Time and the Novel: The Genealogical Imperative

Time and the Novel: The Genealogical Imperative

by Patricia Drechsel Tobin


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ISBN-13: 9780691600451
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 03/08/2015
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #1560
Pages: 250
Sales rank: 1,006,941
Product dimensions: 4.90(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.60(d)

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Time and the Novel

The Genealogical Imperative

By Patricia Drechsel Tobin


Copyright © 1978 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06378-2


Subverting the Father: Some Nineteenth-Century Precursors

In a study devoted to the disclosure of a genealogy's imperatives, any search for "roots" is necessarily subject to the greatest irony. I hope I may escape that consequence here by concentrating upon structural affiliations rather than historical descent. There are some novels, prior to those of our own century, that demonstrate a structural stress expressive of their authors' tentative discomfort with linear dominance, and these seem to presage the full assault against dynastic narrative mounted by the modern authors we will be considering. Since the nineteenth century was so preeminently the century of the paternal prerogative, and novelistic strategies had to be worked out within the cramped and constrained space that a triumphant normalcy accords to deviancy, these techniques under pressure are much more pointedly prophetic than, say, the almost casual eccentricities of English novelists in the eighteenth century, when paternal ordering was felt to be the provision, at the cosmic rather than social level, of a providential God or an underlying rational principle. More restless than rebellious, Emily Brontë, Herman Melville, and Samuel Butler nevertheless must appear as the supreme bastards in any literary history that traces the novelistic line of descent from Jane Austen and discerns its most illustrious heirs in George Eliot, Henry James, and Joseph Conrad. In the "great tradition," as it has been construed by F. R. Leavis, Wuthering Heights, Pierre, and The Way of All Flesh must figure as anomalies, embarrassments, "sports," precisely because, given their historical placement, their authors should have known better; whereas Defoe, Fielding, Smollett, and Sterne can be patted on the head and comfortably dismissed because they were writing at the "infancy" of the novel.

The novel that obeys the father and the novel that subverts him, of course, were both born in eighteenth-century England — the novel and antinovel almost, if not quite, twins of the same parturition, and each equally dedicated to fathering upon literature the basic mimetic illusion that "this really happened." From the abundance of titles that announce the "history of" or the "life of" a character, one might well surmise that the eighteenth-century novel recognized historical time as the medium of human experience, and wrote it accordingly. Largely, this was not so. An employment of the historical dimension of time would focus upon a protagonist who gains an identity and a destiny through experiential interactions with a society that matures and judges him — a society, in fact, that stands with the father. Instead, we find that what should be earned at the social level within the book has already been conferred by a fathering presence outside the book. A providential God has made good his paternal promise by maintaining a stabilized and objectified public world, and a benevolent author guarantees and sustains his protagonist, often saving the day and the life alike by being at once deaf to Fate and attuned to Fortune. Heir to these two grand paternal assurances, the hero or heroine undergoes random and colorful adventures in front of a panoramic backdrop, and the "history" of a life becomes a record of ill or good luck, as their disposition is ordained by the novel's two founding fathers. Roderick Random is haplessly batted about in a world haphazardly cruel in its punishments; Moll Flanders gets and loses husbands, children, goods, and money with a zesty freedom from practical and moral consequences; Tom Jones is excused all faults in the name of candor and spontaneity, virtues that return him to the embrace of a stepfather called Allworthy and a sweetheart named Sophia.

In a successful attempt to relate literary structure to genre conventions, Ralph Rader has designated these novelistic lives as "simulations" of naive autobiography and picaresque biography, lest we neglect how much art has gone into their making. also want to make much of authorial presence and control in the eighteenth century, but not in the interest of recognizing the component of aesthetic choice. The phenomenon is far more embracing than that. Rather, I think we are seeing in this preference for additive-episodic structures an expression of a temporal perspective that devalues the prospective and retrospective predictability that we ourselves customarily assign to beginnings and ends. Their "fictions of concord," to borrow Frank Kermode's phrase, are not ours. When the authorizing center of order is acknowledged as being outside the story (or above life), then there exists no need at the level of narrative (or of a life) for a strict coherence between the two terminals of beginning and end (birth and death) to establish the proof of that order. Orphans and foundlings, the characters are let loose in the world without ever having been born into it, foregoing the delicacy of initiation rites and the general concern for their education which a society responsive to and responsible for them would have institutionalized as stages in their maturing process. Since these protagonists are not expected to depart from their human nature given at the outset, the sequence and succession of their life events need have no causal significance. What delights us in these early English novels — knowing, as we do, that the terminals will take care of themselves — is their generously muddled middles of erratic adventures, any of which could be subtracted from these "histories" without seriously affecting their final outcomes, which most often reflect a philosophical inclination toward "hearty benevolence" or "virtue rewarded," never the unfolding inevitability of a narrative line that welds character to fate. For the novelists also, the interest seems to be in the local color along the indeterminate way: Defoe working up his enumerative details, Fielding having a try with stage-comedy routines, Smollett glancing sideways with the eyes of rogue and traveler. Diversity, in the eighteenth century, yields most pleasure when it is matched by whole-witted resourcefulness on the part of authors and characters; strategies for coherence, thriving elsewhere than in the time-and-again plot, would remove most of the fun.

