The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014


K. M. Newton

Plot is one of the oldest of critical terms, since it is a translation of Aristotle's mythos in the analysis of tragedy in his Poetics (ca. 335 BCE). For him it meant “the organization of events” (11), and is the most significant of the six elements that he argues constitute tragedy; it is the “most important thing of all” (11) and the “source and...soul of tragedy” (12). He emphasized the need for a coherent relationship between the incidents that combine to produce a tragic drama in order that the action of the play is not episodic but exists as an organic whole. Intrinsic to his concept of tragedy is “effecting through pity and fear the purification of such emotions” (10) and plot functions as the most important formal element in achieving this (see COMEDY).

Though Aristotle's concept of plot is highly formalist, it has influenced the novel, but it should be remembered that the origins of the novel derive more from narrative modes such as epic and romance than from dramatic modes such as tragedy (see FORMALISM). As Erich Auerbach has argued, the development of narrative from the classical period onward can be persuasively discussed in terms of the representation of reality. In the first chapter of his study Mimesis, entitled “Odysseus' Scar,” he suggests that the basis of the representation of reality in Western literature is to be found in two ancient and opposed types of narrative: the Homeric epics and the Bible. In their representation of reality, the one turns away from plot, the other embraces it. Auerbach claims that “the element of suspense is very slight in the Homeric poems; nothing in their entire style is calculated to keep the reader or hearer breathless....What [Homer] narrates is for the time being the only present, and fills both the stage and the reader's mind completely” (3—4). The scar on Odysseus's leg is the subject of a digression because nothing should be left in an “unilluminated past” (4). In representing external phenomena or psychological processes, “nothing must remain hidden and unexpressed...the Homeric style knows only a foreground, only a uniformly illuminated, uniformly objective present” (5). This is because “delight in physical existence is everything to [the Homeric poems], and their highest aim is to make that delight perceptible to us” (10).

In contrast, biblical narrative is dominated by plot in which suspense plays a significant role. For example, “in the story of Abraham's sacrifice, the overwhelming suspense is present” (8). Whereas in Homer the past is absorbed into the present, thus abolishing history as difference, in the Bible story “time and space are undefined and call for interpretation,” so that “Abraham's actions are explained not only by what is happening to him at the moment, nor yet only by his character...but by his previous history” (9). In a Homeric narrative like The Odyssey, “this ’real’ world into which we are lured, exists for itself, contains nothing but itself; the Homeric poems conceal nothing, they contain no teaching and no secret second meaning,” while in contrast “[w]hat [the Biblical narrator] produced...was not primarily oriented toward ’realism’ (if he succeeded in being realistic, it was merely a means, not an end); it was oriented toward truth....The Bible's claim to truth is not only far more urgent than Homer's, it is tyrannical—it excludes all other claims” (11—12).

For Auerbach, these narratives are opposed in style and in their assumptions about the nature of reality (see REALISM). In the Bible, in his reading of it, reality must be part of a narrative structure and interpreted if truth is to be revealed; the meaning or significance of events and human speech cannot necessarily be taken at face value, as they are in Homer, if they are to be understood. The plot of the biblical narrative gives meaning to the world even if that meaning is dependent on a theological conception of truth. Homer's narrative, according to Auerbach, being unconcerned with truth or meaning beyond the experience of physical existence, thus lacks the intellectual basis of biblical narrative. But does the Bible not sacrifice experiential reality in incorporating it within a structure of plot and framing it within a single concept of truth? Is it not also open to the objection that reality is distorted by its theological agenda? It is only with the emergence of the novel in the modern era, Auerbach goes on to suggest, that a narrative form is created that aspires to overcome the opposition between the Homeric and the biblical representation of the real. But can it be done persuasively? Can the limitations of each approach be overcome?

An overview of the eighteenth-century novel shows that its dominating drive is to represent in narrative social reality and the human experience of it. But in giving that narrative a structure that goes beyond narrating a story as a mere sequence of events through the construction of a plot, can a convincing representation of reality be created? Novelists from the eighteenth century onward can be seen as grappling with this problem, at a conscious or unconscious level. In Moll Flanders (1722), Daniel Defoe's method is to use first-person narration in which the narrator tells the reader the story of her life. Because the narrator is telling her own story, it stands in place of a plot that connects events and incidents, as the consciousness and personality of the narrator give them significance, Moll being at the center of all that is narrated. Yet is first-person narration enough in itself to transform mere story into plot and overcome the objection that the narrative is essentially episodic? In the epistolary novel, identified with Samuel Richardson in the novels Pamela (1740—41) and Clarissa (1747—48), the characters still narrate in the first person but in letters which relate to specific experiences and to the personal problems and issues that derive from them. Suspense is built into the narrative, especially Clarissa, as the reader does not know what is going to happen next and how threatening situations will be resolved. This provides a plot structure, but one which is integrally connected with the tangible experiences of Clarissa Harlowe, the most important letter writer in the novel, so that it appears that there is no separation between plot and character. The intensity with which the letters are written gives the experiences being recounted a powerful sense of presence even if they are not happening precisely at the time of writing. Another advantage of the epistolary form over Defoe's first-person narration is that more than one character can be brought into play as the letters are exchanged, and provoke responses from the recipients.

