Psychological Novel

The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014

Psychological Novel

Athena Vrettos

The psychological novel is traditionally understood as a genre of prose fiction that focuses intensively on the interior life of characters, representing their subjective thoughts, feelings, memories, and desires. While in its broadest usage the term psychological novel can refer to any work of narrative fiction with a strong emphasis on complex characterization, it has been associated specifically with literary movements such as nineteenth-century psychological realism, twentieth-century literary modernism, and the “stream-of-consciousness” novel, and with narrative techniques such as free indirect discourse and the interior monologue. The term psychological novel also refers to works of prose fiction that draw upon contemporary psychological theories (see PSYCHOANALYTIC), and recent studies of the psychological novel have focused on historical convergences between the two fields.

Origins and Development of the Genre

Because the term is so flexible, there is little consensus about the origins of the psychological novel. Some trace the genre back to the earliest origins of the novel itself; others cite influences ranging from Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra's Don Quixote (1605, 1615) to genres such as the historical romance, the sentimental novel, the epistolary novel, and the spiritual autobiography (see LIFE WRITING). Some of these diverse influences can be seen in psychological novels from the first half of the nineteenth century, including James Hogg's The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824), which makes extended use of the doppelganger, or alter ego, and Stendhal's realist BILDUNGSROMAN Le Rouge et le Noir (1830, Scarlet and Black).

Regardless of its origins, by the second half of the nineteenth century the psychological novel was flourishing. Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novels constitute particularly influential examples of the genre; his intense psychological portrayals of suffering and despair were precursors to twentieth-century existentialism, and his fictional legacy extends to authors as diverse as Marcel Proust, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Franz Kafka, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and William Faulkner. Leo Tolstoy was also crucial in the development of the psychological novel. His detailed observations of the inner lives of his characters had an impact on both nineteenth- and twentieth-century practitioners of the genre. Anticipating modernist portrayals of subjectivity, both Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky embedded internal monologues—direct representations or thought-quotations from the mind of a character—in the omniscient narrative structure of their fiction.

Tolstoy's intimate and psychologically complex characterizations were echoed in a wide range of nineteenth-century novels that not only developed narrative techniques for the representation of human interiority, but also reflected and contributed to psychological debates of the period. As recent critics have demonstrated, nineteenth-century psychological novels explored new theories of emotion, attention, habit, selfhood, memory, trauma, consciousness, and the unconscious. In particular, authors such as George Eliot and Henry James were central figures in the growth of the psychological novel and the rise of psychological realism in Britain and America. Both authors drew upon their knowledge of the rapidly developing field of psycho-logy to explore the inner lives and unspoken motives of characters in works such as Eliot's Middlemarch (1871—72) and James's Portrait of a Lady (1881). Their close family connections with two of the most respected psychologists of the period—George Henry Lewes (1817—78) was unofficially married to George Eliot, and William James (1842—1910) was Henry James's brother—further shaped Eliot's and James's engagements with contemporary psychological theories. Tracing the psychology of characters through the use of free indirect discourse and omniscient third-person narration, their narratives move subtly in and out of the minds of different characters to convey their feelings, thoughts, and perspectives, and to suggest the intricate relationship between mind and body, internal motivations, and external actions. In the process, Eliot and James (like many of their contemporaries) put into practice some of the principles of nineteenth-century physiological psychology, which emphasized the material basis of the mind. James's later novels are characterized by experimentation with points of view, interior monologues, and unreliable narrators. In works such as The Turn of the Screw (1898), The Ambassadors (1903), and The Golden Bowl (1904), James's indirect and often elusive prose style conveys what Sharon Cameron has called the “omnipresence of consciousness” (1989, Thinking in Henry James, 5). These works exemplify not only James's intense psychological focus, but also his experimentation with narrative techniques that link him to both the discourse of late Victorian psychology and the developments of modernism.

James's later writings emerged in the context of a fin-de-siècle ethos that offered challenges to traditional values and literary forms, as well as a rapidly changing psychological and literary landscape. This period included the rise of the decadent movement, which championed both sexual and aesthetic experimentation, and the French Symbolist movement, which challenged the capacity of conventional language or realist literature to convey the sensation of consciousness. Instead, the Symbolists sought a condensed, highly symbolic language that emphasized images, dreams, and the imagination. The symbolist experimentations of such writers as Stéphane Mallarmé and Édouard Dujardin were important inspirations for Joyce and other modernist writers. Another contributor to this experimental period, the Norwegian author Knut Hamsun, published psychological novels such as Sult (1890, Hunger) and Pan (1894) that depict characters suffering from suicidal isolation and deep skepticism. Employing narrative techniques such as flashbacks and fragmentation, Hamsun's novels were vital influences on modern continental fiction.

