The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014


James Buzard

As long as there have been travelers encountering societies and customs foreign to them, there has been something like anthropology. The Histories of the Greek writer Herodotus (fifth century BCE) exhibit much of what we would now call anthropological or ethnographic curiosity about Persian, Egyptian, and other ways of life. And they contain, knowingly or not, a good deal of fiction as well. The “traveler's tale” has borne a reputation for unreliability, fancifulness, and fabrication for many centuries, so one might conceivably begin an account of the relationship between the novel, as a sustained fictional narrative, and anthropology in the days of the ancient Greeks. Homer's widely traveled Odysseus, the “man of many ways,” was a consummate fabulist. One strand out of the many that gave rise to the novel GENRE was surely the report of a journey to strange lands, fictionalized in such subgenres as the utopian tale and surfacing in works often claimed as immediate progenitors of the modern novel form, such as Aphra Behn's Oroonoko (1688) and Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719—22).

A more focused account of the novel and anthropology, however, best begins much more recently, at the point of transition commonly perceived to have taken place within the discipline of anthropology in the opening decades of the twentieth century. Around that time a shift of paradigms occurred in which a discipline that understood its object, human culture, as a singular, universal phenomenon began to give way to one that focused on plural, distinctive cultures. Under the former paradigm, the emphasis was temporal, the method comparative. The institutions, technologies, and arts of many societies were compared with each other to determine where each ranked in a hierarchy running from primitive to more fully evolved, from “savagery” to civilization. Over the last three decades of the nineteenth century, as anthropology became ever more firmly established among the academic professions, the efforts of its practitioners reflected the influence of Charles Darwin (1809—82) and other natural scientists who had enacted a paradigm shift of their own, away from the static taxonomies of the eighteenth century.

Anthropology in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

Anthropology would study evolution in the social domain as Darwin and others studied it in the natural. The most direct application of Darwin's thought to the social world, and the crudest, was “social Darwinism,” which many have attacked as legitimizing laissez-faire economics and the widening gulf between rich and poor that characterized the “Gilded Age” following the American Civil War (1861—65). If human interaction could be seen as the kind of pitiless competition for survival that Darwin's theory of natural selection seemed to represent, then governments and misguided ameliorative institutions needed to get out of the way, let the fight commence, and let the “best” man win. Novels of the late nineteenth-century school of fiction known as naturalism specialized in the examination of Darwinian social landscapes and of individuals' subjection to the remorseless workings of social law.

More benign forms of anthropological developmentalism feature in the work of E. B. Tylor (1832—1917), Lewis Henry Morgan (1818—81), Henry Maine (1822—88), and John Ferguson McLennan (1827—81), who proposed varying accounts of the processes by which such vital institutions as law and marriage had evolved, and whose arguments gave new dimension to such novelistic conventions as the bildungsroman and the marriage plot. One further subset of evolutionist comparativism began to emerge toward the end of the nineteenth century as a number of scholars, most notably J. G. Frazer (1854—1941), focused their attention on the study of mythology and religion, claiming to discover basic recurrent motifs in the legends and beliefs of societies widely separated from each other in time or space.

The type of anthropology that rose to dominance in the twentieth century, which is often called “ethnography,” rejected the universal scope, the comparative method, and the emphasis on the evolution of social forms over time. The new model promoted the study of single cultures as functionally integrated systems, and it developed the method of “participant observation,” which required anthropologists to live among their subjects for an appreciable amount of time. Through the efforts of pioneers like Franz Boas (1858—1942), Bronislaw Malinowski (1884—1942), and others, the anthropologist as fieldworker, who acquired “the native's point of view” through “immersion” in the foreign culture, replaced the “armchair” anthropologist of the nineteenth century, who had assembled his universal histories out of scholarly documents and reports sent to him by an army of amateur travelers. Alien social practices, institutions, and beliefs that initially might seem bizarre or even savage to the outside observer would thereby come to make sense within the distinctive totality of the culture. No practice, institution, or belief could be grasped in isolation, but only as part of a web connecting all the elements of a particular way of life. Rather than regarding the differences between human societies primarily in terms of temporal progression from primitive to civilized, twentieth-century fieldworkers construed the significant differences of the human social world as spatial. One could envision, and sometimes produce, ethnographic maps of the world indicating the territory of the globe belonging to each culture, and the boundaries between cultures were sometimes treated as impermeable.

