Origins and Development of the Novel, 1890-1980 Analysis


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The environment in England during the 1880’s and 1890’s was especially fertile for the development of new trends in literature. As the century came to a close, all the giants of the novel, except George Meredith, had either died or stopped writing. Even Thomas Hardy, who can be justly classified as either “Victorian” or “modern,” quit writing prose in 1895 and turned to poetry. The great Victorian poets, too, were disappearing: Matthew Arnold died in 1888, Robert Browning in 1889, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson in 1892. The Victorian stage, for decades the province of producers and directors who spared no expense to provide “spectacle” to audiences whose penchant for grand performances demanded ever-greater mechanical wonders on the boards, was becoming the province of men such as George Bernard Shaw. His plays, while amusing at times, generally abandoned the grandiose for the middle class and did so with a striking (and sometimes disturbing) sense of realism. Upstarts such as Oscar Wilde and Walter Pater were turning their backs on “traditional” subjects in art and presenting material that the general populace could only describe as decadent.

The younger generation of writers had turned away from their English ancestors, seeking inspiration from French novelists whose naturalistic treatment of subjects glorified the commonplace and vulgar while minimizing the good in traditional morality; Honoré de Balzac andÉmile Zola became the luminaries whom budding authors copied with dedication and fidelity. Among this generation of writers and readers, the Victorian notion of “high seriousness” was giving way to a concern for subjects only whispered about during the heyday of that glorious queen who gave her name to the period. That aging lady still occupied the throne, but everyone knew that she was to die soon, and with her would pass an “age” in English life.

The American novel, 1880-1900

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

On the other side of the Atlantic, the novel was also undergoing a transformation. By the close of the nineteenth century, most American novelists had declared their independence from their English forebears. Whether one agrees with Ernest Hemingway that “all American literature springs from one book,” Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), it is nevertheless true that by the 1880’s, American writers had turned to their own country for literary inspiration. The heritage of the American past, the attitudes and concerns of the founding fathers and the Puritan heritage they had bequeathed to their heirs, the legends of the original American Indian inhabitants of the land, and the particular curiosities associated with the various regions of the country had supplanted earlier tendencies to anglicize American situations and frontier characters. Whereas the Indians in James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales speak (and often act) like eighteenth century gentlemen, those of late century novelists exhibit no such artificiality. American writers had become interested in American society, a society that had, in a period of barely more than one century, grown from adolescent imitation of the English culture that had given it birth to an adult life that was in many ways different from that of its parent.

The absence of a society that dated back a thousand years made it difficult for Americans to write social novels in the manner of Jane Austen, George Meredith, or George Eliot, for, as Alfred Kazin has observed, the social novel most often flourishes in a society “deeply...

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Henry James

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Henry James may well be considered the first modern critic of the novel, and since the modern novel is the product of self-conscious artists who are concerned with their craft as well as their message, it is well to begin a discussion of the development of the modern novel with James. Considering his own works to be art as well as social commentary, James spent four decades explaining, in essays and prefaces he affixed to the collected edition of his works, how good prose fiction may be identified and judged. James’s essay “The Art of Fiction” (1884), written as an answer to Walter Besant’s 1884 essay of the same title, comes closer than any other document published during the final decades of the nineteenth century to being a manifesto for the modern novelist. Besant’s essay had summarized the Victorian position on the role and limits of the novel: It was to provide wholesome entertainment, treat certain subjects only, avoid others at all costs, attempt verisimilitude but not at the expense of moral education, provide swift and unrelenting justice for moral offenders (especially where sexual transgressions were involved), and support the aims of society at large. In his response, James struck out against almost all of these notions. The only requirement a novelist has, James says, is to be “interesting.” “We must grant the artist his subject matter,” he insists, and judge the value of the work by the artist’s success in executing his (or her) own design. No subject should be taboo, James argues; no artificial strictures should be placed on the novelist’s creativity as long as that talent is put in the service of depicting life as it really is. Where Besant had tried to develop appropriate classifications for novels (similar to those used to describe various forms of poetry), James swept away such prescriptive categories, asserting that novelists must be free to explore incidents and characters and develop their stories in such a way as to be pleasing to the reader.

