UNDERSTANDING THE NOVEL: A THEORETICAL OVERVIEW - Economic & Political Weekly

September 09, 2016 | Dr. Albeena Shakil

It is difficult to imagine a world without novels. In the 21st century, where reading materials and methods are proliferating profusely, it is rather difficult to imagine the network of “events,” mostly sociocultural and political in nature, which defined the “rise” of the novel some four centuries ago.

Now a literary form that pervades literature racks in libraries and bookstores, makeshift shops on sidewalks, wheeled carts on railway stations, bags of amateur salespersons at traffic signals, must-read lists on webpages and even the most modest of personal book collections, the novel has come a long way in terms of its development, acceptance and popularity.

Embraced by most languages, classical and modern, the novel has found patrons among reading populace across the world. Despite being comparatively young as a form, the novel has been a subject of heated debates and arguments since its inception. These debates, keeping pace with the fast evolving form, have often addressed the class, gender, national and moral moorings of the novel. In the past few decades, intellects like Mikhail Bakhtin, Ian Watt, Raymond Williams, Frederic Jameson, Umberto Eco and Terry Eagleton, to name a few, have occupied themselves with criticism of the form.

However, despite the spate of scholarship dedicated to it, the novel is also the most elusive of all literary forms. It constantly eludes fixed definitions and dodges attempts to pin down its formal aspects. One could say that it is forever slipping out of the grip of criticism into further “novelty.” Albeena Shakil’s book is a fine exploration of many positions on the rise and development of the novel. As the title suggests, this book is essentially an ambitious survey of a vast and varied scholarship on the novel form and thoroughly interrogates the nexus between the rise and development of the novel, and the emergence of the middle class in Europe. The book successfully provides a competent overview of much that one needs to know about the novel, its growth, politics and its critics.

Shakil’s book is divided into five chapters. To trace the trajectory of the form, it begins with theories of the novel and its rise. It meanders through the controversy on realism and its development to finally discuss certain aspects of the novel in India. The opening chapter includes a thorough analysis of the three most influential 20th century studies of this form, namely, The Theory of the Novel by Georg Lukács, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by Mikhail Bakhtin and Rise of the Novel by Ian Watt.

Compiling varied and contradictory definitions, three theories on the emergence of the novel are examined: Marthe Robert’s “origin” theory which sees family romance as the progenitor with which the novel, along with many other literary forms, has an oedipal relationship; the “beginning” theory which seeks discernible beginnings instead of absolute origins through structuralist frameworks borrowed from Foucault and Barthes; and the most common “rise” theory which explores the inextricable ties between the emergence of the novel form and that of a powerful middle class in England. Shakil goes on to examine the discontinuities that distinguish the novel from its predecessors such as the epic and the romance.

Benedict Anderson’s well-known assertion that the rise of the novel and the emergence of nationalism were simultaneous processes, and Eleanor McNees’ (2006) latest formulations on nationalism also find place. The colonial and imperial roots of the form, especially in connection with its emergence in England’s colonies are perused.

Women, Religion and Individualism

Shakil dedicates a short section to the novel’s relationship with women as authors, readers and also as early critics. In the households of the emergent middle class, the novel found its most loyal and creative companions in literate women, who according to Nancy Armstrong in Desire and Domestic Fiction, sought to document their individualism through this medium.

Though Shakil brings many streams of thought together in this chapter, a section on the equation between novel and religion in Europe, especially England, would have put many things in perspective. It is significant to note that the early novelists had curious disagreements with the established religion of the state. Whether one considers More’s proto-novel Utopia (1516) or Bacon’s New Atlantis (1627), Behn’s Oroonoko (1688) or even Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) as the first example of a novel, the assertion remains true. Further, the so-called rise of the middle class in Europe had an important Protestant (Anglican/Puritan/Dissenter) angle to it. As pointed out by Benedict Anderson, print media played the role of a catalyst in the growth of Protestantism across Europe and the New World.

A shift towards what later became print capitalism is noted in the same period (mid-16th century onwards) with print media increasingly finding political, controversial and yet profitable material to be disseminated to the average literate European. The novel was a part of this chequered history in England post-Restoration. The emergent proto-middle class in England, comprising mostly of traders, had a distinct religious identity, and being from the non-landowning gentry, their struggle to enter the parliament resulted in catastrophic events such as the beheading of the pro-Catholic monarch Charles I.

The composition of the bourgeoisie in England and also elsewhere in Europe had a distinct religious tinge to it, comparable to the caste tinge in India. This affected both the novel and the emergent sense of nationalism in various ways. Shakil closes the chapter with short discussions on six early novels: Oroonoko, The Further Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, Pamela: or, Virtue Rewarded, Joseph Andrews and The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, to give the reader concrete examples of the novel’s linkages with individualism, democratisation, anti-traditionalism and subjectivity and also with gender, race and class.

 

Realism as a Stage

In her discussion on realism, Shakil peruses the debates around the novel’s original and continued (with several disjunctions along the years) bid to represent life or present “a slice of life” to its readers. The chapter is an exhaustive examination of criticism on novel and realism. One can think of almost no major writer who has discussed realism and is not part of this chapter. Critical responses to realism by surrealists, modernists, magic realists and postmodernists are discussed with nuance and care. Realism is rightly treated as not being a defining trait of the novel but a significant stage in its development.

In great detail, Shakil analyses the complicity of realism in portraying “reality effects” most suited to perpetuate the middle class’s cultural hegemony. One feels that Shakil could have discussed specific novels at this point and showed fissures in the composite picture of realism.

