The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014


Robert L. Caserio

The term modernist in the early twentieth century came to mean an iconoclastic response to long-established conventions. (The meaning partly derives from a turn-of-the-century adjective for rebellion against orthodox religious authority.) In the history of fiction, the modernist novel stands out for the ways in which its content subverts traditions of social order and moral conduct. Complementing the subversive aims, modernist fiction disruptively experiments upon inherited forms of representation, and opposes ordinary or clichéd uses of language and ideas.

In line with such disruption, the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, in The Dehumanization of Art (1925), defines modernism in terms of abstraction and dehumanization, both of which undermine literary realism. Literary realism, according to Ortega, asks its audiences to identify with the persons and experiences it represents, and to overlook the artifice inherent in aesthetic representations. In contrast to the objects of literary realism, an object of modernist art “is artistic only in so far as it is not real....Art has no right to exist if, content to reproduce reality, it uselessly duplicates it.” The modernist, Ortega asserts, is “brazenly set on deforming reality, shattering its human aspect, dehumanizing it” (1968, trans. Helen Weyl, 10, 48, 21).

James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) exhibits thematically and formally a characteristically modernist rebellion. Its Irish hero refuses to pay service to the conventional assumptions about life, conduct, and meaning that are defined by church, country, and family. Those assumptions require, he discovers, factitious or worn-out constraints on liberty (he feels those constraints operating even in anti-imperialist, nation-centered politics in Ireland). Joyce's employment of fictional form and verbal ingenuity complements the hero's rebellion. Flouting readers' assumptions about storytelling, Joyce undermines narrative itself. By intensively joining free indirect discourse with a prose equivalent of visual impressionism, and by scrupulously avoiding clichéd language, Joyce's “portrait” appears to be a prose version of lyric poetry more than a novelistic tale. The innovative development directs a reader to attend to Joyce's verbal and formal inventiveness. In Joyce's hands the art of the modernist novel becomes its leading story line, one that competes with, and exceeds, the traditional novel's investment in characters and events.

To be sure, one must beware of accepting definitions such as Ortega's or practices such as Joyce's without qualification. Joyce's Finnegans Wake (1939), which deforms English and seeks to invent a new language altogether, and which certainly shatters fiction's immediately recognizable human interest, matches what Ortega describes; yet Joyce's Portrait and Ulysses (1922) carry on the conventions of literary realism—especially in their evocation of characters with whom readers are invited, all humanistically, to identify—even as they undo those conventions. Nevertheless, paradoxical simultaneity of antithetical aims is an additional hallmark of the modernist novel—and exemplifies a characteristic irony that Ortega also ascribes to modernism.

Disruptive Innovations

The modernist novel celebrates deliberate estrangements from established orderings of life and its meanings. The hero of André Gide's L'Immoraliste (1902, The Immoralist) willfully yields to antisocial impulses that he discovers in himself. He colludes with a criminal family that poaches on his landed property (which he renounces); and he ruthlessly abandons his mortally ill wife, preferring to explore his bisexual impulses with natives of French colonial Algiers. Henry James's The Golden Bowl (1904) represents a complex adultery—between its heroine's husband and her stepmother—without bowing to conventional moral judgments about irregular liaisons; instead, James's narrative replicates the amoral intelligence with which the four parties to the adultery work out their passions. D. H. Lawrence's Women in Love (1920) includes a male protagonist who calls marriage “the most repulsive thing on earth” and asserts that “You've got to get rid of the exclusiveness of married love. And you've got to admit the unadmitted [sexual] love of man for man” (chap. 25). The heroine of Dorothy Richardson's series of novels, Pilgrimage (1915—67), declares that women “can't be represented by men. Because by every word they use men and women mean different things” (1927, Oberland, 4:92f.). Refusing patriarchal and masculinist domination, the heroine allies herself with socialism and the suffrage movement. True to rebellious modernist inspiration, however, she also later revolts against socialism and feminism, because she considers that progressive political movements, no less than conservative ones, obscure, and betray, her vital experience of being “an unknown timeless being, released from all boundaries,...yet still herself” (1931, Dawn's Left Hand, 4:364).

