Materials and Methods of Fiction

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Materials and Methods of Fiction

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[Translator's Notes: Original spelling and punctuation were retained, with the following exceptions. On page 3, 'a mind native and indued to actuality' was corrected to 'a mind native and induced to actuality'; on page 15 'but who have have been discarded' to 'but who have been discarded'; on page 21 'The kindgom of adventure' to 'The kingdom of adventure'; and on page 91 'The Master of Ballantræ' to 'The Master of Ballantrae' to match all other instances of this word. On page 227, the one instance of 'A Humble Rèmonstrance' was corrected to 'A Humble Remonstrance' to match the other instances. The oe ligature is represented by '[oe]']







Copyright, 1908, by


Published, May, 1908





















In our time, in these early years of the twentieth century, the novel is the prosperous parvenu of literature, and only a few of those who acknowledge its vogue and who laud its success take the trouble to recall its humble beginnings and the miseries of its youth. But like other parvenus it is still a little uncertain of its position in the society in which it moves. It is a newcomer in the literary world; and it has the self-assertiveness and the touchiness natural to the situation. It brags of its descent, although its origins are obscure. It has won its way to the front and it has forced its admission into circles where it was formerly denied access. It likes to forget that it was once but little better than an outcast, unworthy of recognition from those in authority. Perhaps it is still uneasily conscious that not a few of those who were born to good society may look at it with cold suspicion as though it was still on sufferance.

Story-telling has always been popular, of course; and the desire is deep-rooted in all of us to hear and to tell some new thing and to tell again something deserving remembrance. But the novel itself, and the short-story also, must confess that they have only of late been able to claim equality with the epic and the lyric, and with comedy and tragedy, literary forms consecrated by antiquity. There were nine muses in Greece of old, and no one of these daughters of Apollo was expected to inspire the writer of prose-fiction. Whoever had then a story to tell, which he wished to treat artistically, never dreamed of expressing it except in the nobler medium of verse, in the epic, in the idyl, in the drama. Prose seemed to the Greeks, and even to the Latins who followed in their footsteps, as fit only for pedestrian purposes. Even oratory and history were almost rhythmic; and mere prose was too humble an instrument for those whom the Muses cherished. The Alexandrian vignettes of the gentle Theocritus may be regarded as anticipations of the modern short-story of urban local color; but this delicate idyllist used verse for the talk of his Tanagra figurines.

Even when the modern languages entered into the inheritance of Latin and Greek, verse held to its ancestral privileges, and the brief tale took the form of the ballad, and the longer narrative called itself a chanson de geste. Boccaccio and Rabelais and Cervantes might win immediate popularity and invite a host of imitators; but it was long after their time before a tale in prose, whether short or long, achieved recognition as worthy of serious critical consideration. In his study of Balzac, Brunetière recorded the significant fact that no novelist, who was purely and simply a novelist, was elected to the French Academy in the first two centuries of its existence. And the same acute critic, in his "History of Classical French Literature," pointed out that French novels were under a cloud of suspicion even so far back as the days of Erasmus, in 1525. It was many scores of years thereafter before the self-appointed guardians of French literature esteemed the novel highly enough to condescend to discuss it.

Perhaps this was not altogether a disadvantage. French tragedy was discussed only too abundantly; and the theorists laid down rules for it, which were not a little cramping. Another French critic, M. Le Breton, in his account of the growth of French prose-fiction in the first half of the nineteenth century, has asserted that this exemption from criticism really redounded to the benefit of the novel, since the despised form was allowed to develop naturally, spontaneously, free from all the many artificial restrictions which the dogmatists succeeded in imposing on tragedy and on comedy, and which resulted at last in the sterility of the French drama toward the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth. While this advantage is undeniable, one may question whether it was not bought at too great a price and whether there would not have been a certain profit for prose-fiction if its practitioners had been kept up to the mark by a criticism which educated the public to demand greater care in structure, more logic in the conduct of events, and stricter veracity in the treatment of characters.

