashion who, Balzac states explicitly, symbolizes Society. After losing the remains of his small fortune in a gambling den, Raphael decides to kill himself. On his way to the Seine, he stops at a strange museum-like shop filled with artistic treasures, where he is offered the “fatal skin,” a piece of shagreen, which will grant him anything he wishes, but only at a terrible cost. Each time he wishes for something the wish is granted, but with each wish the skin shrinks and the days of the possessor's life are proportionally shortened. Possession of Fedora, wealth, and glory, Raphael now realizes, can bring him no joy because the gratification of each desire carries with it a visible price tag. In order to avoid wishing, Raphael isolates himself and tries to live a vegetable-like existence. He falls in love with and marries Pauline, a symbol of true, selfless love, a now-beautiful heiress who had loved him during his days in the garret. At first there is no shrinking of the shagreen, for Pauline already loves Raphael and he need not wish for her love. But after the marriage the fatal skin becomes a little smaller each night he possesses her. Finally, in desperation, Raphael, prematurely aged and decrepit like the lovers who serve at the Sacred Fount in Henry James's stories, resorts to the scientists in a vain attempt to stretch the shagreen. The intensity of his desire for release from the fatal skin simply accelerates his death.

In his Treatise on the Will Raphael argues that “the human will was a material force like steam; that in the moral world nothing could resist its power if a man taught himself to concentrate it, to economize it, and to project continually its fluid mass in given directions upon other souls. Such a man … could modify all things relatively to man, even the peremptory laws of nature.”22 The inscription on the fatal skin reads “This is thy life,” but it says also, “thy life is mine, for God has so willed it. … Wilt thou have me? Take me. God will hearken unto thee.”23 Thus divine will working through human will explains the power of the shagreen. The ageless old man who gives it to Raphael makes this identification clear. “‘There,’ he burst out vehemently, ‘there are To Will and To have your Will, both together,’ he pointed to the bit of shagreen; ‘there are your social ideals, your immoderate desires, your excesses, your pleasures that end in death, your sorrows that quicken the pace of life.’”24 We know from Balzac's other writings that he believed in the world-transforming power of the human-divine will; for him each person has a given quantity of will, magic fluid or fatal skin, the use of which determines his fate. Hence the vital power of Balzac's monomaniacs, who concentrate their will on a single object.

Opposing To Will and To have your Will, according to the old man, are To Know and To See:

To Will consumes us, and To have our Will destroys us, but To Know steeps our feeble organisms in perpetual calm. In me Thought has destroyed Will, so that Power is relegated to the ordinary functions of the economy. In a word, it is not in the heart which can be broken, nor in the senses that become deadened, but it is in the brain that cannot waste away and survives everything else, that I have spent my life. … I have attained everything, because I have known how to despise all things.

My one ambition has been to see. Is not Sight in a manner Insight? And to have knowledge or insight, is not that to have instinctive possession? … Troubles, loves, ambitions, losses, and sorrows, as men call them, are for me ideas, which I transmute into waking dreams; I express and transpose instead of feeling them; instead of permitting them to prey upon my life, I dramatise and expand them; I divert myself with them as if they were romances which I could read by the power of the vision within me.25

This speech sounds very much like Balzac expatiating on his vision as artist, and the old man would seem to represent Raphael's past Balzacian life in his garret, when he slept upon his solitary pallet “like a Benedictine brother” and “by sheer contemplation of the things about me discerned an expression and a character in each … as my soul bathed itself in the beams of an unknown light, hearkened to the awful and uncertain voice of inspiration, as vision upon vision poured from some unknown source through my throbbing brain.”26

It is easy enough to say that if Raphael had remained in his garret and dedicated himself to disinterested scholarship and artistic creation instead of falling in love with Society as embodied in Fedora and being driven to the brink of suicide, he could have escaped the fate of the shagreen. But Balzac's irony is broad, and the story is not so simple as that. Balzac, who suffered a nervous breakdown after writing his treatise exalting the power of mind over matter, realized that not to will would require a superhuman detachment like that of the old man who, indifferent to all things, “seemed to possess the tranquil luminous vision of some god before whom all things are open.”27 For Raphael, as for Balzac, sometimes “natural propensities broke out like a fire long smoldered,”28 and there is always a carnal taint on any humanly conceived ideal. Thus Raphael's first wish with the shagreen is that the old man fall in love with an opera dancer and learn the pleasures of intemperance; and thus the fatal skin continues to shrink after Raphael has turned in revulsion from the soul-appropriating Fedora to the divine Pauline, for the unheroic Raphael wills to find escape in Pauline and would as a man possess what is sacred.

Balzac apparently chose the name Raphael for his hero to suggest his artistic nature. In the shop of the old man Raphael passes from several floors filled with historical relics and antiques to an upper gallery of art treasures. Of the many masterpieces collected there the greatest is Raphael's portrait of Christ, which is locked in a case for which only the old man has a key. “At the sacred names of Christ and Raphael,” our Raphael shows curiosity, encourages the old man to open the case, then gazes in rapture at a picture which “breathed the spirit of prayer, enjoined forgiveness, overcame self; … [Raphael's] triumph was so absolute that the artist was forgotten.”29 On the opposite wall is the piece of shagreen with its artistically designed inscription. Thus if Raphael's name suggests the artist Raphael, who is said to have been a self-indulgent seeker of pleasure but who overcame self in his art, so the shagreen is a symbol large enough to include not only life and will, but also art. It is as if Balzac realized that in the creation of art as in the pursuit of pleasure one could use up life and sacrifice self to imaginative participation in the life of others. Inability to have his will drives Raphael to contemplate suicide; the shagreen gives him the power to realize whatever he wills, but that power, the story reveals, is but an alternate form of suicide. La Peau de chagrin, like Balzac's other literary works, was Balzac's own fatal skin.

For after all, had Raphael simply remained in his garret and continued his search for the ultimate truth, his fate might have been that of Louis Lambert, who discovered the secret but lost his life in the process. Louis Lambert was published a year after La Peau de chagrin and shares the autobiographical overtones of its predecessor. The lives of Raphael and Louis coincide generally with the earlier life of Balzac. But while their lives are brought to an end within the works, Balzac's went on. On the one hand, La Peau de chagrin; on the other, Louis Lambert and Le Chef-d'oeuvre inconnu—here we find Balzac's concept of his alternate selves, the Balzacs who might have been. For the Balzac who maintained a perilous balance between the real and the ideal, we must turn to other artists in other works.

Balzac was himself so balanced between the two extremes that he could work concurrently on the most ethereal of his philosophical tales and the most realistic of his social studies. Although he wrote works of both types, his best stories are those in which he combined the opposing strains. Such a work is the story of Lucien de Rubempré in Illusions perdues and its sequels. Of the many works in the Comédie humaine none is more central and inclusive, yet wide-ranging—and none presents a more convincing picture of the artist in society—than the Lucien series. The scene shifts between Paris and the provinces; the story includes a variety of character types, and ranges in social perspective from the criminal underworld through the Paris of the journalists and the courtesans, the world of business and finance, to the upper reaches of fashionable society. Many of the characters who play important roles in other novels make fleeting appearances in the series, which therefore provides a convenient focus on the whole world of the Comédie humaine.

When first introduced, Lucien de Rubempré is Lucien Chardon, a physically attractive, morally weak, and poetically talented young man. The first part, “Les deux poètes,” set at Angoulème, contrasts Lucien with David Sechard, his friend and brother-in-law, a responsible, modest man with the talent of an inventor. While David works doggedly to find a cheaper method of manufacturing paper, Lucien seeks shortcuts to fame and fortune. His first step is to allow himself to become seduced and corrupted by Mme. de Bargeton, a great lady of the provinces, who encourages him to break with his family because “genius was answerable to no man.”30 Lucien next goes to Paris, where he lives with a group of high-minded young men, “Le Cénacle,” and tries to achieve recognition as a poet and novelist. Failing, he abandons temporarily his high literary ambitions and becomes a journalist. At this point, Lucien “was standing at the parting of two distinct ways, between two systems, represented by the brotherhood upon one hand, and journalism on the other. The first way was long, honorable, and sure; the second beset with hidden dangers, a perilous path, among muddy channels where conscience is inevitably bespattered.”31

Lucien has his moments of glory as a journalist, but continues to play for higher stakes: he would marry a wealthy lady of fashion, have his mother's noble name, de Rubempré, restored to him, and keep the actress Coralie as a mistress. Only the third of these ambitions is realized in “Un grand Homme de province à Paris.” Lucien becomes enmeshed in journalistic conspiracies, falls from favor, and forges David's name to secure money. When Coralie dies, Lucien returns to Angoulème to confess his crime and make a fresh start. But his presence brings his sister and David only misfortune, and Lucien decides to kill himself. Instead, he meets Abbé Carlos Herrera, who offers a pact whereby Lucien will gain fortune and position in exchange for complete obedience to the Spanish priest, who we will soon learn is really the notorious criminal Jacques Collin, alias Vautrin. Just as Lucien in temperament and situation obviously derives from Raphael de Valletin, so Vautrin resembles the old man who is both God and Mephistopheles in La Peau de chagrin. When he offers the power of his will to Lucien, Vautrin is offering something very similar to the fatal skin.

The sequel, Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes, opens with Vautrin and Lucien, now de Rubempré, in Paris, where Lucien is already a social success and Vautrin is maneuvering to bring his disciple the fortune which will enable him to marry a lady of wealth and position. Again Lucien's native sensibility re-asserts itself, and, impractically, he falls in love with the beautiful courtesan Esther Gobseck. Esther in turn is coveted by the German millionaire Baron de Nucingen. At the suggestion of Vautrin, Esther, willing to do anything for Lucien, sells herself to the baron and serves as an instrument whereby Vautrin and Lucien can filch money from the financier. At the moment when Lucien is on the verge of total success, the plot is foiled by the police. Esther, like Coralie, dies; and the imprisoned Lucien commits suicide. As for Vautrin, he eventually joins the police and becomes the head of the Sureté.

Balzac assures us that Lucien has the talent and sensibility of a true poet. His bright, flashing eyes, his wild, curling hair, and his slight physique suggest the stereotyped artist of fiction, but if there is “divine graciousness” transfusing his white brows, there is also a short, weak chin which to Balzac the physiognomist signified not only “matchless nobleness” but also deficient will power. A friend of Lucien's reveals one of Balzac's sources for the type when he advises, “Read Goethe's Tasso,—the great master's greatest work, and you will see how the poet-hero loved gorgeous stuffs and banquets and triumph and applause. Very well, be Tasso without his folly.”32 But such folly is of the essence of the Tasso-type, and Lucien's tragedy is not so much that he is victimized by a money-hungry society, as Georg Lukàcs and other socially oriented interpreters of the novel suggest,33 as that he is himself too weak to withstand temptation. “It should be observed,” Balzac says, “that there are certain natures in which a really poetic temper is united with a weakened will; and these while absorbed in feeling, that they may transmute personal experience, sensation, or impression into some permanent form, are essentially deficient in the moral sense which should accompany observation.”34 Thus David Sechard is correct when he tells his wife, “Your Lucien is not a poet, he has the poetic temper; he dreams, he does not think; he spends himself in emotion, he does not create. He is, in fact … a womanish creature that loves to shine, the Frenchman's great failing. … He would not hesitate to sign a pact with the Devil tomorrow if so he might secure a few years of luxurious and glorious life.”35

And that, of course, is just what Lucien does when he meets Vautrin. The archcriminal appears first in the guise of a Spanish priest whom he has murdered, but his speeches to Lucien, like those to Rastignac in Père Goriot, are paraphrases of the discourses of Satan to Christ, and the masses he celebrates are sacrilegious.36 He is the fulfillment of the genius which Mme. de Bargeton had defined for Lucien: “It was the duty of a man of genius … to set himself above law; the man who is master of his age may take all that he needs, run any risks, for all is his.”37 In Père Goriot Vautrin tells Rastignac, “In every million of this higher class of cattle, there are ten fellows who rise superior to everything, even the laws; I am one of them.”38 And because Lucien's genius-ideal is an artist, it is fitting that Vautrin should say of himself, “I am a great poet, but I don't write my poems; they consist of deeds and feelings.”39 A man of sensibility, like his disciple Svidrigailov in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, a follower of Rousseau and what he calls the Anti-Social Contract, Vautrin even takes on the stature of a kind of god: “I take upon myself to play Providence and I will direct the will of God.”40 Balzac confessed in Histoire des Treize that he liked to play God;41 and William Troy has noted

In the Machiavellian oration he [Vautrin] delivers on the vices and follies of high society, on how much the young poet must sacrifice if he would be a success in it, it is the very voice of Balzac himself that we seem to hear; it is like the plot of one of his novels. And it is then that we are made aware of the parallel between the artist and the criminal, between the ‘detached’ observer of society and its detached enemy. Not only are both outside the pale but both are professionally given to the spinning of enormous plots. Vautrin is simply the artist functioning in the realm of action.42

If Vautrin is surrogate for Balzac in his role as spinner of plots and controller of a world, his existence in the Comédie humaine betrays the sense of guilt which Balzac as a pious Catholic must have felt: art is associated with crime as the archcriminal's attempt to replace God is associated with the playing at god of the world-creating artist. Balzac, like Hawthorne, realized that the artist may commit the sin of appropriating people from the world of observable reality for the sake of his controlling vision; the artist may violate the souls of others in making them adhere to his need for unity within his artistic structure. He may be guilty of the very sins with which he charges the society from which he keeps aloof. Thus Vautrin, when he is captured, is no longer artist, God, or Satan so much as he is simply “the type of a degenerate nation, of a people at once savage, logical, brutal and facile.”43 Vautrin, warring against society, becomes that which he hates, and it is entirely appropriate that the king of the criminal world should become the chief of the Sureté.

The opposite foil, counter to Vautrin and society, is represented by “Le Cénacle.” This group is composed of seven regular members, plus Lucien de Rubempré and Louis Lambert, contrasting types who are only temporary associates. Although their interests and professions vary, the members have certain character traits which set them apart from the rest of society. “Genius,” says Balzac, “is one and the same for all and resembles nothing so much as its self.”44 Each member of the Cénacle “bore the stamp of genius upon his forehead,” and all of them were “gifted with the moral beauty which reacts upon the physical form, and, no less than work and vigils, overlays a youthful face with a shade of divine gold; purity of life and the fire of thought had brought refinements and regularity into features somewhat pinched and rugged. The poet's amplitude of brow was a striking characteristic common to them all; the bright sparkling eyes told of cleanliness of life.”45 All have the profound self-respect and dedication to vocation which enable them to accept poverty rather than compromise with society. Their hand-to-mouth existence in the Latin Quarter, goodhearted fellowship, and spirited arguments (for they share only a similar character, not the same philosophy) stamp them as perhaps the first Bohemians in fiction, though they are more serious, less attracted to women and other distractions, than the Bohemians of Murger and later writers. Perhaps the keynote of the group is best expressed by Daniel d'Arthez: “‘Genius is patience,’ as Buffon said. And patience after all is a man's nearest approach to Nature's processes of creation. What is Art but Nature concentrated?”46

Only two of the regular group, Joseph Bridau, a painter, and the writer d'Arthez, are artists proper. Bridau, who is said to derive from Delacroix, plays a more important role in La Rabouilleuse. In this scathing indictment of a “society based on money values, on the glorification of success as an end to be obtained by fair means or foul,”47 Joseph Bridau is the only thoroughly sympathetic character, intended obviously to balance the scales against his older brother Philippe and the other scheming, selfish people who dominate the story. Among the reasons for Joseph's becoming a painter, we are told, were “the necessity of looking up at the sky to find consolation for the squalor of the dark, damp scene below, the spiritual quality … the enforced simplicity of living and the mother's preference for the older of her two boys coupled with her disapproval of the tastes of the younger.”48 But that compensation in this case follows nature is shown by his complete absorption: “Because he was entirely wrapped up in his talent, the future artist did not bother with the details of everyday life; during his childhood this attitude was so close to sluggishness that it had been a cause of concern to his father.”49 When he is surrounded by an angry mob eager to revenge his alleged assault against a village hero, Joseph earns the praise of the arresting officer for his courage and calmness. Joseph explains: “My mind was on something far away. … An officer once told me about something of the same kind, which happened to him in Dalmatia. On his way back from an early morning walk, he found himself surrounded by the irate population. Comparing the two episodes in my mind, and examining the angry faces about me, I began to play with the idea of painting one of the great riots of 1793. And I began to think, ‘Bad boy! That's what you get for chasing after an inheritance instead of sticking to the work you have to do in your own studio!’”50 Often victimized by his brother and completely ineffective in his attempts to regain his rightful inheritance, Joseph Bridau “practises art for the sake of art,”51 and though he is indifferent to worldly success, the lottery of fate, which is the pervasive symbol of the novel, ultimately throws everything into his hands.

Somewhat less emotional than Joseph Bridau, Daniel d'Arthez is equally dedicated to his profession and similarly absorbed in his work. His “life was entirely devoted to his work. He saw society by glimpses only; it was a sort of dream for him. His house was a convent. He led the life of a Benedictine, with a Benedictine's sober rule, a Benedictine's regularity of occupation.”52 Blessed with second sight, he divines the misery of Lucien and helps him in every way possible—advising, protecting, financing, and even helping to write a derogatory review of his own work. We learn from Les Secrets de la Princesse de Cadignan that after years of poverty and hard work his books attain wide recognition and, though he has inherited money from a rich uncle, he continues to live a simple life. Then the Princesse de Cadignan, realizing that she has never been loved by a man of genius, sets about entrapping d'Arthez with all the cunning of the experienced woman. D'Arthez knowingly allows himself to be trapped. The woman of the world and the man of genius discover, to their mutual amazement, that they really love each other. By the end of this social comedy, the happy d'Arthez has reached a stage where he “very rarely publishes anything.” It is clear, though, that, unlike Raphael or Lucien, he has not capitulated to life, and that he maintains his grip upon his talent, his self-respect, and the Princesse de Cadignan. If d'Arthez is, as usually assumed, an idealized self-portrait of Balzac, Les Secrets is Balzac's way of attaining in fancy the reconciliation of his two youthful ambitions, to be famous and to be loved.

Raymond Giraud has argued that Bridau and d'Arthez are introduced into the world of the Comédie humaine only to suggest the ideal of the uncommitted, singleminded artist which Balzac himself was not able to attain.53 No doubt Balzac was more complicated than his Bridau or d'Arthez, but insofar as his life as an artist is concerned, these characters are recognizable self-portraits. What we know of Balzac's nature as artist—his dedicated attitude toward his work, his tremendous industry, his power of absorption, his kindliness, his indifference to contemporary opinions of his work, his childlike naiveté in worldly affairs—parallels the character of d'Arthez and Bridau. But the Comédie humaine itself, its scope and consistency and excellence, is the best testimony to the fact that Balzac as artist, if not as a man, had the power of self-absorption which we note in the members of the Cénacle.

Thus we have met the four main types of artist in Balzac's fiction: the men of sensitivity like Raphael de Valletin and Lucien de Rubempré, the visionaries like Frenhofer and Louis Lambert, the dedicated and singleminded men of genius like d'Arthez and Bridau, and the artist as world-controller and would-be God in Vautrin. If we ask which of the four stands for Balzac, we should perhaps have to admit that no one type explains his uniqueness. Balzac, it is clear, embodied traits of all four types, and it is only by considering their relationship to one another that we can discover the sources of that “projected light” which gives us the peculiarly Balzacian aura.

“My best inspirations,” Balzac wrote, “have ever come to me in moments of anguish.”54 The Lucien type stands for the power of suffering, the suicidal impulse, which in Balzac took the form of self-imposed failures. Time after time, on the verge of success and financial independence, Balzac would leave his study and plunge into business projects, politics, and love affairs. Almost invariably he would fail and have to return, burdened with debts and frustration, to the sanctuary of his monastic cell where, in his absorption with work, he could forget his anguish. Then, after months of a strange calm in the midst of feverish activity, he would plunge again into the world of reality and the pattern would be repeated. Like other writers, Balzac worked best when he had to; if he had succeeded in his schemes to make a million or marry a wealthy heiress, we should not have had the Comédie humaine. Thus, Frenhofer is a failure as a painter—and he fails if for no other reason than that he destroys his masterpiece—because he was born rich and could afford to indulge his search for absolute perfection. The Lucien type stands also for an indispensable element in Balzac's psychological make-up, the need to suffer. Balzac's men of genius have to suffer because, as he wrote Madame Hanska, “observation is the result of suffering.”55 Louis Lambert “suffered at every point where pain could seize upon flesh or spirit” until “like martyrs who smile at the stake, he escaped to the heaven which thought opened to him.”56 More appropriately Balzac dramatized the link between suffering and observing in Lucien and Raphael, who are surrogates for Balzac's intense desire for glamor, social status, and the love of a beautiful woman; who, in other words, seek success not in their garrets but in that world which meant only anguish for Balzac. The Luciens do not, however, stand for something entirely negative. Adherence to what he had observed of the real world, in which he had suffered, was necessary if Balzac's writings were to achieve recognition, allow him as a man of honor to pay his debts, and keep him from the fate of a Frenhofer.

Balzac was saved too from the fate of a Lucien or a Raphael, who are entrapped by the world of observable reality. A part of Balzac knew that success and love in the real world, however desirable, are illusory and that “life is within us and not without us; that to rise above our fellows for the purpose of commanding them is only to magnify the career of a schoolmaster; and that men who are strong enough to lift themselves to the level at which they can enjoy the sight of worlds ought not to turn their gaze upon their feet.”57The sight of worlds—the one physical trait which all Balzac's true men of genius have in common is the hawk eye. “As to the eyes, there were never any like them; they had a life, a light, an inconceivable magnetism; the white of the eyeballs was pure, limpid, with a bluish tinge, like that of an infant or a virgin, inclosing two black diamonds, dashed at moments with gold reflections,—eyes to make an eagle drop his lids, eyes to read through walls and into bosoms, or to terrify a furious wild beast, the eyes of a sovereign, a seer, a subjugator.” This could be a passage from one of Balzac's more extravagant descriptions of a genius; actually, it is from Gautier's description of Balzac himself.58 His worldly geniuses—the Luciens, Raoul Nathans, and Camille Maupins of his fiction—have flashing, penetrating eyes, but his more profound geniuses have eyes like those of Louis Lambert: “Sometimes clear and wonderfully penetrating, at other times of heavenly sweetness, the eyes grew dull, deadened, colorless, when he yielded himself up to contemplation.”59 The first is the eye of the observer; the second, of the visionary. “When it pleases me to do so,” Louis Lambert says, “I draw a veil before my eyes. I retire within myself and find a darkened chamber, where the events of nature reproduce themselves in purer forms than those under which they first appeared to my exterior senses.”60

Balzac's visionaries often have the power of second sight. Facino Cane, an acknowledged self-portrait, says of himself:

The faculty of observation had become intuitive with me; I could enter the souls of others, while still unconscious of their bodies,—or rather, I grasped external details so thoroughly that my mind instantly passed beyond them; I possessed, in short, the faculty of living the life of the individual on whom I exercised my observation, and of substituting myself for him, like the dervish in the Arabian Nights who assumed the body and soul of those over whom he pronounced certain words. … To what have I owed this gift? Was it second-sight? Is it one of those qualities the abuse of which leads to insanity? I have never sought to discover the causes of this power. I only know that I possess it, and use it; that is enough for me.61

In Seraphita and Louis Lambert Balzac calls this gift “specialism” and defines it as “a sort of inward vision which penetrates all things”;62 “seeing the things of the material world as well as those of the spiritual world in their original and consequential ramifications.”63 The divine and the physical worlds blend for the “specialist.” Balzac hinted frequently at an undisclosed “secret” which would explain his creative power. Apparently the secret was concerned with his own uncanny powers of insight. He persuaded his sister that he could read her thoughts and often answered her before she spoke. He claimed to have “divined” a fortune in Sardinia. Curtius's explanation of Balzac's secret probably comes as close as any to Balzac's own belief: “Star and dream, objective and subjective, world and ego, had flowed together into one Vision; that is the secret of Balzac's childhood. It contains the secret of his life and of his art.”64

For such a visionary, internal and external vision blend, and dreams become indistinguishable from realities. The numerous anecdotes about the extent to which Balzac accepted as real the people of the Comédie humaine testify that he shared this genial fault. When a woman in Venice said to him, “You always mistake your dreams for realities,” he answered very earnestly, “In those few words you have hit upon the gravest secret of my life.”65 The desire for unity, his impatience with the fragment, his ambition for all-embracing possession help us to understand the philosophy expressed in Louis Lambert: “The Universe is, then, variety in Unity. Motion is the means, Number is the result. The end is the return of all things to Unity, which is God.”66 If this sounds like the Poe of Eureka, it is because both writers are in the tradition of romantic occultism which stretches from Goethe, Novalis, and Swedenborg to Blake to the American transcendentalist to the French Symbolists to the “religion of consciousness” of Henry James. To break down the barriers between world and ego, subject and object, is the aim of all these writers.

Balzac's desire for complete unity is equivalent to the single-mindedness which we have found best represented by d'Arthez and Bridau in his gallery of artists. But whereas these artists seek to remain aloof and uncommitted, Balzac had something of Raphael and Lucien as well, and could never completely separate society from his visional world. Balzac, for all his indictment of a world dominated by selfishness, was no champion of alienation. To deny any part of the whole would be a confession of failure, a denial of the all-pervading unity of things. It is perhaps Vautrin who best represents Balzac's own nature as a creative artist. The way in which the archcriminal manipulates people, spins plots, changes from pursued to pursuer, controls the lives of others but is himself vulnerable—this suggests something of the divine-human fusion, the artist as God and man creating worlds in which the subjective and the objective blend and cause becomes indistinguishable from effect, that lies behind Balzac's depiction of his artists and is responsible for the peculiar aura of the Balzacian world.

For all the greatness of Balzac's accomplishment, however, we must remember that, like Vautrin, he ultimately failed to subject real life to the power of his will and vision. He succeeded in molding his work and giving it the design of a systematic and generalized anatomy of society; nonetheless, life kept slipping from his grasp. Characters sometimes change from work to work as if they had a free will of their own in opposition to their creator's will. But even more important, Balzac had to spend himself in order to write at all, and he exhausted himself—his fatal skin—before he exhausted his materials. The Comédie humaine, in spite of its largeness, remains a fragment, for Balzac did not live to write the synthesizing work that would have done for his series of novels what Le Temps retrové does for Proust's A la Recherche du Temps perdu. Only a partial reflection of his total vision remains in the novels he left.


  1. See above, p. 65.

  2. Honoré de Balzac, trans. R. L. Sanderson (London: Lippincott, 1906), pp. 129-130.

  3. Quoted by Martin Turnell, The Novel in France (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1950), p. 213.

  4. Herbert J. Hunt in his Balzac's Comédie Humaine (London: University of London Athlone Press, 1959), published after this chapter was written, takes a similar view—e.g., “Balzac the scrutinizing observer is supported and transformed by the voyant whose intuitive apprehension of reality transcends mere experience and enables him, to use his own expression, to ‘invent truth’” (p. 14).

  5. “The Lesson of Balzac,” in his The Future of the Novel: Essays on the Art of Fiction, ed. Leon Edel (New York: Vintage Books, 1956), p. 108.

  6. “The Lesson of Balzac,” p. 110.

  7. Messages, trans. Montgomery Belgion (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1927), p. 72.

  8. Balzac, trans. William and Dorothy Rose (New York: Viking Press, 1946), p. 136.

  9. Translated by Ellen Marriage, in Novels of Balzac, Centenary Edition (Philadelphia: Gebbie Publishing Co., 1899), VI, ii, 306.

  10. Quoted in the unpublished dissertation by Mary Winfield Scott, “Art and Artists in Balzac's Comédie Humaine” (University of Chicago, 1936), p. 34.

  11. Modeste Mignon in The Works of Honoré de Balzac, trans. Ellen Marriage and others, University Edition (Philadelphia: Avil Publishing Co., 1901), VI, ii, 57.

  12. Quoted by Albert Béguin, Balzac visionnaire (Geneva: Editions Albert Skira, 1946), p. 81.

  13. Balzac and the Novel (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1953), p. 3. For a brilliant exposition of Balzac's godlike relation to his fictive universe, see Georges Poulet, The Interior Distance, trans. Elliott Coleman (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1959), pp. 97-152.

  14. On Balzac's “second sight,” see Hunt, pp. 47-50.

  15. Quoted by Béguin, p. 9.

  16. Modeste Mignon, VI, ii, 52.

  17. Zweig, Balzac, p. 274.

  18. “Laure, Laure,” he wrote to his sister as a young man, “my two immense and sole desires,—to be famous and to be loved,—will they ever be satisfied?”—Katherine Prescott Wormeley, A Memoir of Honoré de Balzac (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1892), p. 44.

  19. Pablo Picasso, Forty Nine Lithographs, together with Honoré Balzac's Hidden Masterpiece in the Form of an Allegory (New York: Lear Publishers, 1947), pp. 24-26.

  20. Picasso, p. 82.

  21. Although Balzac seems not to have intended such an interpretation, there is a possibility that Frenhofer was simply in advance of his day and did succeed in creating the masterpiece he thought he had painted—in everything, that is, except that “lovely,” “living,” and hence rather naturalistic foot. Thus it is both enlightening and confusing to read the story in the edition previously cited (Forty Nine Lithographs) containing lithographs by Picasso which show progressive and degressive stages in the treatment of the same subject.

  22. The Fatal Skin, trans. Cedar Paul (New York: Pantheon Books, 1949), p. 9.

  23. The Fatal Skin, p. 27.

  24. The Fatal Skin, p. 30.

  25. The Fatal Skin, pp. 28-29.

  26. The Fatal Skin, p. 79.

  27. The Fatal Skin, p. 22.

  28. The Fatal Skin, p. 80.

  29. The Fatal Skin, p. 24.

  30. Lost Illusions, in The Works of Honoré de Balzac, University Edition, VIII, i, 61.

  31. Lost Illusions, VIII, ii, 108.

  32. Lost Illusions, VIII, ii, 81.

  33. Lukàcs, Studies in European Realism, trans. Edith Bone (London: Hillway Publishing Co., 1950), pp. 47-64.

  34. Lost Illusions, VIII, ii, 274.

  35. Lost Illusions, VIII, i, 174.

  36. Félicien Marceau, Balzac et son Monde (Paris: Gallimard, 1955), p. 283.

  37. Lost Illusions, VIII, i, 61.

  38. Translated by Jane Minot Sedgwick (New York: Rinehart Editions, 1950), p. 125.

  39. Père Goriot, p. 126.

  40. Père Goriot, p. 129.

  41. Harry Levin, Toward Balzac (Norfolk, Connecticut: New Directions, 1947), p. 19.

  42. “On Rereading Balzac: The Artist as Scapegoat,” in Stanley Edgar Hyman, ed., The Critical Performance (New York: Vintage Books, 1956), p. 212.

  43. Père Goriot, p. 232.

  44. The Bachelor's House, trans. Frances Frenaye (New York: Juniper Press, 1956), p. 40.

  45. Lost Illusions, VIII, ii, 69.

  46. Lost Illusions, VIII, ii, 64.

  47. Balzac, “Preface,” The Bachelor's House, p. 5.

  48. The Bachelor's House, p. 26.

  49. The Bachelor's House, p. 28.

  50. The Bachelor's House, p. 231.

  51. The Bachelor's House, p. 77.

  52. The Secrets of a Princess, in La Comédie Humaine of Honoré de Balzac (New York: Century Co., 1906), IV, 340.

  53. The Unheroic Hero in the Novels of Stendhal, Balzac, and Flaubert (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1957), p. 100.

  54. Wormeley, p. 237.

  55. Brunetière, p. 175.

  56. Louis Lambert, in La Comédie Humaine of Honoré de Balzac, trans. Katherine Prescott Wormeley (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1896), XXIX, 35.

  57. Louis Lambert, p. 91.

  58. Wormeley, pp. 205-206.

  59. Louis Lambert, pp. 24-25.

  60. Louis Lambert, p. 7.

  61. Facino Cane in La Comédie Humaine …, trans. Wormeley, XXIX, 154-155.

  62. Seraphita in The Novels of Balzac, trans. Clara Bell and R. S. Scott (Philadelphia: Gebbie, 1899), XIII, 77.

  63. Louis Lambert, p. 143.

  64. Quoted by Edwin Preston Dargan, Honoré de Balzac, A Force of Nature (University of Chicago Press, 1932), pp. 83-84.

  65. Emil Ludwig, Genius and Character, trans. Kenneth Burke (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1927), p. 318.

