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4. Victorian Fiction I. Charles Dickens and William Makepiece Thackeray’s Garrulousness Compared

4.1. Introductory Theoretical Remarks

4.1.1. Methodological Assumptions from the Perspective of  Historical & Archetypal Criticism and  Narratological Tools for the Practical Criticism of Victorian Fiction

The label ”Victorian fiction” historically refers to the great age of  realism in Britain as elsewhere in Europe. In the present account of Victorian fiction, Northrop Frye’s structuralist ”Anatomy of Criticism” first published in 1957 will be used as an analytically didactic tool for ”compressing” what was earlier called the ”encyclopaedic”, i.e., long, comprehensive, ambitious imaginative prose that the novel in principle represents. The ”Anatomy”’s first essay in historical criticism structures literature both chronologically and typologically into ”modes”: 1 - the divine, mythical mode centred on gods, the most elevated – Aristotelian ”spoudaios” – subjects/protagonists of  literary communication; 2 – the mode of romance which still centres on supernatural demigods or heroes in extraordinary circumstances; 3 – the high mimetic mode exhibiting the feats of human heroes endowed with exceptional powers but functioning in entirely natural circumstances, i.e. in recognisable social contexts; 4 – the low-mimetic mode, observing  characters whose status is that of perfectly ordinary human beings, ”like any of us” (one tool for demonstrating their common humanity is the narrators’ insistence on the typicality of the same recognisable social/historical milieus); 5 – the ironic mode in which man is looked down upon from a patronising and often intensely satirical perspective that suddenly transforms him into a homunculus. Frye’s historiographical classification indicates that the literature of the second half of the 19th century which forms the object of the lectures in Victorianism combines the ”low-mimetic” mode of realism proper (which is closest to comedy as a mass, social art form) with traces of  high-mimetic literary features, with romance elements and with the harsh ironic mode perspective. The attractiveness of Northrop Frye’s ”Anatomy” becomes more obvious when or because the analysis of  the Victorian novel in the frame of Frye’s essay will ostensibly permit demonstrating one of his almost prophetic statements, namely, that in the historically later modes, the tendency is for literature to return to inverted – if not perverted! - myth in an interestingly oblique manner. By applying two components of Frye’s structuralist system of literary criticism, the historical criticism of the first essay and the anthropological, archetypal criticism of the third essay, it becomes possible to regard Victorian fiction as an understandable whole whose organic parts ”worked together then, in the 19th century” motivating each other in the light of Frye’s ”Anatomy” when regarded from outside, again from the vantage point of the late 20th century. 

First, it is interesting to follow the way in which the flat, horizontal, momentarily free and even chaotic perspective of comedy as the typical low-mimetic social mode interacts with the rigid high-mimetic social hierarchy in a number of Victorian novels (especially George Eliot’s ones), then how it interacts with the slanting perspective of romance which beats against the limits of the ordinary world existence (in Charlotte Brontë’s ”Jane Eyre” for example), or even how it dashes out of the social system  completely when the radically vertical perspective of spiritualist literary forms verging on the divine, mythical mode come into play more explicitly in Emily Brontë’s novel or contradictorily in Thomas Hardy’s fiction. (The Fryean, structuralist temptation would be to indicate that the novel ”Wuthering Heights” is a low mimetic version of a narrative score written in the mythical mode; that Dickens’s ”Great Expectations” are low mimetic literary forms of romance literature; that any George Eliot novel, and ”Middlemarch” in particular, is basically high-mimetic; while what is generally considered to be low-mimetic tragedy in Hardy should be reinterpreted as ironic low-mimetic realism). This clear-cut classification is, however, not flexible enough, allowing of interminable taxonomic discussions about the precise position occupied by, for example, Thomas Hardy’s ”Tess of the D’Urberville”, more tragic in view of its end, and so, more high-mimetic than other novels of his, such as  the clearly ironic ”Return of the Native” or the quixotically ironic ”Jude the Obscure”; not to mention, in this respect the difficulty of classifying Charlotte Brontë’s ”Jane Eyre”, a novel hard to include just in the romance category, due to its social, sermonic, high-mimetic legitimating and ideological (subversive, feminist, revolutionary) message.

