This is the most important and popular literary medium in the modern times. It is the only literary form which can compete for popularity with the film and the radio, and it is in this form that a great deal of distinguished work is being produced. The publication of a new novel by a great novelist is received now with the same enthusiastic response as a new comedy by Dryden or Congreve was received in the Restoration period, and a new volume of poems by Tennyson during the Victorian period. Poetry which had for many centuries held the supreme place in the realm of literature, has lost that position. Its appeal to the general public is now negligible, and it has been obviously superseded by fiction.
The main reason for this change is that the novel is the only literary form which meets the needs of the modern world. The great merit of poetry is that it has the capacity to convey more than one meaning at a time. It provides compression of meaning through metaphorical expression. It manages to distil into a brief expression a whole range of meanings, appealing to both intellect and emotion. But this compression of metaphor is dependent upon a certain compression in the society. In other words, the metaphor used in poetry must be based on certain assumptions or public truths held in common by both the poet and the audience. For example the word ‘home’ stood for a settled peaceful life with wife and children, during the Victorian home. So if this word was used as a metaphor in poetry its meaning to the poet as well to the audience was the same. But in the twentieth century when on account of so many divorces and domestic disturbances, home has lost its sanctity, in English society, the word ‘home’ cannot be used by the poet in that sense because it will convey to different readers different meanings according to their individual experiences.
For poetry to be popular with the public there must exist a basis in the individuals of some common pattern of psychological reaction which has been set up by a consistency in the childhood environment. The metaphors or ‘ambiguities’ which lend subtlety to poetic expression, are dependent on a basis of common stimulus and response which are definite and consistent. This is possible only in a society which in spite of its eternal disorder on the surface, is dynamically functioning on the basis of certain fundamentally accepted value.
The modern period in
is obviously not such a period when society is functioning on the basis of certain fundamental values. This is the age of disintegration and interrogations. Old values have been discarded and they have not been replaced by new values. What England said of the Victorian period applies more truly to the modern period—‘Caught between two worlds, one dying, the other seeking to be born’. It is the conflict between the two that the common basis of poetry has disappeared. In Arnold of today the society is no longer homogenous; it is divided in different groups who speak different languages. Meanings that are taken for granted in one group are not understood in another. The western man is swayed by conflicting intentions, and is therefore erratic and inconsistent in his behaviour. It is difficult for him to choose between communism and capitalism, between belief in God and scepticism, confidence in science and fear of the atomic bomb, because every belief is riddled with doubts. In no department of life do we find postulates which can be accepted at their face values. In the absence of any common values compression of meaning is impossible. The poets of today find themselves isolated from society, and so they write in a language which cannot be understood by all. Sometimes the isolation of the poet is so extreme that his writing cannot be understood by anyone but himself. That is why poetry has lost its popularity in the modern time. But the very reasons which make the writing of poetry difficult have offered opportunity to fiction to flourish. In prose the ambiguity can be clarified. Those things which are no longer assumed can be easily explained in a novel. England
But it is not merely on account of the loss of common pattern of psychological response, and the absence of common basis of values, that the novel has come into ascendancy. Science, which is playing a predominant role today, and which insists on the analytical approach, has also helped the novel to gain more popularity, because the method of the novel is also analytical as opposed to the synthetical. The modern man also under the influence of science, is not particularly interested in metaphorical expression which is characteristic of poetry. He prefers the novel form because here the things are properly explained and clarified. Moreover the development of psychology in the twentieth century has made men so curious about the motivation of their conduct, that they feel intellectually fascinated when a writer exposes the inner working of the mind of a character. This is possible only in the novel form.
After discussing the various reasons which have made the novel the most popular literary form today, let us consider the main characteristics of the modern novel. In the first place, we can say that it is realistic as opposed to idealistic. The ‘realistic’ writer is one who thinks that truth to observed facts—facts about the outer world, or facts about his own feelings—is the great thing, while the ‘idealistic’ writer wants rather to create a pleasant and edifying picture. The modern novelist is ‘realistic’ in this sense and not in the sense of an elaborate documentation of fact, dealing often with the rather more sordid side of contemporary life, as we find in the novels of Zola. He is ‘realistic’ in the wider sense, and tries to include within the limits of the novel almost everything—the mixed, average human nature—and not merely one-sided view of it. Tolstoy’s War and Peace and George Eliot’s Middle March had proved that the texture of the novel can be made as supple and various as life itself. The modern novelists have continued this experiment still further, and are trying to make the novel more elegant and flexible. Under the influence of Flaubert and Turgeniev, some modern novelists like Henry James have taken great interest in refining the construction of the novel so that there will be nothing superfluous, no phrase, paragraph, or sentence which will not contribute to the total effect. They have also tried to avoid all that militates against plausibility, as Thackeray’s unwise technique of addressing in his own person, and confessing that it is all a story. They have introduced into the novel subtle points of view, reserved and refined characters, and intangible delicacies, of motive which had never been attempted before by any English novelist.
In the second place, the modern novel is psychological. The psychological problem concerns the nature of consciousness and its relation to time. Modern psychology has made it very difficult for the novelist to think of consciousness, as moving in a straight chronological line from one point to the next. He tends rather to see it as altogether fluid, existing simultaneously at several different levels. To the modern novelists and readers who look at consciousness in this way, the presentation of a story in a straight chronological line becomes unsatisfactory and unreal. People are what they are because of what they have been. We are memories, and to describe as truthfully at any given moment means to say everything about our past. This method to describe this consciousness in operation is called the ‘stream of consciousness’ method. The novelist claims complete omniscience and moves at once right inside the characters’ minds. In this kind of a novel a character’s change in mood, marked externally by a sigh or a flicker of an eyelid, or perhaps not perceived at all, may mean more than his outward acts, like his decision to marry or the loss of a fortune. Moreover, in such a novel the main characters are not brought through a series of testing circumstances in order to reveal their potentialities. Everything about the character is always there, at some level of his consciousness, and it can be revealed by the author by probing depthwise rather than proceeding lengthwise.