  66. Louis Lambert, p. 148.

Howard Engelberg (essay date 1968)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9598

SOURCE: Engelberg, Howard. “James and Arnold: Conscience and Consciousness in a Victorian Künstlerroman.” In Henry James's Major Novels: Essays in Criticism, edited by Lyall H. Powers, pp. 3-27. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1973.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1968, Engelberg argues in his examination of Roderick Hudson that Henry James was the first author writing in English to utilize the künstlerroman's “artist's dilemma” as a plot device for a novel.]

In his recent study of the artist-hero in fiction, Maurice Beebe examines the scores of novels in nineteenth-century English fiction which might be considered, even in the remotest way, as dealing with the “Artist-Hero,” or simply with artist types.1 With the exception of Henry James, Beebe's list is unimpressive. Almost all the novels he cites, from Disraeli's Contarini Fleming to Thackeray's The Newcomes, remain unread today. Not until the turn of the century—and perhaps not really until Joyce's Portrait—did the English novel concern itself with the “Artist-Hero”—except, of course, for Henry James. In view of the central place which the Künstlerproblem occupied in the German Romantic tradition (Eichendorff, Novalis, Tieck, Hoffmann, not to speak of Goethe) and in mid-century France, this belated interest in the Artist as Hero in English fiction is curious; it may well be due to the traditionally low place assigned to the novel in England, even amongst its own practitioners. Before the ascendancy of Henry James, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf, who in England would have argued that the novel was as worthy of our serious interest as, say, the drama, the epic, the narrative, or the lyric poem?

Beebe links the Künstlerroman to the Bildungsroman (the “Apprentice” novel) and to the “Confessional Novel,” forms in which English fiction fares much better, with books like David Copperfield as prototypes and progenitors. But I feel that there is a certain blurring in the way these links are established. The Bildungsroman, in the German tradition,2 is almost antithetical to the Künstlerroman: from Goethe's Wilhelm Meister through Keller's Grüne Heinrich to Mann's Magic Mountain, the Bildungsroman has tended to portray the education of a would-be artist, a young man who comes to his senses, ceases to dabble in areas in which he discovers he has no talent, and associates himself with some useful activity in the social community—as surgeon, civil servant, engineer, soldier. This “anti-Künstlerroman” was scorned even by some of Goethe's admirers, especially Novalis, who wrote his anti-Meister (he considered that book to be a betrayal of Art), Heinrich von Ofterdingen, in which Poetry is, as with Shelley, not merely a civilizing force but the very unifying power of the universe, the victor over all positivistic-rationalistic values in a spiritual realm beyond death. Thus, in German fiction at least, there are two opposing artist-themes: stories of young men who renounce their artistic pretensions to become useful members of society and stories of young men who pursue the Ideal of Art, renouncing the “useful” for what they often feel is the truer reality, the “visionary.”

Obviously, these distinctions are complex and one can infer endless implications from them. My aim has been merely to place James's first novel (he virtually disowned Watch and Ward) Roderick Hudson, his Künstlerroman, into a context. I feel justified in claiming that, from a modern perspective, James's novel is the first in English fiction to take the “artist's dilemma” seriously, and that in so doing, James prepared the way for a significant progeny. From The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) onwards artists have abounded in English fiction. Throughout this essay I will consider James as an English writer, and while both Poe and Hawthorne are two prominent American writers who dealt with the Artist-Problem, neither sustained a full-scale novel on the theme. Hawthorne's The Marble Faun is only incidentally about Art; nevertheless, it is true that American writers, more influenced by Germans like E. T. A. Hoffmann perhaps, took up the Artist as Hero earlier and more frequently than their English cousins.

The “artist's dilemma” in Roderick Hudson encompasses the whole debate over the artist and his function from Romanticism to Realism—and beyond. Many Romantics—Shelley, Hugo, Novalis, Wordsworth—had faith that the august Imagination could conquer Life. Such faith became transvaluated so that—as Goethe at times complained—Life was being ignored in the very process of being pursued. The Imagination became an agent not of wider perception but of narrowing containment: it often died for lack of sustenance. When “consciousness” enlarged itself by focusing on a single line of vision (love, hate, pleasure) it also, paradoxically, became exclusive, narrow, obsessive. As many Romantics discovered (and later the Symbolists and Decadents in a different era), Imagination cannot sustain itself on itself: it needs to be stimulated from without, freely and—as Nietzsche finally warned—guiltlessly.


Roderick Hudson begins his artistic career with vast, abstract conceptions, with the help of which he does some very fine work. But conceptions soon cease to stimulate, and Roderick turns to Life, to experience, for his “ideas.” But between Roderick and Life there appear a number of formidable obstacles and his struggles to overcome these result in the familiar curve of Romantic genius: decline, dissipation, despair, a state in which Imagination is totally disabled. It appears that Roderick's pursuit of ideals in fleshly form is the prime cause of his demise, but James, both in his Preface to the New York Edition and in his revisions, makes clear that this is too simple a view of the matter. The Romantic's urge for vague and infinite abstractions; the Realist's awareness that such a course is futile; and the artist's struggle to resolve this impasse: these are all carefully delineated in the novel. What makes Roderick Hudson a special “case” is not the treatment of a Romantic artist who fails (romantically), but the special conflict leading to that failure, both within and without the hero. Most commentators blame this collapse on the enchanting but fatal charms of Christina Light, with whom Roderick falls in love, and almost all of these—including Beebe—champion Rowland over Roderick, see Christina Light as a femme fatale, and sum up the theme of the novel as a kind of object-lesson about “a romantic artist, divided between sex and art.”3 However, in his own Introduction to the New York Edition, James cautions against such a view: “Everything occurs … too punctually and moves too fast,” and “the determinant function attributed to Christina Light, the character of well-nigh sole agent of [Roderick's] catastrophe that this unfortunate young woman has forced upon her, fails to commend itself to our sense of truth and proportion.”4 Still, Roderick Hudson is a failure: he is a man caught in the encirclement of a very un-Hegelian dialectic; thesis and antithesis produce no synthesis, only pain, suffering, and finally death.

One way to describe this dialectic is Romanticism versus Realism. Certainly the consistent change of a word like “picturesque” (in the early versions) to the word “romantic” for the 1907 New York Edition provides some evidence for James's apparent desire to underscore the novel's involvement in Romanticism, particularly as James saw the book retrospectively.5 Another possible approach to the dialectic of the novel is the strongly suggested Faustian theme: defiant action and defiant despair. A year before writing Roderick Hudson, James reviewed a French translation of Faust.6 Several indirect and direct allusions to Faust found their way into the novel: the young man who sculpts a Water-Drinker called “Thirst”—for “knowledge,” he says; the betrayal of the fiancée; the pursuit of Ideal Beauty in a woman; the Baden-Baden episode, even the final thunderstorm, a kind of Walpurgisnacht. There are references to the sculptor Gloriani as resembling Mephisto and to the black poodle in Goethe's Faust. All these allusions, however, do not add up, except in a general way. Indeed, Roderick is less a Goethean Faust and more a Byronic Manfred, whom Gérard de Nerval called the “personification of remorse.” As a variation of the Faust-Manfred theme, Roderick may be seen as suffering from an Imagination too quickly spent, for, like Coleridge's, Roderick's decline of genius is not merely a dissipation of character but a paralysis of creativity: “My mind is like a dead calm in the tropics, and my imagination as motionless as the blighted ship in the ‘Ancient Mariner!’” (231). Here in his dejection Roderick echoes Coleridge:

                                        But oh! each visitation
Suspends what nature gave me at my birth,
          My shaping spirit of Imagination …

But there is yet another, and a far more explicit set of terms to describe Roderick's dialectic, for the terms are James's own as he undoubtedly took them from Matthew Arnold: Hebraism (conscience) versus Hellenism (consciousness). From this dialectic there can never result any synthesis, only mutual annihilation.


In Chapter VI of Roderick Hudson James describes an elaborate party of artists and friends who have come to be guests at Roderick's debut as a sculptor. They are rewarded with life-sized statues of Adam and Eve and with a confident and ebullient young genius. It is Roderick's high point (a figure of speech that fits in several ways). On this occasion he announces a creed which to any English reader would undoubtedly have been a topical allusion: “… I'm a Hellenist; I'm not a Hebraist!” (115). That James was here alluding to Arnold's famous distinction is almost certain, although James reinterprets Arnold's terms and applies them to serve his own purposes. Encouraged by Henry James Sr., James had from early youth been a sympathetic reader of Arnold. We also have evidence that in the year Culture and Anarchy (which contains the section on “Hebraism and Hellenism”) was published in book form, 1869, James was in London, where he probably first heard of the new book, then the talk of the hour: it was his “thrilling opportunity to sit one morning, beside Mrs. Charles Norton's tea-urn … opposite to Frederic Harrison, eminent to [him] at the moment as one of the subjects of Matthew Arnold's early fine banter. …”7 James's first review of Arnold (the Essays in Criticism, First Series) was published in the North-American Review, July, 1865. In his biography of James, Leon Edel records a meeting between James and Arnold in 1873. Though the personal confrontation was a disappointment (due apparently to the “little glass [Arnold] screws into one eye”), Edel stresses the intellectual kinship between the two men. He also records a letter from Arnold to James in 1879, congratulating James on the achievement of Roderick Hudson. Clearly, Arnold was an early, strong influence, and, I should think, a permanent one.8

For Arnold, Hebraism and Hellenism were the anti-poles of Western history: “doing” and “thinking,” “energy” and “intelligence.” “The uppermost idea with Hellenism is to see things as they really are; the uppermost idea with Hebraism is conduct and obedience.” What characterizes the spirit of Hellenism is “spontaneity of consciousness”; what characterizes Hebraism is “strictness of conscience.” The ideal of Hellenism is the perception of Beauty, but its attainment is impeded by a Hebraistic sense of sin, an obstacle which Arnold noted was greatly strengthened during the Puritan reactions against the excesses and moral deficiencies of the Renaissance. Although neither Roderick Hudson nor his patron, Rowland Mallet, perfectly fits one or the other of Arnold's principles, each behaves according to certain basic patterns which a knowledge of Arnold's dualism helps to illuminate. Rowland, by and large, is a Puritan, a man long habituated to “conscience” of the kind Arnold meant by “Hebraism”; Roderick is largely a creature of consciousness, and his own aesthetic aims toward the perfection of Ideal Beauty identify him as something of an Arnoldian Hellenist. (It is true that Roderick's Hellenism is very Romantic and less “classical” than Arnold's, and that unlike Shelley, whom Trelawney took to see the dirty Grecian ships, Roderick never discovers that Hellenism can be Hell.) These distinctions are not, of course, rigid in the novel, and the complexities of character and story happily prevent one from forcing an almost allegorical interpretation on the book. Still, in that very complexity James seems to have caught the duality of the problem with a very firm grip: the century was, after all, characterized by a mixture of inclinations between Hebraism and Hellenism. Goethe, Schiller, Wordsworth, Shelley, Carlyle, Hopkins, Ruskin, Nietzsche, Tolstoy, and, indeed, Arnold and James—were they not all (sometimes alternately) moral aesthetes or aesthetic moralists?

From the first pages of the novel, James makes us aware of Rowland Mallet's conflict between his Puritan heritage and his acquired taste for a form of irresponsible dilletantism: “[Europe is] always lotus-eating” (7). Rowland had a “lively suspicion of his [own] uselessness,” which coincides with his cousin Cecilia's suggestion that there may be some positive harm in a man who is not doing some “positive good” (2-3). This inner state of disaffection puts Rowland on the track of some “errand”—something to do: and in his “frequent fits of melancholy,” he declared that he was “neither fish nor flesh … neither an irresponsibly contemplative nature nor a sturdily practical one. …” Indeed, the two impulses divide him to make an “awkward mixture of moral and aesthetic curiosity,” and Rowland can obtain “happiness” only in one of two directions: “either in action of some thoroughly keen kind in behalf of an idea, or in producing a masterpiece in one of the arts” (16). Since he confesses himself as being incapable of achieving either, being “a man of genius half-finished” with “the faculty of expression … wanting,” but “the need of expression” remaining, the reader is very early alerted to Rowland's fate, which Rowland himself predicts: to “spend [his] days groping for the latch of a closed door” [8] (like Morris Townsend in Washington Square). For all his knowledge of the arts and his immersion in the “antique” world, Rowland's conception of the artist—which is central to the shaping of Roderick's fate—is a “strong conviction that the artist is better for leading a quiet life,” a philosophy which he promises to “preach to [his] gifted pupil [Roderick Hudson]” (49). The artist, then, must do: what is to feed the imagination toward execution is a question that does not exist for Rowland; or, to put it more positively, any contact with Life as a source of stimulation will, in Rowland's view, merely contaminate the artist.

Rowland's sole prescription for artistic success is Work: “You've only to work hard,” he tells Roderick before they set sail for Europe (37); and, much later, after a stormy scene during which Roderick pleads the special case of genius, Rowland's only response is: “tumble to work somehow …” (232). Rowland even advises Roderick to continue working on commissions which now revolt the artist, for virtue lies in the act, in “the resolution not to chuck [it],” in making “the effort necessary at least for finishing [the] job,” after which one is free to destroy it, the moral fiber having been tested by chafing it against the grain (305). When Roderick's collapse is imminent and he pleads for Rowland's companionship, the latter offers to bargain his affection on familiar terms: “If I go with you, will you try to work?” To this he gets a bitter reply: “‘Try to work!’ [Roderick] cried, ‘Try—try! work—work! … Do you suppose I'm trying not to work?’” (441). James may very well have been divided on the question himself: all artists have found, sometimes to their bitter dismay, that work is an inseparable adjunct to creativity. Nor am I suggesting that, in the special case of this novel, Rowland's advice was always and altogether wrong. But James also courts sympathy for the artist's desperate need to rejuvenate himself, an activity of “play” and “purposelessness” (using Kantian terms) with which Rowland's “Work” has little in common. The somewhat sudden decline of Roderick's creative productivity, James shows very clearly, is not due to a lack of work—as Rowland repeatedly thinks.

The chronology of the story is here very important. Despite Rowland's repeated insinuations that it was Christina Light whose fatal charms paralyzed Roderick's genius, events do not bear this out. After the initial vision of Christina (“Immortal powers … what a vision!” [95]), before he even knows her name, follows a great and happy period of inspiration and a good deal to show for it, namely the Adam and Eve. The dissipation of Roderick's powers begins almost immediately after his great success and before he meets Christina Light again. The fact is that Christina, when she becomes “involved” with Roderick, acts as a potential stimulant for his imagination, not as a deterrent; and what leads Roderick to the escapade in Baden-Baden is the weight of “conscience,” the claustrophobic pressures of “creating” in a dingy Roman studio, where his imagination feels—as well it might—imprisoned. The later appearance of Christina is truly a “light” in contrast to the darkness of the studio which has made the young genius as impatient as it had Goethe's Faust in his solitary study, “unruhig auf seinem Sessel am Pulte.

At the party where Roderick displays his life-sized Adam and Eve, proclaiming himself a “Hellenist,” there is one man who understands Roderick's plight—his aesthetic opponent, the sculptor Gloriani. These first fruits of Roderick's Hellenism are admired by the young, seasoned Italian, but he is also sardonic: is the young man to proceed “straight through the Bible” now that he has begun with the Creation? Roderick replies that he does not care for “Old Testament people,” though he concedes he may make a David, treat it “as a young Greek,” Roderick stressing that his interests lie with the “Christian, or still better the pagan, form” (a sentiment James added in the revision of 1907). From David, “a beautiful runner at the Olympic games,” Roderick intends to go forward and create a “ripping Christ,” not a Christ of tradition but “More idealistic! … The perfection of form … to symbolise the perfection of spirit.” Will there be a Judas? He is being teased. “Never! I mean never to make anything ugly, and I'm a Hellenist …” (114-115).

Such a notion of Greek sculpture had its historic anchoring, and evidently James was not unaware of it: to counter Roderick's Hellenism he creates Gloriani, strictly a Realist, both as a man and an artist. By the time James wrote Roderick Hudson, the conception of Greek sculpture was an old matter of dispute, but still a lively one. Winckelmann had established a view of Greek art that rapidly spread from the continent to England and stubbornly prevailed for better than a century. Greek art was ideal, circumventing the realistic and incidental; it was the product, not of imitation but of the artist's grand conceptualization, the contemplation of a sort of divine essence, the result of which was abstract form. No Greek could bring his noble soul to create anything ugly (though Lessing had vigorously disputed this in the Laocöon), and Beauty, based on the ethical conception of nobility, was the chief aim of the artist. This was the Romantic Hellenism which held sway through the time of Pater, who celebrated Winckelmann in his famous essay in The Renaissance. Pater undoubtedly understood Hellenism better than did Roderick Hudson, who thinks he will yet concede once more beyond the David to the Old Testament and make a Cain, though not ugly, but a “handsome fellow … lift[ing] up the murderous club with the beautiful movement of the fighters in the Greek friezes …” (115). Evidently Roderick is reluctant to surrender the Old Testament; but what is interesting is his notion that he can transform his Hebraic subjects into Hellenistic ideals: it is a conflict which appears unresolved within himself. And Adam, Eve, Cain, and David are a mixed company, topped by a Christ; as if he were intent on working his way through innocence, the fall, and ultimate redemption.9

Gloriani warns Roderick against “trying to be Greek” (115) and encourages the suggestion of a Judas, to which Roderick answers, in the revision, that such a figure might have “a great deal of character” but not of the sort he cares for: “I care only for beauty of Type” (116). Roderick complains that his contemporaries have forsaken the “beauty in the large ideal way,” and that he means to restore it, to “go in for big things; that's my notion of my art. I mean to do things that will be simple and sublime” (116), an unconscious echo perhaps of Winckelmann's famous phrase about Greek sculpture—“noble simplicity and calm grandeur.” For the 1907 revision James puts into Roderick's mouth a pure late Jamesian language to propose what the young sculptor means to do: “I want to thrill you, with my cold marble, when you look. I want to produce the sacred terror. …” This remark is uncharitably received by his guests; after all, the Greeks had their belief in the gods. But Rome today, where “we sit talking nineteenth-century English[?]” “Mr. Hudson,” ventures one guest, “may be a new Phidias, but Venus and Juno—that's you [referring to another guest] and I—arrived to-day in a very dirty cab; and were cheated by the driver too” (117).

Against the Idealistic Roderick, James marshalls all the resources of the New Realism (including cynicism), embodying them in a point of view which admires the naiveté and spontaneity of a nineteenth-century Hellenistic Imagination, while recognizing all the inherent weaknesses and dangers of an epigone. When Rowland asks Gloriani to judge a photograph of the “Water Drinker,” an early piece done in Northampton, the experienced sculptor admires but issues a warning that Roderick won't be able to keep up this sort of thing; to which Roderick replies that he won't merely keep it up but do even better. Gloriani's answer is straight to the point:

You'll do worse. You'll do it on purpose. This thing wasn't done on purpose. It couldn't have been. You'll have at any rate to take to violence, to contortions, to romanticism, in self-defence. Your beauty, as you call it, is the effort of a man to quit the earth by flapping his arms very hard. He may jump about or stand on tiptoe, but he can't do more. Here you jump about very gracefully, I admit; but you can't fly; there's no use trying.


It takes only a week for Gloriani's prophecy to come true; Roderick suddenly becomes restless and he ceases to work. Here occurs the interlude at Baden-Baden (Roderick is reluctantly released by Rowland to make the trip himself and James never reports what happens except indirectly). When he returns he seems to have forgotten all his grand abstractions—Hebrew, Christian, Pagan. Instead he sculpts “a woman leaning lazily back in her chair, with her head inclined in apparent attention, a vague smile on her lips and a pair of remarkably beautiful arms folded in her lap.” Rowland “was not sure he liked it” because it “differed singularly from anything his friend had yet done” (143). But Gloriani likes this “Lady conversing affably with a Gentleman,” admires it, is happy that Roderick is “coming round”: had he not prophesized he “couldn't keep up that flapping of his wings in the blue, and … [would have to] come down to earth” (146)? Rowland remains unconvinced; he does not like this fruit of experience at Baden-Baden. “That's because you yourself try to sit like an angel on a cloud,” replies Gloriani; “This … is full of possibilities, and he'll pull some of them off; but it isn't the sancta simplicitas of a few months ago. … I congratulate him on having found his feet …” (147). Baden-Baden, then, has not been merely an episode of debauchery, nor has it led to declining creative powers. On the contrary, experience with Life has put to rest some of Roderick's grandiose Abstractions (“I mean to do the Morning … Night … Ocean … Mountains … Moon … West Wind” [118]), and it has inspired a new inventiveness and a new Art.

It is true that Roderick himself is moodily unhappy about his work: the newly acquired art is too close to the art Gloriani has championed and Roderick had scoffed at. The “reclining lady” Roderick finds “curiously, almost interestingly bad,” “false from the first,” having “fundamental vices.” The trouble appears to be not so much the art but the manner of sustaining it. “I haven't a blamed idea. I think of subjects, but they remain idiotic names. They're mere words—they're not images” (149).

Words, not images: Roderick has not yet learned the fundamental lesson of the artist as James conceived it, that abstractions need to be embodied in concretions which are in turn rooted in reality. The Word is never equal to the Image. James by no means underestimated the value of “ideas” in Art, saying in his Notebooks that “one does nothing in art or literature unless one has some general ideas. …”10 But even the “idea”—which Roderick invokes as if it alone would have him—is insufficient. Moments after his moody disapproval of himself, his failure to make words into images, Christina Light enters his life for a second time. This time she is no vision; nor is she an idea, nor an image—she is flesh and blood, a human being.

It should be no surprise that Roderick immediately wishes to sculpt Christina Light, for her idea and image are rooted in a real person. “Didn't you hear him?” Christina asks Rowland: “Mademoiselle, you almost come up to one of my dreams. … That almost should be rewarded” (168). And that almost would have been impossible prior to Baden-Baden; that almost is testimony to a changing aesthetic, one which produces finally a bust of Christina which has neither the pure naiveté of the earlier work nor the apparent vulgarity which Roderick suspected in the too nonchalant work of the reclining lady. Christina's bust “was thoroughly a portrait,—not a vague fantasy executed on a graceful theme. … The resemblance was close and firm; inch matched with inch, item with item, grain with grain, yet all to fresh creation” (182). Like the novelist James describes in The Art of Fiction, Roderick had succeeded at the great task of art; he had “converted … ideas into a concrete image and produced a reality,” without sacrificing either conception or “exactness … truth of detail,” which James never meant, in his own words, to “minimize.”

This is the young artist's moment of crisis; the transition from abstraction to concretion marks a crucial advance in both the man and the artist. While it might be misleading to claim that Christina Light has caused this momentous change, it is quite accurate to say that she has at least served as its instrument. Beyond this point Roderick does not develop, partly because he himself resists, but mostly because Rowland, among others, prevents him. Much later, far into his decline, he speaks again in St. Peter's of “grand form,” sublimity, “magnificent forms” (337), and still later, “Before Michael Angelo's statues and pictures of the early Tuscans [he picks up] the thread of his old love of ideas” (445-446). What happens to Roderick between the momentary triumph of creating Christina Light's bust and his regression to thinking of Abstractions comprises the “reversal” of the novel, the conflict between Hebraism and Hellenism, Conscience and Consciousness.


Although Rowland has an “uncomfortably sensitive conscience” (1), his consciousness is another matter; we must not confound, as he does, a Hebraistic sense of sin with a Hellenistic capacity to see the object as it really is. Rowland is a connoisseur, that is all; and even in this role his Puritan taste remains an unconscious censor. He tells his cousin Cecilia that to care for something or someone is now his only aim, for as a man he is totally insufficient: his search is for love. James allows Rowland to fall in love (in the Jamesian manner) with Roderick's American fiancée at the very start of the novel, yet he proceeds to have Rowland remove not only the future bridegroom but himself. While the young James might well have been struggling with plot and structure, there is already the self-punitive economics as well as the punishment-of-others at work in his character of Rowland. Eventually it is Roderick, not Mary Garland, who becomes the object of Rowland's love (a prefiguring of a theme taken up by James in many later stories). Rowland's relationship to Roderick is essentially that of the former being nourished by the latter; as “experience” it is surrogate, or, in the phrase of Osborne Andreas (though not in relation to this novel), a form of “emotional cannibalism.” Andreas perceives that “The conclusion in James's stories of emotional cannibalism is that inevitable defeat lies in wait for him who seeks to procure from other people that strength which can only come from within”; “to make … use of other people is to consume them, and both the user and the used, the consumer and the consumed, are depleted by it.” (Andreas inexplicably ignores Roderick Hudson as a prime instance of this Jamesian theme.)11

In fairness, Rowland does not undertake his mission of “educating” Roderick lightheartedly: “when he reflected that he was really meddling … he gasped, amazed at his temerity” (67). Yet this very sense of responsibility nails down his relationship to Roderick with ambiguously gained rights. “If anything happens to you I'm accountable,” and he speaks deep from his “moral passion”; for Roderick it feels like the boot upon his chest: “That's a view … I can't accept. … I know all I owe you. … But I'm not a small boy … and whatever I do I do with my eyes open. When I do well the merit's my own; if I do ill the fault's my own” (220). Rowland is bitter at such a declaration of independence: “If I hadn't been meddlesome I should never have cared a fig for you” (220) he reasons, to which Roderick, after some pause, gives his most articulate reply:

I think when you expect a man to produce beautiful and wonderful works of art you ought to allow him a certain freedom of action … to give him a long rope … to let him follow his fancy and look for his material wherever he thinks he may find it. … An artist can't bring his visions to maturity unless he has a certain experience. You demand of us to be imaginative, and you deny us the things that feed the imagination. … When you've an artist to deal with you must take him as he is, good and bad together … ; if you want them to produce you must let them conceive. If you want a bird to sing you mustn't cover up its cage.


When it is the artist's turn to reproach his sponsor, he asks bitterly: “What am I … but a desperate experiment?” (231). The word “desperate” James added in the 1907 revision perhaps to balance the characteristic noun of the century—experiment—with an adjectival corrective from the world of feeling (Hawthorne had written a score of stories about “desperate experiments”). Roderick prepares his brief against the future with a typically Romantic weaponry: “Do I more or less idiotically succeed—do I more or less sublimely fail? I seem to myself to be the last circumstance it depends on” (231). The Romantic hero invariably feels that “circumstance” is his greatest enemy, and he himself the least effective of circumstances. Although only ten pages earlier Roderick had in effect accepted the responsibility for success or failure, he now implies that Zeitgeist will play the ultimate role in his fate.

In making of Roderick a self-conscious Romantic increasingly aware that he is an anachronism presiding over his own extinction, James has opened the question of free will, essential in the case of the artist who must decide whether he can triumph over such preying monsters as Ennui, one thoroughly catalogued and described by a variety of nineteenth century writers.12

“Live!” It was the great cry of the century; and the clutching to the bosom of Time, the Keatsian fear of the temporal, gives way—must give, way (even in Keats), for the sake of survival, to the “breathing human passion … / … heart high-sorrowful and cloy'd, / A burning forehead, and a parching tongue,” or to “The weariness, the fever, and the fret.” It gives way to the even greater fear of a paralysis of the Imagination itself. The Romantics were not always morbidly anxious to die—that has been in part the romanticizing of Romanticism; the Romantic often wished very much to live, if he could find terms adequate enough to appropriate experience as a successive number of terminations and reimmersions, not merely a long straight path toward longevity itself. “Our physical life is a perpetual motion”: and within that motion Pater sought to find the fixity of ceaselessness, the paradox of Zeno's arrow transferred from physics to metaphysics: “experience seems to bury us under a flood of external objects, pressing upon us with a sharp and importunate reality. …” To relieve the pressure, to make the “reality” bearable, we must corner the moment—not, indeed, as Pater's young readers appeared to have thought, in order to indulge our senses for the sake of a fleeting pleasure; but, quite the opposite, the moment would be arrested and enriched to combat and outmaneuver static reality, which seemed so insistently to front itself as a finite goal toward which the earnest travel and at which the wise arrive. Zeno's arrow was the issue: “How shall we pass most swiftly from point to point, and be present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy?” That is, how shall we survive the many deaths of aliveness we must live through? It was a paradox: “expanding [the] interval,” answers Pater, is “our one chance,” and the metaphor itself is painfully self-contradictory. If there was a false way of life for Pater it was surely the way of fleeting emotions, moments devoured for transitory pleasures; to expand the interval was merely to recognize that Time was also Space. But free will would need to assert itself if one wanted to “live.”

James did not, I think, quite realize the issue in this way, for his complaint that Roderick collapses too fast betrays a measure of naiveté about Time as it relates to the subject he treated: the life and death of an artist. Yet James sufficiently recognized the necessity to expand the interval; for James “Live!” was to mean finally the art of living not measured temporally, by duration, but spatially, by the capaciousness with which the educated sensibility could take measure of the life before it. If Roderick Hudson goes to death too rapidly, Lambert Strether in The Ambassadors comes to life even more rapidly—but there is no record of James's complaint on that score. For James “consciousness” seems almost always intended at least as the liberated state; yet in this novel, as elsewhere, it is clear that consciousness, in the end, can be a dangerous, even barren, condition. In spite of James's insistence on living to one's greatest capacity, few of his heroes, even when they achieve such desired awareness, are permitted to enjoy the fruits of their struggle. From Roderick and Rowland to Isabel Archer, from Strether to the Ververs, conscience prevents, thwarts, aborts: renunciation is James's ultimate virtue, but it is an expense of spirit, a waste, a highly questionable triumph at best.

Some critics see Roderick Hudson as a fictionalized biographical novel in which James erects a “split personality” structure. James is here regarded as questioning his own future as an artist, Roderick and Rowland representing two parts of himself: the straying artist, who becomes ensnared by vulgar Life and the Conscience which attempts to prevent this by emphasizing the dedication to Art required of the genuine Artist.13

But the renunciation of the artist in Roderick Hudson is not, as has so often been suggested, Roderick's fickleness toward the Muse and his involvement in a hopeless love affair. Like so many nineteenth-century heroes, Roderick is fatherless, and his mother, weak in character, possessive, desperate to preserve herself, joins with the now discarded fiancée and the disenchanted patron to unman the young sculptor. For James makes it rather clear that Roderick—though he may have all the predisposition for it—is, ultimately unmanned. Toward the end of the novel, in a move of questionable motives, Rowland brings mother and fiancée to “rescue” the failing son and bridegroom-to-be. In his pursuit of the beautiful Christina Light, Roderick is thwarted by the young lady's mother, the disowned father, and Rowland himself. Moody, inert, at times full of heat and passion, Roderick rather rapidly (as James noted) falls apart. When the mother and Mary Garland arrive, the young man submits, though here and there are occasional rebellions, furtive, instinctual—the instinct in the wriggling butterfly pinned live against the collector's velvet. Mrs. Hudson has always demanded that Roderick deliver to her an emotional response worth two sons—one for himself and one for the favorite, lost in the Civil War. “I have to fill a double place,” Roderick tells Rowland; “I have to be my brother as well as myself. … I must be to her everything that he would have been” (41-42). Under such a burden, Roderick buckles, and he reverts, in classic fashion, to childhood: “He said little. … [but] he clearly liked again, almost as he had liked it as a boy, in convalescence from measles, to lounge away the hours in an air so charged with feminine service” (353).

In submitting—in renouncing—Roderick is by no means unaware of the tightening cords. His mother's effect upon him is silently absorbed, and he attempts to propitiate her by “doing” her bust, as if it were an act of exorcism. But Mary's effect (and Rowland's) is felt and expressed—far more strongly in the 1907 revision, James accenting the “cannibalism” theme in human relationships which he had by 1907 so thoroughly explored: “She thinks all the world of me,” Roderick says of his American fiancée; “She likes me as if I were good to eat. She's saving me up, cannibal-fashion, as if I were a big feast” (356). The cannibalism metaphor clarifies what James must have felt, in revising, was the true meaning of the story of his Künstlerroman: prevented from using Life as experience for Art, the artist will be devoured by Life. Feelings of helplessness, excessive self-pity, regressive and petulant moods, passion and quiescence alternating—all are symptoms of Romantic Genius whose consciousness of Life has brought him not freedom but imprisonment. Certainly Roderick still belongs in the tradition of Werther: the gesture toward sublimity, the empty response, the paralysis of imagination, the tendency to self-dramatize, the fears of a devouring world, and the final plunge into the abyss (which incidentally Roderick takes during the inevitable Alpine thunderstorm, rejecting Werther's more orderly suicide by revolver). The end of the novel moves swiftly toward the dénouement.

