Novel Theory (20th Century)

The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014

Novel Theory (20th Century)

Kent Puckett

What characterizes novel theory in the twentieth century? In the broadest terms the phrase “twentieth-century novel theory” refers to any and all thinking about the novel over the course of those hundred years. Insofar as the novel emerged in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as a distinctly authoritative literary form, novel theory is the large and disparate effort to account for the rise, shape, and limits of the novel as a literary form and as a historical phenomenon. However, if the novel has encouraged many kinds of critical response, there are a few key concepts that give the field of novel theory thematic and intellectual coherence. Oddly enough, one of the most important of these concepts comes from someone who had relatively little to say about the novel: the German sociologist Max Weber (1864—1920).

The Disenchantment of the World

In his 1918 lecture “Science as a Vocation,” Weber argues that “disenchantment” marks the modern world: “The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the ’disenchantment of the world’” (1918, From Max Weber, ed. H. H. Gerth and C. W. Mills, 155). What gives modern life its character is an absence of meaning, a meaning that in other times counted on the public presence of the divine, the absolute, or the supernatural. If older, less complicated societies could look to “gods and demons” to give life its significance, to make life readable, coherent, and clear, the loss of that supernatural presence leaves the modern world in a state of alienation. The disenchantment of the world, which is for Weber an effect of the increasingly rationalized nature of knowledge production under capitalism, is not simply a theological problem. It is rather the very condition that separates the past from the present and that makes the seemingly fruitless and certainly anxious search for meaning a defining quality of modern life.

Weber's thesis encouraged others to ask what was and still is a central critical question: If modernity is characterized by its disenchantment, what aesthetic form is best suited to represent that modernity? Although there are different answers to this question, in poetics, philosophy, popular culture, and so on, many have seen the novel as the form especially suited to represent the experience of modernity. In fact, we can see the influence of Weber's thesis in otherwise unrelated kinds of novel theory. In order to trace out some of the ways in which novel theory can be understood as a response to a disenchanted modernity, it is useful to focus on three representative questions that novel theorists have asked. First, what is a novel if we take the novel as modernity's representative form? Second, when does the novel emerge and in relation to what specific social, political, or economic conditions? And, third, how does the novel represent its world?

Epic and Novel

A text that comes closest to embodying Weber's thesis is also one of the most important within the field of novel theory. Georg lukács's The Theory of the Novel, first published in 1916, was written while he was a member of Weber's circle. Lukács defines the novel in relation to epic, an earlier form that he associates with “integrated civilizations,” claiming, “Happy are those ages when the starry sky is a map of all possible paths—ages whose paths are illuminated by the light of the stars. Everything in such ages is new and yet familiar, full of adventure and yet their own” (29). Because these ages organize themselves around the presence of what he calls a “transcendental locus,” they are experienced as coherent, harmonious, and legible totalities (29). And the epic, by which Lukács means the great Greek epics, is the form that best represents the experience of that total form of life.

The novel, modernity's answer to the epic, is similarly interested in representing totality. However, because inhabitants of the modern world cannot count on or refer to the presence of any transcendental center or foundation, since the world has become too big and thus too complicated, its totality “is bound to be a fragile or merely longed-for one” (60). As a result, the novel is the form of “transcendental homelessness,” a form caught between the urge to produce and the impossibility of producing the world as a meaningful and whole thing (61). Lukács then goes on in discussions of Miguel de Cervantes, Honoré de Balzac, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Gustave Flaubert, and others to account for the ways in which the novel approaches its compensatory, second-order totalities at the level of technique, including, for example, the novel's management of character, description, and time.

While Lukács's historical account of the novel's appearance might seem overly schematic, his distinction between epic and novel exerts tremendous influence over subsequent novel theory. In the 1930s, the Russian literary critic Mikhail bakhtin reworked Lukács's temporal distinction into a strategic, political, and structural opposition between the official, “monologic” form of epic and the subversive and even anarchic “dialogic” form of the novel. What produced the melancholy of homelessness in Lukács becomes for Bakhtin a salutary opportunity for linguistic and social resistance. Walter Benjamin (1892—1940), the MARXIST literary and cultural critic, argues in “The Storyteller” (Illuminations, ed. H. Arendt, 1936) that the novel's rise coincides with a developing print culture and the consequent decline of epic modes of storytelling. What characterizes the novel is its response to the increasingly bewildering experience of modern life: “To write a novel means to carry the incommensurable to extremes in the representation of human life. In the midst of life's fullness, and through the representation of this fullness, the novel gives evidence of the profound perplexity of the living” (87).

