The Origins of the English Novel, 1600-1740 Analysis

Michael McKeon

The Origins of the English Novel, 1600-1740

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

Essentially a study of genre history and development, Michael McKeon’s work reexamines a number of questions dealt with in Ian Watt’s seminal study, The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Fielding, and Richardson (1957), a work which McKeon identifies as his point of departure. Both authors attempt to account for the novel’s emergence as a popular genre in early eighteenth century England. They both draw upon interdisciplinary approaches to explore questions that earlier literary historians had left unresolved. Both deal with romances and other genres that predated the novel and exerted an influence on its rise. They identify the economic, social, and political conflicts that contributed to the development of a new literary form. Both concentrate on major texts for analysis, with Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding central to each study. While McKeon reveals additional specific debts and methodological resemblances to Watt, the essential similarities end at this point.

Between Watt’s time and the early 1980’s, critics learned to draw even more heavily on interdisciplinary approaches—anthropology, psychology, linguistics, and political science—than scholars in Watt’s time could have foreseen. Although Watt’s work employed an interdisciplinary approach to an extent unusual for its time, in part because the novel as a middle-class form of fiction invites exploration of allied fields, his reliance on other disciplines pales into insignificance compared with McKeon’s. Watt saw the novel as a discrete genre that emerged as a result of authors’ efforts to achieve “formal realism,” a genre that became possible only through the growth of a large reading public, notably of women. McKeon sees the genre as so deeply involved with society and history that an understanding of social and political conflicts is requisite to an understanding of its origin. A work essentially of the “New Historicism,” relying primarily on a Hegelian-Marxist approach to history, McKeon’s book offers a theoretical account of the genre’s origins.

To Watt, the designation of the novel as a work reflecting “formal realism” meant that an identifiable set of narrative techniques created and characterized the genre. Developments such as printing, a large reading public, accessibility to books, and a growing middle class enabled the novel to flourish. Presumably, novelists sought realistic effects because they thought that their audiences wanted realism, or fiction closer to “nature.” To McKeon, these explanations seem inadequate. Relying on generic distinctions derived from Karl Marx and Mikhail Bakhtin, among others, he treats genres as intellectual abstractions that become entities unto themselves. In one passage quoted from Bakhtin, the novel is compared to a skeleton, as if it represented something concrete. The simile calls to mind the New Critics’ references to texts as artifacts, for it invites the reader to assume that genres, as categories in a Hegelian sense, are more rigid and cohesive than in reality they are.

According to McKeon, then, genres are not simply convenient categories loosely defined by a set of conventions. Instead, they evince a strong intellectual and historical foundation. “Genres provide a conceptual framework for the mediation (if not the ’solution’) of intractable problems, a method for rendering such problems intelligible. ... Genres fill a need for which no adequate alternative method exists.” According to his view, the novel in particular was formulated to mediate or resolve problems of generic categories and social categories. Thus, the novel attempted to resolve perplexities that arose during a time when the English were undergoing “a change in attitudes about how truth and virtue are most authentically signified.” In approaching a genre in this way, McKeon essentially defines it by an assumed function, something very different from defining it as a mode of representation or imitation reflective of external reality.

An operational conception of genre McKeon calls dialectical; the distinction applies to society and literature equally well. In both, mediation represents an important concept, that is, reconciliation of opposing forces, the essence of relationships being power. The book’s fundamental historical vision is Hegelian, with intellectual concepts representing reality and operating as if they were realities, an interpretation essential to McKeon’s dialectical approach. In Hegelian terms, opposing forces come into conflict, and the thesis-antithesis movement leads to a resolution or synthesis. Thus, as the middle class in England grew, the established aristocratic ideology was challenged by a progressive ideology of capitalist individualism, which in turn was challenged by a conservative ideology that sought to...

(The entire section is 1976 words.)