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The Project Gutenberg EBook of Modern Fiction,by Charles Dudley WarnerThis eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere atno cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever.You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under theterms of the Project Gutenberg License includedwith this eBook or online at www.gutenberg.netTitle: Modern FictionAuthor: Charles Dudley WarnerRelease Date: December 6, 2004 [EBook #3120]Language: English*E*B* OSTOAK RMT OODFE TRHNI SF IPCRTIOOJEN C**T* GUTENBERGProduced by David Widger
MODERN FICTIONBy Charles Dudley WarnerOne of the worst characteristics of modern fictionis its so-called truth to nature. For fiction is an art,as painting is, as sculpture is, as acting is. Aphotograph of a natural object is not art; nor is theplaster cast of a man's face, nor is the bare settingon the stage of an actual occurrence. Art requiresan idealization of nature. The amateur, though shemay be a lady, who attempts to represent upon thestage the lady of the drawing-room, usually fails toconvey to the spectators the impression of a lady.She lacks the art by which the trained actress, whomay not be a lady, succeeds. The actual transferto the stage of the drawing-room and itsoccupants, with the behavior common in well-bredsociety, would no doubt fail of the intendeddramatic effect, and the spectators would declarethe representation unnatural.However our jargon of criticism may confoundterms, we do not need to be reminded that art andnature are distinct; that art, though dependent onnature, is a separate creation; that art is selectionand idealization, with a view to impressing the mindwith human, or even higher than human,sentiments and ideas. We may not agree whetherthe perfect man and woman ever existed, but wedo know that the highest representations of themin form—that in the old Greek sculptures—werethe result of artistic selection of parts of many living
figures.When we praise our recent fiction for itsphotographic fidelity to nature we condemn it, forwe deny to it the art which would give it value. Weforget that the creation of the novel should be, to acertain extent, a synthetic process, and impart tohuman actions that ideal quality which we demandin painting. Heine regards Cervantes as theoriginator of the modern novel. The older novelssprang from the poetry of the Middle Ages; theirthemes were knightly adventure, their personageswere the nobility; the common people did not figurein them. These romances, which had degeneratedinto absurdities, Cervantes overthrew by "DonQuixote." But in putting an end to the old romanceshe created a new school of fiction, called themodern novel, by introducing into his romance ofpseudo-knighthood a faithful description of thelower classes, and intermingling the phases ofpopular life. But he had no one-sided tendency toportray the vulgar only; he brought together thehigher and the lower in society, to serve as lightand shade, and the aristocratic element was asprominent as the popular. This noble andchivalrous element disappears in the novels of theEnglish who imitated Cervantes. "These Englishnovelists since Richardson's reign," says Heine,"are prosaic natures; to the prudish spirit of theirtime even pithy descriptions of the life of thecommon people are repugnant, and we see onyonder side of the Channel those bourgeoisienovels arise, wherein the petty humdrum life of themiddle classes is depicted." But Scott appeared,
and effected a restoration of the balance in fiction.As Cervantes had introduced the democraticelement into romances, so Scott replaced thearistocratic element, when it had disappeared, andonly a prosaic, bourgeoisie fiction existed. Herestored to romances the symmetry which weadmire in "Don Quixote." The characteristic featureof Scott's historical romances, in the opinion of thegreat German critic, is the harmony between theartistocratic and democratic elements.This is true, but is it the last analysis of thesubject? Is it a sufficient account of the genius ofCervantes and Scott that they combined in theirromances a representation of the higher and lowerclasses? Is it not of more importance how theyrepresented them? It is only a part of theachievement of Cervantes that he introduced thecommon people into fiction; it is his higher glorythat he idealized his material; and it is Scott'sdistinction also that he elevated into artisticcreations both nobility and commonalty. In short,the essential of fiction is not diversity of social life,but artistic treatment of whatever is depicted. Thenovel may deal wholly with an aristocracy, or whollywith another class, but it must idealize the nature ittouches into art. The fault of the bourgeoisienovels, of which Heine complains, is not that theytreated of one class only, and excluded a highersocial range, but that they treated it without art andwithout ideality. In nature there is nothing vulgar tothe poet, and in human life there is nothinguninteresting to the artist; but nature and humanlife, for the purposes of fiction, need a creative