However much it might then be deemed unworthy of serious consideration, the novel in the eighteenth century began to attract to itself more and more authors of rich natural endowment. In English literature especially, prose-fiction tempted men as unlike as Defoe and Swift, Richardson and Fielding, Smollett and Sterne, Goldsmith and Johnson. And a little earlier the eighteenth century essayists, with Steele and Addison at the head of them, had developed the art of character-delineation, a development out of which the novelists were to make their profit. The influence of the English eighteenth-century essay on the growth of prose-fiction, not only in the British Isles, but also on the continent of Europe, is larger than is generally admitted. Indeed, there is a sense in which the successive papers depicting the character and the deeds of Sir Roger de Coverley may be accepted as the earliest of serial stories.

But it was only in the nineteenth century that the novel reached its full expansion and succeeded in winning recognition as the heir of the epic and the rival of the drama. This victory was the direct result of the overwhelming success of the Waverley novels and of the countless stories written more or less in accordance with Scott's formula, by Cooper, by Victor Hugo and Dumas, by Manzoni, and by all the others who followed in their footsteps in every modern language. Not only born story-tellers but writers who were by natural gift poets or dramatists, seized upon the novel as a form in which they could express themselves freely and by which they might hope to gain a proper reward in money as well as in fame. The economic interpretation of literary history has not received the attention it deserves; and the future investigator will find a rich field in his researches for the causes of the expansion of the novel in the nineteenth century simultaneous with the decline of the drama in the literature of almost every modern language except French.

As the nineteenth century drew towards its maturity, the influence of Balzac reinforced the influence of Scott; and realism began to assert its right to substitute itself for romance. The adjustment of character to its appropriate background, the closer connection of fiction with the actual facts of life, the focusing of attention on the normal and the usual rather than on the abnormal and the exceptional,--all these steps in advance were more easily taken in the freer form of the novel than they could be in the more restricted formula of the drama; and for the first time in its history prose-fiction found itself a pioneer, achieving a solidity of texture which the theater had not yet been able to attain.

The novel revealed itself at last as a fit instrument for applied psychology, for the use of those delicate artists who are interested rather in what character is than in what it may chance to do. In the earliest fictions, whether in prose or verse, the hero had been merely a type, little more than a lay-figure capable of violent attitudes, a doer of deeds who, as Professor Gummere has explained, "answered the desire for poetic expression at a time when an individual is merged in the clan." And as the realistic writers perfected their art, the more acute readers began to perceive that the hero who is a doer of deeds can represent only the earlier stages of culture which we have long outgrown. This hero came to be recognized as an anachronism, out of place in a more modern social organization based on a full appreciation of individuality. He was too much a type and too little an individual to satisfy the demands of those who looked to literature as the mirror of life itself and who had taught themselves to relish what Lowell terms the "punctilious veracity which gives to a portrait its whole worth."

Thus it was only in the middle years of the nineteenth century, after Stendhal, Balzac, and Flaubert, after Thackeray and George Eliot, and Hawthorne, that the novel found out its true field. And yet it was in the middle years of the seventeenth century that the ideal to which it was aspiring had been proclaimed frankly by the forgotten Furetière in the preface to his "Roman Bourgeois." Furetière lacked the skill and the insight needful for the satisfactory attainment of the standard he set up,--indeed, the attainment of that standard is beyond the power of most novelists even now. But Furetière's declaration of the principles which he proposed to follow is as significant now as it was in 1666, when neither the writer himself nor the reader to whom he had to appeal were ripe for the advance which he insisted upon. "I shall tell you," said Furetière, "sincerely and faithfully, several stories or adventures which happened to persons who are neither heroes nor heroines, who will raise no armies and overthrow no kingdoms, but who will be honest folk of mediocre condition, and who will quietly make their way. Some of them will be good-looking and others ugly. Some of them will be wise and others foolish; and these last, in fact, seem likely to prove the larger number."