During the last interview between Roderick and Rowland the pains of the sufferer—that final mark of the sensitized aesthete—are fully bared: Rowland confesses his love for Mary Garland, prompted by Roderick's final bitter outburst against his patron. Roderick has asked Rowland for money to follow Christina to Interlaken, but this suddenly strikes his heart with revulsion, the economic aspect of his relationship to Rowland (a theme James was to explore many times in later works) mirroring itself in the most vulgar images, translating itself from the currency of coin to the currency of emotions and spiritual loans:

… what I resent is that the range of your vision should pretend to be the limit of my action. You can't feel for me nor judge for me, and there are certain things you know nothing about. I have suffered, sir. … I've suffered damnable torments. Have I been such a placid, contented, comfortable creature these last six months that when I find a chance to forget my misery I should take such pains not to profit by it? You ask too much … for a man who himself has no occasion to play the hero. I don't say that invidiously; it's your disposition, and you can't help it. But decidedly there are certain things you know nothing about.


This attack against Rowland—and those against Mary Garland—is strengthened in the 1907 revision, where Mary herself blames Rowland for having in part destroyed her lover. When it becomes clear that Roderick will not return from the night of the storm, “Mary stood there at first without a word, only looking hard at [Rowland]” (517)—a hard look she does not give in the earlier versions. Hebraism, too, James seems to have felt, needed its atonement. And if Hellenism failed Roderick, he dies like a hero, imperfect but admirable. There is a suggestion of the Icarus myth in the circumstances and descriptions of Roderick's death, a myth so thoroughly Romantic but already foreshadowing a more famous portrait of the artist. In any case, in James's Künstlerroman the artist is a victim.

Alone amidst the stony Alps the morning after the storm, Rowland searches for his lost friend. “The silence everywhere was horrible; it mocked at his impatience, it was charged with cruelty and danger. In the midst of it … sat a hideous crétin who grinned at him over a vast goitre. …” Looking down into the “ugly chasms” below, Rowland “was to consider afterwards, uneasily, how little he had heeded his foothold.” Rowland's sense of guilt works hard upon his imagination: with a bright sun penetrating the “depths and heights” of a lonely and “stony Alpine void” Rowland feels “sick to his innermost soul” (522). Finally, in a gorge, he and a friend find “a vague white mass” but James almost ritualistically avoids gory details. This Icarus “had fallen from a great height, but he was singularly little disfigured. The rain had spent its torrents upon him, and his clothes and hair were as wet as if the billows of the ocean had flung him upon the strand” (523-524).

Though attacked by some as melodrama,14 the final pages of this novel, seen in the perspective I have tried to place them, reinforce the elegiac note of the last Romantic's death and the survivor's guilt for his victim. Again James added sentences for the 1907 edition to strengthen Rowland's guilty conscience as an instrument of Roderick's death. Alone, waiting for the stretcher-bearers to take Roderick to the village, Rowland feels at the very least an actor in a tragedy of Fate:

The great gaunt wicked cliff above them became almost company to him, as the chance-saved photograph of a murderer might become for a shipwrecked castaway a link with civilisation: it had but done its part too, and what were they both, in their stupidity, he and it, but dumb agents of fate?


Of the surrogate nature in his relationship to Roderick, Rowland is now aware, for he now “understood how up to the brim, for two years, his personal world had been filled [with Roderick].” This world now comes to a close in the appropriate metaphor of the stage (added for the 1907 edition), for the world seems to Rowland now “as void and blank and sinister as a theatre bankrupt and closed” (526).

Rowland had predicted he would spend his life “groping for the latch of a closed door,” and so he shall. His “patience” (back in America) is that of endurance and penitence, not of hope; and James could not resist sanctifying Roderick's memory by adding a final sentence in the 1907 revision: “And then [Rowland] talks to [cousin Cecilia] of Roderick, of whose history she never wearies and whom he never elsewhere names” (527). Thus Rowland continues to live a surrogate life; his fate was to have failed in sustaining himself, even through others. In spite of vast economic advantages he is driven to seek domination over another: it is a sinister parable in nineteenth-century literature, and James was not alone in being fascinated by it. When the patron becomes the conscience of his protégé's consciousness, neither can prevail.


The aim of this essay has not been to explicate James's novel for its own sake, but, quite frankly, to use it illustratively as an exemplum of late Victorian ambiguity about Romanticism fictionalized in the first serious Künstlerroman in English. Part of the Victorian ambiguity about Romanticism was, of course, the ability of the Victorians to talk with two voices. Their pursuit of Beauty was fraught with a pervasive Conscience; their Palace of Art was a consciously perilous place for any prolonged sojourn. To cultivate Art with a Conscience can lead to more serious problems than to cultivate it without one. Just before embarking for Rome, Roderick, intoxicated by the thought of his liberation from New England, sings a snatch from Tennyson's The Princess:

The splendour falls on castle walls
And snowy summits old in story …

The snowy summits are prophetic, but James does not quote the refrain: “Blow, bugle; answer echoes, dying, dying, dying.”

Hebraism and Hellenism, Conscience and Consciousness, play a central role in the lives of countless nineteenth-century heroes and their authors. As consciousness is permitted to expand, experience often corrupts it (Rowland Mallet's fears are not entirely unfounded); then conscience, or guilt, begins to destroy from within and from without. The Romantics never fully resolved this problem—how to allow a receptive consciousness to lead to fruitful experience and free will (many of Ibsen's early plays are variations on this particular theme, especially of course Peer Gynt and Brand). Schopenhauer's blind and malign Will (though often misunderstood) was ubiquitous, haunting scores of heroes in fiction and drama and turning them into helpless victims. It was not until 1887 that Nietzsche struck out in The Genealogy of Morals, attacking the whole Judaic-Christian system of “guilt” and “conscience.” Throughout the nineteenth century the Faustian urge to “experience” seems converted (or perverted) into the compulsive urge to repent (even as Faust himself repents). Something holds back; something negates what is being affirmed: from Werther to the last of the Buddenbrooks the theme of Conscience versus Consciousness is a source of art itself.

I began this essay by drawing some distinctions between the Bildungsroman and the Künstlerroman, the novel in which the hero is often educated away from Art and the novel in which the hero reaches the Kingdom of Art through a renunciation of the everyday world. I have also suggested from the outset that Roderick Hudson, as a Künstlerroman, is deeply concerned with the problem of the Artist's Imagination and its susceptibility (in the Romantic tradition) to becoming sterile or crippled. This theme of the vulnerable Imagination James treated largely, I think, by adapting Arnold's distinctions between Hebraism and Hellenism, for here he seemed to have found the perfect dialectic for describing his hero's conflict. As a late Romantic, an epigone, Roderick is already overtaken by a new art and a new time, a situation that makes Roderick's struggle to reach a compromise with Reality pathetic and futile. Hebraism—work, conscience, renunciation—served James perfectly in fashioning his Puritan Hebraist, Rowland; while Hellenism, freedom, spontaneity, the free pursuit of Beauty created the perfect foil in drawing the portrait of his artist-hero.

The “situation” of the novel—something James was interested in creating with extreme care even as early as his first serious novel—was therefore well set. Roderick, the artist with talent and Imagination, would be unable to resolve what had become for a Romantic sensibility an unresolvable conflict: how to permit Consciousness to have a fruitful traffic with Life. But to make the issue less predictable, James introduced Rowland, who acts the role of censorious Conscience. Of one thing James seems certain: from the perspective of Victorian England, the Artist who is indecisively caught between Life and the Studio, between Spontaneity and Work, walks a precarious tightrope which by 1875 he can no longer hope to negotiate safely. Hence Roderick declines, not because he is ensnared by a femme fatale, not because he is corrupted by too much experience, but because he is stranded in Limbo: stimulated neither by Life nor by Imagination. Undoubtedly James envisioned the Artist as one who must be close to Life without being corrupted by its vulgarities and sufficiently dedicated to the Muse without becoming lost in the misty regions of unattainable Abstractions. In The Art of Fiction James wrote: “All life belongs to you [the novice novelist], and do not listen either to those who would shut you up into corners of it and tell you that it is only here and there that art inhabits, or to those who would persuade you that this heavenly messenger wings her way outside of life altogether, breathing a superfine air, and turning her head from the truth of things.”

James was a Romantic Pragmatist, something which Roderick tries but fails to become. What finally frustrates Roderick is not only Rowland, the Puritan Hebraist (his alter-Conscience), but his illusory belief that the Artist's Consciousness can go slumming and then return to its rarefied Heaven. Clearly once the Artist has had true intercourse with Life he has fallen and no return to innocence is possible. To see the object as it is requires, at least for the Artist, a seeking out, a process of “doing.” Thus, whether or not he intended it, James's novel is a critique of Arnold's distinctions, for implicitly James insists that the Artist cannot survive them.

Arnold's opposition between Hebraism and Hellenism, Conscience and Consciousness, was well-intentioned; and it served for a time as a useful historical paradigm that highlighted the negative of a striving society too dedicated to the virtues of a materialistic “doing.” Yet he was perhaps too optimistic in thinking that he might divide and conquer a habit which he had recognized and berated in the Romantics even before he saw and feared the worst in the conduct of his contemporaries. For between “Knowing” and “Doing” there can never be a true choice, only a continual oscillation.15 Doing, when translated to the life of an Artist, must always precede Knowing or Being (Arnold was no Existentialist);16 and the road to Hellenism leads from the Imagination to Baden-Baden, to Christina Light, to Life and Experience. Like Emerson's, Arnold's moral vision was sometimes misleading and incomplete; in separating Hebraism from Hellenism, Doing from Knowing, Conscience from Consciousness, he perhaps ultimately rendered a disservice to the culture of his day.17 When Hamlet says that “Conscience doth make cowards of us all” he does not mean a “bad conscience” but “Consciousness.” These two words, which the nineteenth century separated, had in Shakespeare's day basically the same meaning: “Knowledge within oneself.” Such courage to behold oneself is neither Doing nor Knowing but both.18 A good deal of agony has been expended in returning to that identity of meaning, and we are not yet arrived.19


  1. Maurice Beebe, Ivory Towers and Sacred Founts: The Artist as Hero in Fiction from Goethe to James Joyce (New York, 1964). In his section on the English “apprentice” novel (pp. 79-100), Beebe draws upon Susanne Howe's Wilhelm Meister and his English Kinsmen: Apprentices to Life (New York, 1930). Beebe's title refers to the “divided Self” of the Artist who chooses either the Sacred Fount, art as “essentially a re-creation of experience,” or the Ivory Tower, the tradition which “insists that the artist can make use of life only if he stands aloof” (p. 13). In general, this distinction applies to Roderick Hudson (though Beebe does not treat this novel from that perspective); using terms taken from James's novel (derived from Arnold), I develop a different point of view.

  2. Beebe's study is surprisingly scant in dealing with nineteenth-century German writers. With the exception of Werther and Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, the Künstlerproblem in German literature is all but ignored. E. T. A. Hoffmann's many tales about Art and Artists are not even mentioned.

  3. Oscar Cargill, The Novels of Henry James (New York, 1961), p. 29. Cargill offers the best review of opinions on Roderick Hudson, pp. 19-40. In his Introduction to the Harper Torchbook edition of Roderick Hudson (New York, 1960), Leon Edel writes that “… James [is] concerned with sex. … Roderick allows his terrible passion to destroy his art” (p. vii). However, in his biography of James (Henry James, The Conquest of London, 1870-1881 [Philadelphia and New York, 1962], pp. 175-180), Edel modifies this view, insisting that a mere art-sex conflict ignores “the complexity of the story fabric …” (p. 175).

  4. The New York Edition of The Novels and Tales of Henry James (New York, 1907-1909), I, XIX-XX. All references are to this edition. Roderick Hudson was published in 1907.

  5. The present essay is not concerned with the textual problems of James's revisions. James first serialized the novel in The Atlantic Monthly (1875), first published it as a book in 1876, and then revised the novel for subsequent editions in 1879, 1882, and, of course, the New York Edition, 1907-1909. See Hélène Harvitt, “How Henry James Revised Roderick Hudson; A Study in Style,” PMLA, XXXIX (1924), 203-227 (a very unenlightening study); Raymond D. Havens, “The Revision of Roderick Hudson,PMLA, XL (1924), 433-434 (a correction of some errors in the Harvitt essay). The issue has again gained currency because F. R. Leavis quoted in The Great Tradition excerpts from the New York Edition that aimed to show the young Henry James's stylistic talents. See J. C. Maxwell, Durham University Journal, XXIII (1961-1962), 79-80, and Bruce Harkness, “Bibliography and the Novelistic Fallacy,” Studies in Bibliography, XII (Charlottesville, 1959), 59-60. Harkness quotes Gordon N. Ray, who attacks Leavis, in “The Importance of Original Editions,” in Nineteenth-Century English Books (1952).

  6. “Dumas Fils and Goethe,” The Nation (October, 1873), reprinted in Literary Reviews and Essays, ed. Albert Mordell (New York, 1957), pp. 110-118.

  7. Henry James, Autobiography, ed. F. W. Dupee (New York, 1956), p. 562 and Notes, p. 609.

  8. “In Matthew Arnold the young Henry James had found an intellectual kinsman …,” Edel, The Conquest of London, p. 123. The entire episode of the meeting between James and Arnold is described on pp. 122-125. The reference to Arnold's letter is on p. 394.

  9. F. O. Matthiessen sees Roderick's productions as “an allegory of the life of an artist,” in “James and the Plastic Arts,” Kenyon Review, V (Autumn, 1943), 537.

  10. The Notebooks of Henry James, ed. F. O. Matthiessen and Kenneth B. Murdock (New York, 1955), p. 69.

  11. Osborne Andreas, Henry James and the Expanding Horizon (Seattle, 1948), p. 53; see also William H. Gass, “The High Brutality of Good Intentions,” Accent (Winger, 1958), p. 67; Cargill p. 26, Note 32; p. 37; p. 31.

  12. The question of “free will”—or the lack of it—is interestingly explored by Viola R. Dunbar, “The Problem in Roderick Hudson,MLN, LXVII (February, 1952), 109-113. However, she tends to place all the blame for failure on Roderick's passivity, not taking into account Rowland's role in the novel. In his final revision, James made changes which show that he wished to distribute blame among Roderick, Rowland, and Fate as well.

  13. Supporters of the “split personality” approach include Cornelia P. Kelley, The Early Development of Henry James (Urbana, 1930); Stephen Spender, “The School of Experience in the Early Novels,” Hound and Horn, VII (April-June, 1934), 420 ff; Leon Edel, Introduction to Roderick Hudson (Harper Torchbooks), p. xiii, and The Conquest of London, pp. 177-178; and Maxwell Geismar, Henry James and the Jacobites (Boston, 1963), p. 20. Undoubtedly the novel is autobiographical, but Roderick and Rowland, when put together, do not add up to Henry James.

  14. For Example, Cargill, p. 36.

  15. James was all his life writing about artists. The standard discussion of this theme is F. O. Matthiessen's Introduction to Stories of Artists and Writers, New Directions (n.d.), pp. 1-17. Lyall H. Powers has written several fine studies on the “artist-theme” in James: “Henry James and the Ethics of the Artist: ‘The Real Thing’ and ‘The Liar,’” University of Texas Studies in Literature and Language, III (Autumn, 1961), 360-368, and especially “Henry James's Antinomies,” UTQ, XXXI (January, 1962), 125-135.

  16. See William Barrett, Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy (New York, 1958, 1962), pp. 69-71, for an interesting account of how Arnold fits into the general “Existentialist” situation of our time.

  17. To be fair to Arnold, he makes it clear that he conceives of Hebraism and Hellenism dialectically; that both philosophies have as their aim “man's perfection or salvation,” and that after a suitable period of Hellenism, he would fully expect Hebraism to return as the corrective swing of the pendulum. But for his time he wanted Hellenism and, in the tradition of Goethe, a Hellenism both guiltless and free, yet full of “order” and “authority.”

  18. In a section on Zola entitled “Conscience and Consciousness” appearing in The Gates of Horn: A Study of Five French Realists (New York, 1963), Harry Levin points out the “interrelated meanings” in the French conscience, signifying both “moral compunction” (as in English) or simply consciousness in the broader sense. Of course, only one word in French—conscience—covers both meanings (p. 371). In Italian as well as in Spanish Conscience and Consciousness may also be used interchangeably: coscienza and conciencia respectively. (See, for example, the title of Italo Svevo's novel La Coscienza di Zeno.) In German, however, there are distinctions though the words are cognate: we have Gewissen (conscience), wissen (to know), and Bewusstsein (consciousness). Significantly, then, in later English and in German, where the language clearly provides two words, two concepts as well have been developed (illustrated best by Arnold and Nietzsche).

  19. On the ubiquitous New England Conscience, Austin Warren remains the expert analyst: especially relevant is his essay “The New England Conscience, Henry James, and Ambassador Strether,” Minnesota Review, II (Winter, 1962), 149-166. Seeing The Ambassadors as a Bildungsroman (p. 158), Warren feels it was James's intent to educate Strether's conscience, to make his story “the development of conscience into consciousness …” (p. 157). As I have suggested throughout, it is precisely this New England Conscience which so interestingly parallels Arnold's conception of “Hebraism.”

David Stouck (essay date 1975)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6608

SOURCE: Stouck, David. “The Song of the Lark: A Künstlerroman.” In Willa Cather's Imagination, pp. 183-98. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1975.

[In the following essay, Stouck details how Thea Kronberg's artistic journey in Willa Cather's Song of the Lark marks it as a classic künstlerroman.]

Willa Cather's most positive view of art and the artist's life is found in The Song of the Lark (1915).1 The images of the artist as a divine figure and a heroic conqueror which occur in her journalistic writings are given their full dramatic value in the story of Thea Kronborg who becomes a famous singer—a Wagnerian opera star resplendent in “shining armour.” Perhaps as Willa Cather developed her own powers, her sense of the artist's creative and unique calling took precedence over her recognition of the artist's limitations. Moreover, although she had an external model for her story in the person of the opera singer Olive Fremstad, Willa Cather was telling the story of Thea Kronborg from an intimately personal viewpoint, incorporating her own memories and experiences into the story of the artist's life. Thus Thea Kronborg's struggle to become an artist is in a very real sense Willa Cather's as well. In her 1932 preface to the novel she wrote that what she cared about was to show how “commonplace occurrences fell together to liberate [the artist] from commonness,” how “fortunate accidents” will always happen to someone of Thea's vitality and honesty. In the novel the artist strives diligently to achieve excellence and fame; but, more importantly, there is about her life from the beginning a romantic sense of destiny, a certain conviction that no matter what befalls her she will ultimately triumph and become a great artist. The value placed on struggle and achievement and the emphasis on the sense of destiny give the book its particularly positive aspect. But at the same time the author did not overlook the hard fact that success in art is purchased at a high price. Thus at the end of the novel, while Thea has indeed become a great opera singer, we are made to recognize that in her personal life she has become hardened and depleted by her work, perhaps also by her success. Although the prevailing mood of the novel is creative and positive, Willa Cather's künstlerroman, carefully considered, presents us, as do her other studies of artists, with a double vision of art.

Briefly, a künstlerroman is a novel about an artist's development in which initiation into experience is conceived entirely in terms of an artist's mastery of his craft. On the surface it is a success story, for in the very act of writing the artist implies that he has achieved his goal; and in recording his memories he selects those experiences which bear directly on his growth and success as an artist. Yet at the same time the actual substance of such memories is invariably hardship, struggle, and even failure because the artist remembers not the experiences which were complete in themselves, but those seeking the rectification of art. The optimistic assumption upon which the künstlerroman stands is that the coherence of art redeems life's failures, and that such negative experiences are both necessary and creative; but the incontrovertible truth of every such story is that art is achieved at the expense of life, that only through isolation and failure does the artist acquire the motive and perspective essential to his art. Consequently the künstlerroman is a psychologically complex art form, for an artist's dedication is at once a creative and potentially tragic commitment.

The modern classic fiction of this type is Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, wherein self-discovery is achieved through the exploration of language, the actual medium of the artist's craft. The Song of the Lark differs from the conventional künstlerroman in its portrait of the artist as diva rather than writer. Otherwise it follows the familiar pattern: memories of childhood, the struggles of a sensitive adolescent against the misunderstanding and bourgeois attitudes of family and neighbors, departure from home, and the slow, difficult progress of self-discovery through art. Interestingly, Willa Cather's novel begins with a sequence which is not dissimilar in method and feeling to the opening of Joyce's Portrait. Willa Cather's young artist is already a child of ten, but her disconnected impressions of the world from a sickbed are like those of the infant Stephen Daedalus in their almost exclusive preoccupation with physical sensation. While Thea is being cared for by Doctor Archie, her attention focuses on the hot plaster on her chest, made of “something dark and sticky on a white cloth,” and on the details of the parlor “in the red light from the isinglass sides of the hard-coal burner—the nickel trimmings on the stove itself, the pictures on the wall … the flowers on the Brussels carpet” (pp. 10-11). As her consciousness comes and goes, Thea feels as if she is separated from her body, perched on the piano or on the hanging lamp, watching as the doctor puts the hot plaster on her chest. A little later Thea is absorbed in the look and feel of translucent white grapes and by the prickle of her red flannel underwear. The disjointed, dreamlike effect of the scene reflects the quality of vivid but incomplete memories from earliest childhood. Like Joyce, Willa Cather telescoped into one brief sequence that whole inchoate yet vital impression of first life out of which each individual emerges.

But most important in this opening scene is the way “first” impressions are coupled with the romantic idea of the artist as a special being. Thea's illness alarms Doctor Archie because he feels she is no ordinary child. “There was something very different about her,” he reflects, and in a moment of annoyance with the other members of the family he says to himself “she's worth the whole litter.” When he contemplates the incongruity of her delicate chin in a hard Scandinavian face, he wonders if some fairy grandmother had given it to her as a kind of cryptic promise. From the beginning Doctor Archie has a strong sense of Thea's special destiny and he urges her to set her goals high and never to compromise herself with ties and commitments to the small town in which they live. All the important people in Thea's life have this heightened awareness of her potential. Thea's mother, shrewd and practical in all matters, knows that her daughter is different in a special way, and when Professor Wunsch, Thea's music teacher, tells Mrs. Kronborg her daughter has “talent” she instinctively realizes this means hard work, not recitals for the local ladies' groups. Thea's Aunt Tillie delights in telling the neighbors that some day Thea will make them all sit up and take notice. But it is Professor Wunsch who defines and gives direction to Thea's “promise.” One morning he startles her most secret thoughts when he says that she will some day be a singer: “‘Nothing is far and nothing is near, if one desires’” (p. 95). Wunsch (his own name translates from German as “desire”) has singled Thea out from his other pupils as the one child who has both imagination and will. Wunsch himself has failed, but when he leaves Moonstone and looks back at Thea's figure on the station platform he consoles himself with the thought that “she will run a long way; they cannot stop her!” (p. 121).

Thea's strong, intimate sense of special destiny is like a voice or spirit inside her which in moments of imaginative excitement finds a correspondent echo in the outer world. For example, when she lifts a seashell from Spanish Johnny's garden to her ear, she hears a voice calling her from afar. For Thea the summons from the world of art is like a call to heroic action. She is stirred by the “piece-picture” on the Kohlers' wall of Napoleon's retreat from Moscow. The story of the first telegraph message received across the Missouri River inspires in her a vision of human courage which Professor Wunsch later identifies with the desire in great art; he says, when talking to Thea about her future as a singer, that “‘there is only one big thing—desire. … It brought Columbus across the sea in a little boat, und so weiter’” (p. 95). Thea's vision of human courage soaring above the world like the eagles over the Laramie tableland culminates an excursion into the sand hills with Ray Kennedy and Spanish Johnny which has a kind of mythic shape and purpose. The whole sequence is like a ritual of initiation into the world of the imagination: the journey out to the desert (a flight into the world of freedom), the warning from the mentor (Wunsch) against commitment to the ordinary world, the amphitheatre in the richly-colored hills, the storytelling, the music and singing, the play-acting of the children, and the final vision of the indomitable human spirit coursing westward. This call toward creativity with its accompanying frisson of desire is like an epiphany which brings Thea closer to her inner voice and builds in her a conviction of unique destiny.

The fact that art takes root in experiences of failure is also part of the book's substance from the beginning. Although Part I, “Friends of Childhood,” is seemingly the most idyllic and happy section of the book, nostalgia and wonder only partly veil a number of life's ugly realities. As its title implies, this long section of the novel is taken up with stories about the colorful characters of Thea's childhood (Doctor Archie, Professor Wunsch, Ray Kennedy, Spanish Johnny, Aunt Tillie), each of whom plays a significant role in her development as an artist. These people, however, are not Thea's peers, and Professor Wunsch and Spanish Johnny are not really reputable citizens of Moonstone. Thea herself is shy and inarticulate at school; she has no friends her own age and invariably stirs up the enmity of the respectable town ladies. Instead, her friends are “Mexicans and sinners,” as her inveterate enemy, Mrs. Livery Johnson, puts it—people in the town who failed to realize their dreams but who continue to dream through Thea.

Most attractive of these is Doctor Howard Archie, who is both kindly protector and romantic hero to Thea. He is young, physically handsome, elegant in dress—his suits are made by a Denver tailor, he carries an alligator bag—and he is an incurable romantic in disposition. But despite his success as a doctor and his evident superiority to his fellow townsmen, he is seldom at ease with people. He is distant and evasive, “‘respected’ rather than popular in Moonstone” (p. 106). His vulnerability is exposed to the public in his loveless marriage; his wife is a sterile little creature obsessed with saving money and keeping dust out of her home. It is natural that Doctor Archie warns Thea never to marry. Professor Wunsch is also an attractive figure. A romantic like the doctor, he believes that all things are possible if one has desire; and he urges Thea to remember the line from the hymn “Earth has no sorrow that Heaven cannot heal.” But Wunsch's life is also without love; a wandering Orpheus, he lost his Eurydice years ago in Germany and has spent a dissipated existence moving aimlessly from town to town in the American Midwest. The romantic imagery which identifies him as an aged Orpheus figure is especially suggestive because not only is he a failed lover, but an artist manqué as well. Spanish Johnny gives Thea's world an exotic aspect. He is handsome, musical, fun-loving, but he is also a Mexican displaced in the progress-oriented American community and, like Professor Wunsch, he is an alcoholic who drinks to escape the reality of his situation. His art—his music—is also his undoing: when he plays his guitar and sings people listen to him, and in his excitement at communicating he drinks until he is overcome and then runs away from Moonstone. The emblem of his guilt and misery is his wife whose patience and resignation, Thea feels, are the saddest thing in the world. Aunt Tillie holds a special place in Thea's affections because she admires her niece extravagantly and foresees a brilliant future for her. But Tillie Kronborg is an “addle-pated” woman of thirty-five who has girlish ambitions to act and recite in public. Like Spanish Johnny she feels her art of recitation will bring her closer to communicating with other people. She remonstrates with Thea's younger brother on this point: “‘What are you going to do when you git big and want to git into society, if you can't do nothing? Everybody'll say, “Can you sing? Can you play? Then get right out of society”’” (p. 25). Ray Kennedy, the old-maidish railway man, also holds a special place in Thea's world; he takes her on journeys out of Moonstone on the train, and he is a man whose honest and charitable disposition, despite so much bad luck, attests to something fundamentally good in human nature. But Ray is always a loser: he is not handsome, he has no family, and he seems to realize that his suit for Thea, like his ventures in stocks, will never prosper. Like Spanish Johnny and Aunt Tillie, Ray is concerned with communicating to others and he uses “bookish phrases” in his desire to express himself.

In this respect Thea's friends are not unlike the characters in Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, who tell their stories to the newspaper writer George Willard. Thea's friends quietly confide something of their romantic aspirations and fading dreams to her. In the determined, uncompromising girl they see the possibility of their own dreams being fulfilled, and in the lives of these characters Thea in turn catches a reflection of that elusive emotion which drives her relentlessly on with her music. But Thea's friends are failures and their frustrations sometimes find an outlet in bizarre and pathetic gestures: one night in a drunken orgy of self-pity and outraged innocence Professor Wunsch cuts down the Kohlers' dove house with an axe; Spanish Johnny is found lying under the railroad trestle cut up and bleeding after one of his escapades; Aunt Tillie humiliates the family with her ludicrous performances on stage; and Ray Kennedy, who pines for Thea's love, finally dies in an unnecessary railway accident, leaving an insurance policy which allows Thea to study in Chicago. Each of the characters is seen as contributing something special to Thea's growth as an artist whether it be talent, money, or dreams, but her complicity with these failures also suggests a source for her artist's drive in alienation from her peers.

Part I of The Song of the Lark crystallizes in episodic form the wonder and insatiable desire of a child called toward creativity. The structure, however, is not as casual as it may seem, for beneath the apparently loose arrangement of memories there is both conflict and a direct line of movement toward the resolution of that conflict. The choice for Thea is between staying in Moonstone (perhaps even conforming to its routine pattern of life) and leaving the familiar world for a career. On her thirteenth birthday she looks at the sand hills “until she wished she were a sand hill.” But at the same time “she knew that she was going to leave them all behind some day” (p. 100). Later we read that “she felt as if she were being pulled in two, between the desire to go away forever and the desire to stay forever” (p. 177). Before Ray Kennedy's death Thea is neither going forward to a career nor consolidating herself in the town; she leaves school and devotes her time to giving piano lessons. The creeping death that threatens her imagination and creative desire is reflected in the moribund experiences that mark her daily life: the weekly prayer meetings with their resigned old women and sickly girls “already preparing to die”; her sister Anna's conversion and suffocatingly conventional views; then, finally, the suicide of the tramp, which brings typhoid and death to some of Moonstone's inhabitants. Ray's death makes it possible for Thea to go to Chicago, but the resolution of her dilemma—whether to go or whether to say—involves all the people she has known in Moonstone. In Part I we find Thea already assuming the artist's priestly role of expressing something for his people and of bringing them closer to spiritual fulfillment. She feels guilty for having turned away in disgust from the tramp when he appeared in Moonstone, but Doctor Archie urges her to forget the tramp and argues that by doing something great with her voice she can make amends. If she becomes a famous singer she will make the people she has known proud of her and that is the greatest thing she can do for them. “‘Take Mary Anderson, now,’” he says, “‘even the tramps are proud of her’” (p. 176). The artist's tie to the people of his past is also mentioned in relation to the faces of the old people at prayer meeting which, we are told, will some day come back to Thea in a very meaningful way. The idea of art giving meaning and dignity to humble lives is most pointedly dramatized in Ray Kennedy's death. Ray's vision as he lies dying is that Thea “wasn't meant for common men. She was like wedding cake, a thing to dream on … she was bound for the big terminals of the world” (p. 187). But prophetically he says to her that when you arrive “‘Then you'll remember me!’”

In Part II, “The Song of the Lark,” Thea is alone in Chicago studying music; here she becomes more fully aware of her nature as an artist. From the time she could first remember there had always been “something” inside her, a secret presence like a friend, a presence which had shared her aspiration for achievement through music. Now in Chicago she realizes that her art is a process of self-discovery:

Her voice, more than any other part of her, had to do with that confidence, that sense of wholeness and inner well-being that she had felt at moments ever since she could remember. … She took it for granted that some day, when she was older, she would know a great deal more about it. It was as if she had an appointment to meet the rest of herself sometime, somewhere. It was moving to meet her and she was moving to meet it.

[P. 272]

Thea's awakening to herself as an artist is revealed in the Jules Breton painting The Song of the Lark, in which a peasant girl, on her way to work at dawn, stops to listen to a lark singing over the fields. Thea's intelligent and sympathetic piano teacher, Andor Harsanyi, also directs her toward her self-discovery as an artist when he urges her to study voice instead of piano. But Thea's first great experience of art comes when she hears Dvorák's New World Symphony performed. The first movement connects her with the moment of vision she had on the tableland above Laramie, while the “Largo” takes her home to “first memories, first mornings long ago” (p. 251). The two different moods of the symphony look forward to the two sources of inspiration in Thea's music: the heroic quest for ideal beauty, personal memories from the past. The excitement she feels at the concert brings her to a decisive moment of commitment: “As long as she lived that ecstasy was going to be hers. She would live for it, work for it, die for it; but she was going to have it, time after time, height after height” (p. 254).

As Thea's desire to be an artist grows sharper and more defined, she feels an exuberance of physical energy: “She put her hand on her breast and felt how warm it was; and within it there was a full, powerful pulsation. … The life in there was rooted deep. She was going to have a few things before she died” (p. 274). Harsanyi tells Thea that great art has nothing to do with what is little, but with beauty and power (p. 267). And, as before, we find Thea associating art with heroic action: to decorate the wall of her room in the city she buys not pictures of the composers, but a photograph of the Naples bust of Julius Caesar (“she loved to read about great generals”); and in the Art Institute her favorite piece is “a great equestrian statue of an evil, cruel-looking general with an unpronounceable name” (p. 248). Thea's determination and drive stand in relief against the defeat and purposelessness of the people around her. Mrs. Andersen, one of her landladies, is a pale, anemic-looking woman of forty who has withered away since her husband's death. Thea finds her apologetic, shrinking manner peculiarly depressing. Mr. Larsen, the Swedish minister in Chicago, is a happy, contented man, but he is remarkable for his soft, indolent habits and his laziness. Thea's physical strength and well-being are most sharply accented by glimpses of sick and dying girls: on the train back to Moonstone she sits in front of a girl who is dying of tuberculosis, and when she arrives home she is told almost at once that one of the sickly girls from prayer meetings has just died.

