Novel Theory (19th Century)

The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014

Novel Theory (19th Century)

Nicholas Dames

There was little that went under the name of “novel theory” in the nineteenth century in Europe; indeed, the first real use of the term “theory” in connection with the novel form came late in the century, with the 1883 publication of the German novelist Friedrich Spielhagen's Beiträge zur Theorie und Technik des Romans (Essays on the Theory and Technique of the Novel). This absence of an easily identifiable nineteenth-century “novel theory” has led most contemporary scholars to decide that before the twentieth century the novel had not been truly theorized. Most histories and anthologies of “novel theory” begin no earlier than the critical works of Henry James, assuming that the twentieth century was the period that belatedly attempted to understand the genre that the nineteenth century unreflectively generated (see NOVEL THEORY (20TH C.)). This is a mistake born of the nineteenth century's very different labels for, ideas about, and locations of theorizing the novel form. To excavate the novel theories of the nineteenth century, we need first to reorient our sense of where, in literary and cultural space, they could be found.

Whereas twentieth-century novel theory appeared in the form of well-shaped, often academic books, starting with Georg lukÁcs's 1920 Theory of the Novel, nineteenth-century versions tended more often to be journalistic in mode, scattered across the print runs of such important venues as the Contemporary in Russia, the Fortnightly Review or Blackwood's in Britain, or the Revue des deux mondes in France. Other locations were prefaces to controversial novels, such as those by Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, Guy de Maupassant, and Émile Zola; theories of aesthetic sensation, such as The Gay Science (1866) by the British critic E. S. Dallas (1828—79); physiologies of consciousness, such as The Emotions and the Will (1859) by the eminent British psychologist Alexander Bain (1818—1903); and the relatively new genre of the national literary history, such as Hippolyte Taine's (1828—93) Histoire de la littérature anglaise (1864, History of English Literature), David Masson's (1822—1907) British Novelists and Their Styles (1859), or Charles-Melchior de Vogüé's 1886 Le roman russe (The Russian Novel). By contrast, the most eminent critics of the period, such as France's Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve (1804—69), or Britain's Matthew Arnold (1822—88), shied away from offering any general account of the novel as either a genre or a cultural phenomenon. While most literary historians have focused on the writing of actual novelists, the novel theorists of the nineteenth century were just as likely to be journalists or occasional critics; and they were often interested in psychological science, particularly physiological psychology, one of the nineteenth century's most prevalent theories for human receptivity (see REVIEWING). Insofar as the discipline of literary studies had not yet been institutionalized in universities, the study of the novel was an amateur pursuit, often borrowing from disciplines (the natural sciences, psychology, evolutionary biology) that were more securely institutionalized. And given the novel's unparalleled popularity, nineteenth-century theorists of the novel were more willing than their twentieth-century offspring to confront not just a restricted set of acknowledged masterpieces but rather the cultural phenomenon of the novel as a whole. What the student of nineteenth-century novel theory finds, in fact, is that the century's haphazard but nonetheless suggestive accounts were attempts to confront what seemed like a new object of knowledge: the novel as a cultural medium, and novel reading as a strange cultural practice.

Understanding the Medium: Novel Reading

It is in Britain that what might be called the early “media studies” of the novel began, with the attempt to differentiate the novel from its great generic predecessor, the drama. As early as Edward Bulwer-Lytton's 1838 “On Art in Fiction,” the distinctiveness of the novel is ascribed to the way it is consumed: in private, by oneself, as opposed to the public setting of the drama. For Bulwer-Lytton, the novel is not just a new literary genre but what we would today call a new medium: a culturally significant rearrangement of communicative possibilities between producer and consumer. The pertinent result of this rearrangement is a different set of affective relations; the drama concentrates on public and universal passions, while the novel, Bulwer-Lytton insists, appeals to “those delicate and subtle emotions, which are easily awakened when we are alone, but which are torpid and unfelt in the electric contagion of popular sympathies” (145). Two elements of Bulwer-Lytton's analysis are characteristic of much of the writing done in Victorian Britain on the novel form: its value-neutral acceptance of solitary reading, and its preference for a language of affect, or kinds of feeling. A study of communicative relations—or, how solitary reading uniquely configures the possibilities of aesthetic experience—leads inevitably to a study of the reader's receptive states (see COGNITIVE).

As a result, psychologists and physiologists began to take an interest in the reading of fiction. Bulwer-Lytton's description of the novel reader's “delicate and subtle emotions” would be the terrain of much mid-Victorian work, as critics and psychologists attempted to be more precise about what those subtle emotions are, and how they are created. Britain was, from the 1840s until the late 1870s, at the forefront of European work on the physical and psychological laws of nervous receptivity, known more generally as “physiology,” and many of the important practitioners of physiology turned their attention to novel reading as an important case study of how the mind receives and processes stimuli. The most influential practitioner of this school of novel theory was G. H. Lewes (1817—78), the polymath author, literary critic, and physiologist, as well as George Eliot's partner. In a series of pivotal articles written in the middle decades of the century, as well as a collected series of lectures published in 1865 as The Principles of Success in Literature, Lewes proclaimed that the proper task of the critic was to understand how the visible forms of a literary genre work to produce certain affective results in the reader. Lewes's word for this causal connection was “construction”: the ways in which authorial workmanship—most importantly in plotting—produces certain kinds of readerly receptivity.

