Literary Background: Trends in Modern Novels

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      The modern English novel is, no doubt, distinct in many ways, but still it has been affected by many of the historical and social influences and its literary development by the fiction of many other countries, notable of France and, at a later stage, of Russia. Whatever may be the case the modern writer is quite conscious of his age and desires it to be reflected in his works. Social and literary critics of the period between the wars have often pointed out that it is a period of transition, a period of breaking up and settling down. Another point to be remembered is that in the modern age there has been a phenomenal rise in literacy due to the great spread of education. Cheap books and magazines have been coming out in a very large number. But this has happened at the cost of quality which declined to a great extent. The cinema, the radio, the so-called popular literature of a very low standard have led to an increase of vulgarity, brutality and coarseness, finally lowering of tastes of readers. And this lowering of tastes has had an adverse effect on art and literature of the new age.

      Immense Popularity: It is an established fact that the English novel has attained immense popularity in the 20th century leading to an eclipse of poetry and drama. And the novel is the only literary form which has been able to stand the onslaught of radio and cinema by producing work of outstanding merit. As a result we find myriads of novels pouring out of the press to be received by the public with great enthusiasm. It seems modern man under the influence of science prefers discussion, analysis and classification. And the novel can provide it and hence its immense popularity.

      Immense Variety and Complexity: The immense variety and complexity of the modern novel is another prominent feature. We find novels on all possible themes and subjects with different trends. We have traditionalists like H.G. Wells, Arnold Bennett and Galsworthy. Though original in some respects they follow the Victorian tradition as far as the technique of the novel is concerned. Then we have also the innovators, like Henry James, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf who have so to say, brought about a revolution in the technique of the novel by their novel method of probing deep into the sub-conscious of the human mind. And there are many other varieties of the novel, such as biographical novels, satirical novels, regional novels, sex novels, novels of humor and so on.

      Realism and Modern Novel: The modern novel presents life with detached accuracy, regardless of moral or ideological consideration. Hence the modern novelist from the values and attitudes of his society is reflected not only in the subjects, but also in the structures of his fiction and its modes of representing reality The name of realism’ was soon given to the school of Flaubert after he wrote his epoch-making novel Madam Bovary. Realism rejects any idealization of reality to suit romantic wishes of the reader or the writer. In fact the novelist is to be entirely a recorder of ‘reality’. So the modern novel covering as it does all aspects of contemporary life, the pleasant as well as the ugly, never presents a one-sided view of life. That is why we find D.H. Lawrence giving us a realistic account of the life and suffering of the colliers. The modern age is an era of disintegration and interrogation. The modern novel presents realistically the doubts, conflicts and the frustrations of the present day world. Hence mainly the novels of inter-war and post-war years are pessimistic in tone. And there is large scale criticism, and often condemnation, of contemporary values of civilization. This is evident in the novels of E. M. Forster, Aldous Huxley, Somerset Maugham and D.H. Lawrence. We find Huxley analyzing the disease of modern civilization and searching for a cure, and D.H. Lawrence revolting against reason and intellect, believing that ‘the flesh is wiser than the intellect’.

      Frank treatment of Sex: One of the most important aspects of the modern novel is its free and frank treatment of the problems of love, sex and marriage. The Victorian inhibition of sex was thrown overboard. One of the common themes of the modern novelist is sex within marriage or outside marriage. The preoccupation of the modern novel with sex themes is very much due to the theories of psychologists like Freud and Havelock Ellis and the frustration, boredom and brutality caused by the two devastating World Wars. D.H. Lawrence is, undoubtedly, a great author of sex novels, but he seeks to sublimate sex, as he regards sex as a great spiritual passion.

      Art Form: The novel is now judged by severely aesthetic considerations. It is not merely a light story for after-dinner reading. In modern novels there is a serious art form. Instead of regularity of form, they show a tendency of what may seem to appear will show that form with modern novelists is not as freakish as it seems. The chief point is that their concept of form has not been traditional for the novel. They are not obsessed with the plot as was Fielding or Trollope. They have a tendency to deformalisation. In fact the modern novel is very well-constructed, having nothing loose or rambling about it. We find that novelists, like Mrs. Woolf, give careful thought to the aesthetics of the novel and propound’ their own theories. Albert has rightly remarked: “Henry 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 great concern for the aesthetic considerations of pattern and composition, and a new conception of characterization built on the study of the inner consciousness.”

