Trends & Chief Characteristics of The 20th Century Novel

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      Novel-Its 20th Century Popularity: The one thing, which stands out prominently in the history of the English novel, is its immense popularity in the 20th century. It has eclipsed the poetry and the drama, it is the literary form which has competed successfully with the radio and the cinema, and it is in this genre that work of the greatest merit is being produced. Myriads of novels pour out of the press practically every day and are received by the public with enthusiasm. This immense popularity may be accounted for by the fact that while compression is the characteristic feature both of the poetry and the drama, the modem man under the influence of science requires discussion, clarification and analysis. This is possible only in the novel and hence the preference for it.

      Variety and Complexity: Another prominent feature of the modem English novel is its immense variety and complexity. Novels are being written practically on all possible themes and subjects. A number of different trends are to be noticed. There are the traditionalists like H.G. Wells, Arnold Bennett and Galsworthy who, while they propound new ideas and open out new vistas to the human mind, still follow the Victorian tradition as far as the technique of the novel is concerned. On the other hand, there are the innovators like Henery James, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf, who have revolutionized the technique of the novel with their probing into the sub-conscious. While H.G. Wells fully exploits modern science in his scientific romances, novelists of social reform, like Galsworthy, make the novel form a vehicle for the discussion of the baffling socio-economic problems of the day. Biographical novels, war novels, and novels of humor, like those of P.G. Woodhouse, continue to flood the market arid the list is by no means exhaustive.

      Greater Realism: The modern novel is realistic. It deals with all the facts of contemporary life, pleasant as well as the unpleasant, the beautiful as well as the ugly, and does not present merely a one-sided view of life. Life is presented with detached accuracy, regardless of moral or ideological considerations. The woes and sufferings of the poor, their misery and wretchedness, as well as the good in them, their sense of solidarity, their fellow-feeling and sympathy are all realistically presented. Thus in D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers we get a realistic account of the life and suffering of the colliers. The modern age is an era of disintegration and interrogation. Old values have been discarded and they have not been replaced by new ones. Man is today caught between two words, the one dying, the other seeking to be born The choice between capitalism and communism, science and religion, God and the Atom Bomb, is a difficult one, and the result is that man is baffled and confused.

      Pessimism: The modern novel presents realistically the conflicts and the frustrations of the modem world. It is, therefore, pessimistic in tone. This is more so the case with the novel of the inter-war and post-war years. There is large-scale criticism, even condemnation, of contemporary values and civilization. E.M. Forster is undisguised in his attack on the business mind and the worship of bigness in industrialized England. Somerset Maugham reflects the bitter cynicism and frustration of the postwar generation, Aldous Haxley analyses the disease of modern civilization and searches for a cure, and D.H. Lawrence is the leader of the revolt against reason and intellect, believing, as he does, that, “the flesh is wiser than the intellect”. He has thus evolved a kind of pagan religion to free man from the mechanical slavery of a machine age.

      Sex: It's Frank and Free Treatment: This realism of the modern novel is nowhere seen to better advantage than in the treatment of sex. The novel has entirely broken free from the Victorian inhibition of sex. There is a frank and free treatment of the problems of love, sex and marriage. Sex both within marriage and outside marriage is a common theme of the novelist today. The theories of psychologists, like Freud and Havelock Ellis, new biological theories and methods of birth control, and the boredom, frustration and brutality caused by the war, go far to explain the pre-occupation of the contemporary novel with sex - themes. D.H. Lawrence is a great: author dealing with sex realistically and examining sex-relations from almost all possible angles. His Lady Chatterley's Lover was pronounced as pornographic and his Sons and Lovers is also regarded as a great sex novel. He has been charged with obscenity. However, as he himself said, he regards sex as a great spiritual passion, not merely a physical union between a man and a woman, as the only way for the realization of God. Thus he seeks to sublimate the sexual act.

      Novel as a Serious Art Ferm: The modern novel is not merely an entertainment, not merely a light story meant for after-dinner-reading. It has evolved as a serious art form. It is compact in body and integrated in form and everything superfluous and redundant is carefully avoided. There is no place in the modern novel for the moralizing and the dear reader of a Thackeray or of a Dickens. It is like a well-cut garden rather than a tropical jungle which the Victorian novel was. The modern novel is very well constructed, having nothing loose or rambling about it. As E. Albert points out, “Henery James and Conrad evolved techniques which revolutionized the form of the novel. Basically, they amount to an abandonment of the direct and rather loose biographical method in favor of an indirect or oblique narrative, with a great concern for the aesthetic considerations of pattern and composition, and a new conception of characterization built upon the study of the inner consciousness”. Disproportionate attention is being given to theories of fiction; the novel is now judged by severely aesthetic considerations. Novelists like Mrs. Virginia Woolf give careful thought to the aesthetics of the novel, and propound their own theories. Narration, description and style must satisfy high and exacting technical standards. Moreover, the novel today also embodies the writer’s philosophy of life, his message, his view of the human scene.