To complement the transgressions and transcendences that characterize the content of literary modernism, modernist novels undo narrative's reliance on discernible events. James's stories can pivot on what one of his unfinished novels calls “the force of the stillness in which nothing happened” (“Sense of the Past,” bk. 2). Gertrude Stein writes that it is necessary “to stand still” in order “to live”; standing still now must replace “what anybody does” as inspiration for “a new way to write a novel” (Lectures in America, 1935). Hence Stein's Three Lives (1909) and The Making of Americans (1925) replace choice and change, actions on which the structure of stories usually depend, with what Stein (converging with Richardson) identifies as changeless “being existing.”

Ulysses might illustrate such novelty. It invokes a likeness to the event-filled epic The Odyssey, but Ulysses reduces epic events to the minute thoughts and routines of ordinary persons on one ordinary day. The gigantic artifice of multiple styles wherewith Joyce represents trivial or banal phenomena in Ulysses, and not what “happens” in the novel, is what matters. (The novel's most discernible event is a wife's act of infidelity, but her action is superficial compared to her emotional fidelity to her husband, and to Joyce's evocation of her static being.)

Given the modernist novel's distance from events, it can appear to undo differences between action and description, or between the novel and the essay. The essayistic meditations on history that constitute Thomas Mann's Der Zauberberg (1924, The Magic Mountain) paradoxically result from its hero's withdrawal from the historical world, and from eventfulness itself, into a timeless space. Similarly replacing narrative with essayistic and descriptive components, Marcel Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu (1913—27, Remembrance of Things Past) evokes a panoramic social transformation, yet celebrates, despite the temporal extent of a “story” that requires seven volumes to encompass, a surmounting of change and time. When the modernist novel does bring actions to the forefront of what it pictures, it is likely to do so in a way that, in line with “dehumanization,” strips them of coherent or intelligible motivation, as is the case in Gide's Les caves du Vatican (1914, The Caves of the Vatican). Its hero murders a man gratuitously, for the sake of exhibiting the accidental nature of all human deeds and the arbitrariness of moral or religious codes that purport to justify actions.

Narration depends upon chronology, and novelists have always used narrative as a time machine, enabling them to move at will back into the past and forward into the future. Modernist fiction adapts this time machine to its own ends, experimenting with temporality, and even smashing the engine—perhaps as a complement to the changed status of events in modernist storytelling. Joseph Conrad's Nostromo (1904) tells the history of a South American republic. But with unprecedented audacity the narration leaps backward and forward, simultaneously compressing years and elongating moments, and involving past with present and future, in a way that makes it hard for a reader to grasp history (as Conrad models it) in terms of sequential relations of cause and effect. What can history be said to tell if such relations, as well as the character of time, are made uncertain? Nostromo makes them uncertain, partly to substitute for them the preeminence of the geography that Conrad invents for the novel. The suggestion is that a modernist vision values atemporal places and spaces more than historical relations (see SPACE, TIME). An even more audacious subversion of chronology organizes Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier (1915), which implies that the erotic passions portrayed in the novel are impervious to time, and confound historical accounting.

Virginia Woolf's novels exemplify modernist fiction's struggles with time. Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse (1927) might be Woolf's delegate in the text because she represents an author-like way of weaving persons and things into unified relation, endowing them thereby with a story and a history. Yet Mrs. Ramsay also longs for moments of being that are dissociated from relation and time, “immune from change.” Woolf allows the longing to be brutally contradicted. Killing off Mrs. Ramsay, time appears in the narrative as a starkly anti-relational force, decentering and dissolving the novel's unity. Woolf's The Years (1937) and Between the Acts (1941) continue to dramatize attempts to diminish time's dictatorial regulation of life and narrative. A bold diminution of the regulation is John Dos Passos's U.S.A. trilogy (1930—36). Dos Passos traces multiple characters' lives, but does so simultaneously and discontinuously, rarely (and only momentarily) conjoining them. Collaged juxtapositions replace storytelling's conventions. U.S.A.'s subversive form complements its underlying allegiance to political anarchism, an ideology with which modernism has an affinity.

