Characteristics of the Novel

This was one of the final papers I wrote during my undergrad at the University of Georgia. The class, taught by Dr. Christopher Pizzino, focused on the study of conventions in novels and how those conventions changed over time. This paper synthesized previous essays I’d produced in the class, drawing from the entire catalog of class texts. [This essay and the accompanying works cited are reproduced below in their original, unedited form.]

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A Further Meditation on the Distinguishing Characteristics of the Novel and Their Persistence throughout Literary History

As an emergent art form, the novel struggles in realizing its most central, definitive traits. Having undergone extensive changes since Miguel de Cervantes first published Don Quixote in the early 1600s, it is reasonably understood that absolute cohesion within the structure of an art refined for 400 years cannot be an expectation. However, Mikhail Bakhtin manages to extract three such aspects: stylistic three-dimensionality and the multi-languaged consciousness, its alteration of the temporal coordinates of the literary image, and the new method of structuring those literary images (Bakhtin 325). Of these, the first most pressingly defines the character of the novel, though all three can be traced throughout literary history as well. The ways in which these three pillars manifest themselves vary from novel to novel, but throughout canonical literary history, all three traits hold some ground.

A novel’s manipulation of temporal coordinates, said simply, refers to its anchorage in or detachment from the traditional presentation of linear time in classical works. Neither The Iliad nor The Odyssey takes the liberty of speeding up or slowing down the passage of time to any great degree, and most notable plays stick strictly to linear storytelling. Then, when Bahktin mentions the structure of the literary image, he takes the “literary image” to mean the entire literary work as a whole. Thus, The Iliad would be a literary image in the same way Pride and Prejudice would be a literary image, though both, as literature, are composed of a series of literary images; this series of literary images is the structure of the literary image as a whole. Either the constituent parts or their amalgamation may be observed insofar as structure, that structure being the ways in which they interact with the contemporaneous world—and the reader—on a personal level. The difference between an epic and modern novels is easy to determine from this. No evidence suggests that gods held such great influence over the operation of mankind or that the great men they held that influence over truly existed or could have possibly existed whereas modern fiction gives more attention to the present reality (Ceremony and Things Fall Apart being two such examples) without subverting themselves to fantasy. Of course, this doesn’t take into account the novelistic genres of science fiction and fantasy fiction whose aims are, at times, to separate the reader completely from contemporary reality, but this distinction need not be made presently as this analysis only considers canonical works. Lastly, I’ll extract a single aspect from his report of stylistic three-dimensionality and multi-languaged consciousness; namely, that the dictive and syntactic structures within a novel may fluctuate between one speaker and the next as well as within a single speaker. These speakers are variable and not always confined to the characters within the novel. For instance, the author may be a speaker who may or may not be conflated with the narrator; and the characters are all characters within themselves, and they are separate characters outside the influence of the narrator’s agenda—as in free indirect discourse. Beyond the discourse of narrative, the perspective of narrative furthers the dimensionality of the novel. While not the first narrative form to implement multi-perspectivism, the novel is the only for capable of tackling the human consciousness with extreme depth and precision. The intimacy of Mrs. Dalloway epitomizes this radical usage of the novel, but the significance of human consciousness and depth of character shows itself throughout a much wider range of novels. If Bakhtin is correct in attributing these three qualities to novels, we should find that range to be near-infinite across the spectrum of literature in the western canon.

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Don Quixote, being among the first novels, deserves special attention, for the validity of Bahktin’s claims depends sorely upon the application of his basic characteristics to this primordial work of fiction. The first criteria, the three-dimensionality/multi-languaged-consciousness, is met from the first pages and persists in its expression until the end of the novel. Don Quixote, having adopted the mantle of knight errantry, commits himself to speaking in their preferred language. The heteroglossia in Don Quixote is unfortunately lost to readers of the English translation since the voices of the narrators and cast of characters are largely consistent. We are constantly reminded of translatory shortcomings by semi-frequent footnotes dedicated to illuminating the numerous dialectic puns understandably only in the original Spanish text; beyond this is another barrier, namely the use of two versions of Spanish: the Castilian and the contemporaneously modern such that a complete understanding of the character intricacies in Don Quixote can only be observed by a reader who knows both forms of Spanish fluently enough to pick up on its nuances and who has access to a version of the text that preserves those variations. The examples of these miscommunications are plentiful, one of which occurs when Sancho Panza argues with Don Quixote’s housekeeper. He tells her, “[Don Quixote has] dragged me all over the world, and you’ve got the wool pulled right over your eyes, because he tricked me, he promised me a whole island, and I’m still waiting to get it…” to which she replies, “Go choke on those holes and eyes” (Cervantes 317), the pun here being that “for ‘island’ Sancho uses the Latinate and poetic insula, learned from Don Quixote, instead of the more common isla” (317), and this poor choice of words confuses the audience which is completely unaware of the heteroglossia throughout the text.

