Modernists think they’re so great

The 2nd-most irritating thing* about being a Victorianist is having to deal with our modernist colleagues who appear to believe that modernist claims about Victorian culture were simply true, and not at all artifacts of generational conflict or artistic brand-building.   I’m happy to admit that, say, James Joyce or Virginia Woolf could write a hell of a sentence, and that the kind of psychological realism they could achieve is incredibly valuable.

But that doesn’t make claims like this–found in The Cambridge Companion to the Modernist Novel–any truer:

For Portrait announces from its first page Joyce’s radical break with the conventions of the ninteenth-century realist novel.  There is no omniscient narrator here, who directs the reader’s response.  Instead the narrative focuses on a particular consciousness, and is articulated through the kind of language such a consciousness would use.  If we compare the passage with the opening lines of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (1861), another novel concerning a young man’s coming of age, the difference is striking.  Great Expectations begins: “My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip.”  The sentence immediately announces that this is not the voice of a child; the grammatical complexity of the opening clause, the use of the distinctively adult words “infant tongue” and “explicit,” tell us that the narrator is an older man looking back at his childhood, not a child telling his own story.  In contrast, Joyce’s use of simple words, baby-talk, and childish diction erases this overseeing, distancing narrative presence from the text, leaving us in intimate relation to Stephen’s consciousness alone.

Joyce was not the first writer to move from omniscient narration to a narrative style shaped by the interior life of his character . . . .  (102-03)

Is there any way of construing this paragraph that doesn’t imply, first, that Great Expectations is a realist novel, and second, that it has an omniscient narrator?  And does anyone who actually teaches this novel agree with either implication?

Of course it’s true that the opening page of Portrait seems more like a child’s perspective than Great Expectations‘s does. (Although is that a Dante allusion I see near the end of that page? My five year old’s read the Iliad and the Odyssey, both more than once, but I’m not sure I’ve ever heard him quote them.)

But it simply cannot be true that the point of the adult narrator’s recollection in this novel is oversight and distance, any more than it is in, say, Jane Eyre or Villette . . . or even David Copperfield.  Victorian literary culture was capable of playing complex games with self-presentation, as the dramatic monologue ought to make clear, and these and other first-person novels probably deserve to be read with some care.  In *none* of these novels does the narrator act like an omniscient one–instead, fictional autobiographies tend formally to point up the limits of one’s insight into one’s own life.

Great Expectations is a novel of adulthood, written from someone who is trying to make sense of his life, and trying desperately to convince us that things will work out for the best.  He returns to his past, neither because he is distanced from it nor to demonstrate his mastery of it, but precisely because he is not distanced at all, not a master at all.  That’s the rush of the book–and it’s a rush that most fictional auobiographies deliver in spades.

*The most irritating thing is having, every single semester, to explain, “Yes, we’re going to read the whole book.  I know it’s 1000 pages.”

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11 Responses to Modernists think they’re so great

  1. Jonathan says:

    Sure they deserve to be read with care, but do they *demand* to be read with care?

    That’s his aunt, but you know that.

  2. jbj says:

    Yes! I’ll admit that many people don’t read ’em with care, and still think they’ve read the books–but what can you do?

    I did know about the aunt. 🙂

    (To be perfectly above-board about all this, I sat my exams as a modernist, and then sort of wrote my way back into the 19thC during my dissertation.)

  3. Sybil Vane says:

    Couldn’t agree more about this and the tacit modernist-scholar position that most noteworty things about the period consist in their rejections,revision, and improvement on things Victorian. Further that first sentence of GE is so rich and complicated – the adult Pip spending the entirety of the novel trying to know who he is and how he got that way, opening with a sentence that discloses both the situationality of identity and partiality of identity. May have to reread now …

  4. Dr. Crazy says:

    Ok, I feel like a modernism person should jump in here and say that there is a TON of interesting work going on in modernist studies now attempting to change the tendency to evaluate modernism as this break with and improvement upon the Victorian. Of course, most of that work is rooted in thinking about domesticity, comes from a feminist perspective, and doesn’t actually get a whole lot of attention, but really! Not all modernists are this silly! (And in addition, some of us even have read and understood Foucault, which does help in realizing that modernism doesn’t invent things like sex, which is often one of the things that people cite when talking about the break with the Victorian.)

    (I should note: I almost decided to be a Victorianist, but didn’t because I decided that I loved the books too much and too purely to work on them.)

  5. jbj says:

    Hi, Dr. C! Yes, I agree that recent studies have often emphasized continuity rather than breaks. (Although some of that work tends to act as though the Victorian work is only interesting to the extent it anticipates modernism, which is a bit patronizing.)

    But a prized former graduate student is, or is about to be, working on a late-Victorian / early modernist dissertation, so I’m aware that there’s been new thought on this front.

  6. GLG says:

    Similar silliness/inaccuracy/patronizing happens at the “fault line” between Neoclassicism and Romanticism all the time, as well.

  7. Sigh. It’s so true–though I’m glad to hear Dr. C’s news that the trend may be away from such tedious “we’re so much smarter than they were” lines of argument. A particular subspecies of this comes in histories of literary criticism, where Henry James is credited with finally breaking away from the idiocy of his Victorian predecessors and inventing real criticism of the novel. I call them Smug Moderns (after Bridget Jones’s ‘Smug Marrieds’). Quite a few of them (or their postmodern heirs) write British book blogs, I’ve found.

    I nearly refused to pass a PhD thesis I was an examiner on because its discussion of Margaret Drabble’s ‘The Waterfall’ said so many stupid, dismissive things about ‘The Mill on the Floss’ (supported, to my shock, by quotations from Drabble herself being reductive and dismissive). Not one person on the student’s supervisory committee had apparently seen fit to complicate the cliches about Victorian moral earnestness and naive narrative transparency that were being perpetuated.

    Now I get my revenge by being pettily reductive about modernism (wow, I must be a good writer because I’m soooo elliptical and allusive and hard to understand) and ooh-look-how-clever-and-metatextual-I-am postmodernism too. 🙂

  8. Well, to ride my own favorite novelistic hobbyhorse a bit: for some people, Tristram Shandy is only interesting as a distant progenitor of (post)modernism *or* as a holdover of Renaissance learned wit. Sterne is apparently only a follower or a precursor, and did nothing that deserves to be looked into on its own terms.

    David Perkins’s book “Is Literary History Possible?” (Johns Hopkins, 1992) makes an interesting case for the impossibility of writing any literary history that isn’t basically a tissue of reductive generalizations and nonsense (as in the chapter you quote). But to take that to heart would mean revamping the entire curriculum, and then what would we teach the undergraduates? In the Renaissance scholars would lecture on single figures (Terence, or Virgil). If nothing else, talk about a way to make your teaching dovetail with your research!

  9. jbj says:

    Hey, what’s wrong with single figures?, asked the person in the middle of teaching a course on Dickens.

  10. GLG says:

    As a classics major as an undergrad, I had courses in the following single figures: Vergil, Horace, Livy, Tacitus, Lucretius, Homer, Sophocles, Plato, and Thucydides. The histories of Roman lit and Greek lit didn’t come until the end of the program.

  11. Nothing at all wrong with lecturing on single figures! I just brought it up as one alternative. I’ve been reading a lot about the history of scholarship lately, and after reading enough statements like “so-and-so lectured in Genoa on Pindar and Thucydides” it hit me at just how much different those curricula are from mine.

    In response to GLG’s comment about that course of study in classics, there is probably a lot to be said for spending time on single figures, learning how to read, before turning to surveys of everything under the sun.

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