The novel had a long road to travel before it became possible for novelists to approach the ideal that Furetière proclaimed and before they had acquired the skill needed to make their readers accept it. And there had also to be a slow development of our own ideas concerning the relation of art to life. For one thing, art had been expected to emphasize a moral; there was even a demand on the drama to be overtly didactic. Less than a score of years after Furetière's preface, there was published an English translation of the Abbé d'Aubignac's "Pratique du Théâtre" which was entitled the "Whole Art of the Stage" and in which the theory of "poetic justice" was set forth formally. "One of the chiefest, and indeed the most indispensable Rule of Drammatick Poems is that in them Virtues always ought to be rewarded, or at least commended, in spight of all the Injuries of Fortune; and that likewise Vices be always punished or at least detested with Horrour, though they triumph upon the Stage for that time."

Doctor Johnson was so completely a man of his own century that he found fault with Shakspere because Shakspere did not preach, because in the great tragedies virtue is not always rewarded and vice is not always punished. Doctor Johnson and the Abbé d'Aubignac wanted the dramatist to be false to life as we all know it. Beyond all peradventure the wages of sin is death; and yet we have all seen the evil-doer dying in the midst of his devoted family and surrounded by all the external evidences of worldly success. To insist that virtue shall be outwardly triumphant at the end of a play or of a novel is to require the dramatist or the novelist to falsify. It is to introduce an element of unreality into fiction. It is to require the story-teller and the playmaker to prove a thesis that common sense must reject.

Any attempt to require the artist to prove anything is necessarily cramping. A true representation of life does not prove one thing only, it proves many things. Life is large, unlimited, and incessant; and the lessons of the finest art are those of life itself; they are not single but multiple. Who can declare what is the single moral contained in the "Oedipus" of Sophocles, the "Hamlet" of Shakspere, the "Tartufe" of Molière? No two spectators of these masterpieces would agree on the special morals to be isolated; and yet none of them would deny that the masterpieces are profoundly moral because of their essential truth. Morality, a specific moral,--this is what the artist cannot deliberately put into his work, without destroying its veracity. But morality is also what he cannot leave out if he has striven only to handle his subject sincerely. Hegel is right when he tells us that art has its moral,--but the moral depends on him who draws it. The didactic drama and the novel-with-a-purpose are necessarily unartistic and unavoidably unsatisfactory.

This is what the greater artists have always felt; this is what they have often expressed unhesitatingly. Corneille, for one, although he was a man of his time, a creature of the seventeenth century, had the courage to assert that "the utility of a play is seen in the simple depicting of vices and virtues, which never fails to be effective if it is well done and if the traits are so recognizable that they cannot be confounded or mistaken; virtue always gets itself loved, however unfortunate, and vice gets itself hated, even though triumphant." Dryden, again, a contemporary of d'Aubignac and a predecessor of Johnson, had a clearer vision than either of them; and his views are far in advance of theirs. "Delight," he said, "is the chief if not the only end of poesy," and by poesy he meant fiction in all its forms; "instruction can be admitted but in the second place, for poetry only instructs as it delights." And once more, when we pass from the seventeenth century of Corneille and Dryden to the nineteenth century when the novel has asserted its rivalry with the drama, we find the wise Goethe declaring to Eckermann the doctrine which is now winning acceptance everywhere. "If there is a moral in the subject it will appear, and the poet has nothing to consider but the effective and artistic treatment of his subject; if he has as high a soul as Sophocles, his influence will always be moral, let him do what he will."

A high soul is not given to all writers of fiction, and yet there is an obligation on them all to aspire to the praise bestowed on Sophocles as one who "saw life steadily and saw it whole." Even the humblest of story-tellers ought to feel himself bound, not to preach, not to point a moral ostentatiously, not to warp the march of events for the sake of so-called "poetic justice," but to report life as he knows it, making it neither better nor worse, to represent it honestly, to tell the truth about it and nothing but the truth, even if he does not tell the whole truth--which is given to no man to know. This is an obligation that not a few of the foremost writers of fiction have failed to respect. Dickens, for example, is delighted to reform a character in the twinkling of an eye, transforming a bad man into a good man over night, and contradicting all that we know about the permanence of character.