Insofar as temporal issues, Don Quixote remains tame throughout, but its approach to the structure of literary images stands out in that it’s a direct antagonist to the popularity of chivalric tales, and that antagonism is meant to dissuade to contemporaneous fascination with them. In that regard, it hits close to home in a way that the epics preceding it could not. A readily available message permeates the pages of Don Quixote, supplanted in the adventures of an ordinary man whose journey throughout La Mancha is not divinely ordained. The agency from which the action is spurned on derives from within the human characters, not from intangible and/or corporeally-detached entities. The closeness of the contemporaneous reader to character and setting provides utility to the novel. When Don Quixote’s niece remarks that “none of [these books of chivalry] are worth pardoning, because they’ve all taken part in the damage” (34-35), he calls the reader to attention to recognize the world as it is and the flaws of human society as they are, devoid of any transpositions of moralizations onto supernatural elements. Instead, the history of Don Quixote, though fictitious, is told with societal accuracy. Cervantes describes scenarios that could feasibly occur in reality.

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Two hundred years later, the temporal, structural, and lingual aspects specific to the novel only became more refined. In Pride and Prejudice, we find a novel that implements free indirect discourse in ways that often blur the line between authorial/narratorial speech and the thoughts of characters. The issue of distinguishing one from the other lies squarely in the field of heteroglossia. This isn’t a matter of language variety though. This authorial heteroglossia instead deals with the author’s impregnation of the text with various modes of narrative speech. Four such modes exist in Pride and Prejudice: expository, character dialogic, narrated monologic, and authorial. The first category deals with the bulk of the novel, the text laid out by the narrator to describe the scenes and character actions and non-quoted dialogue or thought; the second category includes all instances of quoted character dialogue; the third involves the author’s placement of characters’ non-quoted dialogue into the text such that it is distinguishable from expository text; and the fourth, though rare, occurs when the author issues a direct statement in the narrative. The novel is the only narrative form capable of authorial heteroglossia without sacrificing the cohesion of the story. Expository authorial heteroglossia goes without need for description as does character dialogic. What features prominently in Pride and Prejudice is the third form. Let’s consider the following passage.

“Both changed colour, one looked white, the other red. Mr. Wickham, after a few moments, touched his hat—a salutation which Mr. Darcy just deigned to return. What could be the meaning of it?—It was impossible to imagine; it was impossible not to long to know.” (Austen 72)

The question “What could be the meaning of it?” doesn’t follow the narrator’s typical mode. On account of this discrepancy and the interpersonal nature of the question, it doubtlessly belongs to Mr. Darcy and not the narrator; specifically, the author, Jane Austen, has bypassed the point-of-view of the narrator in order to present an explicit translation of Darcy’s thought. The relationship between the expository and monologic forms is a “transformation of figural thought-language into the narrative language of third-person fiction…for rendering consciousness” (Cohn 494). The monologic lives, so to speak, within the expository but can be made to come into its own if the expository shell is abandoned, thus becoming what Cohn calls narrated monologue. Lastly is the authorial, closely related to the narrated monologic except that instead of the author directly conveying a character’s thoughts, the author directly conveys their own thoughts. In a manner of speaking, they break the fourth wall. Near the end of the novel, Jane Austen directly interjects to say, “I wish I could say, for the sake of [Elizabeth Bennet’s] family, that the accomplishment of her earnest desire in the establishment of so many of her children produced so happy an effect as to make her a sensible, amiable, well-informed woman for the rest of her life” (364). With the rest of the novel written in third person, it’s hard to dismiss this blatant shift in perspective. Like Cervantes’ repeated decrials of the merit of knight errantry and its associated literature, this passage seeks to draw the reader closer to the imperative of the text. Elizabeth Bennet existed as a case study to drive Austen’s philosophy of the social stratum.

