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CHANGES IN THE NARRATIVE STRUCTURE

OF THE ENGLISH MODERN NOVEL


Lector univ. MARIANA RODICA PIOARIU
Univ. "1 Decembrie 1918", Alba Iulia
For two centuries the dominant form of narrative literature has been the novel, the most
flourishing of the literary forms. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a novel is a "fictitious
prose narrative or a tale of considerable length in which characters and actions representative of the
real life of past or present times are portrayed in a plot of more or less complexity" 1. In his book
entitled The Nature of Narrative, Robert Scholes says: "By narrative we mean all those literary
works which are distinguished by two characteristics: the presence of a story and a story-teller. A
drama is a story without a story-teller; in it characters act out directly what Aristotle called an
"imitation" of such actions as we find in life. A lyric, like a drama, is a direct presentation in which
a single actor, the poet (...) sings or muses, or speaks for us to hear or overhear... For writing to be
narrative no more and no less than a teller and a tale are required"2.
The novel is a narrative. In other words it is in some sense a "telling" rather than an
"enacting" and this distinguishes it from the drama, although novels can contain very dramatic
scenes, and often the reader may forget that what we learn of characters and events is not direct, but
mediated through a particular telling, a narrative source. If we examine the evolution of narrative
along centuries we'll see that the story was the main concern of the writers in the eighteenth
nineteenth centuries, while the story-teller became the main preoccupation of the writer in our age.
Robert Scholes makes a very important distinction between two main antithetical modes of
narrative: the empirical, whose primary allegiance is to the real and the fictional, with allegiance to
the ideal. The empirical narratives subdivide into history, which is true to fact, and what the author
calls "mimes", or "mimetic" which is true to experience, to sensation and environment, i.e. a mode
of narrative which reflects reality. Fictional narratives subdivide into two main components: the
romantic and the didactic, or romance and allegory. In the fictional narratives there is a distance
that the author assumes from reality, in favour of the abstract, the mythological or the philosophical.
While empirical narratives aim to one or another kind of truth, fictional narratives aim to
either beauty or goodness.
One of the finest books devoted to the study of the narrative tradition was Clara Reeve's
The Progress of Romance through Times, Countries and Manners. The author already
distinguishes the romance from the novel, without prejudice to either form, her distinction being
still preserved today.
"The Romance is a heroic fable, which treats of fabulous persons and things. The Novel is
a picture of real life and manners, and of the times in which it is written. The Romance in lofty and
elevated language, describes what never happened nor is likely to happen. The Novel gives a
familiar relation of such things, as pass every day before our eyes, such as may happen to our
friend, or to ourselves: and the perfection of it, is to represent every scene, in so easy and natural a
manner and to make them appear so probable, as to deceive us into a persuasion (at least while we
are reading) that all is real, until we are affected by the joys or distresses of the persons in the story,
as if they were our own"3.
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From the standpoint of the modern reader we may say that there is a certain fusion between
the two modes, both contributing to the bettering of the narrative mode.
The novel as a genre meant to reflect truth - social, economic or spiritual - in art, and to
depict reality and the problems of the average man, against the idealized here and his chivalrous
deeds. It is the most suitable literary genre to report the changes in society and in the spiritual life of
people. But, in the middle of the eighteenth century, when it first sprang into vigorous life, the
status of the novel was still undefined.
The first writer to discuss the theoretical aspect of the novel was Henry Fielding, in his
Preface to Joseph Andrews. He called the novel "a comic epic poem in prose", a form differing
from comedy as the serious epic from tragedy, and merely meant to entertain.
From the time of Smollett and Sterne in the 18 th century to Henry James, at the end of the
th
19 century, the novel got along without a literary theory, a "poetics" of its own or a coherent set of
literary principles. A number of writers, such as Flaubert, Henry James, Joseph Conrad and Ford
Madox Ford sought to give the novel the beauty of structure, form and design that every great art
possesses, to elevate the novel into an art form.
Many young creating writers have been deeply influenced by the critical standpoint adopted
by such American critics as Mark Schorer, who writes in his essay Technique as Discovery:
"Modern criticism has shown us that to speak of content as such is not to speak of art at all, but of
experience; and that is only when we speak of the achieved content, the form, the work of art as a
work of art, that we speak as critics. The difference between content, or experience, and achieved
content, or art, is technique"4.
Consequently, improvements had taken place in the technique of story-telling and an ever
more competent handling of plot, themes and vocabulary gave the novel the air of authority.