Critical Emergence of the Genre

Although it did not become a standard part of the critical lexicon for identifying fictional genres until the end of the nineteenth century, the term “’psychological novel” first entered the English language as a literary insult when Eliot, in 1855, criticized “’psychological' novels...where life seems made up of talking and journalizing” (“Charles Kingsley's Westward Ho!”). By the end of the century the term was used to describe Eliot's own fiction, and it appeared regularly in encyclopedias and critical histories of the English novel, with whole chapters devoted to the genre. In these early definitions of the psychological novel authors such as Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell, and George Meredith were frequently included along with Eliot and James, as was the popular French novelist and critic Paul Bourget, whose influential Essais de psychologie contemporaine (1883, Essays in Contemporary Psychology) viewed literature and psychology as inextricably linked. However, an entry on the psychological novel from The New International Encyclopedia of 1903 declared, somewhat prematurely, that “for the time being, psychology seemed to have run its course in English fiction” (209).

Fin-de-siÈcle Psychology and the Experiments of Modernism

While some styles of psychological realism had, indeed, begun to decline in popularity by the early twentieth century, the psychological novel was far from having “run its course.” In a 1907 lecture later published as “Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming,” Sigmund Freud (1856—1939) identified the psychological novel as a distinct genre in which “the hero—is described from within. The author sits inside his mind, as it were, and looks at the other characters from outside. The psychological novel no doubt owes its special nature to the inclination of the modern writer to split up his ego, by self-observation, into many” (150). Drawing upon psychological theories of memory and consciousness, the psychological novel eventually became central to the development of literary modernism. The emergence of the memory sciences in the latter half of the nineteenth century, including French philosopher and psychologist Henri Bergson's (1859—1941) identification of mémoire pure (i.e., “pure memories” that are experienced involuntarily rather than intentionally recollected), coincided with a steadily increasing literary interest in portraying the unpredictable vagaries of memory and consciousness that had begun in the final decades of the nineteenth century. William James's analysis of “desultory memory” and Lewes's coinage of the term “stream of consciousness” corresponded to literary attempts to replicate the experience of consciousness—to convey its paradoxical combination of continuity and change—through language. Early twentieth-century writers such as Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Dorothy Richardson, William Faulkner, and Virginia Woolf fused their experiments in literary form with these new understandings of the mind. For example, in the multi-volume À la recherche du temps perdu (1913—27, Remembrance of Things Past), Proust explores “pure” or involuntary memory—including, most famously, the role of the senses in triggering memories. Early twentieth-century psychological novels were frequently narrated from within the minds of individual characters, employing first-person narration combined with interior monologue to trace the intrusions of fugitive memories, thoughts, associations, and perceptions in the experience of consciousness. In addition to Proust's semi-autobiographical fictional memoir, Richardson's multi-volume Pilgrimage (1915—38), Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1914—15) and Ulysses (1922), Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927), and Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury (1929) all experiment with portraying the evanescence of thought, thereby developing the literary form that author May Sinclair first described in a 1918 review of Richardson's fiction as “a stream of consciousness, going on and on” (“Novels of Dorothy Richardson”). Although these literary attempts to reproduce the experience of consciousness drew most directly upon the theories of Bergson (1896, Matter and Memory) and William James (1890, Principles of Psychology), they also coincided with (and, in the later works, drew inspiration from) Freud's revolutionary theories of selfhood and the unconscious.

Although Proust, Richardson, and Joyce all published their groundbreaking narratives in the years between 1913 and 1915, Joyce's Portrait offered the most radical departure from previous fictional forms. Immersing the reader in the fragmented thoughts and memories of a child, Joyce's opening language provides no explanatory critical framework, no traditional narrative frame, no recognizable entry point—only the abrupt immediacy of mental perceptions and sensations (see CLOSURE). Even more than the publication of Portrait, however, the appearance of Joyce's Ulysses in 1922 reconceived the psychological novel through its revolutionary linguistic rendering of the mind (see LINGUISTICS). Tracing the “labyrinth of consciousness” through three central characters, and transpiring within the period of a single day, Ulysses has been hailed as “the fountain-head of the modern psychological novel” (L. Edel, 1972, The Modern Psychological Novel, 2nd ed., 75). If Ulysses offers an immersion in the playful fluidity of waking consciousness, Joyce's notoriously elusive final novel, Finnegans Wake (1939), probes the nocturnal, unconscious mind, weaving a dense linguistic tapestry of dream associations and allusions, puns and portmanteau words that assault the boundaries of the psychological novel's coherence and form.

