Values are fast crumbling. In this background of crumbling values the time-honoured conceptions about the nature and function of the novel have also bowed their way out. It has come to be realised-for good or ill-that a novel can be made about anything. With the arrival of a new age none of the tacit obligations which had been ruling the novel was held as valid any longer-even that of using an intelligible language. The novel could now be realistic or unrealistic, conform to an organised story or dispense with plot, present scenes and episodes or expatiate on dreamy fancies, and so forth. Experimentation has become an essential activity of every important novelist, worth the name. J. B. Priestley puts it like this : “If we are asked what has been happening to the English novel during this period we are tempted to reply, ‘Everything’ and to let go at that.” However, to be specific, we can say with David Daiches that the modern novel differs from the traditional novel in three important points which are given below.
Well has the twentieth century been called “the age of interrogation.” A spirit of relentless enquiry is abroad testing the age-old beliefs in every field of life and literature. “The new philosophy calls us all in doubt,” as it did Donne centuries before us. With the encouragement of inquisitiveness has come emancipation-with a vengeance.
(i) First, its changed conception of what is significant inhuman life. Formerly, the novelist was pre-eminently occupied with the task of sketching the ups and downs in the social and economic status of his characters, particularly, the major ones. Even such incidents as marriages and emotional activities wore social and economic colour. But the novelist of today considers social and economic status, and, therefore, the fluctuations in it, as less significant occurrences in the life of a person.
(ii) Secondly, the conception of time has changed, affecting some of the modern novels. Time is no longer conceived as a movement of moments each of which passes away irretrievably. It is rather considered as a continuous flow, having no divisible parts (moments). All moments are always present.
(iii) Thirdly, modern psychology has had its impact on the very conception of the novel.
These three changes are radical changes. The other points, such as the distrust of didacticism, emancipation from rigid moral codes, and freedom from goody-goody religion are only shifts, not changes, for they are only relative or quantitative.
The Early Masters-Wells, Bennett, and Galsworthy:
It was only in the twenties and thirties that the technique of the novel underwent radical changes. In the early years of the century the old masters like Wells, Bennett, and Galsworthy conformed obediently to the form of Victorian novel, though they added quite a few things even staying within this form. What links these three novelists is their awareness of social problems. Galsworthy even suggested solutions for the problems.
Of them H. G. Wells was the most creative and energetic, though his contribution to the form and technique of the novel is minimal. His novels can be divided into three broad categories as follows:
(i) Fantastic romances or what is called “science fiction.” Two Men in the Moon, The War of the Worlds and The Wonderful Visit are examples of this kind. They are all imaginative, but like a good storyteller with his mind working like a powerful dynamo, Wells keeps the attention of the reader always under his control.
(ii) Novels of character and humour, like Kipps and The History of Mr. Polly. In such novels he gives a sympathetic but interesting and unsentimental picture of the lower-middle class English life.
(iii) The discussion novels, like Tono Bungay, which searchingly consider the deeper problems and aspects of human life and the ideal of progressive civilisation.
Wells cannot be classed among the great novelists of the century because of his lack of depth and his poor appreciation of the side of art. As David Daiches points out, he “had little sense of artistic form and no awareness of the significance for fiction of new concepts of time and consciousness, was essentially a Baconian and a Victorian, and his best novels are really good Victorian minor fiction”.
Galsworthy’s technique is as Victorian as Well’s. His Forsyte Saga, a combination of six novels, is a realistic picture of middle-class life, but treated with symbolism. He tried to sketch in these novels the struggle of Beauty against the Idea of Property or Possession. Irene is Beauty and her husband Soames Forsyte is the idea of Possession, exacting even forcibly his marital rights from her. Galsworthy excels in subtle analysis, in truth and diversity of character-drawing, in the poetical quality of the descriptions of natural scenery, and above all a sensitive, delicate, and flexible style, which may be sometimes audaciously colloquial. However, as an artist, he suffers, like Wells. David Daiches maintains; “His humanity-and social observation exceeded his ceative and imaginative powers as a literary artist.”
The same observation may as well be applied to Arnold Bennett whose greatest novel was The Old Wives”Tale (1908). In Riceyman Steps (1923) he gave a good regional novel. As L B. Priestley puts it, “Arnoiu Bennett was at once the historian, the philosopher, and the troubadour of our ordinary human life.”