But as Thea's sense of heroic purpose grows stronger, the gap for her widens between the claims of ordinary life and the desire to be an artist. Throughout Part II we are reminded of the necessary and often sordid details of everyday existence, which harass and impede the striving artist. When Thea and Doctor Archie look for lodgings they are depressed by the sleazy, unkempt wastes of Chicago and the ill-favored aspects of boardinghouses. The Swedish church where Thea sings is in “a sloughy, weedy district, near a group of factories,” and her lodging house is an unpainted, gloomy-looking place in a damp yard where there is no running water; Thea has to carry both water and fuel to her room. But particularly when she is filled with the ecstasy of an imaginative experience she feels life around her becoming ugly and hostile. After the concert of Dvorák and Wagner has stirred in her all the emotions fundamental to her imaginative being, she believes that the world conspires to deprive her of that elevated ecstasy and sense of self: “There was some power abroad in the world bent upon taking away from her that feeling with which she had come out of the concert hall. … If one had that, the world became one's enemy; people, buildings, wagons, cars, rushed at one to crush it under, to make one let go of it” (p. 254). In this powerful scene, life is predicated as the natural enemy of art and imaged as a stream: “Thea was conscious … of the congestion of life all about her, of the brutality and power of those streams that flowed in the streets, threatening to drive one under.” The image of the stream of life first introduced here subsequently becomes a leitmotif by which Thea's changing views are represented.

When Thea returns home to Moonstone for the summer, she is severely criticized for going to a dance in the Mexican Town, and again feels a conspiracy in the world against her. The Mexican dance is another imaginative ritual, like the trip into the desert with Ray Kennedy. Again Thea takes a journey out of Moonstone into the brightly-colored sand hills to a special place (an “adobe dance-hall”) where there is music, dancing, and singing. There is an esthetic appropriation of natural detail in the scene: the moonflowers over Mrs. Tellamantez's door are described as an unearthly white, while the moon is compared to “a great pale flower in the sky.” But perhaps most interesting in this scene is the subtle association of art with religious initiation: three little girls are wearing their first communion dresses; the Ramas brothers (whose devoted attendance on Thea inspires Spanish Johnny to call them “the altar-boys”) recall the time they had accompanied their mother when she went to help decorate the church for Easter and had told the other women “she had brought her ‘ramas’”—the Spanish word for branches—instead of flowers; Thea herself is described by the brothers as “white and gold, like Easter!” When she sings for the music-loving Mexicans the completeness and intensity of their response is so overwhelming that she feels as if they have surrendered their very being to her—“as if all these warm-blooded people débouched into her” (p. 292). Thea momentarily has become their artist-priestess, and Spanish Johnny follows her performance with a teasing song which is a comic variation on that idea. As the author translates it: “Last night I made confession / To a Carmelite father, / And he told me do penance / By kissing your pretty mouth.”

This scene with its “natural harmony” anticipates Thea's later view of art in terms of both natural and sacred obligation. But next morning when she is criticized by her older brothers and sister for associating with Mexicans she feels alienated from her family and betrayed by them, alone save for that secret companion inside herself. Taking refuge in her room, “she frowned at herself for a while in the looking-glass. Yes, she and It must fight it out together. The thing that looked at her out of her own eyes was the only friend she could count on. Oh, she would make these people sorry enough!” (p. 300). At this point Thea's commitment to art and isolation is motivated by revenge as well as self-discovery. That evening, talking with Doctor Archie, she asserts that “‘living's too much trouble unless one can get something big out of it.’” She doesn't mean money—“‘I only want impossible things. … The others don't interest me’” (p. 305). And in the final line of Part II Thea's commitment to art is defined as both heroic and irrevocable: “She was going away to fight, and she was going away forever” (p. 310).

In Part III, “Stupid Faces,” Thea seeks, without fully realizing it, the companionship of other people in the arts. She tells her voice teacher, Madison Bowers, that she could never get along with girls of her own age, and it seems clear that she had hoped she would find in her fellow musicians both inspiration and friendship. Instead, she finds only shallow, self-seeking women who spend as much time on their appearance, “‘their frizzes and feathers,’” as their voice. What appalls Thea is the commonness of women like Mrs. Priest and Jessie Darcey who do not strive for artistic perfection but simply wish to please the whims of an essentially vulgar audience. Their sole measure of achievement is their popularity. Sorely disillusioned, Thea says of one of the singers whom she accompanies: “‘I hate her for the sake of what I used to think a singer might be’” (p. 331). Although her attitude is frequently cynical and contemptuous, like Madison Bowers's, Thea still feels the “challenge” of the stars in the heavens, still aspires to greatness for herself; but now she realizes more than ever that she must go the road alone. This is directly reflected in the Grieg song, “Tak for dit Räd,” that she sings for Fred Ottenburg, a wealthy brewer's son. The reference in the song is to a heroic and strenuous journey undertaken alone: “Thanks for your advice! But I prefer to steer my boat into the din of roaring breakers. … I long to fight my way through the angry waves, and to see how far, and how long I can make them carry me” (p. 338).

In Part IV, “The Ancient People,” Thea, after an exhausting and depressing second winter in Chicago, takes Fred Ottenburg's advice and with his help withdraws to the desert in the Southwest to be completely alone. Here even the landscape with its single mountain and sparse growth of pines—they stand at a distance from each other like the uncommunicative Navajos—mirrors the heroine's quest for complete solitude. Thea spends long stretches of time in the ancient cliff dwellings of one of the canyons, where she feels released from the tiresome sense of her individual personality and becomes attuned to a more primitive, fundamental sense of life and creativity. This sequence in the book is another imaginative ritual: the journey into the brightly painted desert, the canyon, cliff dwellings, and stream as locus dramatis, and the culminating vision of art Thea experiences standing in the stream. This time the author is more explicit about her intentions. She says Thea's bath in the stream came to have “a ceremonial gravity” and that “the atmosphere of the cañon was ritualistic” (p. 378). The significant difference in this scene from the picnic in the sand hills and the Mexican dance is that Thea experiences the art and music of nature rather than man. In the process of stripping away past memories and associations, she finds something like Keats's “negative capability” for identity through sensations: “She could become a mere receptacle for heat, or become a colour, like the bright lizards that darted about on the hot stones outside her door; or she could become a continuous repetition of sound, like the cicadas” (p. 373). This delving beneath personal identity to something elemental and universal about life prepares Thea for her vision of art as a sacred trust for the whole of mankind, rather than a struggle for individual achievement and recognition.

In a Joycean epiphany Thea contemplates for the first time a genuine synthesis of those formerly irreconcilable antagonists, art and life:

One morning, as she was standing upright in the pool, splashing water between her shoulder-blades with a big sponge, something flashed through her mind that made her draw herself up and stand still until the water had quite dried upon her flushed skin. The stream and the broken pottery: what was any art but an effort to make a sheath, a mould in which to imprison for a moment the shining, elusive element which is life itself—life hurrying past us and running away, too strong to stop, too sweet to lose? The Indian women had held it in their jars. In the sculpture she had seen in the Art Institute, it had been caught in a flash of arrested motion. In singing, one made a vessel of one's throat and nostrils and held it on one's breath, caught the stream in a scale of natural intervals.

[P. 378]

The Indian water vessels are functional utensils, but they also give expression in their careful craftsmanship and ornamentation to man's age-old desire for something beyond himself, that same desire Thea has experienced since she was a child. In reflecting and serving man's deepest needs (his need of water for physical life, his dream of a higher spiritual order) the pieces of pottery become for Thea a symbol of art and life conjoined in a purposeful harmony. The Indian pottery, moreover, reflects the communal aspect of art. For Thea, music had been the essence of her individuality, but in the presence of the ancient pottery and the cliff houses she feels her art no longer alienates her from other men, but connects her vitally to a tradition of human aspiration: “All these things made one feel that one ought to do one's best, and help to fulfil some desire of the dust that slept there. … These potsherds were like fetters that bound one to a long chain of human endeavour” (p. 380). The stream, too, is no longer “the stream of meaningless and undirected effort,” but is the very stuff out of which art is made. A little later, as in her memory of the vision at Laramie, Thea sees an eagle fly over the canyon, and it again becomes a symbol of the continuity of human desire and the striving of art: “From a cleft in the heart of the world she saluted it. … It had come all the way; when men lived in caves, it was there. A vanished race; but along the trails, in the stream, under the spreading cactus, there still glittered in the sun the bits of their frail clay vessels, fragments of their desire” (p. 399). Thea's dedication to art is no longer conceived of as a selfish quest for power and recognition, nor as a means of revenge on a critical world, but as the fulfillment of a sacred obligation to both man's ancestors and his descendants.

Thea's re-entry into the mainstream of life comes when Fred Ottenburg joins her in Arizona and persuades her to run off to Mexico with him. Eventually she discovers that Ottenburg is already married; and in Part V, “Doctor Archie's Venture,” she borrows money from her old Moonstone friend to leave America and study alone in Germany. At first it appears that Thea has been betrayed by her renewed contact with her fellow men, but, as Ottenburg himself finally makes her recognize, the experience was essential to Thea for further defining herself and determining her course. Their love affair never involved the submission of one to the other, but was more like a camaraderie; they were equals in all their adventures. Thea admired Ottenburg's physical energy and vied with him at throwing stones in discus fashion; to Henry Biltmer, the lodge keeper in Arizona, they looked like two boys moving about nimbly on the cliffs. On one of their expeditions Thea climbed to the top of a cliff, and Ottenburg, seeing her from below, thought of her as some wild creature from early Germanic times.

After Thea has broken off their affair, Ottenburg tells her that by going to Mexico with him she was simply driving ahead: “‘And you'll always drive ahead. … It's your way’” (p. 444). Thea loves Fred Ottenburg, but her desire to be a great artist is still strong. Their love has enriched her experience of life, and the fact that he is already married leaves her free to continue with her music and mesh that experience with her art. On the eve of Thea's departure for Germany he notices that her excitement, her eagerness “to get at it,” is no longer colored by memories and personal struggles, but is now “unconscious,”—something selfless and instinctive.

The necessary isolation and impersonality of the artist is suggested in the title of Part VI—“Kronborg.” The time is ten years later, and the distance we now feel from the great opera singer is affected by the author's changing the point of view from Thea's to Doctor Archie's. Thea's accomplishments and fame are rendered with appropriate awe by the limited vision of an old childhood friend, but he does not fail to perceive the remoteness which now invests the great artist's personality. When Doctor Archie first sees Thea again after a performance at the Metropolitan, she is tired and awkward behind her make-up and has lost much of the spontaneity and energy she once exuded. In later visits he cannot help but notice that she has grown hardened and impatient with those around her. Fred Ottenburg, still her admirer, realizes that only the challenge of her art brings back her vitality and zest for life: “It was only under such excitement, he reflected, that she was entirely illuminated, or wholly present. At other times there was something a little cold and empty, like a big room with no people in it” (p. 533).2 In a sense Thea has died to life; on stage she looks to Doctor Archie like someone in the “next world”; her face (as her name suggests) is “shining with the light of a new understanding” (p. 500), and that “new understanding” has been the goal toward which Thea has been moving all her life.

Thea no longer has a life apart from the opera (she can talk only of herself and her work), but in her career art and life are still one because as Harsanyi suggests, her special gift is her passion. One of the final questions considered in the novel is the relationship of the artist to the people in his past. Doctor Archie always regretted that Thea did not get home when her mother was dying. Her failure to return appears callous and neglectful; and yet Oliver Landry, Thea's friend,3 tells Fred Ottenburg that the special power in Thea's interpretation of Elizabeth in Tannhäuser derives from the anxiety and grief she felt over her mother's death: “‘The last act is heart-breaking. It's as homely as a country prayer-meeting: might be any lonely woman getting ready to die. It's full of the thing every plain creature finds out for himself, but that never gets written down’” (p. 540). Among other things we are reminded of those humble faces at the mournful prayer meetings which, for Thea, were so tedious, but promised to mean something some day. Through the “new understanding” of her art Thea appreciates those faces as she could not before; they are part of that passion, that vital enrichment in her art.

There is a tragic side to this relationship between the artist and her past; not only her mother but many of the people she once knew are now dead and cannot know that they have contributed to the growth of a great singer. But in this novel Willa Cather chooses to dwell on the positive aspect of that relationship and to show us how Thea's success fulfills the dreams of her childhood friends from Moonstone. At a performance which marks perhaps the pinnacle of her career, several of her old friends are present: her piano teacher, Harsanyi, who with his symbolic one eye has shared her singleness of vision and purpose; Fred Ottenburg, whom she will eventually marry; Doctor Archie; and by a rare accident of fate, Spanish Johnny, now an itinerant circus performer. Each reaps his own spiritual reward for the part he played in the development of Thea's voice. The triumph of art in life is presented (again embodying the image of the stream) in the figure of Spanish Johnny filled with happiness after Thea's performance: “Then he walked down Broadway with his hands in his overcoat pockets, wearing a smile which embraced all the stream of life that passed him and the lighted towers that rose into the limpid blue of the evening sky. If the singer, going home exhausted in her car, was wondering what was the good of it all, that smile, could she have seen it, would have answered her. It is the only commensurate answer” (p. 573). In the epilogue Willa Cather completes that vision of art's service to life by taking us, for a moment, back to Moonstone where Aunt Tillie “lives in a world of secret satisfactions” because the little girl she put all her faith in has given the world so much noble pleasure (p. 578).


  1. The Song of the Lark (Sentry Edition; Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1963). All quotations are from this text.

  2. In a letter of April 22, 1913, to Elizabeth Sergeant, Willa Cather describes seeing Olive Fremstad getting into her car, glassy-eyed and drained after a performance; the image seems to have carried over to her presentation of Thea Kronborg. The idea of a great artist having little personal life apart from his art probably was also reinforced by Cather's seeing Fremstad's apartment, which she describes to Miss Sergeant as being both in bad taste and cheerless. (Copy of letter at University of Virginia Library.)

  3. Landry is another of those weak, romantic men that Willa Cather's strong heroines find so attractive.

Carl D. Malmgren (essay date fall 1987)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10825

SOURCE: Malmgren, Carl D. “‘From Work to Text’: The Modernist and Postmodernist Künstlerroman.Novel 21, no. 1 (fall 1987): 5-28.

[In the following essay, Malmgren gives an in-depth scrutinization of Thomas Mann's “Tonio Kroger” and John Barth's Lost in the Funhouse, using them as examples of modernist and postmodernist künstlerromane respectively.]

“… what an artist talks about is never the main point.

—John Barth quoting from Thomas Mann's “Tonio Kroger” in “The Literature of Replenishment”


From modernism to postmodernism. If the twentieth century has witnessed a dramatic change in sensibility, a shift in the prevailing episteme, and if that shift registers itself foremost in the very nature and function of the aesthetic artifact, then one way to define the transformation would be to examine in detail representative narratives which deal directly with the development of the artist and the nature of his or her calling. I have chosen as my “tutor” texts two works generally recognized as representative modernist and postmodernist künstlerromans, Thomas Mann's “Tonio Kroger” (1903) and John Barth's Lost in the Funhouse (1968). I propose to examine the two works in terms of their definition of the artist, his relation to society, the nature of his vocation, and, most important, the authorial treatment of the subject, especially as regards structuration, use of irony, overdetermined literary devices, and metalinguistic themes and techniques. The choice is not at all arbitrary—the two works, as will be shown, define artistic sensibilities in ways that invite comparison. Moreover, in the essay cited in the epigraph, Barth not only refers to “Tonio Kroger” twice, but acknowledges the fact that his own work can very well be seen in relation to the great modernist tradition that he “cut his literary teeth on.”1


A story is told of Todorov lecturing at an American university. … After one particular talk a professor of French commented on the clarity of his presentation, and he replied,Oui, je sais, c'est là mon plus grand défaut.

—Robert Scholes, “Foreword,” to Todorov, The Fantastic


Barth's work invites comparison with Mann's not only because they both focus on the modern artist in his formative years, but also because they both ascribe to the adolescent certain salient, ultimately typical, features, which can be gathered under the following rubric: the artist is a marked man. This can be so in a literal sense, as manifested in Tonio's coloring, eyes, and mouth and in Ambrose's birthmark, or in a figurative sense, as when Tonio speaks of the artist as burdened with the mark of Cain, “troubled by the sign on his brow.”2 Some of the more significant literal markings are:

  • 1) the artist's name—the name itself or the act of naming sets the artist apart from the ordinary, everyday world. Mann's protagonist is marked by a first name which ‘sounds so foreign and sort of something special’ (83), so different from that of his friend Hans, the exemplum of bourgeois normalcy in the work; his full name has thematic resonance—“those syllables compact of the north and south, that good middle-class name with the exotic twist to it” (94). In Barth's work, the significantly titled “Ambrose His Mark” rehearses the farcical series of events through which Ambrose belatedly acquires a name, one which is also a “sign”: “Saint Ambrose had the same thing happen when he was a baby. All these bees swarmed on his mouth while he was asleep in his father's yard, and everybody said he'd grow up to be a great speaker.”3
  • 2) his appearance, demeanor, carriage—certain physiological oddities serve as signs of the artist's difference, queerness, uniqueness. At the beginning of Mann's work, Tonio Kroger is contrasted physically with his school-boy chum, Hans Hansen, the embodiment of the blond-haired, blue-eyed norm. Tonio's coloring is dark, his hair black, his eyes brown; he is marked by the “finely chiselled features of the south,” by his dreamy eyes with their heavy lids, by his sensual mouth. Even his walk is eccentric, “idle and uneven” (77), and he perpetually carries his head to one side. Ambrose, for his part, is marked by his bee-shaped birthmark, but his fair complexion also sets him apart from his swarthy brother Peter (again a type of normalcy). He also suffers from myopia at a very young age and must wear glasses. He even affects a limp (but the fact that this last trait is an affectation, a willed imposture, is significant).
  • 3) his parentage—the artist's parents invariably reflect his contradictory traits, his divided self, his dubious heritage. Tonio's father is a distinguished, prosperous, eminently respectable consul, a veritable pillar of his community, who dresses punctiliously and disapproves of his son's idiosyncracies. His dark and beautiful mother, “from some place far down on the map” (79), plays the piano and mandolin wonderfully, treats him with “blithe indifference” (77), and, faithful to her carefree and irresponsible spirit, marries a musician a year after Tonio's father's death and goes away with him (the musician) “into remote blue distances” (92). Ambrose's parents display a similar antithesis. His father Hector, a school principal, is an ineffectual and nondescript sort who suffers a nervous breakdown and is temporarily institutionalized when he begins to suspect that Ambrose is not his son. His mother Andrea (note the southern overtones) alternates wildly between complete indifference and maternal solicitude in relation to her baby son, and there are frequent hints that she has indeed cuckolded her husband, perhaps with his brother Karl. In any case, she is flighty, exhibitionistic, and frequently an affront to the conservative morality of smalltown Maryland.


the work can be held in the hand, the text is held in language, only exists in the movement of a discourse (or rather, it is Text for the very reason that it knows itself as text); … It follows that the Text cannot stop (for example on a library shelf); its constitutive movement is that of cutting across (in particular, it can cut across the work, several works).

—Roland Barthes, “From Work to Text”

Markedness in the sense I have been discussing to this point is less a cause of difference than a sign thereof. The root cause of difference, in both the modernist and postmodernist künstlerroman, seem intimately bound up with the question of a distinctive sensibility. Both Tonio and Ambrose are set apart from their peers by, among other things, the power of their intellect. In Mann's fiction, the intellect tends to manifest itself in the form of insight, discernment, understanding. Tonio's dancing master, for example, Francois Knaak (whose name, by the way, reflects the same duality as Tonio's) is doomed forever to be an artiste manqué, despite his artistic pretensions, demeanor, and markings, just because “his eyes did not plumb the depth of things to the place where life becomes complex and melancholy” (87). Tonio, on the other hand, continually suffers because of his insight (“How it hurt to have to see through all this!”) (84), but he extracts more than a little satisfaction, even joy, from the very act of understanding:

And still—he was happy. For happiness, he told himself, is not in being loved—which is a satisfaction of the vanity and mingled with disgust. Happiness is in loving, and perhaps in snatching fugitive little approaches to the beloved object. And he took inward note of this thought, wrote it down in the mind; followed out all its implications and felt it to the depths of his soul.


The sensibility of Barth's protagonist, though sharing the perspicacity of Mann's,4 expresses itself more in the power of the imagination, in its propensity to “play” with empirical données. In this respect, Ambrose is distinguished from his brother, Peter, who “didn't have one-tenth the imagination he [Ambrose] had, not one-tenth” (80). It is Ambrose who invents the names for the overgrown tract which the boys use as a retreat (the “Jungle”) and for the secret club they start there (the “Occult Order of the Sphinx”), from which Ambrose is characteristically excluded. Ambrose amuses himself by inventing romantic fictions (his affair with Peggy Robbins), realistic fictions (his peaceful domesticity with Magda), even prosaic fictions (“he fell into his habit of rehearsing to himself the unadventurous story of his life, narrated from the third person point of view,” 92). In fact, Ambrose seems to have too much imagination, to the extent that his tendency to fictionalize existence nullifies his ability to experience existence.

One might argue, by way of summary, that this shift in emphasis from insight to imagination represents a significant difference between modernist and postmodernist fiction. Both types, nonetheless, single out awareness or consciousness as a distinguishing feature of the artistic sensibility. The artist is always aware that something is going on. Indeed, he is also aware of his awareness; the artist is self-conscious. This latter feature is what particularly sets the artist apart. In his conversation with Lisabeta Ivanovna, Tonio Kroger says that the artist's “ironic sensibility” creates a gulf between him and others: “Your self-consciousness is kindled, because you among thousands feel the sign on your brow and know that everyone else sees it” (99). In Ambrose this self-consciousness has been magnified to an ultimate degree, so much so that he literally feels “beside himself”: “Ambrose watches them disagree; Ambrose watches him watch” (81). The net effect of this corrosive self-consciousness is total alienation from the felt experience of life. Ambrose remembers his sexual initiation as follows:

But though he had breathed heavily, groaned as if ecstatic, what he'd really felt throughout was an odd detachment, as though someone else were the Master. Strive as he might to be transported, he heard his mind take notes upon the scene: This is what they call passion. I am experiencing it.


For a similar reason, he is forced to counterfeit the appropriate emotions at baptism and at the Boy-Scout initiation campfire. In like manner, Mann's protagonist argues in his conversation with Lisabeta that the true artist must stand apart from the realm of human emotion, “heartfelt feeling”: “The artist must be unhuman, extra-human; he must stand in a queer aloof relationship to our humanity” (98). It should be mentioned here that Kroger advocates this position as part of a general aesthetic theory, as a desideratum for genuine art, and that his argument anticipates the modernist hypostasis of this principle in Eliot's aesthetic of impersonality. For Barth's Ambrose, however, this separation from life is an abomination necessarily perpetrated by the alienating effect of self-consciousness: “God comma I abhor self-consciousness” (110).

As Renato Poggioli has argued, the artistic sensibility in the twentieth century has been diacritically marked by its wholesale alienation—psychological and social, economic and cultural, stylistic and aesthetic.5 That this alienation cuts both ways, outward against the representatives of the norm, and inward against the artistic self, Mann makes clear in the following passage:

On the one hand, Consul Kroger's son found their attitude [toward his verse-making] both cheap and silly, and despised his schoolmates and his masters as well, and in his turn (with extraordinary penetration) saw through and disliked their personal weakness and bad breeding. But then, on the other hand, he himself felt his verse-making extravagant and out of place and to a certain extent agreed with those who considered it an unpleasing occupation.


Alienation from the existing social order tends to predominate in “Tonio Kroger,” especially in the first half of the work, before Tonio makes his peace with “life.” Self-alienation, on the other hand, consumes Ambrose, who not only envies Peter's normalcy (“The truth was, his brother was a happy-go-lucky youngster who'd've been better off with a regular brother of his own,” 91), but goes so far as to call in question his own humanity:

he saw once again, more clearly than ever, how readily he deceived himself into supposing he was a person. He even foresaw, wincing at his dreadful self-knowledge, that he would repeat the deception, at ever-rarer intervals, … so fearful were the alternatives. Fame, madness, suicide; perhaps all three.


Ambrose wonders if he will ever become a “regular person,” wishing that he could become one of the lovers for whom the funhouse is fun. Both Tonio and Ambrose occupy the position that one critic cites as paradigmatic for the twentieth-century artist, that of “the outsider, the uncommitted spectator, longing to overcome his self-consciousness and make contact with the world outside his limited and limiting ego.”6 The self-conscious outsider, as Barth makes clear, runs the risk of non-being, non-identity, and the twentieth-century künstlerroman necessarily interrogates the problematics of identity, not resting with the somewhat facile answer “I am an artist,” but submitting that statement to a vertiginous examination. In Barth's case, the title story, “Lost in the Funhouse,” rehearses Ambrose's attempt to find (or lose) himself, and it is that text which will be the focus of a rigorous analysis in the second part of this paper.


my text is in fact readerly: I am on the side of structure, of the sentence, of the sentenced text: I produce in order to reproduce, as if I had a thought and represent it with the help of raw materials and of rules: I write classic.

—Roland Barthes, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes

Although I've made some tentative discriminations between Mann's work and Barth's, the analysis to this point has revealed a high level of congruence between the two works; each presents the reader with a sensitive adolescent, physiologically and psychologically marked, haunted by self-consciousness, alienated from family and society, and seeking out a valid and viable self. One might add that, if one ignores for the moment certain significant idiosyncracies of the latter, both “Tonio Kroger” and “Lost in the Funhouse” employ the same narrational mode—what Stanzel terms “figural” narration,7 where the implied author presents the protagonist in the third person and reveals the protagonist's train of thought, but not that of other characters. This being the case, what makes the one an exemplary modernist work, the other quintessentially postmodernist? To answer this question, we need to examine the structuration of the two works, submitting their respective text-ures to a systematic analysis.

The modernist work, despite the problematics of interpretation that it inevitably interrogates or enacts, despite its explorations of the very ground of epistemology, is readerly; it is committed to “the closure system of the West”; it is “merely polysemous”; it has a parsimonious plural; it is governed by the “law of the Signified” even when it questions the possibility of signification.8 Mann's work achieves closure and totalizes experience through three basic artistic strategies: the systematic use of the leitmotif (borrowed from Wagner); the exploitation of thematic antitheses; and the architectonics of structure.

The first of these elements of totalization, the leitmotif, operates at both the stylistic and semantic levels, creating in this way verbal and thematic resonance. For example, certain stylistic configurations recur at different intervals in the work and act as markers or refrains. The successive manifestations of Ingeborg Holm, first at the dance lesson given by Knaak, then at the resort in Denmark, are accompanied by Tonio's realization that, love her though he might, she would ever remain remote and estranged from him, “his speech not being her speech” (91; cf. 130). At several places in the work, Tonio acknowledges that the only ones who will really appreciate and adore him are the brown-eyed, dark-haired ones, who “often fell down in the dance” (88, passim). Another verbal repetition involves Tonio's recall of a line of poetry from Storm, “I would sleep but thou must dance” (88, 130), which I will discuss later. Perhaps the most significant verbal echo appears in Tonio's “last words” in the work, from his letter to Lisabeta. Speaking of his love of the bourgeois, he says, “There is longing in it, and a gently envy; a touch of contempt and no little innocent bliss” (134)—an assessment which patently echoes the narrator's totalizing description of Tonio's love for Hans at the very end of the first section (85). The fact that the words are shifted here from the narrator to the protagonist serves as a sign of Tonio's development, while at the same time the refrain serves as a coda for the work.

Leitmotifs not only appear in the form of the phrasal refrain; they also inform the actants and events of the fiction. Obvious actantial metamorphoses involve characters like Hans Hansen, Ingeborg Holm, Magdalena Vermehren, Francois Knaak, even Lisabeta Ivanovna (whose brunette coloring and artistic vocation link her with the brown-eyed ones, but whose last name is a Russian cognate of Hansen), but Mann also invests certain seemingly insignificant objects—the fountain, walnut tree, Tonio's fiddle, Hans's picture book of horses—with thematic aura by referring to them at regular intervals (see pp. 78, 92, 113, 118). And encoded in the plot are several narrative sequences which re-appear in slightly altered form, inviting comparison while at the same time investing the story with rhythm, inevitability, recurrence. At two places in the work, Tonio's artistic calling is subjected to bourgeois disapproval (79, 116-17); at two places he makes the walk from the school to his family's home, the second time repeating almost unconsciously the gestures of the first—climbing the Millwall and the Holstenwall, counting the train cars as they pass and acknowledging the man on the last car, pausing at the creaky metal garden gate in front of the Hansen villa. The most elaborate of the narrative parallels is, of course, the motif of the dance. The second dance episode, at the resort in Denmark, re-incarnates the significant figures from Tonio's childhood: Hans, Ingeborg, Magdalena, even Francois Knaak and his nasal French. Again a quadrille is formed; again someone (not Tonio but the Magdalena-type) falls down in the dance. Again Tonio retreats from the festivities to a corner where he longs for Inge to come to him but knows she never will. Tonio notes that the situation is “just the same, just the same as it had always been” (131), but there are some significant differences (to be explored later).

Part of the modernist work's readerliness, then, is a function of the way in which it deploys both stylistic and semantic elements as a kind of narrative glue, endowing the work with rhythm and harmony. In the modernist work, as in the classic text, “everything holds together” (S/Z, 156).


The work closes on a signified. There are two modes of signification which can be attributed to this signified: either it is claimed to be evident and the work is then the object of a literal science, … or else it is considered to be secret, ultimate, something to be sought out, and … the work then falls under the scope of a hermeneutics, of an interpretation.

—Roland Barthes, “From Work to Text”

Perhaps the signal feature of the modernist work is the way in which it relies on the symbolic code, the code of systematic antitheses, in order to circumscribe a space of signification. It does this in part because the other codes—proairetic, hermeneutic, semic, and referential—are dispensed with or radically deformed in some modernist fiction, though not necessarily in “Tonio Kroger,” which activates all of the codes except the hermeneutic (there are no enigmas to be solved).9 As has been suggested above, “Tonio Kroger” does mobilize a protean but systematic set of oppositions in service to basic thematic code. A partial list of such oppositions includes:

  • 1) Tonio's father/Tonio's mother (see p. 79)
  • 2) blue-eyed blonds/brown-eyed brunettes (passim)
  • 3) Hans/Tonio/Ingeborg Holm/Magdalena Vermehren (an homology)
  • 4) North/South (see, e.g., p. 93)
  • 5) “Fixative and the breath of spring” (96)
  • 6) “ordinary people”/artists (see p. 100)
  • 7) “life as the eternal antinomy of mind and art” (104)

As the last three items make clear, the entire system may be gathered under the antithesis of Art and Life, an opposition generative not only of the story but also of the significant features of the discourse (Tonio's full name, for example). Tonio is ineluctably set apart from Life by the mark on his brow, itself an emblem of the artistic sensibility. As an artist, he is a man “without papers,” one who presents a few pages of manuscript to establish a quasi-respectable identity with the bourgeois representatives of Life. And yet Tonio is drawn by love to these blue-eyed ones who despise and mistrust him:

I'm nearly done, Lisabeta. Please listen. I love life—this is an admission. I present it to you, you may have it. I have never made it to anyone else. People say … that I hate life, or fear or despise or abominate it. I liked to hear this, it has always flattered me; but that does not make it true. I love life. You smile; and I know why, Lisabeta. But I implore you not to take what I am saying for literature.


This passage from the middle of the work, with its ambivalences, its “protest-too-much” tone, and its subversively self-conscious last statement, captures Tonio's precarious relation with life throughout much of the story. Tonio quite literally stands “between two worlds” (133), and the work rehearses his ongoing attempt either to annihilate one of the poles (Life) or to reconcile the two, thus transcending the antithesis structuring the symbolic code.


Here again, the metaphor of the Text separates from that of the work; the latter refers to an image of an organism which grows by vital expansion, by ‘development’ (a word which is significantly ambiguous, at once biological and rhetorical); the metaphor of the Text is that of the network.