Also, it is intersting to corroborate structuralist analyses with a phenomenological critic’s overal view about the form of Victorian fiction in the late 1960s (John Hillis Miller’s view in the book of the same title) and with the American psychoanalytical critics’ discoveries about the repressed complexes informing the works of many an individual Victorian novelist (cf. David Shaw’s study of Dickens, for example, in ”The Victorians and Mystery”, published by the Johns Hopkins University Press in the later 1980s). What J. Hillis Miller identifies as the general starting point for the Victorian writer’s subjective structure of identity, i.e., the painful momentary separation or alienation of one member of the community who will become (apotheotically) reintegrated at the novel’s end into the social system corresponds with Frye’s characterisation of low-mimetic literature as a kind of comedy in which the sharing of the etymological ”comos” is foregrounded; Frye also mentions the new order triumphantly installed at the end of comedy as a qualitatively superior avatar of the same ruling social type which has been only momentarily tested or disturbed (by the, psychoanalytically speaking this time, confrontation of society with its other) only to be reborn in a perfected form (which, speaking in critical theory or ideological Marxist terms, is tantamount to ”the legitimation” of society). From this point of view and in this sense, it becomes obvious that while in principle all Victorian fictional realism qualifies as comedy, it does so… with a vengeance. If all comedy should be a form of comfortable and good-natured, because didactic and quite often purely entertaining literary form, too, as a kind of festive or ultimately celebratory community sharing, it is obvious that this is not at all the case with a lot of Dickensian realism or the feminine realism of the Brontës and George Eliot, not to mention Hardy’s devastating realism. And it is here that Northrop Frye’s ”Anatomy of Criticism” becomes extremely helpful in so far as it can quite satisfactorily explain exactly how Victorian realism in general or the various formulas of realism underlying this or that particular writer’s structure (of identity, as the phenomenologist will put it) deviate from ”pure comedy”. Generally, the Victorian novel takes its society too seriously and considers it too exemplary to contemplate anything but itself at the beginning as well as at the end of  the novel … not to mention the middle! One cause of the artificial happy-endings of the Victorian narratives is the fact that the rules of  the low-mimetic plausibility are encroached by  too blatant high-mimetic… narcissism. Like in classicist exemplary literature the final legitimation is not of a new society, as Frye defined the comic recipe, but rather a re-legitimation of the old society itself. Thus, the Victorian world is ”a given, axiomatic world” which would better fit the description of the society described by Northrop Frye’s first essay as the society of the high-mimetic mode forming the object of the fixed, admiring gaze which Frye calls ”cynosure”, the centripetal view... In other words, Victorian literature is so ’serious’ or ’pathetic’ that it almost completely excludes in principle the necessary ingredient of comic detachment, or mirth. (This ingredient was definitely not lacking in the 18th century fiction of Jane Austen, a perfect entertainer in the best comic and satirical mode. And it is obviously not lacking in Dickens’s earlier work or in numberless individual scenes in his later novels). 