Yet, outside this merry troup, there are two great novels which announce the shape and spirit that will dominate the nineteenth-century novel, which proclaims cause and effect as the assertion of a basic cosmic order in human events. The literary line of descent from Clarissa Harlowe to Tess Durbeyfield is a direct one of sisters-in-suffering. Both young women, disobedient to the father and strayed from the family, suffer sexual violation by an alien aristocrat. Although nefariously more sinned against than sinning, they cross the boundary between "maiden" and "maiden no more" (Hardy's chapter headings), an irreversible moral progress that inevitably terminates in the ritual death and immediate sanctification of the scapegoated virgin/harlot. Everything in the novels prepares us for the end — every word, gesture, detail, and episode is fraught with portent. When time is moralized as the primary ordering principle, interpretation is encouraged at every point, and, because of the book's integrity, always rewarding. Even within a looser, more panoramic form, the traditional nineteenth-century novel reverberates with a moral thud at its culmination. Tolstoy, for instance, far surpasses both Richardson and Hardy in his investment in the genealogical spirit. For him, the family is the proper ordering center for civilization, and he writes War and Peace and Anna Karenina so that they may corroborate that conviction. The young Natasha, therefore, may ride wild to the hunt, lean ecstatically out of upstairs windows into the night, flirt with Prince Andre; but the mature Natasha, physically and morally thickened by time, will settle down with Pierre and the diapers, content to be among the anonymous swarm through whom civilization evolves. Therefore also Anna, whose sexuality threatens civilization just as surely as the curls escaping around her neck provoke adulterers, must be sacrificed to Kitty and Levin, with their jam-making and mowing and their brood of children. Tolstoy furnishes a happy, comic equivalent to Clarissa, the novel whose offspring populate the nineteenth-century literary scene, and next to which the other major productions of the eighteenth century appear irresponsibly playful or frivolously manipulative.

Except for Robinson Crusoe. That is the second exception among the novels of its own century — a novel so powerfully persuasive for the following century that it went through seven hundred editions before 1900. Crusoe is the great hero who inflicts culture on nature — who, determined to forge a consistent line from his past to his present, remembers his acculturation and reproduces that world on his island. Under the guise of generating culture out of nature, Crusoe demonstrates a socio-economic progress, through which all the supposedly "natural" needs of man are made to seem necessary, and thereby confirms all the great lessons of a Protestant, mercantile civilization. A calendar is indispensable, writing an obsession. Tools, cooking, and housing develop from the rudely minimal to the commodiously maximal; and promptly after Crusoe's habitation has evolved through the tree-hut/tent/double tent escalation, our protagonist discovers that he requires a house in the country on the other side of his island. (One almost hears Kurtz on the horizon intoning, "My castle! My kingdom! My island!") Ever renouncing the slightest visitations of personal, natural desires, Crusoe comes to represent the paternal principle in its purest personification, and in making a society in his own image, institutes the master/slave culture of Hegelian analysis. The customary metamorphosis of the patriarch into a god operates here in an interesting variation upon the book of Genesis: Crusoe creates, Friday comes, and He rests.

With this deconstructed version of Robinson Crusoe (read, admittedly, from the privileged point of hindsight and very much against the grain of its contemporary reception), we are already a hundred years ahead in time, in the century of the line. And that line was historical. Public thought and private experience were widely infected with the different manifestations of "historicism" that reached their maturity during the 1800s. The earth itself yielded up, in fossils and bones, the secret of its advanced age, giving the lie to both Biblical and scientific estimates of its short life span, and in 1830 the young Charles Lyell wrote that history in his Principles of Geology. Then Charles Darwin, himself a "time voyager" in the century Loren Eiseley has named for him, discovered that species had not after all been permanently fixed on Noah's Ark, and he wrote that history of mutability as a genealogy in his Origin of Species. Man's own human history, left so long to the fragmented particularizing of chaotic event, could now be written under the paternal guarantee of a single law governing permanence and change. It is of only minor importance that there was disagreement over whether this law was evolutionary (Huxley, Spencer), cyclical (Vico, Nietzsche), or dialectical (Hegel, Comte, Marx); what counted, here as elsewhere, was that there was indeed a Father Time sustaining an order among his only apparently unruly progeny. The fact of genetic descent led to the naming of the father, temporal process was fully legitimized in all its variations, and change no longer had to be feared for its randomness. Time could safely become dynamic once the historical consciousness realized that it could predict change along the dynastic line of past, present, and future. When change is no longer a catastrophic wild card, but becomes rather a purposive and progressive element in a scheme of things, persons, and events, then a time-line comes to represent the most optimistic of continuities. The appropriation of this public domain of time for private use and instruction was immediate and enthusiastic. Victorian man discovered that to be living in time was no longer a fallen state, but rather the very field of action on which he could win the twin trophies of earthly success and spiritual salvation. With a favorable time index attached to them, economic progress and upward social mobility became the secular counterparts of the divine rewards for Christian steadfastness. There was no longer any moral justification in abiding and standing still, since human potential now found itself in a temporal dimension where one's grasp and one's reach almost coincided. The cultural transmission of this moral energy and confidence was institutionalized in the Victorian family, where, by teaching the children well, one might personally assure the survival of the fittest.