Among the "fin de sicle" novelists, H. James brooded intensely upon the theoretical aspects
raised by the practice of his craft. In his essay The Art of Fiction he commented upon the new era
lying ahead of the novel as follows:
"Only a short time ago it might have been supposed that the English novel was not what the
French call DISCUTABLE. It had no air of having a theory, a conviction, a consciousness of itself
behind it, of being the expression of an artistic faith, the result of choice and comparison. (...)
During the period I have alluded to there was a comfortable, good-humoured feeling abroad that a
novel is a novel, a pudding is a pudding, and that this was the end of it. But within a year or two, for
some reason or other, there have been signs of returning animation - the era of discussion would
appear to have been a certain extent opened"5.
Approaching the art of fiction with a profound respect and with scrupulous literary care,
Henry James brought to the novel aesthetic refinement and an elaborate artistry. For him the novel
was "the best form of art to express the truth of life". He pointed out that to express truth as it
appears to the creative temperament, two things were necessary: freedom and experience.
"A novel is in its broadest definition a personal, a direct impression of life: that, to begin
with, constitutes its value, which is greater or lesser according to the intensity of the impression.
But there will be no intensity at all, and therefore no value, unless there is freedom to feel and say...
The advantage, the luxury, as well as the torment and responsibility of the novelist is that there is no
limit to what he may attempt as an executant - no limit to his possible experiments, efforts,
discoveries, success"6.
And later:
"Experience is never limited and it is never complete: it is an immense sensibility, a kind of
huge spider-web (...) suspended in the chamber of consciousness and catching every air-borne
particle in its tissue. It is the very atmosphere of the mind and when the mind is imaginative (...) it
takes to itself the faintest hints of life, it converts the very pulses of the air into revelations"7.
Noting that "the only reason for the substance of a novel is that it does attempt to represent
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life" we may conclude what the imitation of life and the aspiration towards "vraisemblance", or the
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rendering of the truth of existence, of the so-called "illusion of life" constitute the fundamental
vocation of the novel. But whereas the traditional novel was concerned with presenting especially
external realities in a logical plot and typical characters, the modern novel is concerned with the
psychological reality of the mind, revealed from the inside. In other words the rise of the modern
novel coincides with the rise of the psychological novel, as represented by Henry James and Joseph
Conrad. They are against the rendering of reality within the traditional plot and its having a definite
ending. "The "ending" of a novel" - states Henry James in The Art of Fiction "is for many
persons like that of a good dinner, a course of dessert and ices and the artist in fiction is regarded as
a sort of meddlesome doctor who forbids agreeable aftertastes" 9. In the modern novel, as Ford
Madox Ford remarked, the experience described does not close at the end of the novel, but it opens
for infinite possibilities of interpretations.10
Referring to the narrative techniques James attacks Anthony Trollope, who in a digression
tells the reader that his characters are only "making believe", and "admits that the events he narrates
have not really happened and that he can give his narrative any turn the reader may like best" 11.
James called that "a terrible crime" that destroys the "illusion of reality". In order to keep it he
replaces the omniscient writer by an observer, "a central reflector" or a "commanding center", i.e. a character whose function is to reflect the doings of the others and to comment upon them, usually
stands above the action and plays the part of an intelligent witness or reporter. Thus his characters
are introduced not by a straightforward presentation but by gradual unfolding, and the mind of a
protagonist is projected without the author's comment or explanation.
One of the effects of a more self-conscious attitude to the narrator's art has been the
tendency of critics to judge all novels by post-jamesian standards, as John Colmer has pointed out
in his essay: Form and Design of the Novel. This led them to insist on the importance of
objectivity and absence of authorial comment, an approach summed up in Ford Madox Ford's
statement: "The first thing the novelist has to learn is self-effacement - that first and that always". It
has led to emphasis on the proper choice of "point of view" 12. In the Art of Fiction Henry James
writes:
"I cannot imagine composition existing in a series of blocks nor conceive in any novel worth
discussion at all, of a passage of description that is not in its intention narrative, a passage of
dialogue that is not in its intention descriptive, a touch of truth of any sort that does not partake of
the nature of incident... A novel is a living thing, all one and continuous, like any other organism,
and in proportion as it lives will it be found, I think, that in each of the parts there is something of
each of the other parts"13. The above passage suggests the inadequacy of studying the novel simply
through an analysis of plot and character, but it also reveals the difficulties of discussing critically
such a complex organism as a novel.