James fancied himself the consummate realist, interested in portraying life as it is lived by sensitive individuals full of thought and reflection. Much like Jane Austen, he limited his artistic gaze to a narrow segment of society, forgoing the panoramic techniques of the romancer and the historical novelist and avoiding the sweeping pronouncements of the social novelist to explore the nuances of social life among the upper classes. James has been called the first international novelist, and he was undoubtedly the first major figure to explore the clash of American and European cultures; in The American (1877), The Portrait of a Lady (1881), The Ambassadors (1903), The Golden Bowl (1904), and numerous other works, he presents American men and women, usually naïve and optimistic, confronting the wiser but more jaded men and women of England and the Continent.

A late masterpiece, The Golden Bowl, may serve as an example of James’s method. In that novel, a young American girl, Maggie Verver, falls in love with an Italian nobleman, Prince Amerigo. Amerigo is charmed by Maggie’s naïveté but apparently prefers the company of her more worldly-wise and well-traveled American friend, Charlotte Stant, with whom Amerigo has apparently had an affair some time before. Because Maggie is rich, he agrees to marry her, and only after the two are already married does Maggie discover the true nature of the relationship between her friend and her husband. At the end of this sordid tale of social intrigue and betrayal, Maggie emerges victorious—after a...

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Thomas Hardy and Theodore Dreiser

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Two novelists, one English, one American, may serve to characterize the naturalistic movement in the English-language novel during this period of transition from Victorian to modern sensibilities. Like other naturalists, both Thomas Hardy and Theodore Dreiser were followers of the school of realism: Their works are filled with minute descriptions of ordinary places and events, with scenes and characters from the middle and lower classes, and neither makes any attempt to glorify his heroes and heroines by raising them to epic proportion.

Hardy’s novels, usually set in the Wessex district of England, depict the life of common folks who struggle to eke out an existence against an unforgiving nature. Influenced by the theories of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer, Hardy displays in his novels a world where natural selection and determinism are the primary moving forces and where chance is ever present to ruin the best designs of even the best persons. The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886) offers a good example of Hardy’s philosophy of determinism and the role that chance plays in human lives. In this novel, Michael Henchard, a man of strong will but somewhat irrational temperament (in the opening scene, a drunken Henchard sells his wife and daughter), rises by his own industry to become a wealthy farmer and prominent citizen in his local community. As chance would have it, however, he soon falls victim to a series of setbacks: He finds his wife again and, believing he should win her back to make restitution for his earlier behavior, abandons a woman who loves him; he loses all his money to another farmer, largely because the weather favors the other’s crops; and he loses his wife again to this rival, who also supplants him as mayor of the town. He is reduced at the end of the novel to a penniless beggar who wanders off to die alone in the barren countryside.

This note of extreme pessimism characterizes Hardy’s other works and is, in fact, typical of many naturalistic novelists. The work of Frank Norris in the United States, especially in a novel such as McTeague (1899), bears a striking resemblance to Hardy’s fiction. Like most naturalists, Hardy ignored the Victorian conventions prescribing subject matter for fiction and turned to issues that would eventually cause him to be rejected by the British public of his day. In Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891), his heroine, forced to yield to a young nobleman who abandons her after he...

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The Edwardian novel

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The death of Queen Victoria in 1901 and the ascension of Edward VII marked the beginning of a new political age in England, but the fiction of the next two decades continued to show strong ties to that which had preceded it. On more than one occasion, the literature of the period has been disparagingly dismissed as mere journalism. That journalistic style, however, was often a facade that covered serious treatments of problems plaguing England as it entered the new century. Novelists in early twentieth century England, much more than artists in the United States, felt the impact of the intellectual advances that had been made during the preceding century. Living in what John Batchelor, in The Edwardian Novelists (1982),...

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The American novel, 1900-1920

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

During this same period in the United States, the novelists who rose to prominence were often much like their British counterparts. In The Modern Novel in Britain and the United States (1964), Walter Allen calls the first two decades of the twentieth century a period of comparative sterility in American fiction. If one excludes Henry James and Theodore Dreiser, that description may be just, for no giant of American literature emerged until after World War I. The American populace was being swept away by sensationalism, as the new journalists captured the country’s interest with their exposés of business, politics, and life in the cities and the country. Novelists such as Upton Sinclair achieved popular acclaim for...