Developments in Anthropology and the Novel

The novel has important relations to both of these phases of anthropology. The rise to dominance of the evolutionist paradigm in nineteenth-century science is roughly contemporaneous with the emergence of the bildungsroman, in which the protagonist's development from potentiality to self-realization forms the matter of the plot. The bildungsroman has also been described as “the symbolic form that more than any other has portrayed and promoted modern socialization,” opening up an anthropological perspective on the procedure by which individuals internalize the values of their cultures as they grow (F. Moretti, 1987, Way of the World, 10). Prominent examples of the form include Stendhal's Le rouge et le noir (1830, Scarlet and Black), Honoré de Balzac's Illusions perdues (1837—43, Lost Illusions), Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847), and Charles Dickens's David Copperfield (1849—50). Balzac's novel is part of his career-long series, La comédie humaine (The Human Comedy), the goal of which was to represent French society in all its aspects. This ambition resembles that of the modern ethnographer, who aims to produce an exhaustive account of that distinctive web of relations that constitutes the single culture. Novels such as George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss (1860) or Thomas Hardy's tales of the fictional English county of Wessex may be seen as combining elements of nineteenth- and twentieth-century anthropology, for they yoke representation of a circumscribed REGIONAL culture with the deep historical background associated with evolutionism.

That subset of comparativism represented by Frazer influenced many novelists and fostered an important school of criticism. Frazer's magnum opus The Golden Bough (in several editions between 1890 and 1922) treats human thought as proceeding through three historical phases: magical, religious, and (just then emerging) scientific. Spreading throughout history and across the globe, eventually growing to twelve volumes, Frazer's study advances the thesis that two archetypal figures, the “dying god” and the “scapegoat,” underlie virtually all of human myth and religion, and that at some early moment the two were fused into one, in a combination still vital in the Christianity of “civilized” Western Europe. The dying god figure, a sacrificial victim killed and reborn in a younger avatar, addressed humanity's primitive desire to ensure agricultural and procreative fertility. The scapegoat addressed a community's desire to purge itself periodically of sin or contamination. Whatever the surface differences between eras or societies, everywhere and at all times humanity was engaged in reenacting the cyclical drama of “purgation, purification, and regeneration” (J. B. Vickery, 1973, Literary Impact of the Golden Bough, 63). Frazer's intellectual outlook owed much to Scottish Enlightenment philosophers of history and to the Romantic-era novels of Walter Scott, which typically juxtapose “primitive and civilized societies, examining the connections between them” (R. Crawford, 1990, “Frazer and Scottish Romanticism,” in Sir James Frazer and the Literary Imagination, ed. R. Fraser, 21).

Thanks not only to Frazer but also to Sigmund Freud (1856—1939), the persistence of the primitive behind the façade of modern life became a major theme of modernist literature and the arts, figuring in such novels as Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1900), D. H. Lawrence's Women in Love (1920), and James Joyce's Ulysses (1922) and Finnegans Wake (1939) (see MODERNISM). These and many other works also exhibit a fascination with fertility rites and the death-and-rebirth cycle. Frazer was among the leading inspirations for myth or archetypal criticism, a significant movement in literary studies during the 1940s and 1950s, the crowning achievement of which was Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism (1957).

A related school in the study of narrative fiction had links with structuralist anthropology, largely developed by Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908—2009), who observed that myths from many different cultures bear a remarkable number of common elements (see STRUCTURALISM). The goal was to discover the fundamental storytelling logic, the conceptual toolkit shared by all human beings, constant over time and operating beneath the surface of stories ostensibly unlike one another. An important precursor was Vladimir Propp (1895—1970), who claimed to have discovered the “morphology” or basic structure of folktales (1928, Morphology of the Folktale). The quasi-scientific structural analysis of narrative, eventually labeled “narratology,” evolved into a highly technical subdiscipline that flourished in the 1960s and 1970s (see NARRATIVE).

The “Ethnographic Imagination”

In recent years, the novel's relationship to twentieth-century fieldwork ethnography has received considerable attention. There has long been an intuitive sense that the novel, particularly the nineteenth-century novel of realism, bears some relation to a social science devoted to the “thick description” (C. Geertz, 1973, Interpretation of Cultures, chap. 1) of distinctive cultures and the “manners and morals” germane to them (L. Trilling, 1950, Liberal Imagination). Not only did it make sense to regard the novelist as a type of anthropologist, but the anthropologist must also be “a novelist able to evoke the life of a whole society” (M. Mauss, 2007, Manual of Enthnography, trans. D. Lussier, 7). Nevertheless, one of the best books on the prehistory of the modern, plural “culture-concept,” Christopher Herbert's Culture and Anomie, dissents from these assumptions and mainly dissociates the novel genre from the ethnographic imagination.

Among the studies that have attempted to probe this connection are Morroe Berger's Real and Imagined Worlds (1977) and Richard Handler and Daniel Segal's Jane Austen and the Fiction of Culture. Both Michael Elliott and Brad Evans focus on late nineteenth-century American writing, particularly as it came to grips with racial and regional differences. For Elliott, modern ethnography and the literary realism that preceded it “developed similar strategies” for addressing the “representation of group-based difference” (xiv). Evans considers the thirty-year hiatus between the entrance of culture into Anglo-American anthropology (ca. 1870) and its adoption by modern ethnography (ca. 1910), contending that the anachronistic application of the culture-concept onto these crucial decades obscures the view of how variously difference was represented in them and of the forces then at work that delayed the accession of “cultures.” These two books treat such celebrated authors as Henry James, William Dean Howells, Joel Chandler Harris, and Zora Neale Hurston, along with a host of lesser-known figures. Another important study of the American context, also not limited to the novel, is Susan Hegeman's Patterns for America, which diverges from Elliott and Evans in stressing the affinities between modern ethnography and its literary contemporary, American modernism. The key to this linkage is to be found in twentieth-century anthropology's “spatial reorganization of human differences,” referred to above (32). What connects the social science and the aesthetic movement is their common “rejection of the models of teleological progress” that informed so much of Victorian intellectual life (35).