Henry Fielding rejected Richardson's method. In Tom Jones (1749) he constructed a narrative in which virtually every character or incident is incorporated into the novel's much admired plot, with the narrator represented as a historian writing about real events, thus giving the narrative credibility. Jones's experiences are described in detail but the narrator can also distance himself from them and reflect on the wider issues they raise. This became an influential narrative form for mid-Victorian novelists. That there was doubt in this period as to whether novels could legitimately claim to represent reality with any authenticity is strongly suggested by Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy (1759—67), which satirizes any attempt to create a plot that can make sense of reality, thus mocking the novels of both Richardson and Fielding. Another significant development was the reaction against realism with the emergence of the GOTHIC novel in the later eighteenth century. Though not rejecting realism as such, it introduced fantasy and the supernatural, and is particularly notable for making plot the central element in the narrative through emphasizing suspense and mystery, with the result that complexity of character and theme become subordinated to plot.

Jane Austen famously mocked the gothic novel in Northanger Abbey, published posthumously in 1818, but probably written in 1798—99. Austen is not generally seen as a major innovator but her fiction can be seen as being aware of and, at a formal level, responding to the work of her eighteenth- century predecessors, especially in regard to her handling of plot. Like Fielding, she uses third-person narration, but her narrator is not a historian and there is little of Fielding's general reflections on life and the world. The novel is narrated at the time the action is happening and point of view is primarily focused on the main character without judgment from a future perspective being explicit. This means that the plot is not organized in such a way as to give the reader at a first reading knowledge superior to that of the main character. Even though narration is in the third person, the use of free indirect speech—which merges third-person narration with the character's point of view in her own language—gives the reader a strong sense of empathy with the character and defers judgment (see DISCOURSE). Austen also exploits her reading of gothic fiction by making suspense or a situation that does not seem open to resolution integral to her plot, most obviously, as in Pride and Prejudice (1813), whom the heroine shall marry, given that the obstacles in the way of a satisfactory marriage might seem insuperable. The ambiguity of reality is also a feature of the Austen plot. In Emma (1816), the eponymous heroine is continually misreading events and the behavior of other characters, partly motivated by the limits of her life and the influence of romantic ideas on her mind. The reader, however, knows no more than Emma, which leads to a more active involvement in the novel's plot since the reader has to interpret the same ambiguous events and actions as Emma. For this reason, Emma can be compared to a DETECTIVE story. An advantage of this approach to plot is that, as in Richardson, there is no separation between character and plot. Emma's mistakes and misjudgments constitute the plot and at the same time reveal her character both to herself and to the reader. This leads to ethical reflections on Emma's part and potentially also on the part of the reader. A well-known critical comment of Henry James has strong application to Austen: “What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the determination of character?” (1988, 174). It is likely that Austen, in her use of a single plot and a restricted point of view, was a more significant influence on him than he was prepared to admit.

For mid-Victorian novelists Austen's fiction was seen as too narrow in scope for their purposes. Walter Scott famously contrasted her “exquisite touch” with his “Big Bow-Wow strain” (Southam, 155). Scott's creation of the HISTORICAL novel expanded the horizons of fiction and was a major influence on French social realism of the first half of nineteenth century, notably in the novels of Stendhal and Honoré de Balzac. These influences may have affected Victorian novelists in England, for they adopted a new approach to plot, one which they no doubt believed could best represent the more complex social world of the mid-nineteenth century. In contrast to Austen's use of a single plot with the point of view confined to one character, the multi plot novel was created, with Charles Dickens, W. M. Thackeray, George Eliot, and Anthony Trollope being its best-known exponents.