Other Conventional Novelists:
Among the other important conventional novelists-that is, those who bother still to tell a story and are not tangibly influenced by the modernistic conception of chronology and the subconscious-may be mentioned Maugham, Hugh Walpole, Swinnerton, and some others. Somerset Maugham started with the realistic studies of London life, such as Liza of Lambeth, but then he turned his gaze to the life in the Pacific. China and Malaya provide the backdrops of, respectively, The Trembling of a Leaf and The Painted Veil. Maugham is sometimes disconcertingly frank about sexual matters and his greatest character-Rosie of Cakes and Ale-is nothing more than a meretrix. But still she is a woman in a million-the eternal, warm-blooded lover, incidentally a nymphomaniac and adulteress, yet sublime in her tranquil beauty and kindness of heart, untamed by the parochialism which others cannot escape.
Hugh Walpole and Swinnerton were content to stay within the pale of tradition. Walpole‘s plots are full of interesting and, not unoften, surprising incidents. Thackeray and Trollope were his obvious models. Frank Swinnerton’s novels of suburban London are in the Arnold Bennett tradition; but his title masterpiece Nocturne is all his own. J. B. Priestley also followed tradition; and his way of telling stories is quite reminiscent of Dickens’. In him the spirit of the twentieth-century left-wing reformer is clearly to be felt. His characters, though definitely “alive”, are yet products of commonplace observation.
New Forces–James, Lawrence, and Forster:
Henry James, D. H. Lawrence, and E. M. Forster struck out new paths-but in different directions. James was the novelists’ novelist just as Spenser had been the poets’ poet. The modern novelist could learn a lot from James’s fastidious care for form and style. Like Meredith, James gave himself to probing the minds of sensitive characters. The subtle refinements of his style and the niceties of his art are too much for the general reader, though they please the tribe of novelists. He put into some of the prefaces of his novels his conception of the art of the novel. These criticisms are of very great value-especially to a novelist. There are few novelists of today who can beat him in the technical side of their craft.
D. H. Lawrence came out with a new kind of novel based on a deep study of the sexual passion combined with mystic symbolism and a prophetic strain. But in some of his novels there are also, what David Daiches calls, “a murkiness and a hysteria.” D. H. Lawrence was extremely critical of modern sophisticated civilisation which believed in curbing man’s natural instincts. To discover again a free flow of passionate life became for him almost a mystical ideal. He wrote boldly in the preface to his very controversial novel Lady Chatterley ‘s Lover : “I want men and women to be able to think sex fully, completely, and clearly.” Elsewhere he writes: “My great religion is a belief in the blood, the flesh, as being wiser than the intellect…All 1 want is to answer to my blood, direct, without fribbling intervention of mind or moral, or what-not. I conceive a man’s body as a kind of flame, like a candle flame, for ever upright and yet flowing.” Here, then was the “fleshly school” of the novel. Sons and Lovers, like some other Lawrence novels, is unmistakably autobiographical. It tells how a family of boys are so dominated by their mother’s affection that when they grow up they cannot love, but lust. Some of his subsequent novels, like The Rainbow, were banned in certain quarters on the ground of obscenity. As if in revenge, Lawrence published Lady Chatterley ‘s Lover which met the same fate and which even today is banned in some countries in the unexpurgated form. Indeed Lawrence sometimes did go too far but it stands to reason whether his novels are pornographic in the true sense of the term. A word about his style. A critic observes: “To style, in the ordinary definition of the word, he was indifferent. He seems to hack his meaning out of the word, as his father [a coal miner] had hacked coal from the pits. But the effects are original. He invented a language in which sexual experience can be described correct to its every fine shade.” What is Lawrence‘s place in the development of the English novel? David Daiches observes : “The fierce individuality of Lawrence’s genius kept him aloof from schools and influence and though one can trace some Lawrentian elements in later novelists, he cannot be said to have bequeathed a significant legacy to English fiction, or at least not one that is yet clearly visible : his increasing popularity in the middle 1950’s might yet alter this situation.”
