The Early Twentieth Century Novel

I want to focus on the changing development of the English novel after 1900, and the emergence of new post- and anti-Realist modes of writing in novels such as Joyce's Portrait of the Artist and Ulysses, Woolf's Mrs Dalloway and To The Lighthouse, and novels by Lawrence, Forster, Conrad, Kafka and Greene. One starting point might be Virginia Woolf's comment that, in 1910, "human nature changed". She was writing in response to the first exhibition of Post-Impressionist painting in London. What she meant is not that human nature literally changed, but that the representation of human nature, of 'Life' itself (the sacramental term for her, Lawrance and Forster), had to change in response to the changing nature of modern, urban and post-Freudian experience: it was no longer possible to write, or paint, in the established tradition of 19th century Classic Realism, and new modes of expression had to be found to create and portray human character. This was part of the basis for Woolf's celebrated attack, in her essay 'Modern Fiction', on the solid Edwardian "uncle" figures - John Galsworthy, H G Wells, Arnold Bennett - who she felt to be both old-fashioned and bound to a materialistic world. Behind Woolf stands the wider attempt made by modern novelists to develop away from, or simply reject, older forms of artistic and literary representation, and to find new styles and methods to accommodate the "shock of the New".

One feature of the modern novel is its tendency towards subjectivism, and away from what might be called "objective realism". In the novels of Woolf, Joyce, Conrad, Forster, Lawrence etc. there is an increasing emphasis on the inner life of the individual, more of a sense of the individual self as sovereign and more 'authentic' than the society/community "outside", if we can be sure that there is an "outside". With a subjectivist perspective it is no longer possible to rely on the old certainties and securities: Truth, Value, Time, Space, History, Society. Instead there is an emphasis on relativist, provisional and perspectival and personalised forms of consciousness - the 'I' comes first. Various explanations might be put forward for this move away from a Public consciousness (changes in society; new developments in scientific, psychological and philosophical thought), but in this lecture I will focus on the implications of the break away from 19th century Classic realism, that is, strictly in terms of the development of the Novel form.
In recent years, most notably from the work of Catherine Belsey (Critical Practice) and Colin MacCabe, it has become customary to describe the dominant tradition of the nineteenth century novel as "Classic Realist" or (Belsey) "Expressive Realist". Despite the limitations of this general labelling picked up by writers such as David Lodge (in his essay on 'George Eliot and the idea of the Classic Realist Text') or George Levine (The Realistic Imagination), it remains a useful way into general discussion of a 'master paradigm' underlying works such as Mansfield Park and Middlemarch. As defined by MacCabe and Belsey 'Classic Realism' would be defined as that mode of writring which aims to give an impression that we are reading about real people in real events, and depends on creating the illusion of lifelikeness, a transparent or self-effacing representation of the real. Yet, despite this appearance, it is actually bound by certain codes and conventions:

With all its faults and limitations (where, for example, do you place a novel like Wuthering Heights?), it remains a useful general model for seeing how and why the novel, from 1870 onwards, develops into new and more experimential directions.

One way of seeing the novels of Woolf, Forster, Lawrence and Joyce is to see them as breaking radically away from the dominant paradigm represented by Middlemarch. This, however, would be misleading. Different and new though the "modern" novels might appear they are actually part of a wider and developing trend from 1870s onwards, in which we see movements such as Naturalism and Expressionism, Aestheticism, and a general movement away from novels in which the narrator is a commanding and authoritative presence within the novel: increasingly the narrator climbs down from assuming the role of 'God', and the reader is left with more of the work of interpretation and evalation (think of Anna Karenin). There is also increasing emphasis on the life the individual as being set against, as more authentic than, the commuinity of which he or she is a part (Tess?). One way of reading the modern novelists is to see them as simply continuing developments, rather than completely breaking away from the dominant novelistic tradition.
Whichever view is taken of the originality of early twentieth century fiction it is still possible to identify certain characteristics which are all part of a general movement towards subjectivism and personalism in the modern novel. These include:
Time and plot: a movement away from viewing characters in relation to 'Public external Time' or History, towards internalised and subjective experience of time, 'personal time' - for example, Joyce's or Woolf's emphasis on the moments of epiphany, the 'privileged moment'. This has implications for plot forms, seen, for example, in new forms of plot: the 'one day novel', or novels of the growth of consciousness or the individual 'soul'.
Characterisation:a movement towards seeing character and the self as fluid, irreducible, elusive, interiorised, for example, Joyce's or Woolf's portrayal of the individual self.
Narration: a general tendency towards unreliable or personified narration, and with narration being subjective, non-authoritative, interrogative, or disappearing from the scene (Joyce)
Language and imagery/symbolism: a tendency towards greater depth and density, more reliance on symbolic and metaphorical modes (opposed to the metonymic strategies of Realist fiction), and hence more difficult to 'read' (in Barthes' terms, more 'writerly' than 'readerly')
morality:again, more subjective, relative, provisional and ambiguous, less authoritative and 'public', more local and shifting
new narrative modes which are anti- or post-Realist: the one-day novel, the use of myth as a structuring principle, the reliance on fable, allegory, dream or diary forms, stream of consciousness techniques.

The underlying tendencies within modernist fiction towards more elliptical, more concentrated, more difficult and fluid forms of writing can be seen in terms of a general tendecy towards subjectivism and immersion into the world of the private 'self'. Behind this can be seen wider social and cultural determining factors: relating to the position of the artist/writer within a more anonymous and less communally-based society, and to to wider creation of new mass industrial, bureaucratic and commercial civilisations.

Page last updated 27/03/95