vguelngiaurs,.  sTohredi id,m paonrdt aitginoon bilnet oin t lhifee  niso vaellw oafy tsheunbearable, unless genius first fuses the rawmaterial in its alembic.When, therefore, we say that one of the worstcharacteristics of modern fiction is its so-calledtruth to nature, we mean that it disregards thehigher laws of art, and attempts to give usunidealized pictures of life. The failure is not thatvulgar themes are treated, but that the treatment isvulgar; not that common life is treated, but that thetreatment is common; not that care is taken withdetails, but that no selection is made, andeverything is photographed regardless of its artisticvalue. I am sure that no one ever felt anyrepugnance on being introduced by Cervantes tothe muleteers, contrabandistas, servants andserving-maids, and idle vagabonds of Spain, anymore than to an acquaintance with the beggar-boys and street gamins on the canvases of Murillo.And I believe that the philosophic reason of thedisgust of Heine and of every critic with the Englishbourgeoisie novels, describing the petty, humdrumlife of the middle classes, was simply the want ofart in the writers; the failure on their part to seethat a literal transcript of nature is poor stuff inliterature. We do not need to go back toRichardson's time for illustrations of that truth.Every week the English press—which is even agreater sinner in this respect than the American—turns out a score of novels which are mediocre, notfrom their subjects, but from their utter lack of theartistic quality. It matters not whether they treat of
middle-class life, of low, slum life, or of drawing-room life and lords and ladies; they are equally flatand dreary. Perhaps the most inane thing ever putforth in the name of literature is the so-calleddomestic novel, an indigestible, culinary sort ofproduct, that might be named the doughnut offiction. The usual apology for it is that it depictsfamily life with fidelity. Its characters are supposedto act and talk as people act and talk at home andin society. I trust this is a libel, but, for the sake ofthe argument, suppose they do. Was everproduced so insipid a result? They are calledmoral; in the higher sense they are immoral, forthey tend to lower the moral tone and stamina ofevery reader. It needs genius to import intoliterature ordinary conversation, petty domesticdetails, and the commonplace and vulgar phasesof life. A report of ordinary talk, which appears asdialogue in domestic novels, may be true to nature;if it is, it is not worth writing or worth reading. Icannot see that it serves any good purposewhatever. Fortunately, we have in our dayillustrations of a different treatment of the vulgar. Ido not know any more truly realistic pictures ofcertain aspects of New England life than are to befound in Judd's "Margaret," wherein are depictedexceedingly pinched and ignoble social conditions.Yet the characters and the life are drawn with theartistic purity of Flaxman's illustrations of Homer.Another example is Thomas Hardy's "Far from theMadding Crowd." Every character in it is of thelower class in England. But what an exquisitecreation it is! You have to turn back toShakespeare for any talk of peasants and clowns
and shepherds to compare with the conversationsin this novel, so racy are they of the soil, and yetso touched with the finest art, the enduring art.Here is not the realism of the photograph, but ofthe artist; that is to say, it is nature idealized.When we criticise our recent fiction it is obviousthat we ought to remember that it only conforms tothe tendencies of our social life, our prevailingethics, and to the art conditions of our time.Literature is never in any age an isolated product.It is closely related to the development orretrogression of the time in all departments of life.The literary production of our day seems, and nodoubt is, more various than that of any other, andit is not easy to fix upon its leading tendency. It isclaimed for its fiction, however, that it is analyticand realistic, and that much of it has certain otherqualities that make it a new school in art. Theseaspects of it I wish to consider in this paper.It is scarcely possible to touch upon our recentfiction, any more than upon our recent poetry,without taking into account what is called theEsthetic movement—a movement more prominentin England than elsewhere. A slight contemplationof this reveals its resemblance to the Romanticmovement in Germany, of which the brothersSchlegel were apostles, in the latter part of the lastcentury. The movements are alike in this: that theyboth sought inspiration in mediaevalism, infeudalism, in the symbols of a Christianity that ranto mysticism, in the quaint, strictly pre-Raphael artwhich was supposed to be the result of a simple