Furthermore, if the psychoanalyst critic’s pertinent observations about the shadow of  - misdirected - instinctual intensity in the Victorian creator and readership are applied to the novel in general, they will ”reveal” what is ”wrong” with many Victorian novels’ plot solutions, general narrative structure and characters as a token of something ”rotten”or ”queer” about the Victorian humanity when regarded analytically or even in a ”straight realistic perspective”. Just as shown above, in the general introductory chapters in respect to Victorian man’s powers mismatched by his decentred position in the universe, the Victorian writers address in their own ways the same demonstrable duality of 19th century man: on the one hand, social man’s (high-mimetic) narcissism, on the other hand his instinctual frustration materialised as literary representations of life as essentially deceitful (cf. Dickens’s ”Great Expectations”), or of man as a basically repressed violent social being. It is here that many a Victorian writer’s fascination with helpless orphans as victims and with social or individual villains finds its explanation. And it is probably due to this critical duality of a roughly insane society of men (pretending, nevertheless, to love virtue and nothing but virtue) that we characteristically obtain in the Victorian age literature this  modulation into what was earlier called ”the slanting perspective of romance which beats against the limits of ordinary world existence – just like both Jane Eyre and the ghost of Catherine Earnshaw-Heathcliff-Linton of ”Wuthering Heights”. In terms of Northrop Frye’s third essay, this points to the powerful manifestation of desire which can create enhanced fictive worlds bespeaking of the powerful tensions definingly inscribed in the psychological  makeup of man. There is a fairy-tale like polarisation of the characters in Victorian fiction into good/bad characters with helpers, superhelpers and enemies (as Propp or Greimas would have it); these can be romantically understood as demons or dragons like Heathcliff and Mr. Rochester, or the more obviously fallen angels-in-the-house, such as the domestically perverse Becky Sharp or the deranged Bertha Mason or the eternally liminal Catherine Linton who failed to either remain Catherine Earnshaw or become Catherine Heathcliff  - and this in direct opposition to the Victorian virtuous representation of women as ”angels in the house”, as a low-mimetic community version of princesses or the mediaeval knight’s dame in courtly romances; also , as elegiacally rehearsed in Tennyson’s ”Lady of Shalott”, for example. Again, it is possible to understand the stock plots and the predictable narrative solutions in many Victorian novels as, archetypally because anthropologically speaking, manifestations of romance which Northrop Frye analyses as the mythos of summer or of romance, in his third essay of  the ”Anatomy of Criticism”. Thus many Victorian novels rehearse the ”quest myth” as central to romance and can be clearly demonstrated to be patterned according to a basic narrative structure which develops according to the sequence of the agon, the climactic pathos and the recognition or anagnorisis dénoument. This amounts to a solidity or narratological coherence that becomes especially rewarding  when the student returns to Victorian fiction as an instance of successfully shared mentality. Indeed, narratologically speaking, the novels under study here function as solid experiential wholes in the fictive order of literature. They are built around strong ”high-low mimetic- romance” centres  which are both enforced and threatened by often memorable because archetypal (not simply conventionally social or ”realistic”) plots. The skilfulness or craft of Victorian fiction rests on a formally systemic quality of this otherwise called ”straight narrative prose”, another name for realistic fiction. The straight narrative prose is marked by coherence, the convergence of all the narrative levels into a great meaningful, in the sense of plausible, highly visible whole . ( According to E. M. Foster’s ”Aspects of the Novel” or Wellek and Warren’s ”Theory of Literature”, the narrative levels are the plot, the characters, the settings and situations, the narrator’s voice; here we shall assume that in romance, as well as in the ironical anti-romances, settings and situations are more often than not symbolic, in high-mimetic fiction, they are exemplary , remaining in low mimetic fiction simply representative or emblematic  from a general or typological point of view, i.e., socially, historically, naturally or artistically representative/emblematic. In his formalist approach of the already mentioned book ”The Form of Victorian Fiction”, John Hillis Miller identifies the artistic containers or emblems for the meaningful wholes of some Victorian novels – the mirror, for Dickens’s last finished novel ”Our Mutual Friend”, the web, for George Eliot’s ”Middlemarch” among the best-known examples. More usually, however, a typical, representative, emblematic social centre as the family, the province, the town or the psychologically, socially, historically typical representative roles are used. In a functional, well-knit realistic narrative the characters and settings are used as instruments of the plot whose motivated dynamism should be informed by interesting causality rather than plain sequential chronology. The complex relief of the plot is also obtainable in fiction thanks to the communicative method or device conventionally referred to as the point of view or the narrator, which may first be a dramatised (or personified) 1st person voice, called  by Norman Friedman ”the I as protagonist”, or it may be an ”I as witness”, in the same classification;  yet another term for this generic narratorial position within the communicative situation, described this time by G. Genette is the ”homodiegetic narrator”, who delivers the story  more or less reliably from within the story. This points towards on the one hand the obvious other possibility for a dramatised/homodiegetic narrator of being a third person voice in the so-called ”selective omniscience” case while, on the other hand, it points  towards the opposite situation with a non-dramatised/heterodiegetic narrator of the conventionally clear third-person narrative in the case of full ”omniscience”. (But even in this last ”clearer” case, there are two kinds of omniscience, ”the neutral” and ”the editorial” ones, as again Friedman puts it, with the editorial one being a rather more personalized, dramatised form of ”interventionist” direct communication between the omniscient narrator and the readers over the head of the more ”innocent” diegesis. What interests us here from a methodological point of view is just that the plot gains in ”relief” or profile or meaning from the interaction between the narrative levels of the story (or ”fabula” as the Russian formalists called it)  and the function of the narrator. Also, it is important to notice the resulting solidity of 19th century fiction which makes palpable so many universal psychological and social problems still interesting for any modern analyst as the amazing number of recent demonstrative studies in applied literary theory  fully demonstrate; such studies employ the corpus of Victorian fiction for very eloquent case studies (cf. Peter Brooker and Peter Widdowson’s 1996 anthology, more fashionably titled ”a reader”, in contemporary literary theory).

