The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014


Kathleen L. Komar

Most studies of the novel are comparative. When critics examine a single volume, they usually contextualize it by placing it among other novels of its time, or its NATIONAL literature, or other texts written by the same author. Ian Watt's 1957 study, The Rise of the Novel, examines the GENRE and the society that enabled its survival. Watt contextualizes and investigates genre, analyzes and compares individual British texts, and reads the novel in light of the British and continental philosophical traditions of the eighteenth century. All of these are comparative forms of analysis in a general sense.

But comparative analysis can also be used more strategically as a primary purpose and in a way that crosses national and linguistic boundaries. Moving beyond mid-twentieth-century comparative studies that tended to map developments across a number of European and American literary traditions, comparative analysis has more recently adopted a wider vision. Built upon global capital, instant communication, and technological innovation, the twenty-first century is changing the concept of the novel as a genre. Comparative analysis can help critics examine questions that demand a broader geographic, intercultural, temporal, or even intermedia perspective. The specific type of comparative analysis will depend on the kind of comparability that interests the critic. Do the texts share similar themes? Do they evidence similar structural features? Are they written in the same period or in response to the same cultural phenomena? Do they produce differing aesthetic embodiments of similar cultural or historical crises? Are they founded on particular assumptions about genre or the violation of those generic expectations? The first order of business for the comparativist studying the novel must be to define a foundation of comparability on which to build. As Jonathan Culler argues in his piece “Comparability,” the critic must explicitly articulate the assumptions and norms that underpin comparisons to keep them from becoming implicit terms. Culler cites Erich Auerbach's conception of the Ansatzpunkt as a model that creates “a specific point of departure, conceived not as an external position of mastery but as a ’handle’ or partial vantage point that enables the critic to bring together a variety of cultural objects” (270). As Auerbach puts it in “Philology und Weltliteratur,” “The characteristic of a good point of departure is its concreteness and its precision on the one hand, and on the other, its potential for centrifugal radiation” (15). Culler suggests that a theme, metaphor, detail, structural problem, or well-defined cultural function might serve this purpose.

Foundations of Comparability

A frequent basis of comparison is the examination of texts written in the same historical period but in different locations and cultural contexts. In such a study, the critic explores the kinds of interplay that take place both among the chosen texts and between each text and its specific context. Michael North's Reading 1922 (1999) and Theodore Ziolkowski's Dimensions of the Modern Novel (1969) exemplify this kind of comparison. Whether choosing a limited period or a more expansive interval, scholars can ask questions about the relationships of the literary texts to the philosophy, popular culture, technology, and historical events of that period as well as examine how various cultural developments travel across national and linguistic boundaries. How is a newly developing cinema incorporated into the fabric of literary texts in different cultures, for example? How do scientific developments such as relativity, the uncertainty principle, or psychoanalytic theory contribute to different literary structures or themes? And do these cultural developments interact differently with novels in different nations or languages? Another example of this kind of comparative study is Ross Shideler's Questioning the Father (1999), which contemplates the repercussions of the theories of Charles Darwin (1809—82) on writers in France, Scandinavia, and England in the late nineteenth century. In each of these comparative analyses, temporal proximity provides a common historical context for the texts under examination. Given this foundation of contextual similarities among texts, the reader can more readily perceive and analyze those differences in them that mark cultural or linguistic specificity. Another comparative strategy examines texts from different historical periods that reenvision themes, characters, or plots across TIME. Clayton Koelb's Legendary Figures (1998) analyzes texts by Gustave Flaubert, Walter Pater, Thomas Mann, Hermann Broch, and Thornton Wilder against the legends from which the modern novels spring. Katherine Callen King's Achilles (1991) and Kathleen L. Komar's Reclaiming Klytemnestra (2003) examine later literary incarnations of characters from ancient Greece to determine how archetypal characters come to embody different values as cultural contexts change (see MYTHOLOGY). In this kind of comparative investigation, shifts in cultural values such as heroism, aggressiveness, domination, and gender hierarchies can be traced and interrogated.

Global Comparativism

In addition to mapping out a development across time, comparativists also track ideas or themes across geographical distances and national boundaries (see PLACE). Following the themes and issues of Romanticism through the commerce in ideas between Germany, England, France, and Russia, for example, reveals a lively cultural exchange in which questions of individual identity, the interplay between spirit and matter, transcendence and damnation, and reality and the absurd all recur. A combination of both temporal and geographic comparison can yield particularly enlightening results. David Damrosch's What Is World Literature? ranges across continents from the Old World to the New and moves through periods from ancient times to the postmodern. This broad sweep allows Damrosch both to compare specific texts and to conceptualize how texts circulate and constantly change the culture from which they arise and the culture into which they are translated.

