Narrative Perspective and Psychological Realism: On Henry James's theory of the novel
Only in the second half of the 19th century do we find a purposive aesthetic theory of the novel. Flaubert, Maupassant, Henry James and Zola put forward the view that the novel is a serious form of art, emphasizing formal construction rather than simple imitation of reality. Henry James has been called "the best reader of Henry James." A great deal of his best criticism is found in the prefaces to his novels, in which he comments on the works and the technique of the novel.
James' main statement on this subject is his essay "The Art of Fiction" (1884). He knows that he opens a new era in the English novel: the novel in the earlier 19th century, he says, was "unselfconscious," "pre-theoretical," "naïve." Accordingly, its claims were modest, and it did not set itself any purposive ideals. It was assumed to be a "make-believe," a fiction unable to represent the complexity of life. But this must not be so.
The only reason for the existence of a novel is that it does attempt to represent life. (662).
In order to do this, the novel must above all change its tone. The recognition of fictionality, the intrusiveness of 19th century authors must disappear. There the Victorian novelists gave themselves away:
Certain accomplished novelists have a habit of giving themselves away which must often bring tears to the eyes of people who take their fiction seriously. I was lately struck, in reading over many pages of Antony Trollope, with his want of discretion in this particular. In a digression, a parenthesis or an aside he concedes to the reader that he and his trusting friend are only "making believe". He admits that the events he narrates have not really happened, and that he can give his narrative any turn the reader may like best. Such a betrayal of a sacred office seems to me, I confess, a terrible crime. ("The Art of Fiction," in Critical Theory since Plato, ed. Hazard Adams, 662)
James does not want to give himself away. The novelist must speak with the assurance of a historian. To do otherwise is a "betrayal of a sacred office"—a religious metaphor which is often used by the aestheticist propounders of art for art's sake.
As a critic, James discusses above all this sacred office, the activity of the novelist, but incidentally he develops a formalist theory of the novel seen as a completed aesthetic object (as the aim of the novelist). The artist is a central presence in all of James' criticism, sharply contrasting with his assertion that this presence must not be felt.
James opposes abstract theoretical analysis of the elements in the novel. He sees the novel as an organic whole: for him there is no sense in dividing action from character, or description from dialogue, etc.: they are all fused as the flesh and the blood in a living being; they melt into each other:
A novel is a living thing, all one and continuous, like any other organism, and in proportion as it lives will it be found, that in each of the parts there is something of each of the other parts. The critic who over the closed texture of a finished work shall pretend to trace a geography of items will mark some frontiers as artificial, I fear, as any that have been known to history. . . . (666)
You cannot divide, as other critics were doing, a novel of characters from a novel of incidents. In all good novels, character and incident define one another. As James says in one of the famous prefaces he wrote for a later edition of his works,
I might envy, though I couldn't emulate, the imaginative writer so constituted as to see his fable first and to make out its agents afterwards: I could think so little of any fable that didn't need its agents positively to launch it; I could think so little of any situation that didn't depend for its interest on the nature of the persons situated, and thereby on their way of taking it.
And in "The Art of Fiction":
There are bad novels and good novels, as there are bad pictures and good pictures, but that is the only distinction in which I see any meanin, and I can as little imagine speaking of a novel of character as I can imagine speaking of a picture of character. When one says picture one says of character, when one says novel one says of incident, and the terms may be transposed at will. What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character? What is either a picture or a novel that is not of character? (665)
James opposes Walter Besant's reductive definition of the novel as something ultimately concerned with telling a good story full of action, as well as Trollope's idea that character is all in the novel, that the plot is something unimportant, and something which is not necessarily linked with character. The psychological analysis of the character and the formal structure of the novel coincide in James: his novels are at the same time psychological studies and formal experiments, and the revelation of the character's self is dealt with through an original formal organization, a careful distribution of the perception of the action and judgment about the action. The relationship between action and character is defined as an organic one, but perhaps it could best be defined as a relation of organic subordination of action to character. Here James is arguing not only for an adequate description of the unity of a novel, but also for the novel of character and psychology against a narrow notion of the novel of action (vs. Besant's concern with plot):
There are few things more exciting to me, in short, than a psychological reason, and yet, I protest, the novel seems to me the most magnificent form of art . . . . The other arts, in comparison, appear confined and hampered; the various conditions under which they are exercised are so rigid and definite. (668)
The novel (unlike drama) can reveal to us the inner life of characters, and this is the essence of the genre, which otherwise must follow, in James' opinion, a dramatic ideal of concentration (cf. Aristotle on tragedy). But the novel is a free form, he says. It has no grammar which can be defined, no rules that can be taught.
A novel is in its broadest definition a personal, a direct impression of life. ("Art" 664).