—Roland Barthes, “From Work to Text”

The modernist work also strives for “global” coherence and closure at the formal level through the architectonics of its structure, by which I mean the orchestration of discrete narrative pieces into an overarching design. At a superficial level “Tonio Kroger” seems to have no such design, consisting instead of a series of “merely” significant moments in Tonio's development as an artist, free, for example, of chapter divisions which could invest it with structure. But the work is divided, through typographical spacing, into nine discrete narrative units, which may be summarized as follows:

  • 1) Tonio's walk home with Hans (76-85)
  • 2) Tonio at the dance with Ingeborg Holm (85-91)
  • 3) Tonio's “surrender” to art and his departure from home (92-94)
  • 4) Tonio's conversation with Lisabeta in Munich (95-106)
  • 5) Tonio's decision to go home (106-7)
  • 6) Tonio's visit to his home town (107-17)
  • 7) Tonio's boat trip to Denmark (117-21)
  • 8) Tonio's stay at a Danish resort, culminating in the dance (121-32)
  • 9) Tonio's promised letter to Lisabeta (132-34)

I have divided the nine units into three separate sections because the work invites this kind of division. Each section deals primarily with one basic question and ends with a resolution which is at once a rejection and an affirmation. Moreover the questions posed move towards a higher level of generality, inclusivity, and significance. The three movements of the work may be schematized as follows:

I. The Question of Identity: “Who is Tonio Kroger?” The section dwells on the fact of Tonio's difference, his departure from the norm embodied in Hans and Ingeborg. This difference is revealed to be a function of his artistic calling: Tonio is an artist. Embracing the fact of difference, Tonio rejects his family and home and departs for the South where he surrenders “utterly to the power that to him seemed the highest on earth, to whose service he felt called” (92). He denies Life and affirms Art because he feels that “good work only comes out under pressure of a bad life; that he who lives does not work; that one must die to life in order to be utterly a creator” (94).

II. The Question of Art: “What is an Artist?” In the course of his conversation with Lisabeta, Tonio uses many figures and images to describe the artist, all of which connote deformity, inhumanity, even perversion. The artist is a bohemian, a castrator, a criminal. Tonio begins gradually to insist that the artist is also a man, who must reject the refuge of the “neutral territory” of the cafe. He turns his back to the South, to Art, to “blue-velvet sky, ardent wine, the sweets of sensuality”: “In short, I don't want it—I decline with thanks” (106). He elects to travel north, back to his homeland, cradle of Life.

III. The Question of Life: “What is a Man?” Tonio's trip to the North recapitulates the dramatic scenes of his childhood—in particular, the walk home with Hans, the dance with Inge—re-enactments which enable him to reconcile the seemingly contradictory demands of art and life. In his letter to Lisabeta, he rejects his previous view of art and proposes a new vocation for himself, that of an artist who is also a man (see 2.7 below).

As the above schematization (admittedly an oversimplification) makes clear, there is a rhythmic ebb-and-flow to the structure of the work, and the three-part movement lends itself to a thesis/antithesis/synthesis reading. This is not to argue that the above structure is absolute, definitive, or final. For example, another critic has conceived the work in a V-shaped structure, the pivotal section being number five where Tonio decides to go home again.10 In this schema, sections one and nine are a matched pair, each dealing with Tonio's ambivalent love of the bourgeois, each ending with the same words. Similarly with sections two and eight, which present the reader with different versions of the dance of life, the poet excluded therefrom. Sections three and seven explore opposite poles of lived experience, the former surveying the maelstrom of artistic sensuality, the latter rendering the more exhilarating storminess of a bourgeois “rite of passage.” Sections four and six deal self-consciously with the problem of identity, coming at the question from, respectively, the vantage point of art (Lisabeta) and of life (the police). Now one may quibble with aspects of the above structuration (sections three and seven have very different textures, for example, and the thematic parallels seem somewhat contrived), but the point is that this scheme does have a certain symmetry and felicity. Modernist works, because they are so carefully crafted, offer themselves up to structuration, frequently falling back on the aesthetically satisfying totalization which the formal closure of structure supplies.


I was wondering myself if I knew where I am going. So I would answer you by saying, first, that I am trying, precisely, to put myself at a point so that I do not know any longer where I am going. And, as to this loss of center, I refuse to approach an idea of the “non-center” which would no longer be the tragedy of the loss of the center—this sadness is classical. And I don't mean to say that I thought of approaching an idea by which this loss of center would be an affirmation. … So it being understood that I do not know where I am going, that these words which we are using do not satisfy me, with these reservations in mind, I am entirely in agreement with you.

—Jacques Derrida, in a discussion of “Structure, Sign, Play”


Art is foundering in the debilitating tide of what once seemed the crowning achievement of European thought: secular historical consciousness. In a little more than two centuries, the consciousness of history has transformed itself from a liberation, an opening of doors, blessed enlightenment, into an almost insupportable burden of self-consciousness. It's scarcely possible for the artist to write a word (or render an image or make a gesture) that doesn't remind him of something already achieved.

—Susan Sontag, “The Aesthetic of Silence”

Historicity and self-awareness, he asseverated, while ineluctable and even greatly to be prized, are always fatal to innocence and spontaneity. Perhaps adjective period

—John Barth, “Title”

Ambrose and Magda are lying next to the pool. Ambrose's brother Peter is encouraging her to go swimming, but to no avail (the text makes it clear that she is in her menstrual cycle, a fact which Ambrose is quick to pick up on and Peter isn't). At this point a curious discursive moment occurs:

Maybe I want to lay here with Ambrose,Magda teased.

Nobody likes a pedant.

Aha,said Mother.


The interpolated commentary is curious in part because the speaking subject is entirely problematic—one cannot answer the Barthesian question, “Who is speaking?” But this is true of much figural narration which dispenses with the grammatical and lexical markers of free indirect discourse. More important, the statement seems gratuitous and anomalous, a non-sequitur. A closer reading sends one back to Magda's statement, and one realizes that Magda has been guilty of a solecism (the possibility of which the text analeptically retrocasts: “Magda would certainly yield a great deal of milk, although guilty of occasional solecisms,” 81); she has confused the intransitive “to lie” with the transitive “to lay.” Her mistake might have been the occasion for an extended discursive commentary, especially since such commentary has been more than forthcoming to this point and since the mistake itself impinges upon one of the story's themes—that of sexual initiation. But the text self-consciously and preemptorily refuses such a move—after all, nobody likes a pedant—but its gesture paradoxically makes the move and repeals it in the same moment (it can't be decoded unless the move is made). This discursive moment is paradigmatic of the postmodernist text, which systematically unmakes itself even as it goes on making it(self) up.


writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin. Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing.

—Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author”


It has been noted above that Ambrose's main problem is a self-consciousness which prevents him from actively participating in life, and which ultimately gets him lost in the funhouse. The narrator of the story “Lost in the Funhouse” (unlike the narrator of “Tonio Kroger”) is bedeviled by that same surplus of self-consciousness, so much so that he's as lost in the funhouse of the text as Ambrose is in the funhouse of life. Like Ambrose, the narrator begins already lost in the funhouse (“For whom is the funhouse fun?”—first sentence of the story, 69) and, like Ambrose, he never gets out (“He wishes he had never entered the funhouse. But he has”—last paragraph, 94).11 That the narrator's situation parallels Ambrose's is made explicitly clear in the following passage in which the narrator comments on the problems he is having with his story: “We should be much farther along than we are; something has gone wrong; not much of this preliminary rambling seems relevant. Yet everyone begins in the same place; how is it that most go along without difficulty but a few lose their way?” (75). In this way, the text creates a structural homology out of the respective predicaments of Ambrose and the narrator: Ambrose: Funhouse of Life:: Narrator: Funhouse of Fiction. This homology is predicated upon the debilitating self-consciousness of the pair, the former so self-conscious that he is unable to “be,” the latter so ditto that he is unable to write (a “normal” story). The product of the narrator's corrosive self-consciousness is a perfectly self-reflexive text.


Some have argued that postmodernist art does not aim, as did modernist, at exploring the difficulty, so much as the impossibility of imposing that single determinate meaning on a text. Yet it is also true that it does so, not so much by means of textual difficulties alone, but—paradoxically—by overt, self-conscious control by an inscribed narrator/author figure that appears to demand, by its manipulation, the imposition of a single, closed perspective. At the same time, of course, it works to subvert all chances of attaining such closure.

—Linda Hutcheon, Narcissistic Narrative


Following Roman Jakobson's description of the communication event,12 we can term metalingual commentary all those discursive statements which remark upon the codes, conventions, and components of the literary narrative act. The narrator or character explicitly addresses the question of narrativity and in so doing reminds the reader of the fictivity of the text being read. Metalingual commentary is itself a function of self-consciousness, and thus it is hardly fortuitous that “Lost in the Funhouse” contains a plethora of metacommentaries. Adopting Barthes's enumeration of the codes of the classic text to our own purposes, we can identify the following types of metalingual commentary in “Lost in the Funhouse”:

  • Mc(P): Proairetic: Commentary dealing with possible acts, sequences, or outcomes in the fiction.
  • Mc(C): Characterological: Commentary dealing with the problematics of characterization.
  • Mc(S): Symbolic: Commentary dealing with the question of symbolism.
  • Mc(T): Textual: Commentary remarking upon aspects of textuality.
  • Mc(N): Novelistic: Commentary addressing the codes and conventions of fiction-making, either at the general or specific level (by far the preponderant form in the fiction).

It should be noted that the above classification does away with two Barthesian codes—the hermeneutic and the referential. The former code is not operative in Barthes's text because the story itself is not structured around an unsolved enigma and because local enigmas (Who is Ambrose?) are “solved” before they can be submitted to a diegetic commentary. This might be referred to as the evaporation of the hermeneutic hesitation. The second “missing” code, the referential code, the voice of science, wisdom, and culture, is not really missing but transformed into the voice of Literature, making its appearance in the form of the metacommentaries of textuality and narrativity, as if all knowledge anterior to the text might be subsumed within the category of the already written. As a matter of fact, insofar as all of the commentaries are metafictional, they are all subsets of this larger code. The above codex of metatexts then may be seen as a heuristic tool with which to make certain discriminations.


It is not that the Author may not ‘come back’ in the Text, in his text, but he then does so as a ‘guest’. If he is a novelist, he is inscribed in the novel like one of his characters, figured in the carpet; no longer privileged, paternal, aletheological, his inscription is ludic. He becomes, as it were, a paper-author: his life is no longer the origin of his fictions but a fiction contributing to his work.

—Roland Barthes, “From Work to Text”

At the risk of a certain amount of oversimplification and redundancy, I supply the following list of metalingual commentary from “Lost in the Funhouse”:

  • Mc(P): “One possible ending would be to have Ambrose come across another lost person in the dark. They'd match their wits together against the funhouse, struggle like Ulysses past obstacle after obstacle, help and encourage each other. Or a girl. By the time they found the exit they'd be closest friends, sweethearts if it were a girl … then they'd emerge into the light and it would turn out that his friend was a Negro. A blind girl. President Roosevelt's son. Ambrose's former archenemy” (83).
  • “The gypsy fortune-teller machine might have provided a foreshadowing of the climax of this story if Ambrose had operated it” (81).
  • Mc(C): “Is it likely, does it violate the principle of verisimilitude, that a thirteen-year-old boy could make such a sophisticated observation?” (70).
  • “It's not believable that so young a boy could articulate that reflection, and in fiction the merely true must always yield to the plausible” (90).
  • Mc(S): “The diving would make a suitable literary symbol” (79).
  • “Moreover, the symbolism is in places heavy-footed” (90). (Note that the final word works a change on a cliché, a change itself laden with symbolic resonance; cf. Oedipus.)
  • Mc(T): “A single straight underline is the manuscript mark for italic type, which in turn is the printed equivalent to oral emphasis of words and phrases as well as the customary type for titles of complete works, not to mention” (69). (For a discussion of the truncated nature of this sentence, see 2.4 below.)
  • Mc(N): “Description of physical appearance and mannerisms is one of several standard methods of characterization used by writers of fiction. It is also important to ‘keep the senses operating’; when a detail from one of the five senses, say visual, is ‘crossed’ with a detail from another, say auditory, the reader's imagination is oriented to the scene, perhaps unconsciously” (70).
  • “The function of the beginning of a story is to introduce the principal characters, establish their initial relationships, set the scene for the main action, expose the background of the situation if necessary, plant motifs and foreshadowings where appropriate, and initiate the first complication or whatever of the ‘rising action.’ Actually, if one imagines a story called ‘The Funhouse,’ or ‘Lost in the Funhouse,’ the details of the drive to Ocean City don't seem especially relevant” (73-74).
  • “No character in a work of fiction can make a speech this long without interruption or acknowledgement from the other characters” (87). (This metatext is particularly disturbing in that it appears in Ambrose's direct discourse.)
  • “One reason for not writing a lost-in-the-funhouse story is that either everybody's felt what Ambrose feels, in which case it goes without saying, or else no normal person feels such things, in which case Ambrose is a freak. ‘Is anything more tiresome, in fiction, than the problems of sensitive adolescents?’” (88). (The argument in the first sentence, by the way, could be used against any and all fictions, thus eliminating the genre entirely.)

The examples drawn from the first four codes (and the list is by no means exhaustive) speak directly to the specific story-in-progress, in so doing exposing that story's fictionality, its intractibility, even its fraudulence. The novelistic metacommentary [Mc(N)] alternates between two levels, that of the generic conventions of fiction itself and that of their relation to the fiction in progress (from global statement to local application and vice versa). In either case the narrator's self-consciousness about the narrative act subverts the straightforward telling of the tale. It is as if the narrator were saying, “This is not life; this is a fiction, a fiction like so many other pieces of fiction. But then again, perhaps life itself is a fiction.” Critics who emphasize the equation in the last statement tend to recuperate the self-reflexiveness of the postmodernist text by asserting the instrumentality of narrativity in the process of inventing one's life.13 This kind of recuperation ignores a key aspect of the novelistic metatext Mc(N)—the fact that the postmodernist narrative imagination is itself a simple locus of intersection of various exhausted literary conventions and texts, a place where textual voices come and go, a text (see also 2.5 below).


This fiction signals its severance from author and reader, again, by presenting the discrete physical book as a composition of divergent verbal, visual, and sculptural aspects; divergent discourses and codes; prior texts composed by other authors; actual or potential interpretations supplied by readers; and varying instances of the composition itself. It presents the physical book, in sum, as a decomposition that subverts the integrity of the conceptual book and the concomitant integrity of its source: the discrete author and, by implication, discrete reader as coauthor.

—Charles Caramello, Silverless Mirrors


The relative preponderance of metalingual commentary in “Lost in the Funhouse” establishes the text as one which aspires to the condition of all “tell” and no “show.” But one may counterargue that this “reading” of the text ignores two features of the text: the fact that these metacommentaries tend to dwindle or disappear in the last half of the “story”; and, more important, the fact that there is a narrative ground here, involving identifiable and individuated characters, a discernible plot, and a circumscribed thematic matrix (namely the interanimating questions of sexuality, identity, and vocation). Presumably these “traditional” elements of fiction lend themselves to traditional forms of explication. But consider the significance of the protagonist's name—Ambrose M—(we must ignore the fact that a later Barth text “fills in the blank” and gives the full surname Mensch, despite the fact that this name yields a number of suggestive readings: a sensible person, a man, A. Mann). We have seen above that the first name is itself a “sign” of the protagonist's markedness. In “Lost in the Funhouse” that name is occasionally shortened to the more familiar “Amby,” a nickname which foregrounds the thematic polarities of the text: both/neither; two/one; mind/body; identity/non-identity. Moreover, the protagonist's initials (AM) also register the problematic of “being.” Barth's protagonist's name then is an elaborate pun, an overdetermined semantic space.

Brooke-Rose defines overdetermination in literature as follows:

A code is over-determined when its information (narrative, ironic, hermeneutic, symbolic, etc.) is too clear, over-encoded, recurring beyond purely informational need. The reader is then in one sense also over-encoded, and does in fact sometimes appear in the text, dramatised, like an extra character: the ‘Dear Reader’. But in another sense he is treated as a kind of fool who has to be told everything, a subscritical (hypo-crite) reader.14

As Brooke-Rose parenthetically notes, any of the codes may be overdetermined, and the “play” given Ambrose's name represents an overdetermination of the semic code. The reiterated reference to Magda as “very well developed for her age” also constitutes a semic overdetermination (one might contrast the postmodernist overdetermined seme with the modernist underdetermined leitmotif). In a similarly overdetermined way “Lost in the Funhouse” plays with the question of paternity, either by foregrounding it lexically (“Ambrose's father, Ambrose's and Peter's father,” 77), or by drawing attention to the reduplicated “eternal triangle” (Hector, Andrea, and Karl over and against Ambrose, Magda, and Peter).

The question of paternity is ultimately subsumed within the story's larger theme, that of identity (which also encompasses the related problems of sexuality and vocation), but the identity theme is the most overdetermined motif in the text. Ambrose's struggle to discover an authentic self is so systematically overdetermined and thoroughly thematized that, as Brooke-Rose suggests, this thematic reading subverts itself by becoming too easy, too available, ultimately banal; by being oversaid, it “goes without saying.” The reader is informed on the first page that Ambrose is “at that awkward age,” no longer a child, not yet an adult. This between-ness and his acute self-awareness make him particularly susceptible to the problem of identity (unlike his unselfconscious brother). He is aware of the multiplicity of selfhood: “You think you're yourself, but there are other persons in you. Ambrose gets hard when Ambrose doesn't want to, and obversely” (81). But he knows that identity may not be manufactured by the will: “Hunchbacks, fat ladies, fools—that no one chose what he was was unbearable” (87). He feels that “Everybody else is in on some secret he doesn't know” (85) and he longs for his father to take him aside and explain to him the secret which will enable him to get through the funhouse of life (87). The theme of identity is also reflected in Ambrose's belated baptism, put off until his thirteenth year, and, tellingly, in the limp that he affects in order to emphasize his difference (again the Oedipal quest for identity is parodied).

Ambrose's search for himself culminates, naturally enough, in the funhouse where he “loses” himself and where the identity theme is overdetermined, in part, by the motif of the name-coin. He mistakenly tries to give the “witch-like” ticket-woman his name-coin for admission to the funhouse whereupon she meanly calls attention to the mark on his forehead (identity challenged). Once in the funhouse, he soon loses that same name-coin (identity lost). Later, as he wanders alone in the funhouse, he finds a name-coin “someone else had lost or discarded” (90). The fact that this name-coin just happens to read AMBROSE signals that Ambrose has indeed found himself (identity regained and validated) while at the same time rendering the whole quest circular, tautological, absurd. Since Ambrose finds only himself in the funhouse, since for that matter he remains lost in the funhouse, where “he wishes he were dead” (94), a reading of the text which rests on the theme of identity (which is self-identity which is itself a tautology) is inevitably undercut and problematized. Such a reading of an overdetermined theme is, as Brooke-Rose says, hypo-critical, something beneath understanding.


the infinity of the signifier refers not to some idea of the ineffable (the unnameable signified) but to that of a playing; the generation of the perpetual signifier … in the field of the text (better, of which the text is the field) is realized not according to an organic process of maturation or a hermeneutic course of deepening investigation, but, rather, according to a serial movement of disconnections, overlappings, variations.

—Roland Barthes, “From Work to Text”


In one of the metalingual commentaries cited in 2.1 above, there is a truncated sentence about italic type which ends by defining such type “as the customary type for titles of complete works, not to mention” (69). Presumably one would finish that sentence with a parallel modifier/object of the preposition, namely “incomplete works.” The text refuses to supply the sentence with closure, not only because the phrase “not to mention” literally interdicts such closure, but also because the sentence's incompleteness enacts the unstated possibility. The above represents the lacunic text, one which is paradoxically complete and incomplete, a text which invites the reader's active participation in its completion (reader as producer of texts) but at the same time totally precludes such participation (there's no “space” between the text and the period), which offers itself as a gap at once there and not there. Some other examples of the lacunic text are:

The brown hair on Ambrose's mother's forearms gleamed in the sun like


The smell of Uncle Karl's cigar smoke reminded one of


Assertions of that sort are not effective; the reader may acknowledge the proposition, but.


There was no such girl, the simple truth being


… if anyone [in the funhouse] seemed lost or frightened, all the operator had to do was


Whether the text is straightforwardly attempting a literary description by turning a figure, or more self-reflexively acknowledging the way in which it must activate the reader's imagination, or suggesting that the “simple truth” might be complex fiction, or obliquely hinting that the operator might know the way out of the fiction, by means of the lacuna this text asserts the impossibility of doing any of those things; in fact it not only registers its own insufficiency, it also rejects the reader's competence to “fill in the blank,” it throws a shutout at the reader, in so doing effectively making the first half of this tortuous sentence an act of readerly bad faith.


Which is what the inter-text is: the impossibility of living outside the infinite text—whether this text be Proust or the daily newspaper or the television screen.

—Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text


As Barthes notes in The Pleasure of the Text, the text is a network or tissue located in the infinite text of the deja vu. Moreover it is text in part because it knows itself as such. As self-reflexive text, it is free to acknowledge the texts in which it finds itself, not as influences or sources (to insist as much, Barthes argues, is to succumb to the “myth of filiation”15),

but as an ineluctable seamless web of inter-textuality. The narrator of “Lost in the Funhouse” inscribes his story within a rich tradition of narrative fiction, an awareness of which serves to diminish the resources of his narrative imagination. When he describes Ambrose's and Peter's anticipation about their imminent arrival at the ocean, an anticipation “stimulated by the briny spume,” he can only see his description in epigonic terms:

The Irish author James Joyce, in his unusual novel entitled Ulysses, now available in this country, uses the adjectives snot-green and scrotum-tightening to describe the sea. Visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, gustatory.


By way of comparison, his own attempts to mobilize the reader's senses are necessarily inferior, feeble, second-rate, even impossible: “To say that Ambrose's and Peter's mother was pretty is to accomplish nothing; the reader may acknowledge the proposition, but his imagination is not engaged” (71). Impoverished or intimidated by the monumental accomplishments of the great modernist tradition, the postmodernist imagination is reduced to “all tell” and “no show,” or to hackneyed banality, both of which are conducive to no little “anxiety of influence.”

Alone on the seawall near his house [Ambrose] was seized by the terrifying transports he'd thought to find in toolshed, in Communion-cup. The grass was alive! The town, the river, himself, were not imaginary; time roared in his ears like wind; the world was going on! This part ought to be dramatized. The Irish author James Joyce once wrote. Ambrose M—is going to scream.

There is no texture of rendered sensory detail, for one thing.


Awareness of Joyce's emphasis on the need to dramatize, by making the narrator self-conscious, obviates the very possibility of such dramatization. From the point of view of the hag-ridden postmodernist writer, the inescapability of the inter-text is an hysterical/historical burden. The inter-text lays waste to his powers of description, contaminates his discourse, and ultimately renders impotent his imagination. Inter-textuality is a form of castration.


I can neither read nor write what you produce, but I receive it, like a fire, a drug, an enigmatic disorganization.

—Roland Barthes, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes


Barthes's S/Z sets in opposition two basic types of texts—the “readerly” and the “writerly.” As mentioned above, the readerly text is committed to the “closure system of the West.” Reading this type of text consists in tracing and forgetting the connotations of its signifiers, in following their filiations, in naming meanings and assembling them in groups, in establishing the work's parsimonious plural. Barthes describes the writerly text as a “galaxy of signifiers,” without beginning, to which the reader gains access by any number of entrances; its systems of meaning are infinite, its codes indeterminable. This text compels the reader to abandon his passive role as consumer of texts and to become a producer of texts, to “re-write” the text as it were.

In the first half of this essay I have demonstrated the ways in which the modernist work may be seen as readerly. The postmodernist text, however, resists classification according to Barthes's binary opposition; it might best be described as unreaderly. That is, it not only explicitly encodes the reader in the text through forms of direct address and metalingual commentary, it also posits a relationship with that reader that is adversarial.16 For example, “Lost in the Funhouse” systematically overdetermines elements of characterization, theme, even plot (by presenting any number of possible “adventures” which Ambrose had/might have had/imagined in the funhouse) in such a way that interpretations based on these elements are effectively pre-empted or nullified. Frequently the metalingual commentaries serve as a first degree of interpretation, thus reducing the interpretive “play” of the fiction and again encroaching upon readerly prerogatives. And the lacunic texts call in question and parody the reader's role as textual gap-filler, as producer of texts, by inviting the reader to participate in creation and yet obviating that possibility.17 The postmodernist text, then, subverts or undermines regular reading conventions (interpretation, gap-filling, assemblage) and forces new conventions to emerge. The conventions for the unreaderly text have yet to be codified or determined.


postmodernist fiction affirms counter-ideals that are postformalist and poststructuralist, ideals which hold that the signifier-signified relationship supersedes the tension between contextual restraint and referentiality; that intertextuality annuls any possibility of an individual's “works” (or “work”) being autonomous within a “world” that is itself “Text”; that the radically contingent subjectivity of the deconstructed self annuls “impersonalism” as a viable concept by transforming it into a kind of impersonal transpersonalism; that, in general, the dialectics of writing and reading occurring within the freeplay of language decomposes and deconstructs precisely (the idea of) the work of art as a crafted artifact, a composition, a construction generated from the heart and realized through singular technique.

—Charles Caramello, Silverless Mirrors


The künstlerroman by definition interrogates, describes, and enacts an aesthetic theory, and Barth and Mann not only sketch out the configurations of such a theory, they also invest it in a central image or motif—respectively, that of the funhouse and that of the dance. At this point it would be simply redundant to say that Mann's aesthetic is quintessentially modernist; it would be more instructive to follow the transformations that Tonio's view of art undergoes during his maturation.

When Tonio first takes up art as a way of life his aesthetic can be described as pure formalism, based upon the absolute divorce of art and life:

And then, with knowledge, its torment and its arrogance, came solitude; because he could not endure the blithe and innocent with their darkened understanding, while they in turn were troubled by the sign on his brow. But his love of the word kept growing sweeter and sweeter, and his love of form; for he used to say (and had already said it in writing) that knowledge of the soul would unfailingly make us melancholy if the pleasures of expression did not keep us alert and of good cheer.


From this perspective, life is something disorderly and depressing, messy and melancholy; art, with its pleasures of le mot juste and of formal order, offers itself as a compensation for life, a consolation. Art is one thing, life quite another, and often they are at cross purposes. In his conversation with Lisabeta, Tonio insists that art has virtually nothing to do with “feeling, warm, heartfelt feeling, [which] is always banal and futile” (98). Tonio is not simply endorsing artistic “impersonalism” (cf. Eliot); he is asserting the utter antipathy of life and art: “one must die to life in order to be utterly a creator” (94).

Despite increasing dissatisfaction with this theory, Tonio maintains it throughout much of the story. On the stormy boatride to Denmark, for example, he begins to chant a poem expressive of his feelings, but he abruptly breaks off: “But it got no further, he did not finish it. It was not fated to receive a final form nor in tranquillity to be welded to a perfect whole. For his heart was too full …” (120). Not until he re-experiences the dance of life (in Denmark) is Tonio able to articulate a more satisfying aesthetic, one which weds the polarities of art and life.

In the first part of this essay, I summarized some of the significant similarities between the two dance episodes, but there are some suggestive differences as well. While in the first dance he is an active participant, in the second he is a passive observer (and in both he is set apart from the activity, “behind the glass door” of difference and self-consciousness). In the first dance, he commits an embarrassing blunder and retreats precipitously from the dance to a corner “in front of a window with the blind down” (89; emphasis added). At the second dance, the Magdalena-figure commits the embarrassment of stumbling and falling, and it is Tonio who steps forward and politely helps her up, thereby making a connection with the dance. Then he retires gracefully from the dance and returns to his room where he ponders the difference between the two experiences: “Yes, all was as it had been, and he was too happy, just as he had been. For his heart was alive. But between that past and this present what had happened to make him become that which he now was? Icy desolation, solitude: mind, and art, forsooth!” (131-32). In the cathartic epiphany which follows, Tonio repudiates the years in which he had been dead to life, when he had been “eaten up with intellect and introspection, ravaged and paralysed by insight, half worn out by the fevers and frosts of creation” (132). In so doing he repudiates the aesthetic which he had previously embraced.

At both dances Tonio is reminded of an apposite line of poetry from Storm: “I would sleep, but thou must dance” (88, 130). His original interpretation of the line places himself in the role of the sleeper/artist, at a dream-like remove from the dancers of life. At the second dance, however, he reverses the terms of the analogy. The blue-eyed dancers enjoy the oblivion of sleep, in the “life of simple feeling … without compulsion to act and achieve,” while the artist is forced to dance “the sword-dance of art” (131) without the respite of unself-conscious oblivion. That the terms are reversible, that both readings obtain, suggests that the terms are interconnected, and Tonio spells out an aesthetic based on this interconnectedness in his letter to Lisabeta. He speaks there of literally being caught “between two worlds” (133), that of the bourgeois and that of the artist. But this is no longer a cause for despair, for “there is a way of being an artist that goes so deep and is so much a matter of origins and destinies that no longing seems to it sweeter and more worth knowing than longing after the bliss of the commonplace.” He envisions an entire new corpus of work, more vital, more comprehensive, based on his “bourgeois love of the human.” He dedicates his life to taking this “world unborn and formless” and giving it expression and form (133). In other words, he sketches out a truly modernist aesthetic, both formalist and mimetic, which will take as its subject contingent reality but so invest it with structure, sense, shape, as to totalize it. In this way he becomes both poet and man.


In postmodernist fiction any reconciliation between art and life is thoroughly problematized, as the full implication of the funhouse motif makes clear. At one level, the funhouse represents life itself, within whose labyrinthine passages lovers meet and mingle, having “fun.” Ambrose, because of his self-consciousness, is irrevocably disbarred from this experience of the funhouse. At another level, however, that of the narrator, the funhouse becomes a metaphor for postmodernist fiction itself, trapped in the labyrinths of textuality, and, more comprehensively, for the fictivity in which the contemporary sensibility fashions itself lost. This suggests not simply that life or “reality” is itself a fiction, but that the only reality there is for the self-conscious postmodern—that of fiction-making—is itself a kind of curse. One is born into the funhouse of fiction and one never gets out: “He wishes he had never entered the funhouse. But he has. Then he wishes he were dead. But he's not. Therefore he will construct funhouses for others and be their secret operator—though he would rather be among the lovers for whom funhouses are designed” (94).

In his letter to Lisabeta, Kroger speaks of an art more intimately connected with “origins and destinies” (133). Those origins are to be found in life, in the bourgeois, in the “blond and blue-eyed, the fair and living, the happy, lovely, and commonplace” (134). Such origins, in fact any origins, are not available to the postmodernist writer, who not only suspects that “life” and “self” might be fictional constructs but also that both concepts are suspended in a seamless web of textuality. The funhouse may well have a secret operator (or it may not), but he sits in front of an elaborate control panel and simply pushes buttons. As for destinies, if anything they are even more fictional than origins, the product of our desire for shape, purpose, meaning, teleology, a terminus ad quem; textuality terminates such notions (textermination).

Kroger promises Lisabeta that his art will give the world order and shape, will in-form it with coherence and wholeness, will in fact totalize experience in a structure of signifieds (which is of course exactly what “Tonio Kroger” does). Postmodernist fiction, afloat in a world seen alternately as chaotic and contingent or fraudulent and fictional, abandons the notion of totalization and projects narratives consisting of floating signifiers, which point at each other while pointing back at themselves or which cancel themselves out. In postmodernist fiction one finds one's self lost in the funhouse of the signifier.

If in the postmodernist text we are invited to disport on “lexical playfields” (Nabokov's phrase), if the postmodernist text parodies conventional readerly activities like interpretation, if it calls in question the very institution of Literature, what then is the value of this text? In the first place, in its reaction to literary modernism, it subverts certain key aspects of the modernist work, in particular the notion of that work as a Text requiring a priestly caste of exegetes. In its thorough interrogation of the narrative act, the postmodernist text discovers that the roots of narrative are not buried in the pleasures of interpretation, but in narrativity itself, in the jouissance inherent in the human need to fabulate. Having laid to rest certain literary shibboleths, and having relieved narrative of certain heavy cognitive responsibility, postmodernist fiction clears the way for a new fiction, fiction that is simpler, heartier, more inventive, more robust.


a Theory of the Text cannot be satisfied by a metalinguistic exposition: the destruction of meta-language, or at least (since it may be necessary provisionally to resort to meta-language) its calling into doubt, is part of the theory itself: the discourse on the Text should be nothing other than text, research, textual activity, since the Text is that social space which leaves no language safe, outside, nor any subject of the enunciation in position as judge, master, analyst, confessor, decoder. The theory of the Text can coincide only with a practice of writing.

—Roland Barthes, “From Work to Text”


  1. John Barth, “The Literature of Replenishment: Postmodernist Fiction,” Atlantic, January 1980, p. 67.

  2. Thomas Mann, “Tonio Kroger,” in Death in Venice and Seven Other Stories, trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter (New York: Vintage, 1954), p. 93. All subsequent references to this work will be incorporated parenthetically in the text.