Another variety of this combined temporal and geographical comparative work occurs in studies that examine colonial assumptions in novels of the colonizer and the colonized or that compare colonial to postcolonial novels and cultures. One might think of Edward Said's Culture and Imperialism, Aamir Mufti's Enlightenment in the Colony (2007), and Olakunle George's Relocating Agency (2003) in this regard. Such comparative analysis allows the critic to examine literary texts from different cultural, political, and ethnic perspectives. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, comparative analyses have helped readers to understand the biases of history and literature written from the point of view of the politically dominant, making the perspective of the non-European writer visible in Euro-American literary studies. These comparisons helped to build the field of subaltern studies, which examines history and literature from the perspective of the colonized rather than the hegemonic power structure. Subaltern studies began in the 1980s in the field of South Asian studies where scholars examined the role played by subordinate groups, such as the peasantry or the urban lower classes, in resisting British rule. Italian Marxist critic Antonio Gramsci used this term in his “Notes on Italian History,” in which he suggests studying the relationship of such groups to one another and to the dominant political group. It is now used more generally in postcolonial studies to underline the importance of subaltern groups during the colonial and postcolonial eras. Gayatri Spivak's In Other Worlds is an important comparative contribution in this field. Her study looks at both poetic and narrative texts by Western and non-Western writers while examining the relationship of women to “high culture.”

An even more expansive comparison across geographic and cultural boundaries not necessarily related by colonial history has occurred in recent years. Scholars have analyzed texts from the Euro-American context against those written in East Asia or Africa, and compared texts written in North and South America. Haun Saussy's The Problem of a Chinese Aesthetic (1993), for example, investigates concepts of Chinese literary tradition by comparing them to European thinkers such as Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646—1716) and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770—1831) to sharpen and deepen the reader's understanding of both traditions. Scholars, such as Pauline Yu in The Reading of Imagery in the Chinese Poetic Tradition (1987), caution that critics must be particularly attentive to the genuine differences in cultures compared in this way, but much is to be gained by thinking about different cultural traditions in comparison to one another. This type of comparative analysis has helped move Euro-American literary research into a broader arena in which the traditions of Eurocentrism meet and interact with literature from Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, the Middle East, and Africa. Comparative approaches to the novel thus become truly global in scope and help to raise awareness not only of commonalities but also of cultural specificities that may lead to a different understanding of concepts such as the individual and the community.

Such studies also allow critics to analyze the interactions that occur when colonization moves from the political to the economic arena. How does an outside audience's demand for “the exotic” or for “the traditional” or for “the genuine” change how novelists in search of a broader readership write? Should one write in one's own language, which might have a few million speakers, or in English or French so as to have access to scores of millions of readers? How does the targeted audience affect the tone or point of view or rhetoric of a particular novel (see NARRATIVE PERSPECTIVE)? How do African or Latin American novels written for an indigenous audience differ from those written to be published and consumed abroad? All of these are questions that require a comparative methodology.

Comparativism, genre, and Form

Issues of genre present another way to conceptualize comparative analysis. A critic might examine which features constitute a particular kind of novel. For example, Ralph Freedman's The Lyrical Novel (1963) examines novels by Hermann Hesse, Virginia Woolf, and André Gide to identify common characteristics that determine this subgenre, which incorporates features often ascribed to poetry within the novel. Considerations of genre might also lead critics to contemplate structure in a comparative way. Eberhard Lämmert's Bauformen des Erzählens (1955, Types of Narrative), Franz Stanzel's Typische Formen des Romans (1965, Typical Forms of the Novel), and Culler's Structuralist Poetics (1975) all consider broad issues of structure across literary texts. Such studies investigate the recurrence of particular structural configurations across national lines but also trace the evolution of structures across time. Along with structure, critics examine narrative technique and forms. What Austin Warren and René Wellek or Northrop Frye might call “modes of narrative fiction” are categories and models established by critics comparing novels over broad stretches of history and geography. By examining many novels comparatively, scholars discern recurrent narrative patterns and changes in those patterns over time. They also map how such changes move across national and linguistic boundaries. Critics have examined character and plot using the same comparative methodology. In Reading for the Plot (1984), Peter Brooks reads across French and British literature, as well as across literature and psychoanalysis, to trace the mechanisms and forms that keep readers moving through a narrative. Narratology, the study of narrative and narrative structure that owes much to French structuralism and Russian formalism, is inherently comparative in its analytic strategy.