Other novelists have asked us to admire violent and unexpected acts of startling self-sacrifice, when a character is made to take on himself the responsibility for the delinquency of some other character. They have invited our approbation for a moral suicide, which is quite as blameworthy as any physical suicide. With his keen insight into ethics and with his robust common sense, Huxley stated the principle which these novelists have failed to grasp. A man, he tells us, "may refuse to commit another, but he ought not to allow himself to be believed worse than he actually is," since this results in "a loss to the world of moral force which cannot be afforded." The final test of the fineness of fiction lies in its veracity. "Romance is the poetry of circumstance," as Stevenson tells us, and "drama is the poetry of conduct"; we may be tolerant and easy-going in our acceptance of a novelist's circumstances, but we ought to be rigorous as regards conduct. As far as the successive happenings of his story are concerned, the mere incidents, the author may on occasion ask our indulgence and tax our credulity a little; but he must not expect us to forgive him for any violation of the fundamental truths of human nature.

It is this stern veracity, unflinching and inexorable, which makes "Anna Karénina" one of the noblest works of art that the nineteenth century devised to the twentieth, just as it is the absence of this fidelity to the facts of life, the twisting of character to prove a thesis, which vitiates the "Kreutzer Sonata," and makes it unworthy of the great artist in fiction who wrote the earlier work. It is not too much to say that the development of Tolstoi as a militant moralist is coincident with his decline as an artist. He is no longer content to picture life as he sees it; he insists on preaching. And when he uses his art, not as an end in itself, but as an instrument to advocate his own individual theories, although his great gifts are not taken from him, the result is that his later novels lack the broad and deep moral effect which gave his earlier studies of life and character their abiding value.

Stevenson had in him "something of the shorter catechist"; and the Scotch artist in letters, enamored of words as he was, seized firmly the indispensable law. "The most influential books, and the truest in their influence, are works of fiction," he declared. "They do not pin their reader to a dogma, which he must afterward discover to be inexact; they do not teach a lesson, which he must afterward unlearn. They repeat, they rearrange, they clarify the lessons of life; they disengage us from ourselves, they constrain us to the acquaintances of others, and they show us the web of experience not as we can see it for ourselves, but with a singular change--that monstrous, consuming ego of ours being, for the nonce, struck out. To be so, they must be reasonably true to the human comedy; and any work that is so serves the turn of instruction." This is well thought and well put, although many of us might demand that novels should be more than "reasonably true." But even if Stevenson was here a little lax in the requirements he imposed on others, he was stricter with himself when he wrote "Markheim" and the "Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde."

Another story-teller, also cut off before he had displayed the best that was in him, set up the same standards for his fellow-craftsmen in fiction. In his striking discussion of the responsibility of the novelist, Frank Norris asserted that the readers of fiction have "a right to the Truth as they have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is not right that they be exploited and deceived with false views of life, false characters, false sentiment, false morality, false history, false philosophy, false emotions, false heroism, false notions of self-sacrifice, false views of religion, of duty, of conduct, and of manners."


Even if there may have been a certain advantage to the novel, as M. Le Breton maintains, because it was long left alone unfettered by any critical code, to expand as best it could, to find its own way unaided and to work out its own salvation, the time has now come when it may profit by a criticism which shall force it to consider its responsibilities and to appraise its technical resources, if it is to claim artistic equality with the drama and the epic. It has won its way to the front; and there are few who now question its right to the position it has attained. There is no denying that in English literature, in the age of Victoria, the novel established itself as the literary form most alluring to all men of letters and that it succeeded to the place held by the essay in the days of Anne and by the play in the days of Elizabeth.