In Deceit, Desire, and the Novel (1961), critic and philosopher René Girard sees the novel as structured by what he calls “mimetic desire,” the shared desire that two or more characters have for the same object. Where earlier forms organized their quests around divine, otherworldly, or magical objects, which he calls “external,” the modern novel is characterized by the everyday, ordinary, “internal” quality of its objects of desire. Once the space between desire and everyday life collapses, values become contingent, enigmatic, and changeable. More recently, we can see the influence of both Lukács and Weber in Franco Moretti's The Way of the World (1987), which argues that the novel, and especially the bildungsroman, represents an attempt to recapture the effect of totality in the modern world through the narrative assimilation of the solitary individual into his or her society. The novel's usual plots, which include familiar moves toward knowledge, marriage, and death, are a response to a world that is wide but not whole.

The Rise of the Novel

If Lukács's opposition between epic and novel can seem overly stark, Ian Watt's The Rise of the Novel offers a more fully developed but nonetheless related description of the specific conditions that led to the rise of the novel in eighteenth-century England. Just as Lukács draws on Weber's sense of a disenchanted world in order to account for the novel's historical appearance and aesthetic function, so too does Watt understand the rise of the European novel as coincident with certain fundamental aspects of modern life, including increased “economic specialization” under capitalism, the new centrality of the city to national life, and the appearance of “an ideology primarily based, not on the tradition of the past, but on the autonomy of the individual” (61, 60). As the middle classes escaped from the crush and din of cities into newly developing suburbs, a complex notion of privacy emerged. First, a desire for privacy arose as a reaction to the alienating complexity of urban life. Second, it became a value represented by new kinds of architectural, domestic, and often feminized spaces such as the home and the boudoir. Third, privacy emerged as the newly self-conscious experience of a personal, interior, and essentially private psychic life. It is in response to the appearance of this new set of values, particularly social privacy, gendered domesticity, and psychological interiority, that the novel rises to cultural prominence as the aesthetic form best able to represent those values. As a result, the individual consciousness, the persistence of character over time, and an attention to the specificity and texture of everyday life become important aspects of what Watt identifies as the novel's ultimate generic achievement: formal realism.

Certain strands of novel theory have followed, while also revising and complicating, Watt's compelling but arguably reductive story of the novel's development from Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding, and Samuel Richardson through Jane Austen, Henry James, and others. In Desire and Domestic Fiction, Nancy Armstrong retells the novel's story in order to foreground the productive centrality of women who both wrote novels and were, as its heroines, the novel's most regular subject. Armstrong draws on the work of French philosopher Michel Foucault in order to argue that a gendered culture of the novel both represented and, in fact, helped to produce the modern subject as a gendered subject: “the modern individual was first and foremost a woman” (8).

In The Novel and the Police, D. A. Miller makes an argument about the relation between the form of the novel, whose moment of greatest cultural authority he locates in the Victorian novel, and the development of the modern subject. Also invoking Foucault, Miller argues that the novel, so often seen as a playful and potentially subversive escape from the seriousness of the social, is in fact a form that not only participates in the invention of liberal individuality but also actively disciplines its readers into good subjects: “the point of the [novel], relentlessly and often literally brought home as much in the novel's characteristic forms and conditions of reception as in its themes, is to confirm the novel-reader in his identity as ’liberal subject’” (x).

In another attempt to revise Watt, Michael McKeon complicates the history of the novel and its contexts in The Origins of the English Novel, 1600—1740. Rather than seeing the novel's rise as the unbroken movement toward the end point of Watt's formal realism, McKeon argues that the novel is, instead, a dialectical form that derives its character from the embodied tension between the residual excesses of romance and an emergent formal realism: “one central problem that Watt's unusually persuasive argument has helped to uncover is that of the persistence of romance, both within the novel and concurrently with its rise. And behind this lurks a yet more fundamental problem, the inadequacy of our theoretical distinction between ’novel’ and ’romance’”(3).