Along with plot, character, technique, and structure come issues of language and how it is used in the novel. Cutting a wide swath across European and American fiction, Wayne Booth's The Rhetoric of Fiction argues that all fiction is inherently rhetoric. The novelist presents his or her vision to the reader by using language to persuade readers of the validity of the fictional world. Booth examines how such language functions and discusses the uses of narrative voice, unreliable narrators, implied authors, and other concepts that have come to be staples in discussion of novels. He does this by comparing texts from many different cultures, which use these rhetorical techniques to condition readers to understand the novel and its characters from a particular point of view. Looking at novels against one another allows Booth to make fine distinctions among similar uses of authorial voice and perspective.

Recent Developments in Comparativism

Comparative issues of translation come to the fore when reading an original novel and examining its migration into another language and culture. The act as well as the theory of translation has become a central focus for comparativists in recent years. How does a translator convey an untranslatable phrase in a target language that uses differing idioms? Is it more crucial to preserve specific language or general meaning? How much discretion does a translator have in re-creating a novel in a new language? How is translation itself an act of comparative criticism and analysis? How do translators who are themselves novelists use translation to develop their own creative work? Questions such as these are examined in a number of comparative studies. In Invisible Work (2002), Efraín Kristal analyzes Jorge Luis Borges as a translator who believes that transformation is a crucial part of his work. Borges's translations of Franz Kafka, for example, evidence a number of changes from the original, which Kristal uses to help readers better understand both Borges and Kafka. Lawrence Venuti's The Scandals of Translation (1998) and the collection of essays Nation, Language and the Ethics of Translation (2005), edited by Sandra Bermann and Michael Wood, take a broad and insightful look at the many comparative issues that translation raises and the ways in which it challenges notions of national and cultural boundaries.

Comparative analysis also contributes to GENDER research in studies of the novel by allowing critics to examine issues of gender that run across national boundaries. Novelistic techniques or forms commonly employed by women, depictions of the position of women in society, and socially prescribed interactions of men and women in ritual or legal circumstances come into view through comparative analysis. Studies such as The Female Autograph (1987), edited by Domna C. Stanton, Reconfigured Spheres (1984), edited by Margaret Higonnet and Joan Templeton, and Gender and Genre in Literature (1991), edited by Janice Morgan and Colette T. Hall, can serve as representative examples of comparative studies that use gender as a critical focus.

The list of comparative approaches to the study of the novel could be multiplied further by including, for example, analyses of novels that share a particular theme or central problem. But this discussion should perhaps close with a view toward the future of comparative work on the novel. A recent development in comparative studies examines the novel in the context of film and other media (se ADAPTATION). Linda Rugg's Picturing Ourselves (1997) and Nancy Armstrong's Fiction in the Age of Photography (1999) both use photography to gain insight into narrative texts. The emergence of hypertext novels and the relationship of novels to cyberspace and to digital media in general have introduced new comparative models. Among the leading critics in this new arena as well as in the field of electronic literature in general is N. Katherine Hayles. Her How We Became Posthuman (1999), Writing Machines (2002), My Mother Was a Computer (2005), and Electronic Literature (2008) are major theoretical explorations of literature in a digital age. Her examination of the changing materiality of novels as they move from codex, or printed texts to digital screens, marks a movement to understand literature not just in its historical, cultural, and linguistic contexts, but also in its technological and material contexts. This may well be a branch of comparative study of the novel that will flourish in the new century.

SEE ALSO: Dialect, Editing, Feminist Theory, Intertextuality, Regional Novel, Story/Discourse.


1. Auerbach, A. (1969), “ Philology and Weltliteratur,” trans. M. and E. Said, Centennial Review 13(1): 8—9.

2. Booth, W. (1961), Rhetoric of Fiction.

3. Culler, J. (1995), “ Comparability,” World Literature Today 69(2): 267—70.

4. Damrosch, D. (2003), What Is World Literature?

5. Frye, N. (1957), Anatomy of Criticism.

6. Gramsci, A. (1971), “Notes on Italian History,” in Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, trans. and ed. Q. Hoare and G. Nowell-Smith.

7. Said, E. (1993), Culture and Imperialism.

8. Spivak, G.C. (1987), In Other Worlds.

9. Watt, I. (1957), Rise of the Novel.

10. Wellek, R. and A. Warren (1942), Theory of Literature.