Eliot's Middlemarch (1871—72), for example, begins like an Austen novel with the upper-middle-class heroine, Dorothea Brooke, living in a small community and, like Austen's Emma, prone to perceive reality in the light of her imaginative constructions. In the Austen plot, the heroine's mistakes and misinterpretations are eventually overcome or resolved and the audience has the expectation of there being a happy ending in marriage with a man who eventually proves to be a worthy husband. Middlemarch confronts the reader with a more uncertain world. In Eliot's version of the Austen plot misinterpretation can have serious, even disastrous, consequences, and happy endings are not assured, and even if they occur the reader is likely to feel some disquiet. The Dorothea Brooke plot is just one of several in this novel, and others soon emerge, notably that relating to Lydgate. He is a doctor and scientist and through him the novel's scope is greatly widened. The multi-plot in Middlemarch leads to the narrator with a limited point of view, as in Austen, being replaced by a dominant Fielding-influenced narrator who can move from representing the points of view of several characters to standing apart from all the characters and reflecting or commenting on the action and its implications. Readers can be pulled up sharp in their sympathetic perception of Dorothea by the narrator's intervention in chap. 29: “But why always Dorothea? Was her point of view the only possible one with regard to this marriage?” This is disingenuous on the narrator's part, as the plot up to this point has encouraged the reader to see things from Dorothea's point of view, and in this radical departure the reader is exposed to the idea of the relativity of points of view in regard to how reality is perceived and interpreted, and thus to the need for the novel to have multiple plots in order to create a more complex conception of the real.

The multi-plot novel is open to the objection that it is episodic and irreconcilable with the Aristotelian conception of how plot should function, though novelists like Dickens, Eliot, and Trollope could have argued that they were following Shakespeare's practice with regard to plot rather than classical models. They also attempt to avoid the episodic by the use of structural and thematic links between different plots in order to create narrative unity. In Dickens's Little Dorrit (1857) the various spheres of the novel are connected both literally and metaphorically by a recurrent prison-motif reinforced by patterns of imagery, though hardly any commentators on the novel at the time seem to have noticed this (Collins, 20031980). In Middlemarch the narrative draws attention to parallels between the various plots in the titles of the Books that make up the novel, such as “Waiting for Death” and “Three Love Problems.” The deaths of Casaubon and Featherstone, which affect all of the plots of the novel, have been seen as Eliot's using “coincidence” as a formal device to create narrative unity (Hardy, 19591959). This might suggest that linking of these deaths belongs to “story” in itself as a sequence of events, but it is the narrator who creates thematic connections between the deaths by organizing the narrative through plot to highlight parallels between events that another observer would not necessarily see. The various plots are designed by the narrator to give structure to the narrative and this organization is not independent of the narrator's perceiving and interpreting mind.

Despite the intricacy of the structure of multi-plot novels such as Middlemarch, Henry James criticized them for lacking form, which made them irreconcilable with his concept of art. In a review, he famously said, “Middlemarch is a treasure-house of details, but it is an indifferent whole” (qtd. in Haight, 81). He believed that for form to function authentically in the novel there must be only a single plot governed by one dominating point of view. In a more general attack on the multi-plot novel, mentioning specifically Thackeray's The Newcomes (1853—55) and Leo Tolstoy's Voyná i mir (1865—69, War and Peace), he wrote, “But what do such large loose baggy monsters, with their queer elements of the accidental and the arbitrary, artistically mean?” (1988, 84). James was an influence on an important strand of the modernist novel in which plot is increasingly downgraded (see MODERNIS). James's later novels become more and more complex in their organization and use of language. A crude summary of novels such as The Wings of the Dove (1902) or The Golden Bowl (1904) reveals that these novels do have plots but that the plot has little importance in itself. In the more experimental novels written during the modernist period, such as those by James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, plot is—if not discarded, which may be impossible—minimal at best. Modernist novels look toward other means of organizing narrative. The downgrading of plot reaches perhaps its highest point in Woolf's To the Lighthouse (1927), where both historical and personal events that would have been crucial to the plots of earlier novels are merely mentioned in passing. In the very short second section of the novel, the dominant character of the first section, Mrs. Ramsay, dies; WWI takes place, in which her son is killed; and her daughter dies in childbirth. All of these, of course, have effects, but they are of little interest to Woolf at the level of plot.

One reason for the retreat from plot in modernism and in later fiction influenced by modernism may be that novelists tended to share James's view that it was futile for the multi-plot novel to try to capture something as multifarious as reality or the many aspects of society, and that if the novel was to succeed as art it had to aspire to “organic form”—“I delight in a deep-breathing economy and an organic form” (1937, 84)—in order to achieve an authentic artistic unity. But perhaps a more important reason is that just as plot-driven gothic romance emerged in the later eighteenth century as an alternative to the dominant realist mode, in the latter half of the nineteenth century the “Sensation Novel” challenged the dominance of social realism, and a more radical division than was apparent in the past began to develop between “literary” and “popular” fiction. Plot dominates the novels of “sensation” writers, particularly the devices of suspense, surprise, and intrigue, which keep the reader turning the pages to discover what will happen next and how problematic situations will be resolved, albeit with a sense of certainty that they will be. Trollope, in his Autobiography, first published posthumously in 1883, contrasts the kind of novel he as a mid-Victorian realist tried to write with the plot-dominated fiction written by Wilkie Collins—“with Wilkie is all plot” (156)—the best-known sensation novelist:

