Myths of Modern Individualism
Ian Watt was one of the most distinguished modern scholar-critics and teachers of fiction. At the time of Watt’s death in 1995, this study was nearly completed. Watt’s widow and editor then put the final touches to the book, which constitutes an impressive investigation in comparative literature and mythography. Watt’s method combines formal textual analysis with intellectual history and socioeconomic background.
Watt considers the Faust myth as a new form of an ancient mythological pattern that makes human knowledge a threat to divine powers. As for Don Quixote, Cervantes has him setting out to do good in a world he believes to be neatly divided into virtues and vices. Soon the question of what is good or bad becomes exceedingly problematic, however, and Cervantes shows the world to be resistant to simple solutions.
Watt believes that Don Juan’s appeal as a trickster and sexual adventurer depends on the hypocrisy of a world that publicly condemns yet nevertheless secretly admires a successful, amoral hedonist. In ROBINSON CRUSOE (1719), Defoe shows how an ordinary man, stranded alone for many years on an island, can subdue nature to his own material purposes. Crusoe is both an individualistic Puritan and a utilitarian capitalist.
All four heroes are markedly individualistic, are isolated from their family members, avoid marriage, and form their only close tie with a male servant. None conforms to social norms.
Sources for Further Study
Choice. XXXIII, July, 1996, p. 1788.
Hudson Review. XLIX, Winter, 1996, p. 675.
The New Republic. CCXIV, March 25, 1996, p. 34.