More than the novels of other ages, the Victorian novel pays respectful homage to the real world that conceived it. The novels of Dickens, Thackeray, Eliot, Hardy, and James are mimetic monuments to an age in which clarity and scrupulousness were valued as highly as social and moral norms. This is a very high road to travel indeed, and those who trod it — we like to think now, in our distance of safety — were doomed to stumble. But the Victorians themselves were never foolishly anything, certainly not foolishly optimistic. They had eyes to see the center that could not hold. Still, even the harshest critics of the culture built their novels like the Rock of Gibraltar: the center might not hold, but the structure would. No matter how severe an indictment the novelist might bring against his real world, no matter how devastating a picture he might paint of social disintegration, his novel with its ordered progress in time offered a disproof of his vision of disorder. We have come to know, if the Victorians didn't, how paltry are the reassurances offered by the policies of containment. So we look back perhaps nostalgically to these heroes and heroines with their important origins and backgrounds, their fictional worlds prepared for their active engagement, their willful shaking of time to make it release a destiny. Victorian beginnings are ever an orientation; by the end of the novel, its direction will have been meticulously documented, understood, and judged. Housed — like Darwin's species — in a family line, fictional characters evolve. They are not bounced about, fatherless, in a world supremely fathered, as was Tom Jones; they do not obstinately repeat themselves in adventure-censure, narrative capsules, as did Moll Flanders. No. Instead, Pip and Dorothea and Henry Esmond and Jude and Isabel Archer inherit their legacies and meet their destinies in novels where spacious familial accommodations are always guaranteed by the patrilinear consistencies between beginning and end, past and future. Nor will crossing national boundaries — to Hester Prynne or Pere Goriot or Young Werther or Raskolnikov — disrupt in any substantial aspect the century's unshaken faith in the structural reliability of the genealogical imperative.

The novels I consider next are among those that refused this accommodation, that could not assent to the line, that stick out as the deviants of literary history — the bastard progeny of paternal narrative. Although all three have the form of the generational novel, they nonetheless feature families irregular in nature and nurture, times that are negations of and alternatives to historical time, and narrative structures in which the endings somehow disconfirm the beginnings. Wuthering Heights, Pierre, and The Way of All Flesh have been too long notorious for their strangeness and, of late, too comfortably fashionable for their obscurity; the eye that shifts its gaze momentarily (in these cases, toward the parameters of structure) almost always returns to its object with a sharper focus.

Wuthering Heights: Myth and History, Repetition and Alliance

Any moral progress, charted on a graph as an upward curve, has a heavy investment in the excellence at the end. When the theme of progress is represented by the genetic success of a family, that high point of achievement is reserved for those members of the final generation. From its publication up to the present time, Emily Brontë's novel has attracted readers eager to confirm its orthodoxy as a fiction totally informed with the moral logic of the nineteenth century. In this view, Cathy and Hareton of the second generation signal the triumph of the good children over the bad father in the domestic ideal of social marriage. With the revocation of the diabolic principle in the father and of the mutual self-destructiveness of the original couple, the new society may be born from a union of compatibility and goodwill. The novel, therefore, progresses exactly as it should: a satisfying temporal development from a beginning in demonic dehumanization of the first generation to a commendatory rehumanization in the second generation. The narrative pursues a coherent course, culminating in an exact coincidence of aesthetic description and moral prescription.


Excerpted from Time and the Novel by Patricia Drechsel Tobin. Copyright © 1978 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • Frontmatter, pg. i
  • Contents, pg. vii
  • Preface, pg. ix
  • INTRODUCTION. Whence the Novel: The Genealogical Imperative, pg. 1
  • 1. Subverting the Father: Some Nineteenth-Century Precursors, pg. 29
  • 2. "Links in a Chain": Thomas Mann, Bnddenbrooks, pg. 54
  • 3. The Cycle Dance: D. H. Lawrence, The Rainbow, pg. 81
  • 4. "The Shadowy Attenuation of Time": William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!, pg. 107
  • 5. "A Colored Spiral in a Ball of Glass": "Vladimir Nabokov, Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, pg. 133
  • 6. "Everything Is Known": Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude, pg. 164
  • CONCLUSION. Whither the Novel: The Wager on Surface, pg. 192
  • Notes, pg. 214
  • Index, pg. 231

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