A Brief History of the Novel – Part Three

In the glad old days, before the rise of modern morbidities…it used to be thought a disadvantage to be misunderstood.G.K. Chesterton

In the first two parts of this series, I gave a definition for the novel and traced its origins. We examined its evolution from 980 AD to the late 1800s. And along the way, I pointed out where politics, philosophy and socio-economics have shaped the novel’s development as a form. Let us move on to Modernism.

Early Twentieth Century (1900-1950) – Subjective 

While the inequalities between black and white, rich and poor had hardly improved, by 1900 a new literary movement had begun to emerge. As Sigmund Freud and others shared their observations on the human psyche, writers in Western Europe and America began to acknowledge that everything we experience is filtered through our personal consciousness. In contrast to a previous emphasis on observing the external world, Modern writers chose to look within.

Henry James and his brother William, called The Father of American Psychology

Henry James (on left) and his brother William, known as The Father of American Psychology

Henry James, brother to psychologist William, authored 23 novels. Though most were written before 1900, many of them qualify as Modern.  The Portrait of a Lady (1881) is probably his best known. In it, James devotes more time to describing the inner thoughts of his protagonists than forwarding the plot.

The story concerns an American girl (Isabel Archer) who comes to England seeking experience. Soon after her arrival she attracts a pair desirable suitors and turns each down in favor of maintaining her independence. Through a series of events, Isabel inherits a considerable fortune. She then decides to broaden her experience by traveling to the Continent. There she meets an American expatriate who – with the help of his secret lover – wins Isabel’s hand. It doesn’t take long for Isabel to realize that her marriage is a sham and that she must decide whether to get divorced. Readers are left to imagine her choice.

To James, process matters more than choice. One whole chapter of this book (#42) delineates Isabel’s musings on whether to stay or go. Like a nineteenth century naturalist, the author dissects his characters’ psyches. Unlike those naturalists, James manages to keep his subjects alive.

Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf

The First World War (and Influenza Pandemic of 1918) served as a great leveler, tearing down social structures that protected Europe’s upper class. We see this in the writing of Virginia Woolf. Not much happens in Mrs. Dalloway (1925). The story concerns a day in the life of its main character as she goes about preparing for a party. The book’s true resonance can be found in the contrast between her present (and pleasant) activities and her ruminations about the past. These two plotlines are then contrasted with the suffering of a veteran from World War One.

Yet no moral conclusions are drawn – another hallmark of Modern fiction. In order to draw moral conclusions we have to be certain about the meaning of life, the existence of a Supreme Being, and how that Being designed the universe. In Western Europe, where the war was fought, those certainties were beginning to dissolve.

Once you believe that life has no spiritual trajectory, what do you believe in? That possessions and physical comfort are what really matter? In The Great Gatsby (1922) F. Scott Fitzgerald illustrates the American mindset of the “Roaring Twenties.” Here, as in Europe, this was a time of contrasts between rich and poor, those who lived by the rules and those who broke them. There was also great doubt about where the world was headed.

Cover of the first edition (1925), painting by Francis Cugat

Cover of the first edition, painting by Francis Cugat

To illustrate, Fitzgerald pits an innocent from the Midwest (Nick Carraway ) against a cynical millionaire (Jay Gatsby). Gatsby is known for hosting parties at which guests indulge in binge drinking and extra-marital sex. During the course of the plot, Nick meets a number of other characters who eventually lead him to Gatsby. Through Nick’s eyes we observe the excessive behaviors of Gatsby and his circle, behaviors that ultimately culminate in several deaths. Just like Isabel Archer before him, Nick gains experience at the expense of his ideals.

Late Twentieth Century (1950-2000) – Postmodern

The Holocaust and Second World War amplified the doubt which had begun with WWI. Events had proved that bad things can happen without reason or cause. In contrast to hedonism (which novels like Gatsby told us only made things worse) many writers took refuge in the philosophy of Existentialism. This system holds two main beliefs: On the one hand, life is merely a series of random events. On the other, humans create meaning through acts of will. Authors who subscribe to this theory challenge us to act for the good of all with no view to changing the world, but simply because we believe it is right.


In Albert CamusThe Plague (1947), an Algerian coastal town becomes the setting for an outbreak of bubonic plague. Each citizen has to make his own sense out of events and decide what course to take. The Prefect is challenged to accept the reality of what is happening. A doctor must decide whether to run away and join his wife (who is dying in a sanatorium) or stay and fight. The priest wonders if what happened is the result of God’s disapproval. And common folk must come to terms with being held captive while watching their loved ones die. Even if a character acts for the good of all, a positive outcome is not assured.

Existential thought has influenced just about every American and Western European novel since the end of World War Two. Sometimes the emphasis is on the absurd. In Cat’s Cradle (1963), Kurt Vonnegut sends his characters to a fictional island in the Caribbean. The island was first ruled by a pair of men. One of them created a religion called Bokononism, then asked the other leader to punish those who practiced it.

In the final installment of this series, I will complete my description of the postmodern novel, and speculate about how the form continues to evolve.

What do you think we should call the period after Postmodernism?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s