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When we begin to analyze language in terms of authorial heteroglossia, the intricacies of the novel move to the forefront. Situations in which the standard language variance in the novel appear to be mere byproducts of the subject matter—case in point: the polyglossia of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart—undergo a transformation into more intrinsically nuanced usages of language. The use of Latin in older texts does not suggest the prominence of polyglots in their respective cultures but rather the prominence of Latin itself as a language embedded into those cultures. It almost feels heteroglossic, as contemporaneous readers would be expected to understand not only the Latin but the contextual origins of the given phrase. Things Fall Apart functions differently in that the pieces of Ibo depicted throughout aren’t necessarily meant to be understood by a European audience. The text’s publication in English speaks to the post-colonial aspect of its inception, but the inclusion of Ibo words and phrases in spite of that circumstance culturally grounds the novel in the African tradition. The consciousnesses of two cultures are at war here in ways that Latin never stood in opposition to English. When one reads that “[sometimes] another village would ask Unoka’s band and their dancing egwugwu to come and stay with them and teach them their tunes” (Achebe 4), on the second page of the first chapter and without any clues as to the definition of egwugwu, an intellectual disconnect occurs by imbedding a foreign expository mode. This, too, represents Bahktin’s model of multi-languaged literature (language and culture being so inseparable), literature realized by the intermingling of culturally distant and distinct countries made possible by European exploration and the development of modern ships in the couple of hundred years before the publication of Don Quixote. The narrator is speaking on two polarized levels, the first being the narration of the oppressed and the second being the narration of the prideful.

Temporally, Things Fall Apart performs frequent leaps in time, often without strong points of reference to explicate upon the duration of time passed. Again from the opening pages:

“So when the daughter of Umuofia was killed in Mbaino, Ikemefuna came into Okonkwo’s household. When Okonkwo brought him home that day he called his most senior wife and handed him over to her…And so Nwoye’s mother took Ikemefuna to her hut and asked no more questions…As for the boy himself, he was terribly afraid. He could not understand what was happening to him or what he had done. How could he know that his father had taken a hand in killing a daughter of Umuofia? All he knew was that a few men had arrived at their house, conversing with his father in low tones, and at the end he had been taken out and handed over to a stranger” (14-15).

The reader is introduced to Ikemefuna in this chapter, and at the beginning of the next chapter, the natural assumption would be that Achebe would elaborate further on the intersecting lives of Okonkwo and Ikemefuna. Instead, the following occurs:

“Okonkwo did not have the start in life which many young men usually had. He did not inherit a barn from his father. There was no barn to inherit. The story was told in Umuofia, of how his father, Unoka, had gone to consult the Oracle of the Hills and the Caves to find out why he always had a miserable harvest.” (16)

The narrative moves backwards in time instead of forward, leaving the story of Ikemefuna inconclusive. Time, then, becomes relative and secondary to the events occurring at each prescribed thought. The nebulous nature of these temporal shifts undermines linear cohesion but allows the novel to relate its story on its own terms. Free from rigid structure, Things Fall Apart is also capable of delivering unexpected events. The second and final part of the novel only occurs at the eleventh hour (the 171st page of a 209-page story), turning away from the equally-observed beginnings, middles, and ends of classical works. Condensed temporal distance from the moment of the missionaries’ arrival to the death of Okonkwo force an emotional reaction that drives the reader closer still to the work.

Lingual and temporal aspects work in unison to erect the third pillar of novelistic art. The reader’s closeness to the world is amplified on account of two factors. Firstly is the polyglossic narrative that demands a cultural compromise between the text and reader. Secondly is the manipulation of time in the narrative. In highlighting condensed, grim aspects of Okonkwo’s life and presenting that life as authentically as possible, Things Fall Apart dismantles the barrier between the content of its story and the background of the reader. Seldom is such a thing experienced in epic poetry or canonical plays.

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The depth with which these works plunge into human consciousness, wrestle with that consciousness, and express it on the page is achievable only by the pillars the novel stands on. Whether the expression of character is at its most troped or its most abstract, these characters and their individual consciousnesses permeate the pages of novels in ways unseen in prior narrative forms. And though the novel is well supported, it has yet to move far beyond its genesis. Unlike the epic that “lacks any relativity, that is, any gradual, purely temporal progressions that might connect it with the present (Bakhtin 326),” the novel’s growth continues outwards; although its true colors have been glimpsed in three-dimensionality, temporal innovation, and literary structure, the true expression of those colors remains to be seen. Its transformative nature—from Cervantes’ surface level heteroglossia to the advanced heteroglossia of Austen and Achebe, from weak to extreme temporal shifts—the dynamic of the novel continues to be in a state of flux, completely unpredictable.