Since the ‘stream of consciousness’ novelists, like Virginia Woolf, believe that the individual’s reaction to any given situation is determined by the sum of his past experience, it follows that everyone is in some sense a prisoner of his own individuality. It therefore means that ‘reality’ itself is a matter of personal impression rather than public systematisation, and thus real communication between individuals is impossible. In such a world of loneliness, there is no scope for love, because each personality, being determined by past history, is unique. This idea is further strengthened on account of disintegration of modern society in which there is no common basis of values. That is why the modern novelist regards love as a form of selfishness or at least as something much more complicated and problematical than simple affection between two persons. D. H. Lawrence believes that true love begins with the lover’s recognition of each others’ true separateness. Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway rejected Peter Welsh, the man she really loved, because of the fear that his possessive love would destroy her own personality.
It is in the technique of characterisation that the ‘stream of consciousness’ novelist is responsible for an important development. Previously two different methods were adopted by the novelists in the delineation of character. Either the personalities of characters in fiction emerge from a chronological account of a group of events and the character’s reaction to it; or we are given a descriptive portrait of the character first, so that we know what to expect, and the resulting actions and reactions of characters fill in and elaborate that picture. The first method we see in Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, where in the beginning there is no hint of Michael’s real nature or personality. That emerges from the story itself. The second method is seen in Trollope’s
, where in the early chapter we get general sketches of the characters of Dr. Proudie and Mrs. Proudie, and in the later chapter we see the application to particular events of the general principle already enunciated. Some time both these methods are adopted as in the case of Emma Woodhouse by Jane Austen. Though the methods adopted in all these cases are different, we find that consistent character-portrait emerges. The ‘stream of consciousness’ novelist, on the other hand, is dissatisfied with these traditional methods. He has realised that it is impossible to give a psychologically accurate account of what a man is at any given moment, either by static description of his character, or by describing a group of chronologically arranged reactions to a series of circumstances. He is interested in those aspects of consciousness which are essentially dynamic rather than static in nature and are independent of the given moment. For him the present moment is sufficiently specious, because it denotes the ever fluid passing of the ‘already’ into the ‘not yet’. It not merely gives him the reaction of the person to a particular experience at the moment, but also his previous as well as future reactions. His technique, therefore, is a means of escape from the tyranny of the time dimension. By it the author is able to kill two birds with one stone; he can indicate the precise nature of the present experience of his character, and give, incidentally, facts about the character’s life previous to this moment, and thus in a limited time, one day for example, he gives us a complete picture of the character both historically and psychologically. Barchester Towers
This ‘stream of consciousness’ technique not only helps to reveal the character completely, historically as well as psychologically, it also presents development in character, which is in itself very difficult. Thus James Joyce in Ulysses is not only able, while confining his chronological framework to the events of a single day, to relate so much more than merely the events of that single day, and to make his hero a complete and rounded character, but by the time the book closes, he had made the reader see the germ of the future in the present without looking beyond the present. Similarly Virginia Woolf in Mrs. Dalloway by relating the story of one day in the life of a middle-aged woman, and following her ‘stream of consciousness’ up and down in the past and the present, has not only given complete picture of Mrs. Dalloway’s character, but also she has made the reader feel by the end of the book that he knows not only what Mrs. Dalloway is, and has been, but what she might have been—he knows all the unfulfilled possibilities in her character. Thus what the traditional method achieves by extension, the ‘stream of consciousness’ method achieves by depth. It is a method by which a character can be presented outside time and place. It first separates the presentation of consciousness from the chronological sequence of events, and then investigates a given state of mind so completely, by pursuing to their end the remote mental associations and suggestions, that there is no need to wait for time in order to make the potential qualities in the character take the form of activity.
Besides being psychological and realistic, the novelist is also frank especially about sexual matters. This was rather an inevitable result of the acceptance of the ‘stream of consciousness’ technique. Some time a striking sexual frankness is used by writers like D. H. Lawrence to evade social and moral problems. An elaborate technique for catching the flavour of every moment helps to avoid coming into grips with acute problems facing the society.
Moreover, on account of the disintegration of society, and an absence of a common basis of values, the modern novelist cannot believe that his impressions hold good for others. The result is that whereas the earlier English novel generally dealt with the theme of relation between gentility and morality, the modern novel deals with the relation between loneliness and love. So whereas Fielding, Dickens, Thackeray wrote for the general public, the modern novelist considers it as an enemy, and writes for a small group of people who share his individual sensibilities and are opposed to the society at large. E. M. Forster calls it the ‘little society’ as opposed to the ‘great society’. D. H. Lawrence was concerned with how individuals could fully realise themselves as individuals as a preliminary to making true contact with the ‘otherness of other individuals’. He deals with social problems as individual problems. Virginia Woolf, who was particularly sensitive to the disintegration of the public background of belief, was concerned with rendering experience in terms of private sensibility. Thus the novel in the hands of James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and D. H. Lawrence, Dorothy Richardson or Katherine Mansfield, borrowed some of the technique of lyrical poetry on account of emphasis on personal experience. There are such fine delicacies of description and narrative in modern novels, that they remind us of the works of great English poets.