  3. John Barth, Lost in the Funhouse (1968; rpt. New York: Bantam, 1969), p. 31. All subsequent references to this work will be incorporated parenthetically within the text.

  4. E.g., “People don't know what to make of him, he doesn't know what to make of himself, he's only thirteen … but there are antennae; he has … some sort of receivers in his head; things speak to him, he understands more than he should, the world winks at him through its objects, grabs grinning at his coat” (pp. 84-85).

  5. See his The Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. Gerald Fitzgerald (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968), especially chapter six.

  6. Alan Wilde, Horizons of Assent: Modernism, Postmodernism and the Ironic Imagination (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981), p. 178.

  7. Franz Stanzel, Narrative Situations in the Novel, trans. James P. Pusack (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1971). Stanzel adopts this term in order to avoid the oxymoronic “limited omniscience.”

  8. The concepts and the phrasing are borrowed from Roland Barthes, S/Z, trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1974).

  9. Again I am drawing on the conceptual framework elaborated in S/Z.

  10. Benjamin Bennett, “Casting out Nines—Structure, Parody and Myth in “Tonio Kroger,” Revue des Langues Vivantes, 42 (1976), 126-46.

  11. It is wrong to argue that Ambrose does find his way out of the funhouse merely because the penultimate page of the text refers to the family in the car on the way home from Ocean City. Not only do the last two paragraphs cancel this possibility out, but the fact that the “going-home” version posits a “blind Negro girl” as Ambrose's funhouse companion—a possibility the text has nowhere actualized—reveals this scene to be merely a “version,” the product of Ambrose's (the narrator's?) imagination. Linda Westervelt, in “Teller, Tale, Told: Relationships in John Barth's Latest Fiction,” Journal of Narrative Technique, 8 (Winter 1978), 42-55, also pairs Ambrose and the narrator, arguing that they both suffer from overactive imaginations: “They fantasize alternate reactions to the funhouse, while only watching others and not really becoming involved themselves” (50).

  12. Roman Jakobson, “Linguistics and Poetics,” in Style in Language, ed. Thomas Sebeok (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1960), pp. 350-77. For a typology of discursive commentaries see my Fictional Space in the Modernist and Postmodernist American Novel (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 1985), chapter one.

  13. See, for example, Linda Hutcheon's concept of “process mimesis” in Narcissistic Narrative: The Metafictional Paradox (New York: Methuen, 1984). Barth himself makes a similar argument in “The Literature of Exhaustion,” Atlantic, August 1967, pp. 29-34.

  14. Christine Brooke-Rose, A Rhetoric of the Unreal: Studies in Narrative and Structure (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), p. 106.

  15. “From Work to Text,” in Image—Music—Text, ed. and trans. Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), p. 160.

  16. For different approaches to Barth's relations to readers, all of which at least acknowledge the problem of adversariality, see Westervelt, “Teller, Tale, Told: Relationships in John Barth's Latest Fictions”; William Krier, “Lost in the Funhouse: ‘A Continuing, Strange Love Letter,’” boundary 2, 5 (Fall 1976), 103-16; and Carol Shloss and Khachig Tölöyan, “The Siren in the Funhouse: Barth's Courting of the Reader,” Journal of Narrative Technique, 11 (Winter 1981), 64-74.

  17. Barth parodies this function more systematically in the short story “Title,” in which the reader is imperatively directed to “fill in the blank” and at the same time denied the opportunity to do so.

Gail Turley Houston (essay date spring 1993)

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SOURCE: Houston, Gail Turley. “Gender Construction and the Künstlerroman: David Copperfield and Aurora Leigh.Philological Quarterly 72, no. 2 (spring 1993): 213-36.

[In the following essay, Houston tries to differentiate between Victorian gender construction in male and female authored English künstlerromane by using Charles Dickens's David Copperfield and Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh as a basis for the comparison.]


A nineteenth-century Romantic genre, the Kunstlerroman, as a kind of palimpsest, conceals the material concerns of the writer by asserting that self-making is an art. Indeed, a rewriting and erasure of the self, the Kunstlerroman's conscious project displays a stabilized and authorized reading of the writer, and conceals the eruptive, unstable, and unconscious process of that construction. Furthermore, this generic form makes claims that it is representative of everyman at the same time that it formulates a special and lucrative category for the writer as artistic genius. Kunstlerromane such as Wordsworth's Prelude, Thackeray's Pendennis, Tennyson's In Memoriam and Dickens's David Copperfield exemplify this double vision of the author as typical but also as special creation and creator. These works reveal, too, that the paradigm of the artist as universal and unique is grounded in the notion that the artist is male. This makes Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh, the most famous nineteenth-century English Kunstlerroman by a woman, a natural site for studying how this genre constructs and is constructed by gender.1 I would suggest that comparing the male and female authored Kunstlerromane2David Copperfield and Aurora Leigh provides an important strategy for studying Victorian gender construction vis-à-vis the construction of the self as artist within the constraints of a market system.

To begin with, it is questionable whether the Kunstlerroman could have been written before the Industrial Revolution and modern capitalist economics, for in the nineteenth century to pursue the literary profession the writer literally had to sell himself as the most valuable distillation of the wisdom of his culture. As Catherine Gallagher and Mary Poovey point out, by the nineteenth century no professional writer could assert his independence from the market. Mary Poovey argues that the nineteenth century added a conflicting perspective to the traditional view of the artist as poet-prophet: the writer also came to be viewed as a commercial being deeply embroiled in concerns about profit.3 Likewise, in her provocative analysis, Gallagher notes that the historical conjunction of the “activities of authoring, of procuring illegitimate income, and of alienating one's self through prostitution” became closely associated in the Victorian period for two reasons: the growth of a mass audience in the 1830s and 1840s and the establishment of cheap serial publication allied to the practice of paying authors by the line. Thus Gallagher asserts that the metaphor of the artist as generative father was not the only paradigm through which the nineteenth century viewed the writer; an equally important and suggestive metaphor was also in place, one which viewed the writer as prostitute. Hence, as Gallagher explains, the author “does not go to market as a respectable producer with an alienable commodity, but with himself or herself as commodity. … This combination puts writers in the marketplace in the position of selling themselves, like whores.”4

I have chosen to read David Copperfield and Aurora Leigh as a pair for a number of reasons, not least of which being the way they represent the material conditions of writing and the construction of gender: first of all, both Dickens and Barrett Browning were extremely popular writers who reached a large and diverse readership, particularly with the novelistic renditions of their own rise to fame.5 Drawing on the metaphors of prophet and prostitute, both David Copperfield and Aurora Leigh articulate but also mask the interrelations of gender with material and aesthetic success; but it is also important to note that the conflicting metaphors of prophet and prostitute mean something quite different to the male and female writer. That is, I will argue that where David Copperfield uses the feminine to mask his materialistic motivations, Aurora Leigh pointedly demarcates how in Victorian culture every woman signified prostitution.

Similarly, a paired reading of Aurora Leigh and David Copperfield indicates that both authors question why the self has to be designated as male or female, for part of their recognition of themselves as artists seems to require a breaking of the rigid gender rules of Victorian society. Indeed, both writers struggle to fashion themselves within a unique “gender” category reserved for the author, one that unifies the ostensible qualities of the sexes under the rubric of androgyny. The problem is that the old one-sex model in the guise of androgyny establishes the male as the norm and the female, if not as Other, as inferior. Though Aurora Leigh and David Copperfield both agonize over achieving the virile powers of the artist, neither Dickens nor Barrett Browning is able to resolve the constraints of gender construction, for in their Kunstlerromane the one-sex and two-sex models continually collapse into each other. But here, again, gender makes a difference: I will argue that Dickens's flight into androgyny ends up being a fight with it, for he retains the notion of the special nature of the male creator. In contrast to Dickens's veiled battle of the sexes, Barrett Browning's Kunstlerroman does a great deal to subvert gender and genre at the same time that she begrudgingly submits to conventional prescriptions regarding relations between the sexes. What I find most significant is Barrett Browning's insistence on the linkage of the metaphor of the artist as rara avis with the artist as commercial entity and the implications that has for the woman writer.

David Copperfield's display of his pursuit of author-ity as the desire to be “one” with the sex defined as opposite engenders in Dickens's alter-ego the desire to be female. U. C. Knoepflemacher and Margaret Myers suggest that David Copperfield yearns for and tries to achieve a feminine side to himself, and there is much evidence to prove this hypothesis.6 For example, in the novel preceding David Copperfield, Dombey and Son, and the novel following it, Bleak House, Dickens's alter-egos are female protagonists, who, though threatened with erasure from the texts, end up displacing the would-be male heroes, just as they have displaced David Copperfield as text and hero. Likewise, in the first chapter of Dickens's fictional autobiography the narrative explicitly wrangles over what sex the unborn author will be. Although the reader assumes that the writer is male, the narrator expends a great deal of energy expounding on the expectation that he will be a female. Dickens humorously questions society's imposition of gender in the form of the monolithic Aunt Betsey who demands that Clara Copperfield give birth to a girl. The novel persists in a hagiography regarding David's absent, in fact, non-existent sister. Betsey idolizes this absent female presence, whom it is assumed he should have been and who is viewed as his better self. At one point, Aunt Betsey notes “Be as like your sister as you can,” and David muses hopefully that “I might take equal rank in her [Aunt Betsey's] affections with my sister Betsey Trotwood” (pp. 166, 176). Steerforth, too, refers to David with the feminine nickname Daisy, and, wondering if David has a sister, states his desire to meet her. Thus David's initial question, “Whether I shall be the hero of my own life,” immediately exhibits Dickens's jouissance, if you will, in his playful disruption of the constraints of gender.7

One might well ask, then, why Dickens images his alter-ego as a female manqué in his novel about the writer as a self-made man. I would suggest that Dickens's interrogation of gender construction and gender anxiety overwrites, if you will, his portrayal of the battle of the sexes, for ultimately, the author's “favourite child” (his epithet for David Copperfield) is a boy after all, a boy who must assume the pen in order to assume the penis. Indeed, Dickens asserts that only in taking up the pen to write his life can David be assured of being a man, for this novel teems with castrating and castrated women who ominously exclaim, “No boys here.” In fact, if the novel begins by expressing the hopes for a heroine and sister, it ends with Traddles overwhelmed by a profusion of sisters-in-law and Copperfield rather forcefully guided by his sometimes sister, now wife, Agnes: furthermore, Dickens's conscious display of Agnes as spiritual icon is underwritten by the suggestion that this queen of the house is a foreboding presence. Indeed, Dickens's rendition of the one-sex model produces engulfment as David appropriates Agnes as his reflection. If David's sense of self as writer relies on his reader viewing him through the stained glass window of his second self—Agnes—the reader must realize that she is really only his amanuensis or copier; in terms of Dickens's one-sex model, David re-presents Agnes as a lesser form of her masculine counterpart, himself.

Agnes's influence, then, is easily erased, and, in fact, David eradicates all of her attempts at self-authorization. For example, in response to David's exclamation, “What I am, you have made me,” the puzzled heroine replies, “Made you, Trotwood?” (p. 688). Her question unravels David's romantic and idealistic conception of his Kunstlerroman and hints at the troubling question of who made Agnes—a question Aurora Leigh might answer better than does David Copperfield. By projecting onto Agnes the responsibility of fashioning himself—she made him—David deters the reader from realizing just how self-indulgent Copperfield's love-making really is:

Agnes! Ever my guide, and best support! If you had been more mindful of yourself, and less of me, when we grew up here together, I think my heedless fancy never would have wandered from you. But you were so much better than I, so necessary to me in every boyish hope and disappointment, that to have you to confide in, and rely upon in everything, became a second nature, supplanting for the time the first and greater one of loving you as I do!

(p. 705)

Clearly, though this passage exhibits the dangers inherent in the Victorian prescription that women are self-sacrificing and men self-centered, it does not stop Dickens's alter-ego at the purported height of his wisdom and maturation—the very subject of the Kunstlerroman—from enjoying the perquisites of self-aggrandizing masculinity.

Furthermore, Dickens deconstructs his own alter-ego's purported pursuit of androgyny as the basis for his Kunstlerroman by including two feminized male writers who act as David Copperfield's foils. One of those writers, of course, is Mr. Dick, whose name incorporates a complex Dickensian text in miniature, revealing the palimpsestic nature of the Kunstlerroman. Trying to decipher the nature of Mr. Dick's writing, David, the future author, asks Aunt Betsey, “Is it a Memorial about his own history that he is writing, aunt?” Betsey's extraordinary response sheds light on Dickens's own uses of the Kunstlerroman: “Yes, child. … He is memorializing the Lord Chancellor, or the Lord Somebody or other—one of those people, at all events, who are paid to be memorialized—about his affairs” (p. 167). Perhaps only the preeminent novelist of the Victorian period could produce such a labyrinthine insider's joke. The punchline, of course, is that Mr. Dick's name8 is the diminutive of Dickens's own. But there is more than comedy in Charles Dickens's obsessive double inscription of his own name in Mr. Dick's when that minor character manifests his obsession with King Charles, a name he literarily cannot get out of his head. A Dickensian ur-self, King Charles cannot be contained or controlled as he overthrows Mr. Dick and rules his Memorial to a contemporary unnamed renowned Victorian.

Thus like the real author, Mr. Dick's texts will always be about Charles, who establishes his own identity in his brilliant fashioning of his fictive namesake. But unlike the feminized “nobody” Mr. Dick, the king of Victorian popular culture was capable of using his namesake to brilliant effect. Reading between Mr. Dick's garbled lines might suggest that Dickens the author extraordinaire made comic usage of the fact that in writing David Copperfield he would be paid to memorialize himself. Thus this Dickensian set piece is a tour de force showing that a writer who had become so successful he could make a fortune selling the story of his own rise to success could also put to financial use his psychoanalysis of his own persona. Dickens psychoanalyzes Mr. Dick's obsession with King Charles through Aunt Betsey: “That's his allegorical way of expressing it. He connects his illness with great disturbance and agitation, naturally, and that's the figure, or the simile, or whatever it's called, which he chooses to use” (p. 167).

I would suggest, then, that Dickens's brilliant “figure” of Mr. Dick as failed writer illustrates his own mastery of the writing process. Not that there is no more King Charles to interrupt. Rather, Dickens employs the fictive king's intrusions in a kind of shorthand of an array of concealed issues, not least of which is gender.9 Indeed, Dickens's inclusion of the failed writer Mr. Dick in the story of the successful writer, David, illustrates Dickens's humorous transformation of his own complex psychic conflicts about the interrelations of gender with material and aesthetic success. The following extended passage further reveals that Mr. Dick's name and story call into question Dickens's own construction of himself as androgynous writer. Clearly Dickens admires Mr Dick but his portrait is also ruthless:

Every day of his life he had a long sitting at the Memorial, which never made the least progress, however hard he laboured, for King Charles the First always strayed into it, sooner or later, and then it was thrown aside, and another one begun. The patience and hope with which he bore these perpetual disappointments, the mild perception he had that there was something wrong about King Charles the First, the feeble efforts he made to keep him out, and the certainty with which he came in, and tumbled the Memorial out of all shape, made a deep impression on me. What Mr. Dick supposed would come of the Memorial, if it were completed; where he thought it was to go, or what he thought it was to do; he knew no more than anybody else, I believe. Nor was it at all necessary that he should trouble himself with such questions, for if anything were certain under the sun, it was certain that the Memorial never would be finished.

It was quite an affecting sight, I used to think, to see him with the kite when it was up a great height in the air. What he had told me, in his room, about his belief in its disseminating the statements pasted on it, which were nothing but old leaves of abortive Memorials, might have been a fancy with him sometimes.

(p. 176)

In this passage the allusions to the palimpsestic nature of the writing process and the process of self-making inextricably link gender with economics. That is, with Mr. Dick as feminized foil, Dickens then implies that David's efforts at authorship are masculine, therefore masterful. In a later sequence, David enumerates the masculine qualities that ostensibly gave rise to his success: “perseverence,” “patient and continuous energy,” “punctuality,” “order, and diligence” (p. 495). If this list (in contrast to David's description of Mr. Dick's writing habits) can be taken as Dickens's representation of his own keys to success, then clearly the shape and completion of the finished product are central to his aesthetic credo. Likewise, his efforts are not “abortive” because he “disseminates,” that is, mass markets, his very self to the reading public, thus mastering rather than being subordinated to the economic system.

On the other hand, Mr. Dick's is “not a businesslike way of speaking” (p. 167). Intuitive, emotional, illogical, and mad, the stereotypically feminized Mr. Dick cannot, like David, skillfully erase the signs of the messy and illogical process of writing and constructing a self. Indeed, Dickens conceals the whole trajectory of the male Kunstlelrroman, which as a fictionalized version of the maturation of the artist is a palimpsestic text: a rewriting and erasure of the self, the Kunstlerroman's conscious project displays a stabilized and authorized reading of the writer, and conceals the eruptive, unstable, and unconscious process of the construction of the writer as a man or woman. Unstable Mr. Dick is a failed and thus economically unsuccessful writer because he becomes the feminized alter-ego Copperfield portends to be in the first chapter of the novel.10 Ultimately giving up his Memorial to copy legal documents, this Dick is emasculated by his copywork. As he himself says, “Dick's nobody!” which of course cannot be said of Copperfield or Dickens (p. 534). Thus in his own backhanded compliment to androgny, Dickens recognizes the power of his mentor Mr Dick and his muse Agnes, but even more importantly he seems to need to represent them as copies or copiers in order to prove his own originality and author-ity.

Like Mr. Dick, Dr. Strong illustrates the effete self David could have become. In his sham claim to author-ity, Dr. Strong obsessively writes a magnus opus or definitive text—the Dictionary.11 If the Dictionary gives meaning to words, and the dictionary is the doctor's life's work, this dictionary literally defines Dr. Strong's life. But just as Mr. Dick's Memorial is a travesty, Strong's presumption of an enduring reputation as a man of words is laughable. Like Mr. Dick's Memorial, the Dictionary will never be finished; in reality the project is tantamount to “cumbrous fragments” which the Doctor “always carried in his pockets, and in the lining of his hat” (p. 194). Furthermore, his only audience is an uninstructed, naive young wife, who desires words of love rather than dry dictionary definitions. As a literalist with no feeling for the ambiguous, Dr. Strong copies David's insensitivity to Agnes, defining his wife as a companionable appendage with no inner life of her own. But where ostensibly David is educated in the matters of the female heart, Strong fails the test. At the height of Annie's need for him, when her cousin Jack tries to seduce her, Dr. Strong remains oblivious to the hidden meanings of her lack of words because he is so insistent on expounding his own lists of words to her: thus, while he “read[s] aloud some manuscript explanation or statement of a theory out of that interminable Dictionary,” she looks on with “penitence, humiliation, shame, pride, love, and trustfulness” (p. 201). At the moment of crisis, as ineffectual and emasculated as Mr. Dick, Strong belies his name: with no strong sexual desires of his own, he cannot recognize them in his wife.

Here again, the contrast with David is instructive in regards to Dickens's own conflicted rendition of gender: on the one hand, the famous author insists that his alter-ego is as subsumed in his love for his feminine companion as is Dr. Strong. But he also asserts that David achieves a sensibility to the feminine that Strong will never know. The philosophical underpinnings of Dickens's text seem to be that true authorship incorporates the good of both the one-sex and two-sex models: true authorship recognizes and is sensitive to difference while yet seeking unification. Nevertheless, as a man whose own writing habits dictated that he be a patriarch and sometimes tyrant in his own home, Dickens represents Copperfield as achieving the desired status of man of the house only when he achieves the status of author. To transpose Gilbert and Gubar, then, to David the assumption of the penis only takes place after the successful assumption of the pen.

That Dickens figures masterful writing as central to David's assumption to manhood is apparent in another minor palimpsest. When Betsey loses her small fortune, Agnes suggests that David work on the Dictionary as a secretary to Dr. Strong. Before he begins copying, David clears up the confusion caused by Dr. Strong's former amanuensis, none other than Strong's sexual rival, Jack Maldon. David informs the reader: “I found Mr. Jack Maldon's efforts more troublesome to me than I had expected, as he had not confined himself to making numerous mistakes, but had sketched so many soldiers, and ladies' heads, over the Doctor's manuscript, that I often became involved in labyrinths of obscurity” (p. 427). As David reads, erases, and writes over Maldon's text of aspirations, he is already the all-powerful omniscient author, for the future successful writer perceives the copyist Maldon's sexual plot against the would-be writer Strong, who is completely unaware of such extravagant masculine sexual urges. Presumably in taking over the project of writing, David erases Maldon's sexually graphic graffiti and reinscribes the meanings of Dr. Strong's corrupted text. Similarly, David negotiates manhood by mastering the “labyrinth of obscurity” (shorthand for language itself), displacing from himself the effete and feminine sexuality of Strong and the blundering masculinity of Maldon.

Dickens's fictive self-portrait asserts that David will not remain a copyist like Mr. Dick, Dr. Strong, or Jack Maldon because he achieves true masculine author-ity. Thus Dickens's Kunstlerroman portrays Victorian society as one in which most people are just copies or copiers of a few original (male) geniuses. In this context it is well to remember that Dickens referred to himself as the Inimitable. Hence with every stroke of his pen, Dickens inscribes his own labyrinth of obscurity or shorthand, a tale in which the masculine author-itative, originary self—the Strong Dick that Richard Babley and the Doctor are not!—masters the pen, assumes the penis, and penetrates the meaning of the culture, which, as the Kunstlerroman asserts, is himself.12 In doing so, King Charles undermines his own queen in the house, Agnes, as signifier. If writing is mastering, that is, constructing, the subject, the implications are at least twofold: as author, David succeeds in constructing himself as male subject/artist by subjecting or feminizing his readers, for if in his Kunstlerroman the rite of reading is figured as passively feminine, the (w)rite of passage is imaged as masculine. Thus the construction of the artist as a gendered self underwrites the subject of this male-authored Kunstlerroman, and Dickens is spectacularly adept in negotiating the transaction. Imposing on but concealing from the reader the role of passive and submissive self, the author-ity figure David embodies a nineteenth-century version of sprezzatura: David genuflects before the feminized self and writer only in order to construct them as blank page upon which to prove his own powers to pen.

I have argued that Dickens's Kunstlerroman assumes that the artist is the touchstone of the highest and most treasured values of the age and that the most important universal truth the author writes about is the process of the making of himself. “Touchstone” is a resonant word, for, of course, the premier Victorian literary critic, Matthew Arnold, subordinated the literal meaning of the touchstone (as an object that tests if a metal is gold or some kind of false copy) to its metaphorical signification of the aesthetic and cultural value of the artwork. Having portrayed himself as a true and originary self, a touchstone, David becomes the hero who establishes himself as the embodiment of the spiritual wealth of his culture. Dickens must conceal the labyrinth of obscurity or shorthand that such logic results in: that is, that the authentic (w)rite of passage imposes economic rights. In other words, the assumption of this Kunstlerroman is that those capable of authentically representing the spiritual and aesthetic wealth of their culture deserve their culture's economic wealth. Thus, not only does the pen equal the penis, but the man with the biggest pension as well.

But if writing is lucrative, Dickens assumes that talk is cheap, for the feminized writers Dr. Strong and Mr. Dick talk so much about their writing projects, they never write them and will never make any money out of them. On the other hand, David makes money at writing because he refuses to describe the practical nature of writing: “It is not my purpose, in this record, though in all other essentials it is my written memory, to pursue the history of my own fictions. They express themselves, and I leave them to themselves. When I refer to them, incidentally, it is only as a part of my progress” (p. 562). If David were to refer to his profession in any further detail, he would erase his representation of himself as prophet inspired by his female muse and expose himself as masculinist, elitist profit-maker. One brief passage indicates the writer's hidden motives:

I have come out in another way. I have taken with fear and trembling to authorship. I wrote a little something, in secret, and sent it to a magazine, and it was published in the magazine. Since then, I have taken heart to write a good many trifling pieces. Now, I am regularly paid for them. Altogether, I am well off; when I tell my income on the fingers of my left hand, I pass the third finger and take in the fourth to the middle joint.

(p. 512)

The final line of this passage coyly advertises and downplays the writer's material success in the same way that Dickens downplays David's economic motives and masculine energies by coopting the idealistic nature of the feminine Agnes. Copperfield's longest discussion of his profession starts with the direct statement that “I have been very fortunate in worldly matters; many men have worked much harder, and not succeeded half so well.” But he refers all his financial and personal success to Agnes: “How much of the practice I have just reduced to precept, I owe to Agnes, I will not repeat here. My narrative proceeds to Agnes, with a thankful love” (496).13 I would argue, then, along with Mary Poovey that David conceals the material, elitist, masculinist nature of his profession by explicitly associating all of his successes with a “female” side of himself, Agnes. Thus David Copperfield expresses the two-sex model necessitated by the Industrial Revolution and the market economy. As Mary Poovey points up, in a transaction only a successful writer could perform, while simultaneously selling himself as a secular prophet filtered through the idealistic feminine, Copperfield obtains lucrative profits because he successfully engineers himself as self-made man, thus creating a demand on the part of the public for a representation of himself, which only he can supply.14 Hence Dickens' self-serving figuration of androgyny equates the feminine with copying and submission, and masculinity with creating and author-ity. Indeed in Dickens's Kunstlerroman the imitative feminine is no competition for the masculine Inimitable.


Aurora Leigh aggressively depicts, analyzes, and refutes the Victorian idea that women writers were just poor imitators of great male authors. And, of course, feminist critics who have recuperated Aurora Leigh as a literary and cultural document argue the same point. But while some readers insist that Aurora moves from male-identified writer who scorns her own sex to one who melds the sexes in a state of true androgyny, others question how radical Barrett Browning's construction of the female writer really is.15 Mary Eagleton argues that Aurora Leigh is a “radical interrogation of sexual difference.”16 Deborah Byrd focuses on Barrett Browning's depiction of androgyny, suggesting that Aurora Leigh moves to a feminist stance:

at the height of her powers, Barrett Browning came to view her task as that of writing as “a woman & man in one”. … She brings into harmony the potentially discordant elements of her dual literary heritage, writing authentically of her own and other women's experiences with the “forthrightness and self confidence” she considered to be more characteristic of male than of female writers.17

In contrast, while Gilbert and Gubar suggest that Aurora Leigh is “the most reasonable compromise between assertion and submission that a sane and worldly woman poet could achieve in the nineteenth century,” Elaine Showalter views Aurora's final acceptance of Romney's marriage proposal as a submission to Victorian ideologies about gender.18

Neither an optimist nor skeptic on Aurora's final acceptance of marriage, I find that, wrestling with and never escaping the stifling Victorian impositions of gender, both Dickens and Barrett Browning experimented with androgyny and both authors brilliantly portray the anxiety inherent in “gendered bodies.” However, as I have argued, in David Copperfield, in order to conceal the economics of the writing profession, Dickens merely copies androgyny in his representation of the perfect male/female relationship, ultimately inscribing the feminine as self-erasure and the masculine as touchstone. Like Dickens, Barrett Browning does not resolve the complex of issues surrounding gender, art, and capital. However, though most critics focus on how Aurora negotiates the roles of woman and writer, none, as far as I know, study Barrett Browning's assessment of the material and practical realities of writing, which most male Kunstlerromane—including David Copperfield—avoid acknowledging. Indeed, she boldly questions the representation in the male Kunstlerroman of the writer as prophet as she reveals how difficult it is for the woman writer to transcend the material conditions of her culture, which the male writer seemed to do with ease. Thus as Barrett Browning challenges stereotypes regarding women writers, her Kunstlerroman also uncovers the very manipulations of the feminine so crucial to Dickens's idealistic representation of the writing task.

Unlike David, who only gives brief and idealized glimpses of his profession, leaving the talking for the purportedly effete Mr. Dick and Mr. Strong, Aurora continually talks about and exposes the practical concerns of her craft. What she reveals is that in a market system not only were all Victorians prostitutes, but women as writers and human beings became the signs of market transactions. Furthermore, if together the metaphors imaging the writer as father/prophet or prostitute represent a kind of androgyny, Barrett Browning's Kunstlerroman problematizes the whole notion of female authorship vis-à-vis male authorship. Given the Victorian double standard, such metaphors sharply delimit the female writer while enlarging the male writer. For example, keeping in mind the kind of culturally acceptable male braggadocio that magnifies its own sexual prowess, Thackeray need not feel any compunction about his quip defending the French writer Eugène Sue: “He gets half-a-crown a line for this bad stuff, and has, one may say with certainty, a hundred thousand readers every day. Many a man and author has sold himself for far less.”19 Thackeray's jest indicates that the representation of the writer as whore legitimizes the male writer as archetype of man as self-centered subject of extravagant sexual, economic, and political desires and canonizes as visionary (prophetic) touchstones those texts that represent the maturation of such a man.

In contrast, how could the female writer inscribe herself when in Victorian gender ideology woman was constructed as she who is without desire? Furthermore, the insistence on her very lack of desire made her more responsible than men for the culture's ills. Relegated to the private sphere, the angel of the house was expected to purge the taints of the male's own daily prostitution of himself in the public sphere; at the same time, she was also expected to act as the very reward that made such prostitution possible. Thus to the Victorians the distinction between the prostitute and the wife was very tenuous, for the prostitute just made money doing what Victorian angels/queens were expected to do without pay: that is, to fulfill and reflect the desires of their procurers without expressing any desires of their own.

From this attitude toward women one can also extrapolate the Victorian view of women writers. The typical Victorian view of female writers as prolific and usually mediocre or bad copiers of male texts is the underside of Thackeray's masculinist interpretation of the writer as male prostitute. Thus Gilbert and Gubar's assertion that the nineteenth-century image of the author as one who fathers the text needs revision. As Gallagher argues, it was not that women didn't produce, as Gilbert and Gubar suggest, but rather, it was argued that they didn't produce anything original. Hence, the gender distinction in literary theory is not, as Gallagher explains, between male “fathers who can multiply and female eunuchs who cannot, not between male language and female silence.” Rather, to too many Victorians the distinction was between those originary beings who could author or produce original works and those copiers or whores (usually women) who merely endlessly reproduced or badly imitated what others had written.20

One of the insights a paired reading of Aurora Leigh and David Copperfield gives, then, is that the imposition of gender on women was far more burdensome than it was on men. For example, comparing Wordsworth's Prelude with Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh, one critic suggests that the male poet “builds his work upon a double bonding with those he loves and with nature,” while the female poet “thinks of work and love as mutually exclusive alternatives, with either choice threatening to silence her.”21 Indeed, Aurora Leigh foregrounds what David Copperfield erases: if Agnes had been expected to voice her own desires, she might have written something like Aurora Leigh. Described in detail, Aurora's upbringing manifests what is masked about Agnes's childhood years. Like Agnes, having lost her mother and raised by her father, Aurora is trained by an aunt to fulfill the desires of men; fashioned herself within the ideology of the separate spheres, that aunt attempts to form Aurora in accordance with the constricting two-sex model. Furthermore, if David silences Agnes, Aurora Leigh vehemently voices her questions, when her suitor, like David, asks his beloved to sacrifice herself for him. The gist of Aurora's response highlights what is missing in the Dickensian version of Agnes's story: as Aurora reasons, if the perquisites and privileges of the Victorian family went to fathers, brothers, and sons, how could Aurora—or Agnes—as a woman be expected to provide unending love and nurture to men when women were not nurtured, when they themselves suffered father- and “mother-want.”22 Likewise, she wonders how a woman could offer herself as a valuable gift to a man, when, defined as self-less, she had no authentic self to give? (pp. 49, 174).

Barrett Browning rejects the stereotype of women as self-less, for, of course, the female self is the subject of her Kunstlerroman. Like Dickens, she insists on mystifying the role of the writer, but her palimpsestic notion of the self also foregrounds the material conditions of self-construction:

                                                  Let who says
‘The soul's a clean white paper,’ rather say,
A palimpsest, a prophet's holograph
Defiled, erased and covered by a monk's,—
The apocalypse, by a Longus! poring on
Which obscene text, we may discern perhaps
Some fair, fine trace of what was written once,
Some upstroke of an alpha and omega
Expressing the old scripture. …

(p. 27)

Though these lines suggest that we are all unchanging Platonic forms or holy texts that have been defiled, they also represent the inability of the prophet/prostitute metaphor to depict self-making as unstable, incoherent, and fluid without also suggesting adulteration. With no adequate metaphorical traditions for describing the woman writer, Barrett Browning, then, is limited by these models, confirming genre theorist Carol Lazzaro-Weis's point that when women write autobiography, because of the conventions of that genre they conform to rather than challenge patriarchal assumptions when they attempt to define an independent, unified self.23

Nevertheless, Barrett Browning often overrides the binary nature of such metaphors through her sheer determination to blur the mantles of prophet and prostitute and thereby suggest an ongoing interplay of the conditions of the material and mental involved in the construction of the artist and self. Her portrait suggests, then, that there can be no completion of the self when it is figured as both prophet and whore. Thus Aurora pronounces, “I stood upon the brink of twenty years, / And looked before and after, as I stood / Woman and artist,—either incomplete, / Both credulous of completion …” (p. 37). Though this determined indeterminate inscription of the woman writer defers integrity, it also allows experimentation and potential.

