Edwin Muir - The Structure of the Novel
Notes from Edwin Muir's The Structure of the Novel, 1928 (London: Chatto and Windus, 1979).
1. Novels of Action and Character
8- Lubbock (The Craft of Fiction) lacks a general concept of structure beyond point of view; a narrow approach. Forster (Aspects of the Novel) is unanalytical.
9- Carruthers's organicism (John Carruthers, Scheherezade; or The Future of the English Novel) sees in the novel only the pattern of life. Forster and Carruthers forget what is specific in the novel.
11- "It is axiomatic that the pattern of no novel, however formless, can ever be so formless as life as we see it; for even Ulysses is less confusing than Dublin."
12- The laws of the novel art beyond the control of the novelist. Jamesian novel as a narrowing and minor offshoot;
13- Muir vs. deliberate form; these novels will be absorbed by the mainstream.
14- Muir vs. Lubbock's one-sided valuation; "all the main forms of the novel are good".
15. Muir opposes limited terms such as 'pattern', 'rhythm', 'surface', 'point of view': "Applied to works of the first rank, that vocabulary is ridiculously inadequate"; it derives from James.
16- 'Plot' is outside this danger; "It is a definite term, it is a literary term, and it is universally applicable. It can be used in the widest popular sense. It designates for everyone, not merely for the critic, the chain of events in a story and the principle which knits it together." They are differentiated by the order or events.
17- Here Muir will provide mainly "a survey of some of the main plots, each with its interior principle, which the novel has used." His approach is descriptive, not prescriptive. "The most simple form of prose fiction is the story, which records a succession of events, generally marvellous." It appeals "to our irresponsible curiosity."
18- In the story there is an absence of plot, an arbitrary freedom.
Romance also draws on curiosity, but substitutes a sequence for a string of happenings, a single complicated action for a series of actions. There is also anticipation, fear, etc. The happy end is a necessary consequence.
"Irresponsible delight in vigorous events, then, is what charms us in the novel of action." Weaving and unraveling the plot; characterization is rough, incidental to plot.
21- Large audience for a work of fiction goes along with little merit. "All these stories imply by their nature a deviation from normal civilized life".
22- They provide a temporary escape from life, they are unreflective.
23- Their plot is in accordance with our wishes, not our knowledge, "a fantasy of desire rather than a picture of life". In the novel of character, "the action is subservient to them" (to characters).
24- The novel of character focuses on a typical situation, with specific consequences (e.g. Vanity Fair, vs. Treasure Island). Characters are complete from the beginning. Flat? Muir advocates flatness; they are a necessay vehicle for these novelists' vision of life.
26- The novelist must simply make the characters move and interact (with a satirical or humorous or critical delineation).
27- Both types of novel may be mixed.
31- "The plot of Tom Jones is an adroitly constructed framework for a picture of life, rather than an unfolding action."
32- The novel of character as a picture of society.
35- Scott is best as a novelist of character, and his characters are "wooden and unreal" (!!). Action vs. character in him,
36- both are good but they form an uneasy combination.
37- Dickens's plots "had no literary function at all" (!!!).
38- Thackeray drops the convention of the ambulating hero and portrays characters in different places at his will, making them meet.
40- From Vanity Fair on, "the plot should not appear to be a plot".
2. The Dramatic Novel [organic form]
41- "the hiatus between the character and the plot disappears." Integration and mutual determination between them. Changing characters; similar to a poetic tragedy (the novel of character is similar to a comedy).
42- Jane Austen as the model (but she is incapable of the tragic note). Intensification achieved by confinement to one circle of life; Pride and Prejudice, et.
45- "strict interior causation" in Austen; no hiatus between chararacters and action in the dramatic novel, as there is one in the novel of characters and in the novel of action. The novel of character underlines the contrast between appearances and reality; while "The dramatic novel shows that both appearance and reality are the same, and that character is action, and action character." The dramatic nature of plot [characterized by Muir as an organic integration, in the style of the New Critics, although he does not use the term] ensures a logical and spontaneous development.
48- The dramatic novel shows both necessity and freedom [cf. the opposition novel of character / novel of action].
50- Dangers of overstressing either necessity or freedom (cf. Jude the Obscure vs. Jane Eyre); scenes of dramatic plot are not self-sufficient,
57- nor dramatic characters. "In the very conception of them there is the problem of time."
58- The ending is the end of both plot and characterisation (unlike the other kinds of novel). The dramatic novel moves towards equilibrium or death (from a static initial situation).
59- A narrow circle, shut off from the arbitrary interference of the external world; its logic is given necessity through limits. "The plot of the character novel is expansive, the plot of the dramatic novel intensive."
60- It is an image of a mode of experience, while the character novel is an image of a mode of existence.
61- The strength of each type comes from its limitations; the importance of reasonable limitations.
3. Time and Space
62-63- "the imaginative world of the dramatic novel is in Time, the imaginative world of the character novel in Space." Individual vs. social values (dramatic novel / character novel); "they are . . . two distinct modes of seeing life: in Time, personally, and in Space, socially."
64- "Spatial" plots vs. developmental dramatic plots. "In the one we shall find a loosely woven pattern, in the other the logic of causality."
65- A more visually intense realization of the scene in the dramatic novel. The dramatic novel is more universalised and abstract.
68- Time seems to linger in the character novel, and to fly in the dramatic novel.