Other important mid-century critics followed suit. The second volume of E. S. Dallas's Gay Science offered an account of the novel as the genre of mass identity, in which the workings of plots to prohibit heroic action produce in the reader a feeling of sympathetic identification, in which we see ourselves mirrored by average, ordinary protagonists. Alexander Bain, in his magisterial The Emotions and the Will, described the novel as “the literature of plot-interest,” in which the mechanics of plot produce a distinctive psychological mechanism called “engrossment.” In France, Émile Hennequin's (1859—88) La critique scientifique (1888, Scientific Criticism) called for an esthopsychologie of the novel, which, Hennequin predicted, would understand the novel as the genre that best produced standard, comparable, invariable responses in its many different readers. As late as the 1890s critics were still turning to Lewes's idea of “construction” as a methodological goal; the British critic Vernon Lee (1856—1935), in articles like her 1895 “On Literary Construction,” made a case for novelistic technique as the micro-management of a reader's attention and sympathy. The emphasis on a reader's physiological and cognitive reception of the novel, and on what those receptions might say about novelistic form, was a primarily British methodology that nonetheless runs through much of nineteenth-century speculation on the form.


What British physiological criticism was not particularly interested in was mimesis: how the novel form managed to produce the illusion of reality. Yet the question of the novel's particular brand of mimesis, eventually to be called realism, emerged as an important one in the second half of the century. The word realism itself dated only from the late 1840s and early 1850s in France, and was initially applied to visual art; but by the 1860s and 1870s it was a central term in the debates over what, exactly, the methods and aims of novelistic mimesis might or should be. While the nineteenth-century debate over realism was often bewilderingly complicated, two central positions nonetheless emerged over the course of the century. Both could derive ultimate authority from G. W. F. Hegel (1770—1831), whose analysis in the Aesthetics of “the rich detail of the phenomenal real world” in Dutch painting provoked two radically different interpretations (173).

The first interpretation was generally associated with domestic realism of the British variety (see DOMESTIC). It explained realism as a particular subject matter: the homely, the everyday, the ordinary, like the topoi of the Dutch painting Hegel had praised. George Eliot, in her 1859 Adam Bede, argued openly for the Dutch preference for the homely and ordinary, and issued a quasi-religious call for attention to the ordinariness around us. Eliot's emphasis falls here on the quotidian aspect of what Hegel had praised; to the extent that any subject matter was shocking, unfamiliar, not corroborated by a reader's everyday experiences, it left the realm of “realism.” By contrast, a muscular and more radical version of realism advanced on the Continent, where the stress was laid less on subject matter than procedure: realism as a practice of detail. Maupassant's description, from the preface entitled “Le Roman” to his 1888 novel Pierre et Jean, is characteristic: “The most insignificant thing contains some little unknown element. We must find it....Make me see in a single word how one cab-horse is distinct from the fifty others in front of it and behind” (Maupassant, 1979, “The Novel,” in Pierre and Jean, trans. L. Tancock, 33).

Yet the emphasis on detail had an embedded subject matter. In practice, “detail” meant not the detail of Hegel's Dutch paintings—the inanimate surround of comfortable bourgeois life—but the hidden details of lower-class existence, the details that respectable readers are shielded from, knowingly or otherwise. From Edmond and Jules Goncourt to Zola, the stress on a detailed realism meant a firm downward movement of the novel's gaze: toward the unattractive facts of the lives of the urban proletariat. “This book,” the Goncourt brothers proudly wrote in the preface to Germinie Lacerteux (1864), “comes from the street” (25). Although aligned with the precision of science, realism-as-detail had an inescapably political dimension, which led Anglo-American critics to denounce its reality as partial. The powerful American critic William Dean Howells (1837—1920) responded angrily to the French notion of realism as an exposé, lamenting “the ugly French fetich [sic] which has possessed itself of the good name of Realism to befoul it” (W.D. Howells, 1959, Criticism and Fiction, 128). Yet radical novelists outside of France, such as George Moore, George Gissing, and Frank Norris, worked against their national traditions by explicitly following the French model (see NATURALISM). It remained for later novelists working in the realist mold, such as Henry James, to attempt idiosyncratic reconciliations of both versions of realism. The debate, however, persists to the present, particularly in commentary surrounding daringly “realist” film and television narratives (see ADAPTATION).