But, ironically, wearing the mantle of prophet and whore, Barrett Browning is most visionary in her exposure of the intersections of womanhood and prostitution in the Victorian period, for she reveals how such constructions influence all levels of society. In fact, Barrett Browning describes all the major female characters in terms of prostitution. For example, the lower class Marion Erle becomes an unwilling fallen woman when her mother tries to sell her to a member of the local gentry, and later when she flees England, she is raped and thereby conceives a baby out of wedlock. More insidious, Aurora, Romney, and Lady Waldemere all relate to Marian as though she were an item of exchange between them. But neither is the middle class woman free from being the signifier of monetary exchange: Saying “we keep / Our love, to pay our debts with,” Aurora darkly notes that “women of my class … haggle for the small change of our gold, / And so much love, accord, for so much love, / Rialto-prices” (pp. 23, 123). Aurora also vehemently protests the economic implications of Romney's first marriage proposal to her, and in doing so, Aurora's description of his insensitivity focuses on the financial transactions that were inherent in many Victorian love-matches:

                                                  Love, to him, was made
A simple law-clause. If I married him,
I would not dare to call my soul my own,
Which so he had bought and paid for: every thought
And every heart-beat down there in the bill,—
Not one found honestly deductible
From any use that pleased him! He might cut
My body into coins to give away
Among his other paupers. …

(p. 62)

Likewise, Aurora uses the language of the market in her descriptions of Lady Waldemere's relationship with Romney. To these members of the upper class, the words “debt,” “owe,” and “prize” refer to marital rather than monetary transactions (p. 318). Indeed, Lady Waldemere “gambled as Lucifer” to win Romney, as she “sold that poisonous porridge called [the] soul” for him (pp. 248, 250). Aurora describes Romney's part of the bargain with no less vituperation: “How arrogant men are!—Even philanthropists, / Who try to take a wife up in the way / They put down a subscription-cheque.” She ends her litany with a brutal analysis of the role of the feminine in Victorian society: “I suppose / We women should remember what we are, / And not throw back an obolus inscribed / With Caesar's image, lightly” (p. 127).

Hence, starkly contrasting with David Copperfield, Aurora Leigh inscribes the role of Caesar's image in her own evolving construction of herself as poet/prophet. Brazenly, Barrett Browning portrays the way prostitution literally underwrites poetic prophecy. Thus much more probing than her fictive colleague David, Aurora consciously ponders what criteria to use to judge her own success as writer:

And whosoever writes good poetry,
Looks just to art. He does not write for you
Or me,—for London or for Edinburgh;
He will not suffer the best critic known
To step into his sunshine of free thought
And self-absorbed conception, and exact
An inch-long swerving of the holy lines.
If virtue done for popularity
Defiles like vice, can art for praise or hire
Still keep its splendor, and remain pure art?
Eschew such serfdom. What the poet writes,
He writes: mankind accepts it, if it suits,
And that's success: if not, the poem's passed
From hand to hand, and yet from hand to hand,
Until the unborn snatch it, crying out
In pity on their fathers' being so dull,
And that's success too. …

(p. 165)

Resisting the notion that “holy lines” might be for “hire,” at this point in the text Aurora assumes that the qualities of great poetry are innate and unnameable and therefore outside market relations. But what is interesting is that her aesthetic credo, that ultimately a wide readership will recognize—buy—the truly worthwhile work, entangles “success” with “popularity.” Indeed, the lines depicting that ultimate “popularity” image the literary work as though it were money moving from “hand to hand” in a kind of market exchange.

And, in fact, Aurora focuses on the trade-offs that a writer must submit to: noting that fledgling writers not only plead for her comments on their work but also beg for money, she deadpans, “From me, who scarce have money for my needs” (p. 79). Barrett Browning also exhibits how the emerging profession of literary criticism makes its demands in the expectation of obtaining powerful bargaining positions with the poet: “My critic Hammond flatters prettily, / And wants another volume like the last. My critic Belfair wants another book / Entirely different, which will sell, (and live?) / A striking book, yet not a startling book, / The public blames originalities” (p. 79). Neither does Barrett Browning shy away from describing how Aurora must prostitute her writing in order to eat:

                                        there came some vulgar needs:
I had to live, that therefore I might work
And, being but poor, I was constrained, for life,
To work with one hand for the booksellers,
While working with the other for myself
And art. You swim with feet as well as hands,
Or make small way. I apprehended this,—
In England, no one lives by verse that lives;
And, apprehending, I resolved by prose
To make a space to sphere my living verse.
I wrote for cyclopedias, magazines,
And weekly papers, holding up my name
To keep it from the mud. … I wrote tales beside,
Carved many an article on cherry-stones
To suit light readers. …

(p. 87)

Clearly, Aurora Leigh accepts the fact that she must trade writing drivel in order to write what she wants to write. She seems even goodhumored about it as she wryly admits that if great poets are the touchstones of golden verse, economically “poets evermore are scant of gold” (p. 195).

Barrett Browning's descriptions of Aurora's struggles for financial success, then, intermingle with her more traditional romantic evocations of poetic inspiration. Thus her Kunstlerroman identifies the fact that, if her “trade is verse,” the author cannot conceive of herself as independent of the market: she acknowledges that what authenticates poetry and author-izes the poet has as much to do with economics as with aesthetic standards (p. 279). For example, in her description of art, Barrett Browning begins in the realm of the prophet but ends in the environs of the prostitute:

                                                                                                    Thus is Art
Self-magnified in magnifying a truth
Which, fully recognized, would change the world
And shift its morals. If a man could feel,
Not one day, in the artist's ecstasy,
But every day, feast, fast, or working-day,
The spiritual significance burn through
The hieroglyphic of material shows,
Henceforward he would paint the globe with wings,
And reverence fish and fowl, the bull, the tree,
And even his very body as a man,—
Which now he counts so vile, that all the towns
Make offal of their daughters for its use
On summer-nights, when God is sad in heaven
To think what goes on in his recreant world
He made quite other; while that moon he made
To she there, at the first love's covenant,
Shines still, convictive as a marriage-ring
Before adulterous eyes. …

(p. 266)

This passage reveals that if Barrett Browning manages to be good-humored about the female artists' compromises with the market, she is also capable of angry augery when it comes to female sexuality and market relations. Indeed, Barrett Browning starkly depicts the profession of writing as she inscribes the way Victorian gender ideologies vitiate the purportedly holy activity of self-making and art. Turning the palimpsestic definitions of art and the writer inside out, Barrett Browning uncovers the holy “hieroglyphic,” portraying her culture's fall from grace, and the resulting inability of its artists to be visionary, as the logical fallout of a society that identifies women as the ultimate signifiers of economic exchange or prostitution.

Thus it becomes increasingly difficult to read Barrett Browning's graphic rendition of what being woman as economic sign and woman writer as prostitute might really look like. This is where I find Barrett Browning's depiction of the woman writer's androgyny most troubling and most revealing: if David Copperfield needs to find a queen to conceal the economic motivations which underwrite his authorship, Aurora Leigh must be transformed into a queen, and that coronation ceremony must analogize her aesthetic, domestic, and economic impulses. In an initiatory ritual, Aurora Leigh “crowns” herself to establish her identity as female artist, but when the male lover Romney intrudes, quickly she recognizes that this (w)rite of passage requires more tribulations in her fictive self-fashioning (pp. 38-39). What is troubling is that this struggle comes in the form of a glorification of the interpenetration of the two-sex model by the one-sex model. For in asserting that the boundaries between prophet and prostitute, male and female, must be blurred and intermingled, Barrett Browning portrays that merging as a violent sex act in which idealized male potency—the ravisher is always a Greek god—infuses the passive female vessel with the powers of prophecy. Using classical mythology, Barrett Browning pictures the female writer receiving epiphany as the moment of sexual fusion between the male (prophet) and the female (prostitute).

The trope of Danae receiving wisdom by submitting to Zeus' aggressive overtures is bold and shocking:

                                                                                Self is put away,
And calm with abdication. She is Jove,
And no more Danae—greater thus. … We'll be calm,
And know that, when indeed our Joves come down,
We all turn stiller than we have ever been. …

(pp. 81-82)

In stark contrast, then, to the traditional image of the passive female muse inspiring the active male writer, Barrett Browning figures Zeus's numerous rapes of mortal women as the act which elevates them to the stance of immortal prophet. A similar image portrays Io's ravishment:

Truth, so far, in my book! a truth which draws
From all things upwards. I, Aurora, still
Have felt it hound me through the wastes of life
As Jove did Io: and, until that Hand
Shall overtake me wholly, and, on my head,
Lay down its large unfluctuating peace,
The feverish gad-fly pricks me up and down,
It must be. Art's the witness of what Is
Behind this show. …

(p. 265)

Perhaps most horrifying is the following image: “Think,—the god comes down as fierce / As twenty bloodhounds! shakes you, strangles you, / Until the oracular shriek shall ooze in froth! / At best it's not all ease,—at worst too hard” (p. 187).24

One wonders how Barrett Browning could put a Romantic wash on these brutalizing representations of her alter-ego as poet, for such images shock as they feed into the male fantasy of women's desire to be raped as a romantic event. But if Barrett Browning seems to accept the role of violated fallen woman (or the masculinized woman as Mr. Dick is the feminized man), her shocking images also graphically reveal what “is behind this show” and thereby implicate the very Victorian gender ideologies that produced the material version of the woman and woman writer as prostitute. In fact, Barrett Browning's descriptions impel us to be actively resisting readers who question why the holy image of the female as ideal muse to male writer could, transposed, only be inscribed as male rapist forcing truth into the passive female receptacle. Though Barrett Browning's radical interrogation of sexual difference does not go far enough, current analysis of the same classical myths that Barrett Browning studied and was trained to view as the foundational touchstones for her own Victorian culture uncover what Barrett Browning was moving toward. For instance, noting that fifty of the 250 stories in Ovid's Metamorphoses are directly about rape, while many of the other stories implicitly describe such sexual violence, Leo C. Curran argues that rape is the central motif of the Metamorphoses and that it represents patriarchal culture's violent sexism.25

Figuring herself as prostitute and prophet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, then, both submits to and battles that sexism in Aurora Leigh. She does so by squarely situating the poet's place in the market place: “Their [the poet's] sole work is to represent the age, / Their age, not Charlemagne's,—this live, throbbing age, / That brawls, cheats, maddens, calculates, aspires, / And spends more passion, more heroic heat, / Betwixt the mirrors of its drawing-rooms, / Than Roland with his knights, at Roncesvalles” (p. 163). Barrett Browning's insistence that contemporary poets must produce a body of work that represents the contemporary body politic implicates the material ways women's bodies were inscribed in the Victorian period. Almost immediately after the call to represent this “throbbing age,” Barrett Browning bodies forth “the full-veined, heaving, double-breasted Age” as a woman deeply immersed in, representative of, and inspirational to the brawling and calculating age. This extraordinary description culminates in a vision of a future age when “the men of that / May touch the impress with reverent hand, and say / “‘Behold,—behold the paps we all have sucked! / That bosom seems to beat still, or at least / It sets ours beating. This is living art, / Which thus presents, and thus records true life’” (p. 164).26 This figuration of art, the woman writer, and the age itself as female body literalizes the notion of touchstone and implicates the queen of England and the queen of the house as far more potent figurations of the feminine. As Aurora pronounces: “I'm a woman, sir, / And use the woman's figures naturally, / As you, the male license” (p. 316). Thus Barrett Browning's Kunstlerroman replaces the phallic gesture of the male-authored Kunstlerroman's assumption of manhood with the abundant, erect, tangible female breast, which, instead of reiterating the old flaccid dead mythologies, engenders a new metaphor for woman as writer.

Likewise, suggesting that modern Quixotes are Donnas (and Dulcineas) rather than Dons, Barrett Browning tilts with the sacred icons of her age (p. 246). Exhorting male poet-prophets like Carlyle and Tennyson for their loss of belief in the culture's vitality (read: virility), this female vates-whore asserts that in order to revive the culture these writers must include the ways a woman's mind and body are inflected by the “brawling,” “cheating,” “calculating,” and “spending” that accompany prophetic “heroic heat.” As Barrett Browning shows, Dickens himself, the Jeremiah of his age, was no less influenced by material concerns. Indeed, in another palimpsestic passage, Barrett Browning describes how Romney and Aurora avoid any discussion of their romantic love for each other by conversing about an array of contemporary topics. Aurora's exchange with Romney consists of and insists upon the collusions of the material and ideal: “Can Guizot stand? is London full? is trade / Competitive? has Dickens turned his hinge / A-pinch upon the fingers of the great? / And are potatoes to grow mythical / Like moly?” (p. 130). Thus Barrett Browning herself raps some writerly knuckles, for, as she reveals syntactically and didactically, politics, trade, competition, love, money, and professional writing could not be separated. Though clearly one of the supreme monitory geniuses of his age, Dickens could not own up to the fact, as Barrett Browning does, that the construction of himself as writer was as much the result of economics as aesthetics.


  1. Aurora Leigh went through thirteen editions from its first publication in 1857 through 1870, which causes many feminists to wonder why it disappeared from the canon.

  2. Naomi Schor refers to such criticism as “intersextual,” while Nancy K. Miller describes it as “overreading” or “reading in pairs”; see Nancy K. Miller, “Men's Reading, Women's Writing: Gender and the Rise of the Novel,” Yale French Studies 75 (1988): 48-49.

  3. Mary Poovey, Uneven Developments: The Ideological Work of Gender in Mid-Victorian England (U. Chicago Press, 1988), 101-16.

  4. Catherine Gallagher, “George Eliot and Daniel Deronda: The Prostitute and the Jewish Question,” in Sex, Politics, and Science in the Nineteenth-Century Novel, ed. Ruth Bernard Yeazell (Johns Hopkins U. Press, 1986), 41-44.

  5. In a letter to Robert Browning, Barrett Browning explicitly refers to Aurora Leigh as a “novel-poem.” The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning 1845-1846, ed. Elvan Kintner (Harvard U. Press, 1969), 1:31.

  6. U. C. Knoepflmacher, “From Outrage to Rage: Dickens's Bruised Femininity,” in Dickens and Other Victorians: Essays in Honor of Philip Collins (London: Macmillan, 1988), 75-96. Margaret Myers, “The Lost Self: Gender in David Copperfield,” in Gender Studies: New Directions in Feminist Criticism (Bowling Green State U. Popular Press, 1986) 120-32.

  7. Charles Dickens, David Copperfield, ed. Nina Burgis (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983), 1. All other citations will be noted in the text.

  8. Obviously names are an important means of characterization in Dickens's novels: when Forster told Dickens that David Copperfield's initials were his own transposed, the famous author replied that that was probably why he couldn't give up that particular name for his hero.

  9. Both Dickens and David Copperfield pride themselves on their taming of the “savage stenographic mystery” (p. 511).

  10. In order for Dick to pursue his career as a copier of court documents without King Charles entering in, two tables are set up, one with his Memorial, the other with the court documents. With a little practice, Mr. Dick is able to postpone the Memorial to “a more convenient time” and make himself useful in a “business-like manner.” Thus “he incessantly occupied himself in copying everything he could lay his hands on, and kept King Charles the First at a respectful distance by that semblance of employment” (pp. 431, 682).

  11. Given Dickens's convoluted and often Joycean flair for puns, perhaps the first syllable of Dictionary depicts a connection between Mr. Dick and Strong.

  12. According to Eric Partridge's A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, ed. Paul Beale, 8th ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1984), dick, as a slang term for the penis, had come into use in military circles in England by about 1880.

  13. Heep makes a grotesque conjunction between Agnes's business acumen and domesticity when he replies to Betsey Trotwood's assertion that “Agnes is worth the whole firm [Wickfield and Heep].” Uriah “fully agree[s] … and should be only too happy if Miss Agnes was a partner” (p. 421). But David sounds not much better in the final chapter when he permanently associates male and female economies, saying, in one breath, “I had advanced in fame and fortune, my domestic joy was perfect” (p. 708).

  14. Poovey, 101-16.

  15. See Marjorie Stone, “Genre Subversion and Gender Inversion: The Princess and Aurora Leigh,Victorian Poetry 25 (1987): 101-27; Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi, “Aurora Leigh: The Vocation of the Woman Poet,” Victorian Poetry 19 (1981): 35-48. Gelpi notes the radical nature of Barrett Browning's gender blurring. For example, Barrett Browning repeatedly figures herself or the written text as male. Consider lines like, “(And still the artist is intensely a man”), “There's more than passion goes to make a man, / Or book, which is a man too,” or “Poems are / Men, if true poems” (pp. 169, 263, 80). Responding to Romney's gauche marriage proposal, Aurora asserts: “You face, today, / A man who wants instruction, mark me, not / A woman who wants protection,” and in rejecting Romney, she switches gender roles becoming the independent and empowered male, while she fashions Romney as a “male Iphigenia” (pp. 71, 62).

  16. Mary Eagleton, “Gender and Genre,” in Re-reading the Short Story, ed. Clare Hanson (London: Macmillan, 1989), 57.

  17. Deborah Byrd, “Combating an Alien Tyranny: Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Evolution as a Feminist Poet,” in Courage and Tools, ed. Joanne Glasgow and Angela Ingram (New York: Modern Language Association, 1990), 205.

  18. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic (1979; rpt, Yale U. Press, 1984), 575; Elaine Showalter, A Literature of Their Own (Princeton U. Press, 1977) 23.

  19. W. M. Thackeray, “Les Mystères de Paris, par Eugène Sue: Thieves' Literature of France,” reprint in Helga Grubitzsch, Materialien zur Kritik des Feuilleton-Romans (Wiesbaden: Akademische Verlagsgesellschaft Athenaion, 1977) 247; as cited in Gallagher, 6ln.

  20. Gallagher, 41-44.

  21. Kathleen Blake, “Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Wordsworth: The Romantic Poet as a Woman,” Victorian Poetry 24 (1986): 397.

  22. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh (1979; reprint, Chicago: Academy Chicago, 1989), 2. All other quotations will be noted in the text.

  23. Carol Lizzaro-Weis, “Gender and Genre in Italian Feminist Literature in the Seventies,” Italica 65, no. 5 (Winter, 1988).

  24. I am indebted to Wendy Jacobs for her initial insights on the imagery of rape in Barrett Browning's poetry. See also pp. 30, 85 of Aurora Leigh.

  25. Leo C. Curran, “Rape and Rape Victims in the Metamorphoses,” Arethusa 11, no. 1 (1978): 213-41.

  26. For a provocative discussion of Barrett Browning's repeated use of breast imagery see Marjorie Stone's “Taste, Totems, and Taboos: The Female Breast in Victorian Poetry,” Dalhousie Review 64, (1984-85): 748-70. See also pp. 157, 176, 179, 197, 236, 307 in Aurora Leigh.

Lilian Falk (essay date 2001)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9309

SOURCE: Falk, Lilian. “The Master: Reclaiming Zangwill's Only Künstlerroman.English Literature in Transition 1880-1920 44, no. 3 (2001): 275-96.

[In the following essay, Falk closely reviews Israel Zangwill's The Master—examining how themes of morality are explored, how it falls into the künstlerroman genre, and whether it was inspired by Elizabeth Bishop's grandfather, George Hutchinson.]

Israel Zangwill's status as an important writer is firmly established. His weakest works are falling out of sight, while his best confirm his claim to fame. The Big Bow Mystery (1892) is recognized as a pioneering work in the locked-door genre of mystery. The King of Schnorrers (1894) merrily reappears in new editions every decade or so, often with the original illustrations by George Hutchinson, propelled, as it seems, by its own comedic energy. As for Children of the Ghetto, its standing as an undisputed classic has been recently consolidated by Meri-Jane Rochelson's scholarly new edition (1998). All three are readable; all three are still read, not by scholars only, but also by the general public: the first for its suspense, the second for its humour, the third for its portrait of a peculiar people.1

At the same time, other works recede into shadows. Among them The Bachelors' Club (1891), still funny, but too strained; Jinny the Carrier (1905), too slow-moving; and The Master (1895), too ponderous, too discouraging because of its small print, dense pages, heavy prose-style, and its scarcity in all but the larger university libraries.2 Yet these too can attract attention in unexpected ways. Jinny touches on a modern concern because it deals with the question of a woman earning her own living in a male-dominated society. A joke from The Bachelors' Club has made its way into the popular film You've Got Mail, where Tom Hanks, playing the part of a bachelor encumbered by two lively bratty children, explains that the little boy is really his uncle, which indeed he is.3 Whatever the provenance of this joke in the film, Zangwill readers will recognize it from the story “A New Matrimonial Relation” in The Bachelors' Club. They may even recall the amusing drawing which accompanied the story.4 Like the illustrations to The King of Schnorrers, this drawing was also done by George Hutchinson, at one time Zangwill's favourite illustrator. And even The Master has seen a revival of interest: it is being read and reread by scholars interested in poet Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) ever since new research revealed a connection between this novel and Bishop's great-uncle, George Hutchinson.5

The connection to George Hutchinson was not known to London critics, or even to Zangwill's British and American biographers. It was known in Nova Scotia to friends and relatives of Hutchinson, and articles about it were published in several little-known journals, and then forgotten again. But now that the connection has become more widely known, The Master can be reexamined in a new light. It is now possible to treat The Master seriously as a source of knowledge about George Hutchinson and his family, and to treat the detailed descriptions of life in Nova Scotia in the 1860s and 1870s as authentic. Conversely, it is also possible to reexamine the novel's structure, so as to observe Zangwill's way of fashioning a serious work of fiction out of the facts of George Hutchinson's early life, his family background and his career. While reviews in 1895 were mostly directed against the novel's excessively ornate prose, it now makes sense to concentrate on the novel's substance rather than on its style.

The plot is straightforward. The hero, Matt Strang, a poor boy growing up in rural Nova Scotia, yearns to become a famous painter in London. After the death of his father at sea, young Matt goes to work to support the family and to save money for his trip to England. In London he meets with many hardships; sick and destitute he returns to Canada. Here he meets with more bad luck and is sent to prison for debt. Upon his release he marries Rosina Coble, the prosaic daughter of a prosperous merchant. Matt settles with his wife in London, but although he achieves success, happiness still eludes him. He falls in love with a beautiful, cultured woman with whom, he thinks, he could attain true happiness and fulfillment of his artistic ideals. On the brink of abandoning his wife and children and transgressing against his basic sense of decency, he is recalled to his senses by a chance meeting with his childhood sweetheart from Nova Scotia. He gives up his dream of happiness, returns to his unloved wife and peevish children, and renounces his position as celebrated painter. He decides to dedicate his art to depicting the harsh everyday life of London's working class among whom he will now make his home.

The story-line is engaging; most scenes have dramatic power. There is usually a clear sense of place and time as the story progresses; the main character remains sympathetic and for the most part convincing. The pretensions of London's artistic circles are criticized without mercy, the despotic rule of the Royal Academy is challenged—but all this was not sufficient to please the reviewers in the spring and summer of 1895. They perceived a good story with a serious theme, but were so perturbed by the book's unwieldy prose that they almost unanimously declared The Master to be a good book spoiled by its own verbosity and stylistic flourishes. As if by a common decision, the reviewers offered a crop of metaphors from horticulture, carpentry (or metallurgy), and biology to suggest how the novel may be improved in style to be worthy of the author's intent. The Athenaeum suggested pruning, the Dial recommended both pruning and “working over with a file from first to last,” while H. G. Wells in the Saturday Review came up with the memorable if grim image of a bug called “reduvius” which has the unsavoury habit of surrounding itself in an impenetrable cocoon of grimy particles.6

It is indeed true that reading The Master requires an effort reminiscent of trying to read a novel in an unfamiliar language. The result may be very rewarding, but the effort tends to be tedious. Still, some passages, especially in the beginning, create a clear feeling of place and atmosphere, as in the novel's opening scene, where we see Matt and his younger brother waking early on a winter morning to the loud voices in their home:

Within the lonely wooden house weather-boards and beams cracked; without, twigs snapped and branches crashed; at times Billy heard reports as loud as pistol-shots.

Matt curled himself more comfortably and almost covered his face in the blanket, for the cold in the stoveless attic was acute. In the grey half-light the rough beams and the quilts glistened with frozen breaths. The little square window-panes were thickly frosted, and below the crumbling rime was a thin layer of ice left from the day before, solid up to the sashes, and leaving no infinitesimal dot of clear glass, for there was nothing to thaw it except such heat as might radiate through the bricks of the square chimney that came all the way from the cellar through the centre of the flooring to pop its head through the shingled roof.7

We might desire a shorter and clearer sentence in place of the last one and we could do without the metaphor of the chimney which pops its head through the roof, but apart from this the scene is well established; there is a sense of the cold inside and out; there is also a feeling of isolation caused by the freezing of the windows. The attic itself is clearly situated with regard to the rest of the house: the chimney links the attic vertically with the cellar and with the roof. The noises reach the boys from the lower part of the house while they seek comfort in each other's presence. Readers are drawn into this scene: we know where we are as we wait to learn the meaning of the strange noises.

On the other hand, elsewhere the book abounds in examples of long and dreary sentences woven into very long paragraphs. The following is a description of Matt's first impressions of London after he arrives there as a young man of twenty:

But the Titanic city awoke strange responses in his soul: something in him vibrated to the impulse of the endless panorama. Often his fingers itched for the brush, as if to translate into colour and line all this huge pageant of life; for the spell of youthful poesy was still on his eyes, and if he could not see London as he had seen his native fields and sky and ocean, all fresh and pure and beautiful, if in the crude day its sordid streets seemed labyrinths in an underworld, unlovely, intolerable, there were atmospheres and lights in which it still loomed upon his vision through the glamour of fantasy, and chiefly at night, when the mighty city brooded in sombre majesty magnificently transfigured by the darkness, and the solemn river stretched in twinkling splendour between enchanted warehouses, or shadowed itself with the inverted architecture of historic piles, or lapped against the gray old Tower dreaming of ancient battle.8

When, in their turn, modern scholars took up a discussion of The Master, the question of the novel's readability was not one of their primary concerns. Elsie Bonita Adams offers an analytical discussion of the novel, stressing its importance as a vehicle through which Zangwill was able to explore the theme of an artist's growth and development through several stages: his exuberant youth, early manhood when circumstances almost made him despair of becoming an artist, and finally his attainment of the stature of a true artist, which he reaches through much suffering and sacrifice of his personal happiness.9 Joseph Udelson, like Adams, also concentrates on what the novel has to say about art and the individual artist, and the artist's position in society. He also expresses the view that the novel was intended “as a serious contribution to the contemporary debate raging over the function of the artist in society. In The Master Zangwill is aligning himself with Max Nordau, in denouncing the Pre-Raphaelite's bohemianism, Emile Zola's naturalism, and Oscar Wilde's ‘art for art's sake’ movement.”10 Indeed, the question of the artist's function in society was dear to Zangwill's heart, and in The Master the problem is dealt with in terms of a personal dilemma, its resolution dependent on the artist's background and life history. The more recent, biographical approach to The Master is included in Rochelson's discussion of Zangwill's novels in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. In addition to presenting the views of early reviewers and modern scholars, Rochelson speaks of the possible link between the life of George Hutchinson and that of the novel's hero, Matt Strang, and she also says that the novel is due for a reevaluation.11

In order to proceed towards a reevaluation, it will be useful to consider the views of several earlier Nova Scotian writers. Two major essays appeared in Nova Scotia early in the twentieth century, and additional references to the novel appeared in print more than once. In Nova Scotia there lingered a feeling that a rather remarkable Nova Scotian book was created by a famous British novelist who possessed a vast amount of intimate knowledge of Nova Scotian life in all its aspects. However, the first two essays on the topic (apart from an even earlier newspaper article) were published in journals with limited circulation, so that writers who came later were led to new speculations, without knowledge of the pieces already published.12

The first literary discussion which touched on the topic came from the pen of Archibald Macmechan, a professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, himself a writer of fiction. In “Halifax in Books” (1906) he quoted a long description of Halifax from The Master, with the added explanation that “Matt is the hero of the story, the country boy of genius who becomes a great painter in London. His prototype is George Hutchinson, a Folly Village boy, whose father was master of a small vessel and was lost at sea.”13 Macmechan, apparently aware that Zangwill had never visited Nova Scotia, adds “Zangwill never saw Halifax and must have relied upon descriptions.”14 In 1906, barely eleven years since the publication of the novel, it seems that knowledge about the hero's prototype, George Hutchinson, was limited to mere essentials.

Some twenty years later, another lover of Nova Scotian literature spoke out about The Master. Judge Aza J. Crockett of Pictou wrote an essay about books which he considered indispensable for a village library in Nova Scotia, “My Invisible Nova Scotia Library.” The good judge gave free expression to his feelings of admiration and his curiosity:

… I have some books by authors who are not Nova Scotians or even Canadians. What thoughts and questionings arise as I turn to The Master, that extraordinary book of I. Zangwill's—a book that fascinates one so much. How did Zangwill ever come to know so much and so intimately about the life and aspirations of a Nova Scotia boy from the marshes of Masstown? Was he ever here, or did someone tell him … ? I am told that the Nova Scotia boy with the yearnings to express himself in the art of painting became one day a great painter in London, and spent a week with the famous author in a house-boat on the Thames, and that The Master is the result.15

The judge continues: “Those with instincts of the higher critic, after an examination of the style, confidently point out what portions were written by the artist and what was the work of the brilliant literary genius, and you may still find in Nova Scotia homes portraits the proud possessors of which will inform you that there is a work of the artist whose boyhood and youth are depicted so realistically in this Nova Scotia romance.”16 Neither Macmechan nor Judge Crockett expressed disapproval of the novel's prose style. As for the pleasant speculation that parts of the book were actually written by the artist, there appears to be no support for such a notion.

If Judge Crockett refrains from naming the artist, the omission does not seem to stem from ignorance. His friends, the owners of the portraits, would naturally name the painter, but the judge was trying to recommend the book as a novel, not for its biographical content, so the painter's name was not relevant to his discussion. On the other hand, naming the “brilliant literary genius” appears to have afforded the judge a good deal of satisfaction, though it seems that neither Macmechan nor Crockett knew very much about Zangwill or about Zangwill's other books. A mere glance at The Bachelors' Club or The King of Schnorrers would have revealed to them the connection between Hutchinson and Zangwill. Neither of them mentions the further puzzle that the great interpreter of Nova Scotian setting and atmosphere was a London-born Jew. Neither of them is aware of what the initial “I” in Zangwill's name stands for. But between them, they passed on to future readers of The Master three important points, which would have eliminated many a subsequent misunderstanding, had the two essays gained wider readership: Macmechan revealed the artist's name, Judge Crockett pointed to a time spent together by Zangwill and Hutchinson in a houseboat on the Thames and, very importantly, they named the location where the artist grew up. Folly Village, Great Village, and Masstown were a cluster of villages on the Cobequid Bay near Truro in Colchester County in Nova Scotia. Masstown was originally known as “Cobequid,” the name used by Zangwill for Matt's home village. Great Village remains the current name of the village where the painter George Hutchinson spent his youth.

There is no indication that Judge Crockett was familiar with Macmechan's article. It was to become a constant feature of the attention paid to The Master in Nova Scotia: those who were subsequently interested in The Master and brought it anew to public attention were themselves unfamiliar with information already published by their predecessors. Notably, when the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada came to create a plaque in honour of the Halifax-born artist Gilbert Stuart Newton R. A. (1794-1835), the plaque, unveiled in 1952, proclaimed Newton to have been the prototype of Israel Zangwill's novel The Master. One notes that Zangwill's first name thus stands revealed. But the plaque errs in linking Zangwill's novel with Newton. The historian responsible for the wording of the plaque was Provincial Archivist, the late Dr. D. C. Harvey. As Sandra Barry demonstrates in the essay “What's in a Name? The Gilbert Stuart Newton Plaque Error,”17 Dr. Harvey and his advisors decided on the wording of the plaque without sufficiently checking into the background of the novel: beguiled by the prospect of linking two illustrious names, that of a famous British writer and of a Halifax-born artist who became a member of the Royal Academy, they assumed a connection where there was none. The plaque is displayed on the facade of a public building in Halifax.

