Romance, realism, and the novella
It is not simply the gothic trappings and decorations that constitute the gothic novel, but rather the placing of characters into traditional romance tales and the resulting transformation of those characters into archetypes of the mythic story. The transformation of “real” people into parabolic figures by the latent thrust of the traditional romance story is characteristic of the novella form and can be seen in an explicit way in The Castle of Otranto, in which, even as characters act out their desires on the surface of the plot, desire becomes objectified and totally embodied in the latent and underlying plot.
In The Turn of the Screw, this basic combination is focused in a particularly explicit way, becoming the crux and central theme of the story. The issue of whether the ghosts in the story are real or are projections of the governess’s imagination is reflective of the basic problem of the novella form—that is, whether a given story features characters who are presented as if they are real or as embodiments of psychological archetypes. This ambiguity is so thorough in James’s novella that every detail can be read as evidence for both interpretations of reality at once.
Just as Walpole returned to the medieval romance for a model for his gothic tale, Flaubert returned to the medieval saint’s legend or folktale for the exemplar for “The Legend of St. Julian, Hospitaler.” Furthermore, just as Walpole’s romance differs from the medieval form by combining traditional story with psychologically real characters, so does Flaubert’s moral fable differ from its medieval source by self-consciously foregrounding the static and frozen nature of the medieval story itself. The subject matter of Flaubert’s story, although it has a moral issue at its center, is more particularly the generic means by which the medieval tale is moral and representative. The movement from the parable of Flaubert to the modern parables of O’Connor is a movement from a relatively simple story to a more complex and ironic form. Just as the narrative and symbolic aim of Flaubert’s story is the spiritual transformation of its central characters, so also is the central aim of O’Connor’s Wise Blood to lead its central character to a vision of his own fragmentation so he can be reborn.
Perhaps the two best-known modern parable forms of the novella are William Faulkner’s The Bear (1942) and Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (1952). These two stories differ from the parables of Flaubert and O’Connor in that they both seem to be less illustrations of moral issues than reenactments of primitive rituals that enforce the moral issue. Although they are quite different in their individual syntactical rhythms, both stories are characterized by a highly formal structure and style in which moral values evolve ritually from the hero’s encounter with the natural world. Of the two stories, The Old Man and the Sea seems closer to the parable form than does The Bear, primarily because of the conventional expectation that the parable is a relatively clean structural form, functional and bare in style and point of view.
One of the most common narrative devices of the novella is the convention of the Doppelgänger, or double. There are both historical and aesthetic reasons for the predominance of this motif in the form. Because the novella is a combination of the old romance form, in which characters are projections of psychic states, and the new realistic novel form, in which characters are presented as if they were real people with their own psychological lives, novellas often present both types of characters, especially in such works as Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” (1853) and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (serial 1899, book 1902), in which the narrators seem to be realistic characters with individual psyches, while the central characters Bartleby and Kurtz seem to be manifested as psychological archetypes.
Perceiving reality to be a...
(The entire section is 1666 words.)