And like the play and the essay in those earlier times, the novel now attracts writers who have no great natural gift for the form. Just as Peele and Greene wrote plays because play-writing was popular and advantageous, in spite of their inadequate dramaturgic equipment, and just as Johnson wrote essays because essay-writing was popular and advantageous in spite of his deficiency in the ease and lightness which the essay demands, so Brougham and Motley and Froude adventured themselves in fiction. We may even doubt whether George Eliot was a born story-teller and whether she would not have been more successful in some other epoch when some other literary form than the novel had happened to be in fashion. In France the novel tempted Victor Hugo, who was essentially a lyric poet, and the elder Dumas, who was essentially a playwright. There are not lacking signs of late that the drama is likely in the immediate future to assert a sharper rivalry with prose-fiction; and novelists like Mr. Barrie and M. Hervieu have relinquished the easier narrative for the more difficult and more dangerous stage-play. But there is no evidence that the novel is soon to lose its vogue. It has come to stay; and as the nineteenth century left it to the twentieth so the twentieth will probably bequeath it to the twenty-first unimpaired in prosperity.

Perhaps the best evidence of the solidity of its position is to be found in the critical consideration which it is at last receiving. Histories of fiction in all literatures and biographies of the novelists in all languages are multiplying abundantly. We are beginning to take our fiction seriously and to inquire into its principles. Long ago Freytag's "Technic of the Drama" was followed by Spielhagen's "Technic of the Novel," rather Teutonically philosophic, both of them, and already a little out of date. Studies of prose-fiction are getting themselves written, none of them more illuminative than Professor Bliss Perry's. The novelists themselves are writing about the art of fiction, as Sir Walter Besant did, and they are asking what the novel is, as Mr. Marion Crawford has done. They are beginning to resent the assertion of the loyal adherents of the drama, that the novel is too loose a form to call forth the best efforts of the artist, and that a play demands at least technical skill whereas a novel may be often the product of unskilled labor.

Questions of all kinds are presenting themselves for discussion. Has the rise of realism made romance impossible? Is there a valid distinction between romance and romanticism? Is the short-story a definite form, differing from the novel in purpose as well as in length? What is the best way to tell a story,--in the third person, as in the epic,--in the first person, as in an autobiography,--or in letters? Which is of most importance, character or incident or atmosphere? Is the novel-with-a-purpose legitimate? Why is it that dramatized novels often fail in the theater? Ought a novelist to take sides with his characters and against them, or ought he to suppress his own opinions and remain impassive, as the dramatist must? Does a prodigality in the invention of incidents reveal a greater imagination in the novelist than is required for the sincere depicting of simple characters in every-day life? Why has the old trick of inserting brief tales inside a long novel--such as we find in "Don Quixote" and "Tom Jones" and the "Pickwick Papers"--been abandoned of late years? How far is a novelist justified in taking his characters so closely from actual life that they are recognizable by his readers? What are the advantages and disadvantages of local color? How much dialect may a novelist venture to employ? Is the historical novel really a loftier type of fiction than the novel of contemporary life? Is it really possible to write a veracious novel about any other than the novelist's native land? Why is it that so many of the greater writers of fiction have brought forth their first novel only after they had attained to half the allotted threescore years and ten? Is the scientific spirit going to be helpful or harmful to the writer of fiction? Which is the finer form for fiction, a swift and direct telling of the story, with the concentration of a Greek tragedy, such as we find in the "Scarlet Letter" and in "Smoke," or an ampler and more leisurely movement more like that of the Elizabethan plays, such as we may see in "Vanity Fair" and in "War and Peace"?

These questions, and many another, we may expect to hear discussed, even if they cannot all of them be answered, in any consideration of the materials and the methods of fiction. And the result of these inquiries cannot fail to be beneficial, both to the writer of fiction and to the reader of fiction. To the story-teller himself they will serve as a stimulus and a guide, calling attention to the technic of his craft and broadening his knowledge of the principles of his art. To the idle reader even they ought to be helpful, because they will force him to think about the novels he may read and because they will lead him to be more exacting, to insist more on veracity in the portrayal of life and to demand more care in the method of presentation. Every art profits by a wider understanding of its principles, of its possibilities and of its limitations, as well as by a more diffused knowledge of its technic.



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