In this respect, the novel as a genre has more in common with the Pueblo oral story than it does with the narrative forms that preceded it. From Silko’s own meditations of her Pueblo heritage, “the structure [of expression] emerges as it is made, and you must simply listen and trust, as the Pueblo people do, that the meaning will be made” (Silko 49). This is perhaps the most critical component of the novel, that the innovations of its utilization of the tools inherent to its construction may manifest themselves in unforeseen ways. This unpredictability seems from the outside a hindrance to the classification of a work of literature as novelistic. Quite contrary, the flexibility of the novel’s toolset, and the ability of that toolset to grow and evolve, is exactly what sets it apart as a medium of its own. It’s this flexibility that allows satire and parody the luxury of focalizing postmodern literary endeavors, and that allows a wide spectrum of variations on core techniques to each plot their own path. When the three pillars that have endured throughout the western canon stand together, the singular commonality between them is this: they reject rigid structural guidelines in favor of fluidity. The persistence and continual relevance of these novelistic elements since Don Quixote in 1605 and through Things Fall Apart in 1958 symptomatically represents the evolution of man’s thought, the expanse of his consciousness. The older forms, written before the development of modern schools of thought (which undoubtedly came about with the increased speed with which new technologies took hold and allowed more intimate explorations of the world) cemented themselves in normative values of the old world. Yes, a modern play or epic could be written that manipulated the linearity of time or the psycho-emotional space between the reader and the text, but these new works, unavoidably influenced by a modern mindset, would be incapable of standing next to the older works as authentic. The state of mind of the individuals who produced those works are intimately connected with them, and without that state of mind, those works cannot be replicated.

Quite the opposite, novelistic forms are easily replicable. The characteristics that make them unrecognizable as a coherent genre contribute that replicability. Or could that perceived sense of replicability be a symptom of the newness of the novel? Ever-growing and ever-changing, it has yet to cement itself in the history of human art, nor can it by merit of what it is. The three aspects that manifested themselves so differently across times and novels and yet retained the essence of what they were rebel against the prospect of being hammered down into an easily identifiable artistic form. This said, the most critical component—the most essential pillar—of the novel is its adaptability, its unprecedented potential to eschew cohesion and spread itself across languages, cultures, and perspectives. The novel’s openendedness “tells of the adventure of interiority; the content of the novel is the story of the soul that goes to find itself, that seeks adventures in order to be proved and tested by them, and, by proving itself, to find its own essence” whereas the characters of the epic “live through a whole variety of adventures, but the fact that they will pass the test, both inwardly and outwardly, is never in doubt” (Lukacs 204) so that the former is exposed to myriad possibilities while the latter reaches the same end in all its iterations. The epic needn’t win the heart of its reader through depth of character because the character’s struggles are ultimately meaningless, the end predetermined. The novel, whose literary image hinges on its ability to constantly reinvent itself, to always serve social needs, must strive to meet new ends wherever it goes; varied stylistic expressions must exist, or else the novel will fail in its utility. Next to this is its endearing ability to enter the reader into the consciousnessess of its characters and draw from that union a social imperative. Certainly, if the canonical novel owns no other acknowledgeable characteristics, it owns above all else the authority to rewrite the conceptions of readers. Like Cervantes urged his contemporaries away from chivalric tales, Austen demanded a reevaluation of bildungsroman ideals, and Achebe highlighted the destruction of native culture. Canonical literary art, in all its forms, seeks to inform. This last, fourth pillar, unites all others in the establishment of the novel as a genuine genre, and one worthy of all the accolades allowed to its literary predecessors.

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Anchor, 1994. Print.

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. New York: Penguin Classics, 2003. Print.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981. Excerpt from Theory of the Novel: A Historical Approach. Ed. Michael McKeon. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 2000. 321-51. Print.

Cohn, Dorrit. Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978. Excerpt from Theory of the Novel: A Historical Approach. Ed. Michael McKeon. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 2000. 493-509. Print.

De Cervantes, Miguel. Don Quijote. Trans. Burton Raffel. Ed. Diana De Armas Wilson. New York: W.W. Norton, 1999. Print.

Lukacs, Georg. The Historical Novel. Trans. Hannah and Stanley Mitchell. London, Merlin: 1962. Excerpt from Theory of the Novel: A Historical Approach. Ed. Michael McKeon. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 2000. 219-64. Print.

Rorty, Amélie. “Characters, Persons, Selves, Individuals.” Mind in Action: Essays in the Philosophy of the Mind. Boston: Beacon, 1988. Excerpt from Theory of the Novel: A Historical Approach. Ed. Michael McKeon. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 2000. 537-53. Print.

Silko, Leslie Marmon. Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit: Essays on Native American Life Today. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996. Print.