When I sit down to write a novel I do not at all know and I do not very much care how it is to end. Wilkie Collins seems so to construct his, that he not only, before writing, plans everything on, down to the minutest detail, from the beginning to end; but then plots it all back again....One is constrained by mysteries and hemmed in by difficulties, knowing, however, that the mysteries will be made clear and the difficulties overcome at the end of the third volume. Such work gives me no pleasure.... (159—60)

Trollope had used intrigue and suspense in the plots of his own fiction but almost regarded them as mere expedients to keep the plot going and the reader interested. In chap. 30 of Barchester Towers (1857), the narrator writes of Eleanor Bold: “How easily would she have forgiven and forgotten the archdeacon's suspicions had she heard the whole truth from Mr. Arabin. But then, where would have been my novel?” He creates suspense and then dissipates it; the reader is assured in chap. 15 that “it is not destined that Eleanor shall marry Mr. Slope or Bertie Stanhope.” Trollope's narrator is well aware that what most readers of novels may want is to be kept in suspense, at least until near the end of the novel, but pretends that they are too high-minded to need such devices in order to be interested in the characters and their situations.

Novelists like Dickens, Eliot, and Trollope were able to take the novel seriously as literature but also appeal to a wide audience. Plot remained central, together with devices like suspense and surprise, but it did not break free from character, theme, or style. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there is a serious split in the reading public for fiction: the novel that aspires to be “literary,” with its downplaying of plot and page-turning devices, becomes the interest of a minority. The great majority of novel readers in the late nineteenth century and beyond, however, read fiction in which plot is overwhelmingly important, such as the sensation novel (see MELODRAMA) and gothic fiction—Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897) being the best-known late nineteenth-century example of the latter. The popular novel becomes increasingly associated with plot-dominated genres such as crime and detective fiction, horror, fantasy, and family sagas. This situation continues, as is apparent from bestseller lists. Bestselling novels seldom win literary prizes, which generally go to the kind of “literary” fiction that underplays plot in favor of linguistic inventiveness, imaginative sweep, or narrative experiment. The winners of such prizes can sell many copies, but hardly compete with the plot-driven bestsellers of genre fiction. Edmund Wilson perhaps articulated the attitude of those who favored the novel with literary aspirations over plot-dominated fiction in a 1945 essay in The New Yorker: “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?”

However, in the latter part of the twentieth century this picture changed somewhat when the influence of postmodernism on fiction saw the revival of plot as a central element in novels with literary aspirations. A significant factor was that many novelists had studied literature as an academic discipline, and this academic background created a self-conscious awareness of literary styles, conventions, and genres, and their historical development (see HISTORY). Narrative in particular had been subject to particularly powerful academic study. Russian FORMALISM had made significant contributions: Vladimir Propp's study, Morphology of the Folktale (1928), set out to demonstrate that the plots of folktales were variants on the same set of structural elements, and Viktor Shklovsky devised the terms fabula and juzhet to differentiate between the basic elements of narrative, fabula being events or incidents in the order in which they happened, and juzhet the arrangement of those to create a plot or narrative structure to serve literary ends. These ideas were influential on French structuralists—who used as equivalents for the Russian terms histoire and récit (usually translated as “story” and “discourse”)—with Algirdas Julien Greimas, Roland Barthes, and especially Gérard Genette making significant contributions to what came to be called narratology. American theorists such as Wayne C. Booth and Seymour Chatman also made important contributions to narrative theory (see NARRATIVE; STRUCTURALISM).

Barthes was the most polemical of these theorists, especially in his attitude to realism and plot in the novel. His study S/Z (1970) analyzed the realist text and saw it as consisting of lexies or minimal functional units which are governed by a set of codes. Two of these codes related to plot: the “proairetic” code organizes action in order to create suspense while the “hermeneutic” code operates in terms of mysteries or enigmas within the narrative and defers their resolution. Barthes was generally hostile to the REALIST novel which, as he saw it, claimed to represent reality truthfully but in fact constructed, on the basis of a set of codes, what was an inauthentic version of reality rooted in IDEOLOGY. He advocated a break with “readerly” realism in favor of “writerly” experimental fiction which operated independently of such codes. The other structuralist critics were less political than Barthes and tended to confine themselves to how the elements of narrative functioned without drawing political conclusions. Poststructuralist critics were critical of the use of value-laden binary oppositions in narratology: Jacques Derrida questioning the opposition between story and discourse and Barbara Johnson, a former student of the leading American deconstructionist, Paul de Man, destabilizing Barthes's opposition between the readerly and the writerly text.