A last general observation is in order here: as a whole, the Victorian novel in the age of the low-mimetic mode vacillates between purer comic forms (in the works of Dickens and Thackeray) at the beginning of the age, and forms that can be inscribed in the tradition of romance but that are in the service of the dominant Victorian high-mimetic literary form (in the prose of the great feminine novelists), only to evolve, towards the end of the age, so as to become ironically mythical (as is the case in the work of Thomas Hardy mainly). This proves that the age of Victorian fiction is a ”great” age in so far as it is complete through both its historical and its archetypal variations.

One last generality about Victorian fiction is connected to the sociology of literature. The novel , as a popular, genteel form in great favour with the middle classes functions as ” a mirror of a collective mind”, ”the mind of the Victorian community”, as J. Hillis Miller puts it in his ”Form of Victorian Fiction”. One can safely read and analyse by means of the novels the collectivist Victorian mentality in its triumphalist self-deceitful hypocrisy but also with its host of repressed desires, fears, aspirations and more embittered wisdom resulting from an age of middle-class humanism. This essentially means that one is invited to read echoes of the ideological debates outlined in lecture 3 above in the novel as the most solid literary production of Victorianism.

The social function of the novel ( as of literature in general in the 19th century) can be understood by comparing it to the soap operas broadcast on television today, especially as the greatest part of  Victorian fiction was published in instalments, not weekly but monthly, usually in the literary magazines mentioned. For all its popularity, Victorian serialised fiction was, again, in comparison to 20th century soaps, the fiction of quality media, the printed press, in this case. Its encyclopaedic length, ambition and exemplarity make it more directly proportional to its quality than the longer contemporary ”Ewing Oil Company” or ”Sunset Beach” TV soaps. This tells us something about ”the comparatively greater, more civilized” worth of ”the collective mind of the Victorian community” in respect to the 20th century mass mentality. The main difference resides probably in the amount of understanding, of mind and expressive skill invested in mass productions then as compared to nowadays. This may also have a lot to do with the fact that the Victorians read their favourite novels in highly personalised contexts. Novels were read in the family or friends’ circle, in front of the fireplace that inspired reading and the Victorian authors had these circumstances of their readership in mind. We may deplore the stock premises of the Victorian middle-class literature, but we do not fare any better today in the ampler global village of technological comunication. Our own massification has grown more intense and more extensive but in losing the grip, discipline or orthodoxy of the middle-class community, we have severed our own links with and claims to any legitimate values whose repetition in everyday terms opens the way to the appearance of masterpieces in the order of literary communication. In this connection, the lectures on the novel will try to prove that literature was still imaginatively thriving in the first mass age of the industrialized West.

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