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The breakdown of public agreement about what is significant in human life, the new view of the nature of consciousness introduced by the study of psychology, and a desire to discover new ways to reach their audience caused writers of the post-World War I period to experiment with the form of the novel. In fact, the period immediately following the end of hostilities on the Continent can best be described as the age of experimentation. The tendency to try new ways of representing reality is most noticeable in novelists who abandoned traditional narrative conventions, adopting instead the method suggested by William James in his discussions on psychology. Determining that reality cannot best be portrayed by a simple recitation of...

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D. H. Lawrence

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The reaction to experimentation with form has been strident, perhaps more vehement in England than in the United States. Since 1923, when D. H. Lawrence dismissed the efforts of Joyce, Richardson, and Woolf as “childish” and “absorbedly self-conscious” in his essay “Surgery for the Novel—or a Bomb,” many critics and novelists have lashed out against the trend to abandon the intellectual bond between the writer and the general reader. Novelists who believe in the efficacy of fiction as social documentary have been loudest in their protests, and their work has remained close in both form and content to the traditional novel as written by their eighteenth and nineteenth century forebears. In The Realists (1978)...

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F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The most prominent American novelists of the 1920’s were F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. Fitzgerald’s novels generally reflect the moral degeneracy of the Jazz Age; his characters, often nouveau riche, often pretenders to social status, are usually defeated because they aspire to false values. Fitzgerald’sThe Great Gatsby (1925) remains the best illustration of the sad decay of the American Dream. The hero, Jay Gatsby, is a self-made man from the West who has come east to reap all the benefits that money can buy. He appears to possess unlimited riches, and he attempts to buy his way into Long Island society through lavish parties and extravagant affairs at his home. The secret to his success, however, is...

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The Great Depression

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

With the Depression, many young novelists turned with renewed interest to social and political issues. Any hope that may have begun to grow during the 1920’s was shattered during this decade of mass unemployment and the growing spread of fascism. In the United States, novelists concerned with the plight of victims of the Depression used realistic methods to depict graphically the effects of economic privation. James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan: A Trilogy (1935) is one of the best of American works during the period that present, according to Walter Allen, “a corrupt and vicious social order that [the novelist believed] must be destroyed.” Farrell was one of a number of writers on both sides of the Atlantic who...

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The southern novel

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

During this period of exceptional literary activity, the novels of a single Mississippi author highlighted the emergence of southern fiction. William Faulkner had been writing for a decade and had already published three novels and several short stories when The Sound and the Fury appeared in 1929. It was followed in rapid succession by As I Lay Dying (1930), Sanctuary (1931), Light in August (1932), and Absalom, Absalom! (1936), all of which depict the fate of the South through the lives of generations of men and women in Faulkner’s mythical Yoknapatawpha County. Earlier novels and stories had provided some details about these characters, and later ones, notably Go Down,...

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The war novel

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The end of the 1930’s found the world once again aroused to arms in a conflict that, like its predecessor, would change the shape of both serious and popular fiction. Novelists’ reactions to World War II, however, were quite different from the reactions to World War I. Before England’s and, later, the United States’ first encounters with the realities of modern warfare, people had shared a tenuous kind of idealism; the novels of the post-World War I period reflected the disillusionment, horror, and cynicism of those who had seen for the first time what such a war was really like. Works about World War I were often crude, but the sentiments they expressed were shocking to their audience. The novels of World War II, by...

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The postwar novel

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The explosion of the atomic bomb provides a new dividing line for fiction, but one must be careful not to insist too strongly that all literature changed immediately and irrevocably after August, 1945. As had happened after World War I, in both England and the United States, many novelists who had established their reputations before the conflict continued to publish during the first postwar decade, and much of their work followed themes worked out either completely or partially in earlier novels. Greene continued to explore religious and moral questions under the guise of thrillers. Evelyn Waugh continued to write satire. Anthony Powell, who had published five novels in the 1930’s, began his masterpiece, A Dance to the Music...

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Batchelor, John. The Edwardian Novelists. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1982. Discusses the major British novelists of the first decades of the twentieth century, explaining how these figures form a bridge between their Victorian forebears and the modern novelists who followed them.

Breen, Jennifer. In Her Own Write: Twentieth-Century Women’s Fiction. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990. Offers a method of reading novels that privileges the values and aspirations of women. Focuses on British novelists, but the method described is useful for examining American women novelists as well.

Gindin, James....

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