faith. In the one case, the artless and childlikeremains of old German pictures and statuary wereexhumed and set up as worthy of imitation; in theother, we have carried out in art, in costume, andin domestic life, so far as possible, what has beenwittily and accurately described as "stained-glassattitudes." With all its peculiar vagaries, the Englishschool is essentially a copy of the German, in itsreturn to mediaevalism. The two movements havea further likeness, in that they are foundaccompanied by a highly symbolized religiousrevival. English aestheticism would probably disownany religious intention, although it has beenaccused of a refined interest in Pan and Venus; butin all its feudal sympathies it goes along with thereligious art and vestment revival, the return tosymbolic ceremonies, monastic vigils, andsisterhoods. Years ago, an acute writer in theCatholic World claimed Dante Gabriel Rossetti as aCatholic writer, from the internal evidence of hispoems. The German Romanticism, which wasfostered by the Romish priesthood, ended, or itsdisciples ended, in the bosom of the RomanCatholic Church. It will be interesting to note inwhat ritualistic harbor the aestheticism of our daywill finally moor. That two similar revivals shouldcome so near together in time makes us feel thatthe world moves onward—if it does move onward—in circular figures of very short radii. Thereseems to be only one thing certain in our Christianera, and that is a periodic return to classic models;the only stable standards of resort seem to beGreek art and literature.
The characteristics which are prominent, when wethink of our recent fiction, are a wholly unidealizedview of human society, which has got the name ofrealism; a delight in representing the worst phasesof social life; an extreme analysis of persons andmotives; the sacrifice of action to psychologicalstudy; the substitution of studies of character foranything like a story; a notion that it is not artistic,and that it is untrue to nature, to bring any novel toa definite consummation, and especially to end ithappily; and a despondent tone about society,politics, and the whole drift of modern life. Judgedby our fiction, we are in an irredeemably bad way.There is little beauty, joy, or light-heartedness inliving; the spontaneity and charm of life areanalyzed out of existence; sweet girls, made tolove and be loved, are extinct; melancholy Jaquesnever meets a Rosalind in the forest of Arden, andif he sees her in the drawing-room he poisons hispleasure with the thought that she is scheming andartificial; there are no happy marriages —indeed,marriage itself is almost too inartistic to bepermitted by our novelists, unless it can besupplemented by a divorce, and art is supposed todeny any happy consummation of true love. Inshort, modern society is going to the dogs,notwithstanding money is only three and a half percent. It is a gloomy business life, at the best. Twolearned but despondent university professors met,not long ago, at an afternoon "coffee," and drewsympathetically together in a corner. "What a worldthis would be," said one, "without coffee!" "Yes,"replied the other, stirring the fragrant cup in adejected aspect "yes; but what a hell of a world it is
with coffee!"The analytic method in fiction is interesting, whenused by a master of dissection, but it has this fataldefect in a novel—it destroys illusion. We want tothink that the characters in a story are realpersons. We cannot do this if we see the authorset them up as if they were marionettes, and takethem to pieces every few pages, and show theirinterior structure, and the machinery by which theyare moved. Not only is the illusion gone, but themovement of the story, if there is a story, isretarded, till the reader loses all enjoyment inimpatience and weariness. You find yourselfsaying, perhaps, What a very clever fellow theauthor is! What an ingenious creation thischaracter is! How brightly the author makes hispeople talk! This is high praise, but by no meansthe highest, and when we reflect we see howimmeasurably inferior, in fiction, the analyticmethod is to the dramatic. In the dramatic methodthe characters appear, and show what they are bywhat they do and say; the reader studies theirmotives, and a part of his enjoyment is in analyzingthem, and his vanity is flattered by the trustreposed in his perspicacity. We realize howunnecessary minute analysis of character and longdescriptions are in reading a drama byShakespeare, in which the characters are so vividlypresented to us in action and speech, without theleast interference of the author in description, thatwe regard them as persons with whom we mighthave real relations, and not as bundles of traits andqualities. True, the conditions of dramatic art and
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