The Vanishing Author

If the debate over the meaning of novelistic mimesis had no clear winner, one central question within nineteenth-century novel theory did: the relation between authorial voice and realism. The position that eventually became an accepted truism was that a properly “realist” or “real” mimesis (the terms were often used interchangeably) needed a guiding authorial presence to vanish. Realism became aligned here with the supposed objectivity of photography and science, and—in the nineteenth-century understanding—both scientific objectivity and photographic truth were notable for erasing the shaping hand of either scientist or photographer. In one sense this claim on behalf of the entirely transparent authorial function was an old one, and continually reiterated throughout the century in a set of different metaphors. Honoré de Balzac, in the 1842 “Avant-Propos” to his Comédie humaine (human comedy), described himself as merely a “secretary” transcribing social reality without distortion. In his 1880 manifesto “Le Roman expérimentale” (“The Experimental Novel”), Zola claimed for the novel the status of an observational science. These were, however, epistemological and not technical claims for the novel; they attempted to erase the distinction between science and novel and were not tied to any particular formal feature of novelistic prose.

This began to change in the 1880s, when several key publications generated a particular aesthetic approach to realist transparency. With the publication of Friedrich von Spielhagen's Beiträge zur Theorie und Technik des Romans (Theory and Technique of the Novel) in 1883, the correspondence of Gustave Flaubert in 1883 in part and in 1887 in whole, and James's “The Art of Fiction” in 1884, this aesthetic approach had a series of foundational texts. It also had a recognizable term: impassibilité, or “indifference,” “impersonality.” Spielhagen's collection emphasized the author's responsibility to objectify every possible idea through a character's speech. James's seminal essay complained about the shattering of the mimetic illusion created by authorial intrusions of the kind beloved by Victorian novelists. For both critics, the contemporary novel was lamentably deficient in proper technique; unlike the work of British physiological novel theory, Spielhagen and James were openly prescriptive, not merely descriptive. Similarly, both Spielhagen and James made novelistic objectivity not a result of a scientific outlook, as in Balzac or Zola, but instead the outcome of a difficult aesthetic process in which the merely personal voice would be renounced.

Flaubert's letters, however, were even more influential. They provided this movement for aesthetic objectivity with memorable formulations and slogans. “An author in his book must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere,” one important declaration ran (173). Flaubert's proclamations were explicitly aesthetic—or, as above, theological—rather than appeals to scientific practice. One result of the Flaubertian shift away from scientific objectivity was to purge novel theory of the taint of radicalism; as a practice, impassibilité, unlike Zola's realism, had no obvious political connotations. Whereas Zola's roman experimentale was freighted with the legacy of scientific rationalism and leftist politics, Flaubert's aesthetics, as limned from his letters, were a matter of purely aesthetic hierarchies. The danger for Flaubert was not, it seemed, political quiescence, but the novel's usual lazy discursivity. Absent this tendency to preachiness, the novel might move up the hierarchy of artistic forms.

Such, at least, was the lesson gleaned from Flaubert, and the openly expressed desire of Spielhagen and James. And such was the birth of what would be a twentieth-century mode of novel theory: formalism. Spielhagen's idea of objectification through character became, in James's later criticism, the pivotal idea of “point of view,” the mechanism through which the author is eliminated from the scene of narration (see NARRATIVE PERSPECTIVE). In later theories of the novel this would become the famous distinction between “showing” and “telling.” What late nineteenth-century formalism did to novel theory, however, was even more significant than sidestepping the political questions that Balzac and Zola had made prominent. It occasioned a fundamental reorientation of the whole question of the novel's meaning and function. What had been a study of the novel as a medium, rooted in a consideration of novel reading, became an author-centered theory—albeit one that sought to best understand how the author might disappear. A consideration of the novel as a force in the world, a cumulative impact of numberless novels, was replaced by the careful, precise consideration of a smaller set of representative, canonical novels (Flaubert's most prominently) in order to proclaim the novel's true, proper aesthetic. With this pivotal reorientation, a new century of novel theory began.

SEE ALSO: Definitions of the Novel, History of the Novel, Psychological Novel.


1. Bulwer-Lytton, E. (1838), “ The Critic—No. 2: On Art in Fiction,” Monthly Chronicle 1: 138—49.

2. Dames, N. (2007), Physiology of the Novel.

3. Flaubert, G. (1980), Letters of Gustave Flaubert, 1830—1857, trans. F. Steegmuller.

4. de Goncourt, E. and J. (1980), Préfaces et Manifestes Littéraires, ed. H. Juin.

5. Hegel, G.W.F. (1975), Aesthetics, trans. T. M. Knox, vol. 1.

6. James, H. (1984), Essays on Literature, American Writers, English Writers.

7. Spielhagen, F. (1883), Beiträge zur Theorie und Technik des Romans.

8. Wellek, R. (1965), History of Modern Criticism, vol. 4.

9. Yeazell, R. (2007), Art of the Everyday.

10. Zola, E. (1893), Experimental Novel and Other Essays, trans. B. Sherman.