      Decay of Plot: Prof. Edwin Muir is right in pointing out that story seems to have died out of the 20th century English novel. For the Victorian novelist, life easily fell into the mold of a story; but for the novelist of today it refuses to do I so. The great modern novels, like Ulysses, are still stories, but they are stories without an ending, and the characteristic modern novel is a story without an ending. The modern novel is like a sentence that sets out confidentially; the grammatical construction is ingenious; we admire the writer’s skill in introducing explanatory and qualifying clauses and all sorts of parentheses; but the sentence remains hanging in the air. In other words, the modern novelist has grasp of origins but not of ends. The modern novel is like an incomplete sentence, and, its incompleteness is a reflection of the incompleteness of a whole region of thought and belief. Under the influence of new psychological theories, life is not regarded as a continuous flow, but as a series of separate and successive moments. Hence the novelist concentrates on a particular psychological moment or experience; instead of telling a story with an eye on the clock and the calendar, he probes deeper and deeper into the human consciousness and moves freely backward and forward in time. The unities of time and place have no meaning or significance for him.

      Decay of Character: Just as the story, so also the character has decayed in the modern novel. Previously two different methods were adopted for the delineation of character: the method of direct narration and the dramatic method. More often than not, there was a combination of both these methods. The externals of personality - the habits, manners, physical appearance, etc—were vividly and graphically described and further light was thrown on the nature of a character by his own words and actions and by what others said of him. But the modem novelist rejects such characterization as superficial. He has realized that it is impossible to give a psychologically true account of character by such means. He probes deep into the sub-conscious, even the unconscious, and loses himself in the complexities and subtleties of inner life; instead of depicting a conflict between different personalities, he depicts the individual at war with himself. He is not concerned with any overt strife, but with the conflict that goes on in the sub-conscious regions of the human mind.

      A character is sketched not by extension but by probing the depths. Character is thus presented outside time and space. Not only are we given the past of a character, but also the possibilities of his nature in the future are revealed. Thus we know Ulysses and Mrs. Dalloway completely, though the respective novelists have presented only a few hours in the lives of these characters. This psychological probing into the depths of human nature has been the death of both the hero and the villain in the traditional sense. Just as no man is a hero to his own valet, so also no man can be a hero to a “Psychoanalyist”. The heroism of a man dissolves when we come too close to him. And this is equally true of the villainy of the villain. However, we may here add that in the works of some novelists like D.H. Lawrence, much that is largely traditional, both in plot and characterization, persist side by side with much that is new and unconventional.

      The Impact of New Psychology: As the foregoing discussion has already indicated, the modern novel is predominantly psychological. It was in the early years of the 20th century that Freud and Jung shook the foundations of human thought by their revolutionary discoveries in the field of Psychology. They revealed that human consciousness has very deep layers and, buried under the conscious, are the sub-conscious and the unconscious. Thoughts buried deep in the unconscious and the sub-conscious constantly keep coming to the surface and an account of human personality cannot be complete and satisfactory unless these hidden elements are given their due weight. Novelists, like Henry James, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Richardson, Elizabeth Bowen, have made the English Novel extremely psychological in nature. Virginia Woolf describes the methods of the new fiction in The Common Reader in the following words: “The mind receives a myriad impressions—trivial; fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms .... Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration or complexity it may display with as little mixture of the alien and the external as possible?”

      Stress on the Individual: The impact of the new psychology on plot and character has already been noted above. Its impact has been equally far-reaching on the theme of the novel. The traditional novel was largely social, its aim being to uphold accepted and recognized social values. But in the modern age there are no such universally acknowledged values of social conduct which the individual must uphold and cherish. Hence is it is that there is a shift in the theme of the modern novelist. The individual is more important for him than society. The psychological probings into the sub-conscious reveal that every individual has a separate personality peculiar to him, and that one particular personality can never merge or become one with another. Each individual is a lonely soul, and as David Daiches puts it, the theme of the modem novelist is not the relationship between gentility and morality but, “the relation between loneliness and love”.

      The novelist to-day is not concerned with the great society i.e., society at large but with the achievement of “little society” which can be achieved, if at all, only through great patience and care. Both Lawrence and Forster regard “the great society” as the enemy of the individual and want it to be re-formed. Lawrence points out that individuals before they can come into any true contact with others they must respect the otherness of other individuals. True love consists in realizing this ‘otherness’ of the object of love and respecting it. Love should not be possessive and dominant, rather it should be considerate and sympathetic in the psychological sense of the word. Marriage is thus not a consummation of true love, but rather an uncertain beginning of it. True love may result only later, when an adjustment of individual sensibilities has taken place.

      Conclusion: Such are the currents and cross-currents in the modem English novel, It is an extremely vital and living form of art, and we can safely predict a bright and glorious future for it. New influences, especially the Russian and the American, are daily widening its horizons and renewing its vigor and vitality. Cinema, music, painting, and the other fine arts are all influencing the technique of the novel to-day. New experiments are being conducted, some temporary and fleeting, others of a more permanent significance. The caravan of the English novel goes on, ever-changing, becoming and growing.

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