The postmodern novel arises out of this critical and theoretical background, since an awareness of narratological theory becomes part of the content of fiction. In contrast to fiction influenced by modernism, the postmodern novel does not as a matter of principle try to discard plot or at the very least reduce it to a minimum. Plot is used, but with the consciousness that it is a fictional device and therefore not to be seen as reflecting reality in any straightforward sense. In much postmodern fiction plot operates in terms of various sets of conventions which are open to PARODY or pastiche (Hutcheon). It can still be integral to the pleasure of the text even if there is skepticism about any claim that it can offer privileged insight into the nature of reality.

It could be argued that some pre-twentieth-century novelists, even if deprived of narratological theory, also used plot with a proto-postmodernist awareness that it constructed the world rather than reflected it, even if they would have resisted the extreme skeptical view that there is a radical discontinuity between the structure of narrative and reality. In her essay, “Notes on Form in Art” (1868), George Eliot stresses that the structure of works of art is imposed by the mind on the world: “And what is structure but a set of relations selected and combined in accordance with the sequence of mental states in the constructor, or with the preconception of a whole which he has inwardly evolved?” (356—57). The passage in chap. 27 of Middlemarch in which events are compared to scratches on a pier-glass expresses the same idea: when the light of a candle is held against the scratches they appear to be concentric but examined without such a light being applied “[i]t is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially.” This is applied to the ego of any character, but it also must apply to the creation of a complex multi-plot novel.

Trollope sometimes goes further than this and was attacked by Henry James for doing so: “when Trollope suddenly winks at us and reminds us that he is telling us an arbitrary thing, we are startled and shocked in quite the same way as if Macaulay or Motley were to drop the historic mask and intimate that William of Orange was a myth or the Duke of Alva an invention.” For James, it is “suicidal” for a novelist to break the realistic illusion by revealing that the novelist has made up or manipulated the plot to serve his or her own purposes; if the novel is to have credibility it must “relate events that are assumed to be real” (qtd. in Smalley, 536). But for Eliot, Trollope, and many novelists associated with postmodernism, to reveal that plot constructs the world it brings into being and to mock some of the devices that novelists have used does not necessarily undermine fiction's claim to represent reality. Any representation will be an interpretation, as James was very well aware, even if at the time of writing his essay on Trollope he believed novelists should cover this up. Trollope's claim to be one of the major realist novelists of the nineteenth century has been unaffected by his occasional playfulness, and novelists associated with postmodernism have been able to produce novels in which plot plays a strong role without undermining their claim to be serious novelists writing literary fiction. Though there have been different attitudes toward plot by novelists, as long as the novel survives as a form it seems certain that it will always have a part to play.

SEE ALSO: Adaptation/Appropriation, Closure, Philosophical Novel, Serialization.


1. Aristotle (1996), Poetics, trans. M. Heath.

2. Auerbach, E. (1957), Mimesis, trans. W.R. Trask.

3. Barthes, R. (1990), S/Z, trans. R. Miller.

4. Booth, W.C. (1961), Rhetoric of Fiction.

5. Brooks, P. (1984), Reading for the Plot.

6. Chatman, S.B. (1978), Story and Discourse.

7. Collins, P. (1980), “ Little Dorrit: The Prison and the Critics,” Times Literary Supplement, 18 Apr.: 445—46.

8. Derrida, J. (1979), “Living On,” in H. Bloom et al., Deconstruction and Criticism.

9. Eliot, G. (1992), Selected Critical Writings.

10. Garrett, P. (1980), Victorian Multiplot Novel.

11. Genette, G. (1980), Narrative Discourse, trans. J.E. Lewin.

12. Haight, G.S., ed. (1966), Century of George Eliot Criticism.

13. Hardy, B. (1959), Novels of George Eliot.

14. Hutcheon, L. (1988), Poetics of Postmodernism.

15. James, H. (1937), Art of the Novel.

16. James, H. (1988), The Art of Criticism.

17. Johnson, B. (1980), Critical Difference.

18. Prince, G. (1982), Narratology.

19. Smalley, D., ed. (1969), Trollope.

20. Southam, B.C., ed. (1976), Jane Austen.

21. Trollope, A. (1999), Autobiography.

22. Watt, I. (1963), Rise of the Novel.