Critical and Postmodern Reactions

May Sinclair predicted that such “stream-of-consciousness” narratives would constitute the future of the novel, and indeed this version of the psychological novel, which also has been termed the “novel of introspection,” “the subjective novel,” and, in France, the “modern analytic novel,” became one of the defining experiments of literary modernism. Sinclair declared that the twentieth-century novelist “should not write about the emotions and the thoughts of his characters. The words he uses must be the thoughts—be the emotions” (“The Future of the Novel”). Leon Edel later described this as the difference between subjective states being “reported” and being “rendered” (19).

However, over the course of the twentieth century, there were numerous critiques of the psychological novel, the most famous of which is MARXIST literary critic Georg LUKáCS's claim that the genre sought “to achieve an idealist and reactionary separation of the psychological from the objective determinants of social life” (1983, Historical Novel, 240). Lukács observed that as a result of this separation, “all social criticism disappears.” Others have complained that the psychological novel is overly intellectual, devoid of action, or lacking in subtlety. Carl Jung (1875—1961) objected that the psychological novel “does too much of the work for the reader. Its psychology is self contained and explained by the author,” leaving nothing for the psychologist to interpret (1930, “Psychology and Literature”). More appreciative critical studies, especially of the modernist psychological novel, flourished in the 1950s and 1960s and helped to define the genre (Edel, Friedman).

Although early twentieth-century writers and critics often framed modernist versions of the psychological novel in opposition to their nineteenth-century counterparts, more recent critics have reevaluated this relationship to find a wide-ranging and complex narrative engagement with contemporary psychological issues in both periods. Recent critical approaches to the psychological novel range from rigorous narratological analyses of the literary presentation of consciousness (Cohn) to historical and theoretical studies of the close relationship between fiction, psychology, and neurology in different eras (Bourne Taylor; Davis; Matus; Ryan; Shuttleworth; Stiles). This latter approach, in particular, has generated an array of critical analyses of the relationship between fiction and psychology, especially in the nineteenth century. Sally Shuttleworth, for example, has demonstrated the extensive use of phrenology, physiognomy, associationist psychology, and the rhetoric of the self-help movement in Charlotte Brontë's fiction, and has explored the intersecting embodiment of memory in Victorian psychology and the novel. Jill Matus has explored early theories of trauma in the nineteenth century, especially in the work of George Eliot and Charles Dickens. Other studies of the intersections between psychology and the psychological novel have ranged from detailed studies of individual authors, such as Nancy Paxton's examination of the dialogue between Eliot and Herbert Spencer on issues of psychology, evolution, and gender, to broad studies such as Nicholas Dames's exploration of forgetting, nostalgia, and theories of memory in Amnesiac Selves (2001), and his analysis of the relationship between reading, literary form, and the nineteenth-century neural sciences in The Physiology of the Novel (2007).

By the middle of the twentieth century, the central role of the psychological novel in literary modernism had inspired a range of postmodern reactions that challenged both the form of the “stream-of-consciousness” narrative and its predominant focus on characters' subjective, psychological experiences. Though notoriously slippery to define, postmodernism's often playful metafictional pastiches of prior literary forms frequently include the use of deliberately superficial characters—characters that are intentionally flat, ghostly, or cartoon-like—in part to interrogate the conventions and assumptions of the modern psychological novel. Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) and Gravity's Rainbow (1973) and Don DeLillo's White Noise (1985) are examples of this postmodern trend. There are still, however, numerous examples of the psychological novel in contemporary fiction, as we see in Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (2003), which merges the psychological novel with both the DETECTIVE novel and the diary to portray the world through the eyes and mind of an autistic teenager. Such fusions of the psychological novel with other genres suggests that contemporary authors are finding creative new directions for the future of the psychological novel and should make critics wary of prematurely pronouncing its decline at this new turn of the century.

SEE ALSO: Cognitive Theory, Mythology, Time.


1. Bourne Taylor, J. (1988), In the Secret Theatre of Home.

2. Campbell, M. and S. Shuttleworth, eds. (2000), Memory and Memorials, 1789—1914.

3. Cohn, D. (1978), Transparent Minds.

4. Davis, M. (2006), George Eliot and Nineteenth-Century Psychology.

5. Matus, J. (2008), “ Historicizing Trauma,” Victorian Literature and Culture 36: 59—78.

6. Paxton, N. (1991), George Eliot and Herbert Spencer.

7. Ryan, J. (1991), Vanishing Subject.

8. Shuttleworth, S. (1996), Charlotte Brontë and Victorian Psychology.

9. Shuttleworth, S. and J. Bourne Taylor, eds. (1998), Embodied Selves.

10. Stiles, A., ed. (2007), Neurology and Literature, 1860—1920.