 

Degrees of Accepting the Novel

The chapter on the development of the novel goes back to the form’s earliest theorisation by Congreve, Reeve, Goethe and Schlegel. An interesting attempt is made to trace the entry of the novel into university curricula. A controversy kicked up by Yale University in 1895 when it introduced and subsequently withdrew a course to study the novel, shows the disdain prevalent about the popular form. For the same reason, one is taken by surprise to find that by the 1950s, most reputed English departments were devoting more space and time to the novel than to any other literary form. Shakil rightly sees this as an attempt to institutionalise the bourgeois culture as “national” culture, remarking that “the novel was canonised because it was clearly the most eminent literary creation of capitalism and bourgeois middle class culture”.

The degrees of acceptance of the novel in the last hundred years are then traced. The divide between the popular and the elite opened up around the same time when the form was being canonised. Some avant-garde modernists were the first to draw lines between what defined “good taste” and everything else. Shakil rightly shows that some anti-populists were against the stranglehold of market forces on art and literature, and the possible conversion of the arts into commodities for mass consumption. The rest of anti-populists were “just blatantly anti-democratic” (p 138). This divide compels one to ask whether or not culture can be read in isolation from commerce. Does the so-called “high literature” or “high culture” exist and get transacted in a commercial vacuum?

These questions are adequately addressed by Shakil by taking recourse to later studies, especially those by Bob Ashley on the popular novel. Shakil explores the theoretical turn within the novel: the coming into being of the highly intertextual and metafictional postmodern novel on the one hand and the reactionary, historical and often self-reflexive postcolonial novel on the other. Again, Shakil uses very few examples to illustrate the characteristic pursuit of fragmentation of identities and selves.

While Rushdie, Gunter Grass and Garcia Marquez do find mention, many authors who have redefined the art of the novel are missed in this hurried analysis. A recognition of the wave of change initiated in the 1960s and 1970s by writers like Chinua Achebe, Toni Morrison, Vladimir Nabakov, Nadine Gordimer and Philip Roth to name a few should have been made in an ambitious book such as this. Another gap in this chapter is the complete eclipsing of the Russian novel and its contribution towards the general development of the novel form. As a literary culture that provided us with some of the best novels and critics, Russia cannot be ignored in any serious discussion on the form. Also, since the book closely interrogates the nexus between bourgeoisie and the novel, touting the novel as the former’s literary offspring, a short detour into the Soviet novel could have sprung some interesting contrasts.

 

The Novel in India

The most important contribution of this book lies in Shakil’s thoughtful analysis of the rise of novel in India. Though stalwarts like K N Panikkar, Meenakshi Mukherjee, Sisir Kumar Das and Aijaz Ahmad have written about the emergence of novels in India, it is still a fairly untrodden area. This gap in scholarship could be because of the multiplicity of languages and literary histories in India. Shakil tackles this by looking into researches that have taken place on the novel form in Indian languages such as Bengali, Marathi, Hindi, Malayalam, English and Urdu. Though the list is not exhaustive, it is fairly representative.

Shakil also questions Fredric Jameson’s reduction of the novel in the “third world” as mere “national allegory.” A glance at early novels in many Indian languages belies Jameson’s claim, since they grappled with all kinds of social and cultural issues, and amalgamated the foreign form with local forms and local material. The continuities between epics and folkloric forms, and the novel in India gesture towards an integrative process through which the novel “became” Indian. Though the form was extensively used as a vehicle for the nationalist discourse, it had a wider role assigned to it.

Joshi’s observation that “novels written in various regional Indian languages relied heavily on elements of history, fantasy, magic, myth and the supernatural” (p 192) explains the limited use of realist technique in early Indian novels. The marvellous was as much a part of the early novel in India as was the didactic. Moreover, the fact that print culture and orality coexisted in India long before the novel originated in Indian languages in the 19th century, makes evident that the process involved in the rise of the Indian novel was not a mere duplication of its European counterpart.

Shakil probes the steady increase in the popularity of novels in India, from the revolt of 1857 to the 1930s, by exploring the complex relationship between modernity, Western education and caste in working- and middle-class Indians. A long-winded exploration suggests that the middle class in India was traditional to a great extent, and thus, the early Indian novel heavily relied on traits borrowed from epics and on indigenous narrative traditions involving the marvellous, such as the quissa and the dastaan.

However, with Western education and a modernity premised upon Western sensibilities as mediator, there was a shift in the traditional outlook of the middle classes and by the time Progressive Writers’ Association emerged in the 1930s, realism was prominent. The underlying suggestion is that despite relocation in a different cultural and political milieu, the novel continues to be defined by bourgeois values and sensibilities. As a corollary, studying the predominance of the short story in Urdu literature over the novel, it is noted that since Urdu was forcibly limited to Muslim speakers and readers in post-independence India, and since majority of Muslims remain excluded from the middle class (an assertion supported by the Sachar Committee Report, 2006), the Urdu novel never really found its bourgeois laboratory. In a related argument, the uncomfortable position of the Indian English novel vis-à-vis middle class values and bourgeois hegemony is also discussed.

Shakil returns to discussing three landmark post-Emergency Indian English novels and the critical position taken by them on colonialism, Nehruvianism, communism, casteism and history as such: Midnight’s Children, The God of Small Things and Sea of Poppies. Of tremendous value is Shakil’s thorough exploration of all those undercurrents that influence the rise of a new form in a colonial and later, postcolonial setting.

 

Conclusion

Shakil’s exploration of the relationship between class equations and the emergence of the novel is praiseworthy. But even more remarkable is the fact that the book goes beyond the regular Marxist view on the issue and explores with great nuance and erudition the deeper currents of identity politics based on language, nation, race, gender and ethnicity. Shakil’s book will serve as a useful companion to the study of novels at both undergraduate and graduate levels. Since it encompasses the most relevant and prominent definitions, debates, disputes, discontents and dialogues till date, it succeeds in providing a holistic view on the novel form.