Forster’s popularity has now considerably declined, and he is now known only for A Passage to India (1924) which, indeed, is a masterpiece. The novel sketches the impact of the British rule on India. Forster is everywhere a crusader against materialism and lack of sensitiveness. His favourite leitmotif is the struggle of a sensitive and often artistic character against the humdrum world of crude realities around him. Forster is convincing enough, but he is inimical to realism and particularly the realistic novel. Moody and Lovett point out: “The surface manner of Forster’s novels is realistic, but his impatience with realism is apparent in his introduction into his plots of sudden acts of violence or accidents and in his wilful juxtaposition of a romantic figure in a realistic environment; as in The Longest Journey (1907) or a realistic figure in a romantic environment, as in A Room with a View (1908).” ”
The Psychological Novel:
James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Dorothy Richardson are the greatest among the psychological novelists of the twentieth century. It is in their novels that we find the old tradition disappear completely and the three changes listed earlier by us completely realised. They discarded the conventional concept of time and directed their attention to exploration of the layers of human consciousness and even the unconscious. Moody and Lovett observe: “Development-depthwise rather than lengthwise becomes the logical technique.” They are also called “the stream-of-consciousness novelists.” They attempt to portray life and reality by setting down everything that goes on in the mind of a character, notably all those unimportant and chaotic thought-sequence which occupy our idle and somnolent moments, and to which, in real life, we pay but little attention. Influenced by the new psychologists-Freud, Jung, and Adler-they came to recognise the human consciousness as a flowing stream which linked the past, present, and to come in an organic unity, and gave them all a never-changing reality. At any given moment in time the consciousness of a man is abode of a million disjointed impressions which it is the job of the novelist to reproduce with the least possible interference. In a way the stream-of-consciousness novel bears a close resemblance to Imagist poetry.
James Joyce (1882-1941) was a daring innovator. He started his career as a novelist with realistic pictures of life, but with a special emphasis on the exploration of the states of human consciousness. In his masterpiece Ulysses (1922), however, realism altogether disappears and the novelist is only left with the task of representing the stream of consciousness of the main character. Leopold Bloom is a seedy, grubby solicitor of newspaper advertisement in Dublin. Joyce’s avowed purpose is to present what passes in the consciousness of Bloom in twenty-four hours-the day and night of June 16, 1904. Action completely disappears, for the only important “events” in the novel are Bloom’s meeting with Stephen Dedalus, ayoung artist, and his reconcilement with his wife Molly. The exhaustive study of Bloom’s mind seems to be without any pattern but critics have come forward to read many parallelisms, myth, symbols, and meanings from and into it. But one thing is certain: Bloom is a hero as well as a commoner. He is the modern Ulysses-the legendary Greek hero and the protagonist of Homer’s epic, Tiie Odyssey. Molly is another Penelope to whom Bloom-Ulysses is ultimately reconciled. Nevertheless, Ulysses is a highly complex novel as complex (or even more) as T. S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land which appeared the same year. Joyce’s later novel. Finnegans Wake (1939) is still more complex. It, say Moody and Lovett, “is linguistically so intricate that to all but a very few patient and learned readers it is likely to remain an insoluble puzzle.”
Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) also tried to convey through her novels, like To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway, and The Waves, her study of the stream of human consciousness. She, as Moody and Lovett point out, “saw consciousness, as all but the behaviouristic psychologist sees it, as a complex of sensations, feelings, emotions, and ideas, and she attempted, through her rendition of this complex to create the sense of being alive.” Her poetic sensitivity was a great asset to her and gave her works a delicate finesse not to be found in Joyce’s. However, she cannot somehow convince the reader of the reality of her characters who but seldom seem to step out the bounds of her mind.
Dorothy Richardson, though less important today than Virginia Woolf, yet influenced her and the subsequent women novelists with her novel Painted Roofs (1915). It was a new kind of novel in England as in it Dorothy Richardson endeavoured to give both the subjective and objective biography of a character-a young woman named Miriam Henderson. The description comes from Miriam’s own mind. It is the stream of her consciousness that Miss Richardson reproduces without any interference on her own part. Her novel is truly feminine, and she comes closest, among all English novelists, to fidelity in her study of the mind of a woman.
The impact of psychological study is apparent even in the novel of adventure of the twentieth century. Conrad’s is a good illustration. Gerald Bullet observes: “Indeed, far from writing in any materialistic spirit, Conrad wrote with the vision and spirit of a poet. He wrote of the conflict between man and nature and of the mysteries of the human soul, and in his view of man the world ‘soul’ was an inevitable word to use.” Some romancers, like Kipling, however, went merrily along the beaten track. H. G. Wells wrote a number of interesting “science romances.”
Huxley, Orwell, and Evelyn Waugh have written novels of ideas rich in satiric elements. Crome Yellow, Point Counter Point, and The Brave New World are Huxley’s best novels. In the last mentioned novel he gives a ludicrous picture of the future world with its test-tube babies, “soma gas,” and cold and effete creatures reminiscent of Swift’s Houyhnhnms. Huxley is a disillusioned cynic whose chief job is to go about disillusioning others. His art is the art of exposure, not of comprehension. He is a gigantic intellect, but his creative energy is limited and his characters mere abstractions. Orwell’s Animal Farm is a lively and interesting satire on communism. Evelyn Waugh has also impressed with his satirical novels.