16 July 2006

Lovell, Terry. Consuming Fiction. London: Verso, 1987.

Thompson, James. "Jane Austen and History."

Watt, Ian. The Rise of the Novel. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1964.

The issues I intend to explore stem largely from Ian Watt's The Rise of the Novel. In this book, Watt's approach is Marxist, in that he interprets literature using social criteria: he posits that the novel's becoming an accepted literary genre resulted from and reflected the development of a mercantile middle class(Lovell 22). His definition of the novel through the conventions of formal realism, however, does not do justice to what we now naturally group under the heading of novel; Watt limits himself to the then(1950s)-accepted literary cannon and ignores the fact that "The majority of eighteenth century novels were actually written by women"(Lovell 39).

Watt does this, not because he felt that women were not writing fiction, but because what women wrote was not canonized. Women apparently wrote fictional romances, not literature; I will call this work domestic fiction, because it was produced by, and for, a domestic, rather than "literary," audience, and will include the "gothic" and "courtship" novels under this heading. Jane Austen, "having reached the stage enjoyed or endured for a long time now in Shakespeare, Milton, Joyce, and Faulkner studies"(Thompson 22), is the acknowledged mistress of domestic fiction's great house, and will provide a focus for my exploration.

My primary position is identical to Watt's: the novel, as he defines it, resulted from and reflected the values of the new middle-class(including the lower gentry who might accept marriage into mercantile wealth). This, however, implies that the values were new, were replacing another set of values. Through the eighteenth century, even to Fielding, classical Greek values had been accepted as the dominant ethical(and literary) paradigm. The values of the novel, as defined by Watt, came into sharp contrast with these; as the novel gained respect as literature, the values of the novel replaced those of classicism. Since, however, not everything now acknowledged as a novel was then accepted as literature, only the changing values of politically empowered men are reflected in what was called "literature"; Mary Poovey, on the other hand, seems to thinks that "Eighteenth-century woment's fiction as a whole, and especially sentimental fiction with its stress on appropriately feminine feeling, is a conservative institution, replicating and recommending idealized models of behavior"(Thompson 28). My contention is that these new values did not accurately reflect the views of society as a whole, which were more accurately portrayed in domestic fiction, that held classical values.

"The epic's false code of honour, like that of heroic tragedy," writes Watt, "was masculine, bellicose, aristocratic and pagan." What replaced it, in the novel as literature, was "a radically different one in which honour is internal, spiritual, and available without distinction of class or sex to all who had the will to act morally"(240). I object to this claim on two specific points: "The Antigone," as an example of heroic tragedy, meets the novel's new criterion, while Watt's example of Pamela makes the issue of honor both external and public, and of epic importance.

Watt is, I believe, misrepresenting the diffuse attitudes of ancient Greece, which Plato tried to formulaicly encapsulate and thus distorted. Yes, the issue of honor was paramount; honor, however, is most closely related to self-actualization, to overcoming a situation by realizing and accepting what the situation is and calls for, and acting accordingly.

While I have not yet seen T. Vasudeva Reddy's Jane Austen: The Dialectics of Self-Actualization, and thus cannot comment on what would appear to support my position, the characters of both Elizabeth and Darcy, in Pride and Prejudice, realize their happiness by overcoming the faults which title the book. This realization brings happiness, while in surviving Greek literature it generally causes pain; however, the pain of Greek tragedy is that of the liberation knowledge brings, as is the joy in domestic fiction.

Exploring this ideas within the context assigned may be impossible. The literary critic best known for work with the concept of overcoming is Nietzsche, who has not written anything in the last five years(although I understand he is now into deconstruction). As a major commentator on Greek tragedy(The Birth of Tragedy is his first book), and the principle of overcoming which permeates both that and domestic fiction, however, he is necessary to my argument that while the novel, as defined by Watt, strove to incorporate and present the ideology of the ascendant merchant class and thus also to obliterate the barbaric notions of "honor" coming down from the Greeks, domestic fiction, while working within the moralistic framework of the dominant paradigm, adapted these very notions to its own ends. I will not go on to make the next logical conclusion, however, since it would be that excluding domestic fiction from the cannon caused the fall of Western culture. This, no matter what I believe, truly would be impossible to prove in twenty pages--if it can be proven at all.


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