Once more, when John Bell included a selection from The Master in his anthology Halifax: A Literary Portrait (1991), he suggested that Zangwill's contact was with a certain Michael Williams (1878-1950), author of an autobiographical work The Book of High Romance (1919).18 That contact, however, as Bell himself notes, belongs to the period after, and not before, the publication of The Master.19 In his book Williams mentions a letter of encouragement which he received from Zangwill twenty-five years earlier and which he cherished for a long time afterwards.20 It would have been natural for Williams, then an aspiring young writer living in Halifax, to write to Zangwill upon reading the serialized version of The Master and it was characteristic of Zangwill's generous nature to reply. But there are no grounds for any further speculation. Thus it was the lot of the writers and historians who had an interest in The Master, including Bell (1991) and myself (1993), to be unaware of the information already available. Bell, it seems, was even unaware of the existence of the historic plaque. For me the plaque served as a starting-point for a new investigation, which led back to the artist George Hutchinson.21

Since then, extensive new research on the life of American-born poet Elizabeth Bishop and on her Nova Scotian relatives has brought a significant amount of information on George Hutchinson, who was Bishop's great-uncle, brother of Bishop's Nova Scotian grandmother Elizabeth (Hutchinson) Bulmer. As recorded by Sandra Barry in her book on Bishop,22 George Hutchinson was born in Saint John, New Brunswick, in 1852, and brought up in Folly Village, adjacent to Great Village, in Nova Scotia. His father, a ship's master, died at sea when George was in his early teens. According to family tradition, young George wished to become a painter and at an early age he travelled to London to study painting. In 1874 Hutchinson was married to Eleanor Jones in London. The following year the young couple travelled to Nova Scotia, where their two children, Benjamin and Mary, were born. The couple returned to England with the children and, according to the census of 1881, settled in Pancras Road, where their third child, a girl, was born. At this time Hutchinson enrolled in the Royal Academy Schools, winning a prize of £50 for drawings from life. The announcement of the prize was picked up by the local press: the Novascotian reported the honour with pride.23 George Hutchinson died in retirement in England in 1942. He was survived by his second wife.

In the 1881 census Hutchinson reported his occupation as portrait painter. He was not a successful portrait painter. The few portraits which have been preserved in Nova Scotia—presumably executed during his visits to his home province—are painted in harsh colours and do little to illuminate the character of their subjects. And yet he was the winner of a prestigious prize for drawing figures from life: his true talent lay not in portrait painting but in drawing black and white cartoons and humorous illustrations.

It was Hutchinson's talent for illustrating that brought him in contact with Zangwill. Their close cooperation began in 1890 when Hutchinson became a regular contributor of drawings and caricatures to Puck and Ariel of which Zangwill was a de facto editor, becoming the official editor in 1891.24 From then on, for at least six years, their relation remained close, and their cooperation mutually satisfactory. Hutchinson drew the illustrations to The Bachelors' Club in 1891, to The King of Schnorrers in the Idler in 1893/94, and to the feature “My First Book” by Zangwill, also in the Idler in 1893. “My First Book” is a miniature merry-go-round of mutual compliments: Zangwill ascribes the success of The Bachelors' Club, at least in part, to George Hutchinson's deft illustrations; George Hutchinson expresses his feelings of friendship in drawing a comic portrait of Zangwill titled “Mr. Zangwill at Work” that is still one of the more appealing informal sketches of the “brilliant literary genius.”25

There is external evidence that Zangwill was particularly anxious about the success of The Master. Ernest Samuels, in his biography of Bernard Berenson, reports that in September 1894 Mary Costelloe wrote to Berenson from England that Israel Zangwill brought her a manuscript of The Master to read, seeking her critical opinion. She unhesitatingly reported to Berenson that she found the book “abominable,” adding in passing that she found the author “loathsomely ugly.” She apparently conveyed her view to Zangwill in greatly modified form for he expressed an appreciation of her critique and proceeded with the publication of The Master in book form.26 Also, as Joseph Leftwich recalls, Zangwill was fond of saying even many years later on that The Master was his favourite book.27 Leftwich also reports that Zangwill was pleased with the notice in the Leeds Mercury which said that The Master was superior to Children of the Ghetto.28 Evidently the reviewer at the Leeds Mercury was able to disregard such things as a solemn river, twinkling splendour and enchanted warehouses, and to cut to the heart of the story. And that story still has power to engage readers' sympathies.

When read not with the eyes of Mary Costelloe or H. G. Wells but with the eyes of the reviewer at the Leeds Mercury, or possibly of a reader in the year 2001, The Master has merits that can recommend it and even render it fascinating. One striking aspect of the novel is Zangwill's success in creating a fully rounded character, a young dreamer, timid, yet fully trusting in his own talent as a painter, a romantic who is driven by his experience of cruel poverty into a marriage of convenience, an idealist who betrays his ideals to please the crude taste of London society, an admirer of refinement and beauty who gives up his chance of fulfilling his dreams of love when these dreams stand in conflict with an even higher ideal—obedience to the voice of conscience.

Matt Strang, the novel's hero, is a man who never ceases to examine his own motives or to pass judgement on his own conduct. But rather than coming out as a prig, Matt is likeable for he is described with the kind of indulgent affection that writers usually reserve for their own reminiscences of boyhood and youth. At the beginning of the novel Matt is a very young boy—we first see him as he is awakened from a dream by loud noises in the family home. This is an intimate moment which fixes the reader's close relation to Matt. It is also a moment which symbolically establishes the dichotomy between dreams and reality—a dichotomy which rules Matt's life in youth and in adulthood.

Matt is instantly more real to the reader than even the young Esther Ansell of Children of the Ghetto. The Master opens with the name “Matt” repeated twice by Billy, Matt's younger brother, whereas Esther's name appears the first time not as “Esther” but as “Esther Ansell,” a formality which distances her from the reader. Also, because she is introduced as a small figure walking rapidly through a crowd in a dark cold street, the reader must follow her from a distance. The narrative progresses for a while before Esther's feelings are made known at all.29 To be sure, there are sound artistic reasons for the initial distance. First we see Esther as a part of a crowd, and only gradually we are allowed to focus on her as an individual. But in the meantime the opportunity for reader-subject intimacy is lost, and subsequently not readily established. Not so with Matt. We first see him and hear him as he wakes up in the morning; we hear Billy calling him by his childhood name, we sympathize as Matt tries to fall asleep again, and we are made privy to a dream which recommences as Matt drifts back to sleep. And we are never to lose the intimacy thus established.

Another striking aspect is Zangwill's choice to convey images of landscape, both in Nova Scotia and in England through the eyes of young Matt rather than through the eyes of the narrator. The beauty of Nova Scotia and the dismal aspect of overcrowded, soot-covered London are rendered primarily through Matt's consciousness—the consciousness of an intuitive artist. What Matt sees are not simply the woods, fields, the expanse of water, sunsets and clouds or an urban landscape. What he sees are pictures—sights which he longs to paint. Again, readers are brought in close union with the boy: we rarely get glimpses into the landscape except through Matt's eyes. As well, people and their way of life, with their manner of speech and their actions, are presented through Matt's eyes, at first with a young boy's naive vision, later with a young man's growing awareness which brings with it bitter disenchantment.

Even more remarkable is the novel's insistence on fusing the consciousness of an artist with the consciousness as well as the morality of a Nova Scotian. For Matt is a Nova Scotian through and through; his Nova Scotian childhood and youth dominate his personality even more decisively when he is away from his native province. When he finds himself in London, he is naturally handicapped in practical matters by being a stranger, but, morally and artistically, he is always guided and sustained by memories of his native province. The abiding paradox of Matt's development as a man and artist lies in the fact that he comes to London to learn, but he finds, gradually and by painful steps, that his true learning had taken place when he was still a boy in Nova Scotia. Of course, he needed to go to London to find out precisely that. Exile teaches people to recognize true moral values.

Matt's development as an artist is the crux of this novel. Whatever happens to him either advances him on the road to becoming an artist, or hampers him. In spirit he is an artist from birth. His life experiences help him actualize his artistic potential. His progress as an artist is much clearer than that of Esther Ansell. We know that Esther is a bright child and a lover of stories. But we do not know when and how she became a writer. When we find out, in the second part of the novel, that she is the author of an important book, we learn nothing of the process which led to that moment. With Matt, however, we take part in every painful step leading to his becoming a painter.

The novel is divided into three parts or “Books.” Matt is about thirteen-years-old when we first meet him; however, since chapter two is a retrospect harking back to three years prior to the novel's opening chapter, we get an additional glimpse of Matt as a boy of ten. Apart from this flashback, the novel progresses in a chronological order. Book One describes Matt's youth on the farm in Cobequid Village near Truro in Nova Scotia. In Book Two he is seen arriving in London to begin his studies at the age of twenty. He stays in London for fifteen months before returning to Nova Scotia. In Book Three he goes to London again, accompanied by his wife. When the novel concludes, he is close to thirty, the father of two children, no longer young, now a man fully conscious of his own limits as well as of his moral and artistic obligations. Thus there are no gaps in the narrative: Matt's life and the process of maturing as man and artist are fully accounted for.

The novel, so clearly inspired by Hutchinson's life story, uses authentic details of family and village life in Book One, begins to diverge from historic facts in Book Two, and makes a radical departure from Hutchinson's story in Book Three. But disappointingly, as the novel moves from the hero's youth to maturity, from a pastoral setting to urban setting, its dramatic and descriptive powers decrease, it loses momentum, and towards the very end takes on certain characteristics of melodrama. The dialogue, likewise, is at its best when it renders the native idiom of Nova Scotia, and becomes stilted in the abstract discussions about art, life, and morality in the later parts of the book. The characters in Book Three speak and behave more like artificial creations than like the authentic persons we encountered in Book One and Two. Even Matt himself seems less authentic as an adult than he was as a boy and later as a very young man in Books One and Two.

Book One, which introduces young Matt, is the most captivating and closest to facts: Matt's father dies at sea as did Hutchinson's father. Matt has an older sister, Harriet, two younger brothers, Billy and Teddy, and still younger siblings. George Hutchinson had an older sister, Elizabeth, two younger brothers, John Robert and William Bernard, and a much younger sister, Mary (a two-year-old child who is mentioned in chapter one). Matt's widowed mother marries Deacon Hailey soon after her husband's death; Hutchinson's mother also married soon after she became a widow. Matt's sister, Harriet, marries her beau shortly after the death of the father: Hutchinson's sister, Elizabeth, also married early. Hutchinson was a witness at his sister's wedding in 1871 but he left for England some time after.30 As the narrative follows real events, the prose remains vigorous and the young protagonist's feelings are vividly conveyed.

Book One creates a well-defined microcosm with Matt at its centre. The atmosphere of the poor household is well projected, as is the sense of isolation of the village whose only contact with the large world is through the rural mail delivery, which, as often as not, brings bad news instead of the coveted good ones; a community which must provide its own amusements in the form of mudding or other frolics, where the music is provided by the only musician “Ole Jupe” the Black fiddler, where rent must be paid to an exacting and unscrupulous proprietor, where even back-breaking work brings meagre earnings, and where a young boy with the soul of an artist feels that he must strike out or else suffocate in an environment which has no use for art or artists.

Book Two begins with Matt's arrival in England. Here the description of the naive twenty-year old who, upon arriving at Southampton, proceeds directly to London in order to lose no time, and upon arrival in London goes directly to the National Gallery in order to see, at last, great paintings by great artists without further delay—this description of the young “respectably clad steerage passenger … clean-shaven except for a dark-brown moustache, which combined with the little tangle of locks on his forehead to suggest the artistic temperament”31 could easily be based on a photograph of George Hutchinson at twenty. The narrative of Matt's first experiences in England is convincing, and in a general sense is still close to the story of Hutchinson's own arrival in England. It is known that Hutchinson was about twenty or so when he left home and crossed the Atlantic. Matt meets with bitter disappointments and with great hardships in London and in near despair is forced to return to Nova Scotia at the end of a fifteen-month stay. Hutchinson also returned to Nova Scotia after staying in England for about two or three years. Still, the fictional narrative diverges from facts in several important details, of which Matt's marriage to Rosina Coble has the most serious consequences for the novel's central conflict, which is not resolved until the very end. The characters of Matt's uncle Matthew and cousin Herbert do not have a parallel in the Hutchinson story—at least not at the present state of biographical research. Yet they play an important part in the fictional narrative: they represent the kind of indifference, cynicism, loss of conscience and loss of true values which Matt will have to confront and combat to save his own soul at the time of his great spiritual crisis before the novel's end.

Book Two also gives an interesting example of the way Zangwill has marshalled the intersection of fact and fiction. Chapter eight of Book Two, “Gold Medal Night,” describes a formal ceremony at the Royal Academy at which Herbert is awarded a gold medal for a painting which he would have never successfully finished if it had not been for the willing help of Matt who takes no credit for his brush strokes at all, but sits humbly through the ceremony, cold, hungry, and excruciatingly bored by the President's seemingly endless address. In reality it was Hutchinson, as already mentioned, who won the Academy award—not a medal, but the much more useful cash. That award was presented to Hutchinson by Academy President, Sir Frederic Leighton, in December of 1885. The scene in chapter eight gives a wicked satirical representation of Leighton even though the president is not named and the presentation to Herbert, given the internal chronology of the novel, belongs roughly in 1873, while Leighton did not become president until 1878. Still, the satire would have been recognizable to all who were aware of Leighton's notoriously long biennial Academy Addresses. Interestingly, early reviewers shied from mentioning this irreverent portrait of the majestic man, who in 1895 still held the post of President of the Academy.

From the ending of Book Two onwards The Master leaves behind the true story of George Hutchinson and proceeds along a path of fiction. Matt's wife Rosina is the daughter of a well-to-do Halifax merchant, whereas Hutchinson's first wife, Eleanor, was the daughter of a gasfitter from Clapham, and most probably as poor as Hutchinson himself. Hutchinson's wedding took place in a church in Lambeth—and both groom and bride gave the working-class Kennington Road as their address.32 Making Rosina a Nova Scotian, and placing the wedding in Halifax, ensured that her image could not be confused with Hutchinson's real-life wife. There is no ground for supposing Eleanor mean, stingy or petty; she was no Rosina in any sense.

But the petty, penny-pinching Rosina, hopelessly prosaic and devoid of any appreciation of her husband's artistic temperament, becomes the pivot for the conflict which dominates Book Three of the novel. She does not figure in the novel as a character whose inner life is capable of change or development—her main function in the narrative is to represent those realities of life which Matt perceives as obstacles to the attainment of his destiny as an artist. Matt hires a studio in a fashionable part of London in order to be able to work in peace and to be away from Rosina. He paints to please his rich clients so that he may become free of his dependence on Rosina's money—a dependence that embittered his soul almost since the beginning of his married life.33 When he gains fame and becomes accepted among the London elite, he no longer admits to being a married man. It is among the glittering elite that he meets Eleanor Wyndwood who seems to him the ideal of womanhood. The idealized Mrs. Wyndwood is one of the novel's least convincing characters. We know her only through Matt's adoring eyes. In Matt's eyes, she is the embodiment of grace and elegance which his soul had been longing for. In the novel's quasi-epilogue it is made clear that her true character did not deserve Matt's adulation.34 Readers may be led to reflect at that point on the curious paradox that Matt, the gifted observer of the human form and of human physiognomy, is not a good judge of character. Many of his disappointments stem from this particular failing.

In order to develop, and then to resolve the conflict in Matt's life, Book Three departs radically from George Hutchinson's life. Whereas Matt becomes a much sought-after society painter, Hutchinson was no more than a reasonably successful illustrator and cartoonist. Hutchinson did not have to flee his success in order to achieve peace of mind: his success waned of its own accord, especially with the advent of photography which soon began to be favoured by magazine editors as a cheaper and more attractive method of illustration than etching, drawing, and painting. Just a few years later, in 1896, Hutchinson, apparently discouraged by lack of commissions, again went to Nova Scotia hoping to earn money by painting and giving art lessons. In 1898 he was back in London once more, sharing quarters with Zangwill on a houseboat at Twickenham Ferry.

The Master excels in construction and overall plan. Matt's calling in life is clear from the very beginning. His desire to paint is made plain from the very first chapter of the book, as is his talent. His very name, Matthew, suggests not only the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25:14-30, and, by association, the use of the same parable as a metaphor in Milton's famous sonnet “On His Blindness,” but also the Hebrew meaning of the name, “the gift of God.” The novel's action follows Matt's movement from his home village to the great city where he suffers defeat, from that city back home, and once more to the great city where he eventually reaches the height of fame he had so eagerly desired, only to find out that fame without artistic integrity is hollow, and that fame and success must be given up for true fulfillment to become possible. Poor George Hutchinson—he knew much of struggle and disappointment, and very little of heady success, which he would have been most likely to embrace eagerly. The story of the success is not Hutchinson's story; it is rather an abstract construct—Zangwill's own projection of the meaning and the burden of being an artist. Matt's internal struggle and its resolution which depends on his renunciation of all hope of happiness is powerfully evoked in the novel's final chapter, and is no less dramatic than the description of Hannah Jacobs's renunciation of her beloved David in the last chapter of Book One of Children of the Ghetto.

Hutchinson was not a romantic in pursuit of an ideal. In 1893 he was past forty, a family man, busy securing orders for illustrations. He was never choosy about what work he did, so long as it would pay the rent and put food on the table. His published drawings in Puck, Ariel, the Idler and the boys' magazine Chums testify to his readiness to draw whatever was marketable. Clearly, the adult Matt Strang, the hero of Book Three, the artist struggling with his conscience and pondering the meaning and purpose of Art, is no longer based on Hutchinson; rather he takes on some characteristics of Zangwill himself.

When Matt becomes a successful painter and gains a place in London's fashionable society, he acquires the tastes of a man-about-town, frequents elegant artistic gatherings, and becomes attracted to women of intelligence and beauty. In 1893 it was Zangwill, not Hutchinson, who was basking in fame; it was Zangwill who developed a taste for good company, well-cut clothes, and an elegant hat and cane. It was Zangwill who became attracted to intelligent, cultivated women, one of whom would eventually become his wife some ten years later. It was Zangwill, not Hutchinson, who would be thirty years old in 1894. It was Zangwill who needed to examine the direction his career was to take. He was the artist who must decide how he will use his one talent—in the service of higher ideals, or in pursuit of success. In Book Three the departure from George Hutchinson's life-story is extreme; except in his outward appearance, the hero is no longer modelled on George Hutchinson. Rather, he becomes something new: a man of Hutchinson's background, faced with Zangwill's adult dilemmas. Matt Strang, the lionized painter of Book Three, is a new creation.

A comparison of Zangwill's formal portrait reproduced in Dreamer of the Ghetto35 with the amateur photograph of Hutchinson included in Remembering Elizabeth Bishop36 shows a number of differences between the two men. Hutchinson, a lanky figure with a head of hair which could still be described as a “tangle of locks,” a big moustache and a roguish expression, dressed in rumpled tweeds, comfortably reclined in a canvas chair with his dog on his knee, bespeaks a man at ease, satisfied with life at the present moment, oblivious of the sufferings of the world and not troubled in the least by any abstract conflict between moral obligations and personal happiness.

Zangwill's portrait, on the other hand, shows a man meticulously dressed, but not necessarily comfortable. The pose is rigid. Although the portrait is taken indoors, the sitter is wearing stiff, cumbersome outdoor attire. The portrait bespeaks the subject's awareness of his own social position with its concomitant obligations, a sense of responsibility, an inner seriousness. There is no smile in this portrait or in any one of the other commonly reproduced Zangwill portraits. Zangwill's eyes seem to focus on the vision of austere Duty. Matt's ultimate decision, to put his art in the service of society, if it is to be understood as a reflection of Zangwill's own choices with regard to his career, may be taken to signify Zangwill's musings on his own choices for the future, or even, as an explanation in retrospect, of the reasons why he accepted Judge Sulzberger's challenge to write a “Jewish Robert Elsmere” three years earlier.37

That Zangwill chose to borrow, so to speak, Hutchinson's boyhood, even though he did not intend to use Hutchinson's later career in the novel, shows that the plan for the novel was carefully laid. The boy, Matt, is a very appealing protagonist in the first part of the novel. His home in Nova Scotia provides a romantic backdrop. His early struggles in London are made the more bitter by the fact that he is alone in the uncaring metropolis, callously treated by his unfeeling uncle, and by his egotistic cousin Herbert. When much later Matt becomes the darling of London elite, his tall figure, his moustache, tangled locks and artistic appearance make him a natural object of adoration of the beautiful Eleanor, and make his own struggle against temptation as passionately romantic as the novelistic convention of the time permitted. This is not to say that the book was constructed only for the purpose of examining abstract ideas. Evidently the Nova Scotian boyhood of his friend held a fascination for Zangwill and may have served as a stimulus for creating this intricate novel.

In one of his stories, “The Clearing House of Memory,” Zangwill invents a scenario where people can trade their own unwanted memories for those of others.38 To trade the memories of a childhood confined to London's East End for those of a boy roaming barefoot among the open fields of Nova Scotia—this is a very appealing proposition. To describe with such passion, and in such vivid detail, scenes which he had never seen, must mean that Zangwill came to love those scenes which he heard described by his friend. It is also extremely likely that Zangwill not only heard the descriptions but also had ample opportunity to see Hutchinson's sketches of the scenes in Folly Village and vicinity. Early in their acquaintance Zangwill must have seen Hutchinson's “Winter Sketches in Nova Scotia” published in the Illustrated London News in January 1889. Much later, when the two friends shared a houseboat on the river Thames, Zangwill would see Hutchinson at work, sketching and painting scenes from nature and possibly scenes from memory also.

The houseboat story is true, if little known to Zangwill's admirers then as now. The boat, named The Swan, belonged to Zangwill; it was moored at Twickenham Ferry for a sufficiently long time to be remembered with nostalgia by old-timers such as Arthur M. Young, a sometime contributor to the Idler, and regular visitor at literary gatherings at the nearby “White Swan” (still a popular riverside drinking place) facing Eel Pie Island. In the Christmas issue of the Illustrated London News in 1923 Young wrote: “I call to mind the time when … nearly on the same mooring where the floating boathouse now is, that splendid artist [George Hutchinson], one of our first ‘black and white’ men, had, in conjunction with Zangwill, the eminent novelist and playwright, the Swan houseboat. Here would foregather many of the greatest men in literature, music and art of the day.”39 What Judge Crockett believed to have been a week spent together on the boat was apparently a more prolonged arrangement by which Zangwill and Hutchinson shared the houseboat. Hutchinson was most probably left in charge when Zangwill was busy in town, but both men evidently shared the quarters when Zangwill wanted to get away from the pressures of city life and enjoy the pleasures of tranquillity on the river combined with the company of beer-imbibing men of arts and letters. Among those frequenting the literary gatherings, Young mentions Swinburne, the “decadent” poet par excellence, and Henry Vizetelly, the man who outraged the guardians of public morality by publishing Zola's works in English.40 The jolly crowd at the “White Swan” was evidently quite Bohemian. The riverside idyll came to an end in January 1898. In a letter dated January 16, Hutchinson wrote to Zangwill from the “Swan” houseboat describing a gale which had nearly destroyed the boat two weeks earlier, and requesting Zangwill's consent to the sale of the wreck at the low price of ten or fifteen pounds. Many years later, writing to Zangwill from Ipswich in 1911, Hutchinson recalled again, with warm feelings, the old days of the river-boat.41

A close reading of The Master does indeed lead to the conclusion that Zangwill chose to side with those who thought it imperative to link art and morality, as observed by Udelson, and as also argued more recently by William J. Scheick in relation to The Big Bow Mystery.42 However, the book does not support a unified theory of morality. In spite of the abstract deliberations which occupy many pages of The Master, the matter is treated as a deeply personal moral dilemma to be solved by the artist as a responsible individual. The Nova Scotian Matt Strang has an intuitive understanding of the demands of art: for him, art demands native talent, dedication to one's craft, courage, honesty, humility. When, after a period of public success and private mortification, Matt wrestles with his conscience, he receives unexpected guidance from his Nova Scotian friend, Ruth Hailey, who has already turned her own life into one of serving a higher cause—in her case, the cause of Women's Rights. Matt is a man of conscience, but it is a private conscience. Although often called a “puritan” by his cousin and even by the narrator, Matt is neither a church-goer nor an adherent of any religious persuasion. When Matt returns to his studio in Camden Town, his decision seems to foreshadow the kind of career choice which some years later (in 1911) was to be put into action by no lesser a painter than Walter Sickert (1860-1942), also a friend of Zangwill's, who moved his studio to Camden Town and created the “Camden Town Group” of avant-garde Impressionist artists. So although there is much deliberation about art and artists in Book Two and Three, the novel cannot be easily shown to champion one school of thought over another, except that it speaks vehemently against the stranglehold exercised by the Royal Academy. True creativity, new techniques, Impressionism, technical innovations, all are judged on individual merit, not on their adherence to a specific school, and an artist's moral mettle is judged on the basis of both his private and his public life-choices.

As for the relationship between Zangwill and Hutchinson, it can be said once more that a warm, comfortable friendship between them existed, in spite of, or possibly because of, the great difference in their background, upbringing, and temperament. The letters from Hutchinson to Zangwill that survive were written in 1896 (from Nova Scotia), in 1898 (from the houseboat), and in 1911 (from Ipswich), when Hutchinson found himself in one of his all too frequent financial difficulties. The letter from Nova Scotia is especially interesting, as it reports on the enthusiastic reception of The Master by Hutchinson's own sister and her family in Great Village. Hutchinson appears happy with the good reception, and rather peeved at an American critic who had cast doubt on the accuracy of the description of shad-spearing (in chapter two of Book One). The letter includes an invitation to Zangwill to come out for a visit. The remaining letters to Zangwill are equally friendly and frank in such matters as Hutchinson's professional and financial setbacks, and his less than happy life with his second wife, Lily, in the 1911 letter. In 1909 Lily wrote to Zangwill for help “not knowing where to turn,” and in the one instance where a carbon copy of Zangwill's letter to Lily survives, we see Zangwill's genuine concern with Hutchinson's well being.43

It was not foreign to Zangwill's creative process to model his characters on people he knew: in Children of the Ghetto, Melchitsedek Pinchas is generally acknowledged to be based on the poet Naphtali Herz Imber; Moses Ansell is thought to represent Zangwill's own father; Esther Ansell is thought to be Zangwill's alter ego. In The Master, Zangwill wove a romance in which he combined the early struggles of his Nova Scotian artist friend with his own meditation on the meaning of living up to one's potential as an artist.

The result is an intriguing blending of one artist's life-story with the author's own reflections on the consequences of accepting a higher calling and dedicating one's life to a high ideal. A novelist's choice to project the story of his own life onto the character of a painter was to be repeated by Somerset Maugham in his novel Of Human Bondage in 1915, and by others as well. The Master has the merits of a well-constructed linear plot, a sympathetic main character and for the most part well-delineated secondary characters, vividly described scenes set in rural Nova Scotia and visually appealing scenes set in parks, art galleries, and artists' studios in London, Paris and Florence. It has humour and all the elements of a popular romance—missing one thing only, a crisp literary delivery. This is a weakness which cannot easily be remedied and it was identified correctly by the earliest reviewers. To reintroduce the book to modern readers a new attractive edition would be needed at the very least. Modern readers are well schooled in visualizing a novel in terms of cinematic images, something which this novel's visual quality naturally invites. At present however, the only possible access to The Master is through its own exuberant stylistic thickets. Still, the effort, when undertaken, is well repaid.


  1. An early version of this paper was presented at “Symbiosis,” a conference on Anglo-American literary relations, at the University College of St. Mark and St. John in Plymouth, UK, in March 1997.

  2. Israel Zangwill, The Master (London: William Heinemann, 1895). All references will be to this edition. A German translation by H. H. Ewers was published as Der Meister: Ein Künstler-Roman (Berlin: S. Cronbach, 1910), hence my title. A copy of the German translation is in the National and University Library in Jerusalem.

  3. You've Got Mail. Director Nora Ephron. Warner Brothers. USA, 1998.

  4. Zangwill, “A New Matrimonial Relation,” Chapter 9, in The Bachelors' Club, 214-32 (London: Henry and Co., 1891), illustration, 221.

  5. See Sandra Barry, Elizabeth Bishop: An Archival Guide to her Life in Nova Scotia (Hantsport, Nova Scotia: Lancelot Press, 1996). Among recent studies of Elizabeth Bishop, Barry's book is particularly relevant to the present discussion. I owe thanks to Sandra Barry for generously sharing with me information on Hutchinson and on his family background.

  6. Athenaeum (18 May 1895), Dial (1 July 1895); the review by H. G. Wells, “Mr. Zangwill's ‘Master,’” Saturday Review (18 May 1895) is quoted at length in Twentieth Century Literary Criticism (Detroit: Gale Research, 1985), 16: 441-42.

  7. The Master, 5.

  8. Ibid., 126.

  9. Elsie Bonita Adams, Israel Zangwill (New York: Twayne, 1971), 65-67.

  10. Joseph H. Udelson, Dreamer of the Ghetto: The Life and Works of Israel Zangwill (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1990), 124.

  11. Meri-Jane Rochelson, “Israel Zangwill,” Dictionary of Literary Biography (Detroit: Gale Research, 1999), 197: 302-15; 310-311.

  12. The newspaper article was published in Truro Daily News, 17 November 1896. It and the two essays by Macmechan and by Crockett are discussed by Sandra Barry in “What's in a Name? The Gilbert Stuart Newton Plaque Error,” Acadiensis, 25:1 (Autumn 1995, Fredericton, New Brunswick), 99-116.

  13. Archibald Macmechan, “Halifax in Books” Acadiensis 6:3 (July 1906, Saint John, New Brunswick), 201-17.

  14. Ibid., 216.

  15. Aza J. Crockett, “My Invisible Nova Scotia Library,” Dalhousie Review (Halifax, Nova Scotia), 6 (1926/1927), 449-508.

  16. Ibid., 450-506.

  17. Barry, “The Gilbert Stuart Newton Plaque Error” (1995), see note 12 above.

  18. John Bell, ed., Halifax: a Literary Portrait (Lawrencetown Beach, Nova Scotia: Pottersfield Press, 1991), 102-106.

  19. Ibid., 102.

  20. Michael Williams, The Book of High Romance (New York: MacMillan, 1918/19), 37.

  21. Lilian Falk, “A Nineteenth Century Literary Representation of Nova Scotia Dialect,” Papers from the Seventeenth Annual Meeting of the Atlantic Provinces Linguistic Association, 17 (Halifax, Nova Scotia: Saint Mary's University, 1993), 33-39.

  22. Barry, Elizabeth Bishop, 31-33.

  23. Novascotian (Halifax, Nova Scotia), 30 January 1886.

  24. Udelson, Dreamer of the Ghetto, 73.

  25. Zangwill, “My First Book,” Idler, 3 (February-July 1893), 629-41. Mr. Zangwill at Work (London: Chatto and Windus, 1893), 639.

  26. Ernest Samuels, Bernard Berenson: the Making of a Connoisseur (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1979), 200-201.

  27. Joseph Leftwich, Israel Zangwill (New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1957), 134.

  28. Ibid., 296.

  29. Zangwill, Children of the Ghetto. Meri-Jane Rochelson, ed. (Detroit: Wayne State University Press 1998), 73.

  30. For detailed history of Hutchinson's family see Barry, Elizabeth Bishop, 29-39.

  31. The Master, 117.

  32. This information comes from the Family Records Centre, London, UK, in 1999.

  33. The Master, Book Three, chapter I, 283-87.

  34. The Master, Book Three, chapter X, 453-60; especially page 455.

  35. Udelson, Dreamer of the Ghetto, 111. Zangwill is about 33-years-old in this photograph.

  36. Gary Fountain and Peter Brazeau, Remembering Elizabeth Bishop: An Oral Biography (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994). Photograph no. 8, captioned “George Hutchinson, Elizabeth Bishop's great-uncle.” Hutchinson is about 54-years-old in this photograph. Photographs are between page 186 and 187.

  37. See Udelson, Dreamer, 81.

  38. Zangwill, “The Clearing House of Memory,” The King of Schnorrers: Grotesques and Fantasies (London: William Heinemann, 1894).

  39. Arthur M. Young, “Tales of the Thames,” Illustrated London News, 24 December 1923 (Richmond Cuttings, Vol. 12, #67). Richmond Public Library, Local Studies Collection, London Borough of Richmond upon Thames. This information was obtained in April 1997.

  40. Ibid.

  41. Hutchinson to Zangwill. Letter from the “Swan” houseboat, Twickenham Ferry, 16 January 1898. (Central Zionist Archives, Jerusalem, File A 120/391).

  42. William J. Scheick, “Murder in My Soul”: Genre and Ethos in Zangwill's The Big Bow Mystery,ELT, 40:1, 1997.

  43. The Hutchinson file at the Central Zionist Archives (A120/391) has six items, all attesting to the friendship between these two men. I owe thanks to Dr. Meri-Jane Rochelson for telling me about the existence of these letters which constitute a most important documentary basis for reconstructing the Hutchinson-Zangwill relation.

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