The intensity of the impression and the execution are the grounds of its value, and they cannot be defined. They stem directly from the personal way each novelist sees life. This in some contrast with all we have said of his criticism of the Victorian novels. His own novels are thoughtful, concentrated, calculated works of art, while Victorian novels are "loose, baggy monsters" without technique or design. James thinks there are no rules, but he also thinks his own way is superior, his own technique more refined, his own vision more adequate. Still, we have here a profession of tolerance and catholicity.
It is an irony of fate that the theory of the novel should have profited so much from James' own analyses of his novels, given the little faith he has in theoretical definitions and analysis. In his prefaces, we find some of the most clear and influential statements of the nineteenth century on point of view and narrative voice, as well as on action and character.
James makes a distinction between voice and point of view in his novelistic practice as well as in his theoretical statements. This distinction comes from his concern with the ability of the novel to depict experience and psychological life. First-person novel will not do for this, because James is not looking for a conscious revelation of the person, or for a kind of novel based on recollection of past experience, which is what 1st person narrative implies. His novels are usually written in the 3rd person, which is less "intrusive," more "dramatic." Where James does otherwise, he makes sure that the result will be equally dramatic—for instance, using an unreliable narrator in the main narrative of The Turn of the Screw. The action should in any case unfold in a transparent way, without the writer stepping in to make his own comments. We are shown its development through significant scenes, we are not simply told. Percy Lubbock will develop in his book The Craft of Fiction (1922) some of James' insights in this particular.
And there is an ideal way of "showing" in third person narration which is at once dramatic and psychologically immediate. This is what James usually calls narration through "centers of consciousness" (preface to The Portrait of a Lady ), "vessels of sensibility" or "reflectors" (preface to The Wings of the Dove), and which we now usually call focalizer characters. The scenes usually act on a perceiving character, an reflector or focalizer, whose psychological reaction, the development of his understanding of the action, helps give the plot an organic unity. This is the role of Strether in The Ambassadors, of Maisie in What Maisie Knew. James does not require, as some of his followers, that there be no changes of perspective during the narrative; but he does seek to cut the story into perspectival blocks that are internally coherent. For instance, in The Wings of the Dove, the story of Milly Theale is seen mainly through the eyes of two characters, Merton Densher and Kate Croy, as well as her own. Every change or apparent incoherence of point of view, James says, has its aesthetic justification, its dramatic coherence:
There was the "fun", to begin with, of establishing one's succesive centres- of fixing them so exactly that the portions of the subject commanded by them as from happy points of view, and accordingly treated from them, would constitute, so to speak, sufficiently solid blocks of wrought material, squared to the sharp edge, as to have weight and mass and carrying power; to make for construction, that is, to conduce to effect and to provide for beauty....
Do I sometimes in fact forfeit the advantage of that distinctness? Do I ever abandon one center for another after the former has been postulated? From the moment we proceed by "centres"—and I have never, I confess, embraced the logic of any superior process—they must be, each as a basis, selected and fixed; after which it is that, in the high interest of economy of treatment, they determine and rule. There is no economy of treatment without an adopted, a related point of view, and though I understand, under certain degrees of pressure, a represented community of vision between several parties to the action when it makes for concentration, I understand no breaking-up of the register, no sacrifice of the recording consistency, that doesn't scatter and weaken.
Just as in Aristotle we found that an action or praxis had to be treated artistically before it became the plot or mythos, we find in James a distinction between the "subject" and the "wrought material" or novel, and in the Formalists we shall find a related opposition between fabula and siuzhet. A series of rules on the use of point of view define what is the relationship between the material and the finished novel. Form and psychology converge: the dramatic form gives us a new insight into the characters' perception and interiority. We see that James conceives of these "rules" he formulates on the use of point of view as organic, internal rules, which spring from the very nature of the psychological material of the novel. They will be transformed by many critics in the 20th century into external, a priori rules to decide on the quality of any novel, irrespective of its internal economy.
The influence of James's ideas is readily apparent in most important twentieth-century writers on fictional technique and point of view : Percy Lubbock (The Craft of Fiction, 1921), Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren (Understanding Fiction, 1943), Jean Pouillon (Temps et roman, 1947), F. K. Stanzel (Typische Erzählsituationen, 1954), Norman Friedman ("Point of View in Fiction," 1955); W. C. Booth (The Rhetoric of Fiction, 1961), Gérard Genette ("Discours du récit", 1972), Mieke Bal (Narratologie, 1977).
James also opposes external rules as to which is to be the aim of literature:
"The only obligation to which in advance we may hold a novel, without incurring the accusation of being arbitrary, is that it be interesting" ("Art" 663)
His ideas about the relationship between the work and the world are of little consequence, contrasting with the heavily moral interest of the novels themselves. In his theory he does not seem to go beyond a vague belief in realism and morality. A novel is an impression of life, and the quality and vividness of this impression is more valuable than the moral purpose of the novel. James seems to have seen the moral element in the novels as something which is fused in the total whole, an artistic ingredient. That is why we may dare to include him among the believers of Art for Art's sake. The novel is a self-enclosed whole, isolated from the world of continuous relations; a perfectly finished object, an autonomous world.