Aspects of the Novel

If novel theory is interested both in what the novel is and in when it appeared, it is also interested in the way particular aspects of its form are suited to the work of representing its world. There have been many efforts to account for the novel as an analyzable formal system. We could look to the novel theory contained in and inspired by Henry James's essays and his prefaces to the 24-vol. New York Edition of his novels (1907—9), in which James works to pinpoint the right relation of character to plot, realism to romance, and showing to telling (1934, Art of the Novel). In Aspects of the Novel (1927), E. M. Forster addresses novel basics such as “story,” “people,” and “plot.” He also coins the familiar distinction between flat characters, which “are constructed round a single idea or quality,” and round characters, which have “more than one factor in them” (67). Arguing against the Jamesian emphasis on showing over telling, Wayne Booth shows in The Rhetoric of Fiction that the novel is in the first place a communicative act, an act of telling, dependent on relations between a number of sending and receiving positions present in every narrative, including the implied author, implied reader, and the narrator.

We should turn finally to a distinction that has been central to the analysis of the novel and that can once again be understood in relation to Weber's thesis: the distinction between story and discourse (see STORY). If the term story names the “what” of a narrative or novel (i.e., the events that are to be represented), then discourse names the “how,” or the order, point of view, and pace in which those events are presented. Early twentieth-century Russian Formalists, including Viktor Shklovsky, Boris Eichenbaum, and Vladimir Propp, first introduced the distinction between story, or fabula, and discourse, or sjužhet (see FORMALISM). It has proven to be a powerful way into the novel as a system. A number of structuralist and narratologist theorists of the novel have since adopted the terms story and discourse (see STRUCTURALISM; NARRATIVE).

In Narrative Discourse, Gérard Genette builds on these concepts in order to offer a general theory of narrative. He argues that “analysis of narrative discourse...constantly implies a study of relationships: on the one hand the relationship between a discourse and the events that it recounts...on the other hand the relationship between the same discourse and the act that produces it” (26—27). Genette breaks down the analysis of the novel into questions of tense, mood, and voice in order to show that it is the necessary difference between story and discourse that makes the novel so generative a form. And Roland Barthes's S/Z builds on an exhaustive analysis of Balzac's “Sarrasine” (1830) in order to account for the plural nature of all novelistic discourse. He demonstrates that to read a novel is to apply pressure to the ways in which it only appears as a natural, singular, finished totality: “the work of commentary, once it is separated from any ideology of totality, consist precisely in manhandling the text” (15).

In these works and others, it is the distance between discourse and story, between a representation of a world and the world itself, that leads to the restlessly original force of the novel. That distance is also the way in which the melancholy that Lukács associates with the novel finds its best formal expression. Story, the ultimate meaning of things, is always available to us only through its second-order representation in discourse. Always marking that distance, the relation between story and discourse is the novel's melancholy.

The Novel in the Twenty-First Century

It is clear that much novel theory in the twentieth century focuses on a relatively restricted canon of European novels, particularly those by authors such as Goethe, Balzac, Stendhal, Austen, and Leo Tolstoy. However, as novel theory moves into the twenty-first century, critics are looking beyond its usual temporal and geographic borders. What will happen to novel theory as our understanding of the novel as a historical and a national phenomenon shifts and expands? In what way has the possibility of a world literature exposed limits to novel theory? These questions and others must at last remain subjects for other entries.

SEE ALSO: Genre Theory, History of the Novel, Modernism, National Literature, Novel Theory (19th Century); Religion.


1. Armstrong, N. (1987), Desire and Domestic Fiction.

2. Bakhtin, M. (1981), Dialogic Imagination.

3. Barthes, R. (1974), S/Z, trans. R. Miller.

4. Booth, W.C. (1983), Rhetoric of Fiction, 2nd ed.

5. Genette, G. (1980), Narrative Discourse.

6. Lukács, G. (1971), Theory of the Novel.

7. McKeon, M. (1987), Origins of the English Novel.

8. Miller, D.A. (1988), Novel and the Police.

9. Morretti, F. (1987), Way of the World.

10. Shklovsky, V. (1990), Theory of Prose.

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