In his essay Why the Novel Matters D.H. Lawrence says the following: "The novel is one
bright book of life. Books are not life. They are only tremulations on the ether. But the novel as a
tremulation can make the whole man alive tremble... To be alive, to be man alive, to be whole man
alive: that is the point. And at its best, the novel supremely, can help you" 14. These remarks help us
understand that the art of the novel is primarily a narrative one, an art that deals very directly with
life - the life of man in society or as an isolated individual.
For Joseph Conrad fiction must be an "impression conveyed through the senses". It must
aspire to the plasticity of sculptures, to the color of painting and to the "magic suggestiveness of
music". In his Preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus he said: "My task is to make you hear, to
make you feel-it is before all to make you see". He abandoned the linear development of plot and
the chronological order of events in favour of the multiply-told story and of the apparently chaotic
structure which requires the reader's constant cooperation in the deliniation of a story. Conrad
increased the illusion of verisimilitude by abandoning the omniscient narrator, by introducing
various observers, changing points of view, and an actor-narrator, an eye-witness of the events
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(Marlow), an alter-ego of the author himself, who comments on the events while unfolding them,
thus projecting them in the natural flow of time and memory.
A multiplicity of angles, a prismatic view of things, results in an effect of greater
truthfulness. By effacing himself from the scene of the action, the writer places the reader into
direct contact with facts and characters and lets him judge for himself.
In the 20th century the novel has been affected by the ever more penetrating developments in
science, especially in psychology and linguistics. In this respect the new psychoanalytical science
initiated by Freud and Jung is such felt in the novel, together with new concepts of time influenced
by William James's view of the "spacious present" representing the continuous flow of the "already"
into the "not yet, of retrospect into anticipation, and Henry Bergson`s concept of dure of time
which affected the modern novelist especially in his handling of plot structure. In fact this unusual
emphasis on the thematic importance of time is one of the distinguishing features of modern
literature. Thomas Mann, in his novel The Magic Mountain gives us a profound and subtle
meditation on the theme of time. "Can one tell - that is to say, narrate time, time itself, as such, for
its own sake? That would surely be an absurd undertaking...", asserts Th. Mann. "For time is the
medium of narration, as it is the medium of life. Both are inextricably bound up with it, as
inextricably as are bodies in space. Similarly, time is the medium of music: music divides,
measures, articulates time, and can shorten it yet enhance its value, both at once. Thus music and
narrations are alike, in that can only present themselves as a flowing, as a succession in time, as one
thing after another"15.
Therefore a lot of changes occur not only in the novel's subject-matter but also in its form.
The novelist's concern gradually shifts from outside events to inner life, from the whole world to a
"slice of life". Shifts in time, the use of contra punctual technique borrowed from music as well as
other devices (symbols, metaphors) characteristic of poetry, contribute to enrich the filed of modern
fiction with a new world outlook and new means of artistic expression.
In the hands of James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, or William Faulkner - the greatest innovators in
literary technique, the novel becomes extremely elastic: the material of life is systematically
disorganized, the interest in the story diminishes and the inner consciousness of the author becomes
the most important fact. Instead of the external observation of reality the writers are tempted by the
psychological reality and by the mystery of individual existence 16. In Albrs`s opinion "the art of
the novel in England ended by becoming the art of the English novel: inner and soft sensibility, life
seen from inside, colourful on the surface, but dark and sombre in its depths, minutely depicted in
light touches with a dreamy benevolence and a hidden anxiety, which both meet in humor"17.
Set against the traditional realistic fiction, the "new novel", by virtue of its poetics - the
poetics of the hidden logic, the tactics and orders of point of view and rhythm, of rhetorical
management and symbolism gave us a new art of the novel. The demolition of traditional concepts
of plot, character, and sentiments brought about a break away from the aims, attitudes and
techniques or realism, profoundly affected by the structural and formal progress in the art of fiction.
In her critical essay Modern Fiction, Virginia Woolf claimed that in order to come closer to real
life seen as a "luminous halo", a "semitransparent envelope" the novel should explore the "darker
zones of human psychology" by recording "the myriads of impressions which fall upon the human
mind in the order in which they appear". This recording of impressions did away with the logical
sequence of words and suggested a temporal, subjective presentation of events, which could be
achieved by means of the interior monologue technique or the stream of consciousness technique.
Thus V. Woolf and especially J. Joyce brought to its height this tendency that the novel should go
deeper and deeper inside one's consciousness or mind, so that one may not escape illusion and
vraisemblance.