Also committed to exploring the links between ethnography and modernism, taking in British and Irish poets, novelists, and critics along with American ones, is Marc Manganaro's Culture, 1922. Here the notion of functional integration is paramount. For example, in a chapter on Joyce, Manganaro notes the “filiations” among the aesthetic theory famously presented in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), Joyce's concept of the revelatory “epiphany,” and “those ethnographic-magical moments when the materials of anthropological inquiry—the low, drab, and ordinary” come together in the vision of a single cultural network (136). Gregory Castle's Modernism and the Celtic Revival offers a specifically Irish focus, which examines the relationship between the nascent ethnographic imagination and Celtic cultural nationalism around the turn of the twentieth century (see NATIONAL). Carey Snyder's recent work treats British modernist fiction exclusively, showing how novelists such as Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, Joseph Conrad, and H. G. Wells “significantly engaged the ethnographic discourse of their day—sometimes mirroring and sometimes critically commenting on its assumptions and practices” (7). The late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century novels Snyder treats deal with the colonial contexts out of which fieldworking ethnography emerged, and they seem to have been better at raising the epistemological, political, and ethical challenges those contexts evoked than were the early ethnographers themselves, preoccupied as they were with professional self-justification and dependent as they were likely to be on colonial institutions. A similar argument is made on behalf of African novels by Eleni Coundouriotis in Claiming History.


A different approach is taken by James Buzard, who treats nineteenth-century British novels as preparing the way for modern ethnography in reverse, by developing an “autoethnographic” mode designed to represent not alien far-flung cultures, but the novelist's own. Buzard is concerned not only with thematic connections between literature and the ethnographic but also with formal ones. Looking back on the novels of Scott, Dickens, C. Brontë, and Eliot, Buzard locates in them a “reorientation and freighting with new significance of a fundamental aspect of narrative, the relationship between narrator and characters, or between what narratologists call discourse- and story-spaces” (12; see STORY). This basic duality in narrative came to function as a precursor to the alternation of outsiders' and insiders' perspectives characteristic of that modern ethnographic writing that would focus on the individual, spatially discrete culture.

Developments in anthropology and in the novel in the second half of the twentieth century have afforded another arena in which an autoethnographic body of fiction might emerge. In the era of decolonization following WWII, anthropology increasingly fell under attack for allegedly providing aid and intellectual justification for Western colonialism. In such landmark works of postcolonial analysis as Edward Said's Orientalism (1979), anthropology's methods were regarded as furnishing coercive and reductive stereotypes of non-Western peoples that made those peoples appear suited and even amenable to domination by Occidental powers. From this environment of harsh critique arose a conception of the non-Western novel as an instrument for “talking back” to those representations of non-Westerners imposed upon them from without. Authors of the newly decolonized world produced a series of novelistic rewritings of Western novels, the most notable early example being the Nigerian Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart (1958), a work understood as telling “the other side of the story” of Conrad's Heart of Darkness. In other words, it represents Nigerian tribal life from the inside rather than from the condescending perspective of the conquering Westerner. By the end of the twentieth century, fiction by writers from once-colonized portions of the world had achieved remarkable global prominence, as exemplified in the case of Salman Rushdie, and, even when not overtly reversing previous Western accounts, such fiction exhibits increasing self-consciousness about the obligation to present itself as an authentic, or insider's account of this or that segment of the non-Western world. In a significant and politically charged version of the postmodern self-referential text, postcolonial writers sometimes embraced, analyzed, cast off, or ironized their autoethnographic burden and sometimes appeared to do all these things at once (see METAFICTION).

See also: Narrative Perspective, Race Theory, Naturalism.


1. Buzard, J. (2005), Disorienting Fiction.

2. Castle, G. (2001), Modernism and the Celtic Revival.

3. Coundouriotis, E. (1999), Claiming History.

4. Elliott, M.A. (2002), Culture Concept.

5. Evans, B. (2005), Before Cultures.

6. Handler, R. and D. Segal (1990), Jane Austen and the Fiction of Culture.

7. Hegeman, S. (1999), Patterns for America.

8. Herbert, C. (1991), Culture and Anomie.

9. Manganaro, M. (2002), Culture, 1922.

10. Snyder, C. (2007), British Fiction and Cross-Cultural Encounters.