Modernism transforms character and characterization no less than events. The English modernist Wyndham Lewis's fictions represent character as an absurd phenomenon (for Lewis, “ at the root of every true philosophy,” as he writes in “The Meaning of the Wild Body”). Persons are absurd, because their minds at are odds with their bodies, which Lewis describes as machine-like contraptions. “Men are necessarily comic: for they are all things, or physical bodies, behaving as persons.” Characterizations of the protagonists of Lewis's Tarr (1918) and The Revenge for Love (1937) evoke the pathos of this comedy. D. H. Lawrence's fiction presents another innovation. “You mustn't look in my novel[s] for the old stable ego—of the character,” Lawrence explains. His characterizations represent inchoate centers of flux, “according to whose action,” he says, “the individual is unrecognizable” (1962, Collected Letters of D. H. Lawrence, ed. H. T. Moore, 44). Woolf's Jacob's Room (1922), about a young man who is killed in WWI, constructs Jacob's life history as a collage of sketchy experiences and fleeting ideas that constitutes an essentially unformed person, a near-blank in life and narrative as well as in death. Woolf suggests that none of us is more formed a character than Jacob. The Russian modernist Andrei Bely, in Peterburg (1916—22, Petersburg), presents character as a perpetual masquerade. Uncanny dislocations of personality result. One of Bely's protagonists is described thus: “he...was not [he], but something lodged in the brain, looking out from there...until it plunged into the abyss” (chap. 3). The abyss provides a paradoxical standpoint for Bely's unsettling narrator, himself a masquerader or confidence-man. Modernist narrators are typically shape-shifters, as experimental in essence as the characters they chronicle. The narrator of Alfred Döblin's Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929, Alexanderplatz, Berlin) takes on multiple personalities, becoming by turns everything from an external observer to the protagonist to the advertisement hoardings of Berlin.

Tragic and Comic Visions

Realist novels explain human sorrow by assigning its causes to history; naturalist novels explain it by assigning its causes to biology (see NATURALISM). The explanations suggest possibilities of remedy. Modernist novels do not adopt therapeutic explanations. Hence modernist fiction presents its readers with tragic visions that are unusually stark (see COMEDY). Nostromo evaluates global capitalism's betrayal of republican governments and of the working classes as an historical outrage; but it also distances itself from approval of any political ideology, and thereby suggests that “history” and “politics” are tragically illusory frameworks of life. Eros as another source of irremediable tragic illusion is explored in The Good Soldier. Its narrator believes that sexual love, even in the case of “normal,” respectable people, makes experience “all a darkness” of underlying motives. Franz Kafka's stories and novels witness an equivalent obscurity. His Der Prozeß (1925, The Trial) features an everyman figure whose life is a senseless undergoing of prosecution for unspecified crimes. Modernism's tragic sense of life is summed up in the hero of Mann's Dr. Faustus (1948), a modernist composer. His atonal music, representing modernism's break with convention, is indifferent to harmony and melody. To secure the greatness of his art despite its apparently unmusical basis, the composer appears to make a pact with the devil, from whom he accepts his own dehumanization as the price of his achievement.

Tragedy is not the whole story of modernist fiction, however. With characteristic dissonance, it renders comic visions side by side with tragic ones. In Del sentimiento trágico de la vida (1913, The Tragic Sense of Life in Men and Peoples) the Spanish modernist man of letters and novelist Miguel de Unamuno argues that tragedy and comedy are two sides of the same coin; “passionate uncertainty” as to which of them most matters is vivifying. The critic Edwin Muir (and first translator of Kafka into English) in We Moderns (1920) believes that “tragic art is more profound than morality” because it stimulates “the desire for expression....When [the desire for expression's] rule is...obeyed Life reaches its highest degree of joy and pain, and becomes creative. This is the state which is glorified by the tragic poets” (“The Tragic View,” 226—27). The creative vitality that Muir describes manifests itself as a comic radiance in modernist novelists whose subject matter promises to be tragic. William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying (1930) transfigures poverty, death, deception, and insanity, making them simultaneously comic and tragic, by virtue of Faulkner's modernist will to forge innovative forms of expression for them. Lawrence's St. Mawr (1925) diagnoses the social world it represents as “a new sort of sordidness,” alienated from “inward vision and...cleaner energy.” The novel uses Lawrence's modernist ego-dissolving characterization to express an alternative: a world that will be more alive, “a further created being,” supervening upon civilization's tragic arrest.

SEE ALSO: Definitions of the Novel, Historical Novel, History of the Novel, Georg Lukács, Narrative Perspective, Novel Theory (20th Century), Psychological Novel.


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5. Gass, W. (1979), Fiction and the Figures of Life.

6. Kern, S. (1987), Culture of Time and Space.

7. Levenson, M. (2005), Modernism and the Fate of the Individual.