In the second half of the 20th century, as a result of the multiple mutations undergone by the
novel the need for a theory of the literary experiment becomes compulsory and inescapable. Thus
the demain of the "rhetoric of fiction" comes into life. We borrowed the term of "rhetoric" from the
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American critic Wayne Booth who considers that the rhetorical dimension of literature is
inescapable18. He defines rhetoric as "the art of communication with readers" or "the transfer of
ideas, motifs, intentions from one mind to another". It is, at the same time, an arsenal of "artistic
expression techniques that will make the literary work accessible in the highest degree possible" 19.
Accessibility is conceived as an emotional participation as an implication in the substance of the
work and an agreement to its system of values, on the part of the reader. But rhetoric also reflects to
the ensemble and techniques by which a narrative is communicated to the reader and to their effects
on him.
In analysing the novel one should have in mind Abram`s generic model for the literary work,
with three basic points of reference: "reality, artist and audience (reader), to which the rhetoric
dimension, or that of the linguistic medium should be added"20.
Consequently we may speak of four main theories which define the status of the literary
work: the mimetic or imitative theory, the expressive theory, the pragmatic and the rhetoric one21.
The literary work is not only an "imitation" but also "recreation" or "re-presentation",
because art refines nature. The artist does not imitate servilely; he recreates reality and presents it to
us in a fashion in which we see its essence. The work of art is at the same time the expression, of his
ideas and feelings, an expression of his inner world and the embodiment of an emotion. If has an
effect and it is achieved through a linguistic medium. In fact, in any act of communication there is a
referent, a sender, a code and a receiver corresponding, respectively, to reality, author, reader and
rhetoric, the four main points mentioned above.
An important requirement of the new art is that the reader should be drawn into the story, by
being given the sense that he is overhearing people, rather than he is hearing an author talk about
people. Every novelist, whether he comments directly on his characters or tries to disappear
exercises a tight control over his readers` responses. The novelist uses rhetoric, the art of
persuasion, to make us see things as he sees them. By using an objective point of view an author
can make himself unobtrusive, can force the reader to draw his own conclusions from what is seen
and heard and can (by recording much dialogue) push the story in the direction of a play. So, the
reader's importance as a re-creator of the text in the process of reading it, is much emphasized, since
he is not only transposed into the fictional universe, but he actually takes part in the creation of that
universe.
The stress laid on the narrative techniques in our age proves literature's high degree of selfconsciousness. The novel is thus conceived as a field or space in which act directly or implicitly,
besides characters, one or several narrators, lying inside or outside the space and having large and
multiple perspectives over the same problem.
In conclusion, we may assert that the process of narrative transmission is extremely complex
and there aren't very strict rules separating the basic narrative situations. We should consider them
in their interdependence, combination and transition, noticing changes not only from chapter to
chapter, but even within the same scene or sentence, due to the inescapable rhetoric interference.

NOTES
CHAPTER 1
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1. cf. Jeremy Hawthorn, Studying the Novel, ed. by Edwards Arnold Publishers, London,
1985, p.1.
2. Robert Scholes, Robert Kellog, The Nature of Narrative, Oxford University Press, New
York, 1966, p.4.
3. Ibidem, pp. 6-7.
4. See John Colmer, Approaches to the Novel, ed. by Oliver and Boyd, London, p.9.
5. Henry James, The Art of Fiction in American Literature Survey, the Viking Press, New
York, 1975, pp. 323-324.
6. Ibidem, p.329.
7. c.f. Virgil Stanciu, A History of English Literature, Cluj Napoca, 1981, p.84.
8. Henry James, op.cit., p.325.
9. Ibidem, p.327.
10. c.f. Ileana Galea, Ford Madox Ford: Towards a New Theory of the Novel, in Studies in
the English Novel of the First Half of the Twentieth Century, Cluj Napoca, 1987, p. 92.
11. Henry James, op.cit., p.325.
12. John Colmer, op.cit., p.3.
13. Henry James, op.cit., p.4.
14. John Colmer, op.cit., p.4.
15. W.J. Harvey, Character and the Novel, London, 1965, p.100.
16. Virgil Stanciu, op.cit., p.112.
17. R.M. Albrs, Istoria romanului modern, Editura pentru literatur universal, Bucureti,
1968, p. 177.
18. Wayne Booth, Retorica romanului, Editura Univers, Bucureti, 1976, p.7.
19. Ibidem, p.8.
20 Heinrich F. Plett, tiina textului i analiza de text, in Ileana Galea, op.cit., p.88.
21. Ileana Galea, op.cit., p.89.

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