69- [Moby Dick as dramatic novel!];
—a "prescience of something definite to come" in the dramatic novel.
74- This is partly caused by the author's foreknowledge,
75- —or by the expectations of the characters.
81- "The great character creations . . . are beyond time and change." Characters from a character novel caught in a dramatic plot:
84- "Dickens's mistake harms Micawber, as Shakespeare's, marvellous as it is, harms Falstaff." [Now the novel of character has a universal significance for Muir]
85- Character in the novel as a movement in a symphony; the character novel is equivalent to a picture; we get an intensity of spatial reality. Character as single figures vs. the crowd as character.
But "Why should not the action develop with equal freedom in Time and in Space? (next chapter).
4. The Chronicle
88- "The dramatic novel is limited in Space and free in Time, the character novel limited in Time and free in Space" (concentration gives intensity; typicality is made possible by unchangeability).
89- Universality and particularity in art: annihilation of time or space produces universalization (cf. the sculptor or the musicians). [Similar to the Romantic theory of the symbol: the universal is suggested through the particular - JAGL].
93- They also correspond to our experience of life and time: seeing our own typicality; life seen in perspective by means of aesthetic vision.
War and Peace is a "chronicle", as a view of society in time. "Life" as the sole point of reference. A strict framework (1), with an arbitrary and careless progression (2); (1 makes for universality, 2 for particularity). The speed of time is not determined by the intensity of the action:
98- it has on the contrary a cold and deadly regularity which is external to the characters and unaffected by them.
99- Time appears as an inhuman necessity,
100- Life as both confusion and meaning.
101- Destiny measures time in the dramatic novel; in the chronicle it is not measured by human happenings.
103-4- Time is internal in the dramatic novel, external in the chronicle.
105- Muir notes "the unavoidable relativity of action in the chronicle".
None of the divisions of the novel is objectively more valid than this one.
104-8- In the chronicle, the action and destinies of the characters seem accidental because they are set in a wider frame.
109- Action should be accidental, it disposes arbitrarily of human life.
111- Fate, visible in the dramatic novel, remains a mystery in the chronicle. It is often animated by a religious conception.
112- Human accident is opposed here to transcendental law, not guided by cause and effect.
113- The limitations of the novel form come from the limitations of our vision of the world, in terms of time, space and causality. (This is salient, not only form).
114- Muir emphasizes the creative act of limitation.
5. The Period Novel and Later Developments
115- "The chronicle is the ruling convention of the novel at present: the most consistently practised, the most highly thought of." "All the same, the most striking achievements of the contemporary novel lie outside the chronicle."
116- Also the period novel, now in decline (e.g. The Forsyte Saga): it shows a section of society in transition. It is not universalizing like the chronicle; it is linked to a particular society and time (a lower achievement).
118- "The bondage of the novel to period has degraded it."
(Cf. Ramon Fernandez's concept of 'recital'). This novel is determined (pre-determined) by an idea. Society appears as an abstract concept, not an imaginative reality; the writer illustrates his ideas about society.
125- Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu is similar to the dramatic novel but the end is not in external action, but in the author's mind. The author did not suceed in separating his novel from himself, "but by a happy stroke of genius he managed to trun this misfortune into an advantage." He gives us both the results and the processes of his imagination, and the effect on himself, and his reflections on effect.
Ulysses as moving in space-time, catching the flux instead of the pattern?
126-7- "Ulysses is a work of extraordinary literary virtuosity, and some of its technical innovations are striking; but in structure it is not revolutionary. Its faults are obvious: its design is arbitrary; its development feeble, its unity questionable." The parts have the same kind of unity as the whole; "Ulysses proceeds by agglomeration, not development." The significance of its symbolism is insufficient—and the symbolism is itself a confession that the work is formless in itself. It is similar to a loose and impressive novel of character.
129- The ideas of flux and time are not suggested by the device of thoughts. Ulysses is better on cliché than on developing character.
131- "The book is a panoramic picture of Dublin, not an impression of the passing of a day." It is better than the old novels of character, but this is unintended.
133- Woolf and Joyce: through their reaction to the period novel, they unconsciously return to the aesthetic tradition and earlier forms.
135- The flat character as the product of the 18th-c. changing social order. It is a social image of man, not complete, but true (here Muir argues convincingly against Forster's critique of flat characters in Aspects of the Novel). Flat characters are necessary and can be great creations, but they don't develop (as opposed to the dramatic character).
142- The flat character as the incarnation of habit (it is incapable of surprising us). The dramatic figure is the permanent exception. The dramatic character speaks from his real, not his habitual, self.
144- Forster sees flat characters as a trap for the reader, but Muir insists that we are shown the habitual side of character, but we see through it, and we guess the real self. The dramatic novel as a revelation; the character novel as suggestio facti.
145- Against Dickens's unmasking of flat characters: they are already unmasked.
146- The character novel, the dramatic novel, and the chronicle. This opposition is applicable to othe genres such as drama. There are affinities between Wuthering Heights and a tragedy, Pride and Prejudice as a comedy. (See Northrop Frye's theory of myths for an elaboration on this—JAGL).
148- The character novel is useless onstage, or it is faulty. The novel is born of mixed origins, and has a wide scope.
149- The plot of the novel is necessarily poetic, as that of any other imaginative creation. A positive image of life, or an imaginative judgment of life.
151- It is the function of criticism to underline these durable conventions.