      Plot-its Decay: Modern novels show a tendency of discontinuity instead of continuity of action. Prof. Edwin is quite justified when he says that the story seems to have died out of the twentieth-century English novel. A continuous action seems to the new writers too unlike ordinary experience. According to them, the sense of life is often best rendered by an abrupt passing from one series of events, one group of characters, one center of consciousness, to another. ‘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”. They do not particularly care about neatly finishing off a given action, following it through the fall of the curtain. In short the modern novel may be likened to an incomplete sentence, and, “its completeness is a reflection of the incompleteness of a whole region of thought and belief.” Instead of telling a story with an eye on the clock and calendar, he probes deeper and deeper into human consciousness and moves freely backward and forward in time. The unities of time and place have no meaning or significance for him.

      Character-its Decay: Modern novelists, like Virginia Woolf and others, deliberately discard the conventional way of drawing up finished characters, rather portraits, and develop a different method of characterization to produce different effects. From the conventional point of view the character has also decayed in the modem novel. As regards delineation of character the method of direct narration and the dramatic method were mainly adopted by the novelists of the past. They were almost wholly interested in the externals of personality, vividly and graphically describing the habits, manners and physical appearance. But the new writers reject such characterization as superficial. According to them; it is impossible to give a psychologically true account of character by such means. They emphasize the fluidity of personality rather than its fixity. Modern artists like Joyce and Mrs. Woolf probe deep into the subconscious, even the unconscious, and lose themselves in the complexities and subtleties of inner life. A character is sketched not by extension, but by probing the depths. Character is thus presented outside time and space. Hence characters like Ulysses, Mrs. Dalloway and Mrs. Ramsay are revealed to us in their true colors and shades, though James Joyce and Virginia Woolf have presented only a few hours in the lives of these characters. This new technique of characterization, this psychological probing, deeper into the subconscious has been the death of both the hero and the villain in the traditional sense in the modern novel.

      Stream-of-Consciousness Technique: We have already mentioned that Freud and Jung shook the foundation of human thought by revealing that human consciousness has deep layers, and buried under the conscious, there lies the sub-conscious and the unconscious. And if these hidden elements are not given due weight on account of human personality can never be complete and satisfactory. And hence modern novelists of England, like James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Dorothy Richardson, have made the English novel truly psychological in nature. To Virginia Woolf, ‘life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. And according to her, the task of a novelist is ‘to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration or complexity; it may display.’ And the most important aspect of this type of psychological or ‘stream of consciousness’ novel is that such novels have mainly as the subject matter the consciousness of one or more characters. The depicted consciousness serves as the screen on which the material in these novels is presented. Instead of a lot of external action we get the interior monologue and the fluid mental states- a fluid existing simultaneously at a number of points in a person’s total experience. Thus we find that this stream-of-consciousness floods the novels of James Joyce, Dorothy Richardson, Virginia Woolf and Conard Aiken, and trickles through the novels of innumerable others.

      Theme of the Novel: There is also a shift in the theme in modern psychological novels. Unlike the traditional novel it never aims at upholding the accepted and recognized social values. The individual is more important for the novelist than society. For him each individual is a lonely soul and one particular personality can never merge or become one with another. So according to David Daiches, the theme of the modern novelist is not the relation between gentility and morality but the relation between loneliness and love. And then both E.M. Forster and D.H. Lawrence feel that ‘the great society’ is the enemy of the individual and want it to be reformed. So the novelist today is not concerned with the great society, that is society at large, but with the achievement of a little society which can be achieved if at all, only through great patience and care.

      Conclusion: It may be noted in the end that new writers do not represent a sharp and an absolute break with tradition. As for example in the works of same novelists, like D.H. Lawrence, much that is largely traditional, both in plot arid characterization, can be found persisting side by side with much that is new and unconventional. However, the modern English novel is an extremely vital and living form of art with a very bright and glorious future.

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