Thursday, 13 August 2015

The Appropriate Form: An Essay on the Novel by Barbara Hardy

In this book, Barbara Hardy explores the variety of narrative form and compares the styles and standards of different writers- schematism vs naturalness, truthfulness; the economy, symmetry and stress on total relevance of Henry James vs the largeness, looseness of George Eliot and Tolstoy. The word "truthfulness", which she chooses instead of "realism", is "suggestive both of a satisfactory of experience into art and of an honest and sensitive recognition of facts and feelings often evaded and avoided in life, not merely in art". It is constantly used throughout the book. "If the concept of form is to be used faithfully and usefully it must be enlarged to include the individual life which is the breath of fiction and of a real response to fiction".
The 1st chapter is focused on Henry James.
"Henry James is almost always telling a single story, while Dickens and George Eliot and Tolstoy are telling several. This simple difference of scope and quantity determines many differences of form, and should not be neglected, though it is by no means the most interesting difference between James's concentrated narrative and the expansive novels of the great Victorians. What distinguishes the Jamesian novel from its large loose baggy contemporaries is the special relation of its parts to the whole."
Economy, symmetry, total relevance, concentration, condensation, aesthetic selection- these words are attached to James's art.
"There is no free observation in the concentrated Jamesian novel. The observer himself is never free to be a mere recorder, but is always using the external appearances in order to pick up cues and clues. James gives us a dramatically enclosed and self-contained world where everything has relevance to the main argument, gestures, objects, images, conversation, all shoot out like sure arrows to the heart of the matter."
Everything contributes to the main action and argument, nothing is lost, which sounds like Chekhov's gun. Hardy compares him to Tolstoy, who "has a remarkable capacity for filling the novel with scenes which lie right outside the tensions of plot, corresponding most closely with the normal pace of life, not shaped by the climactic curves leading to crises and conclusions". She quotes James:
"What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?"
This insistent condensation Hardy attributes to James's interest in the theatre- "this kind of condensation of scene and symbol is something we find more often in the drama than in fiction", because the novel isn't restricted in time like a play and we can always turn back its pages. James "achieves the concentration of appearances and larger meanings, the concentration of narration and action within character, and [...] the concentration of past and future in the present tense."
Chapter 2 is focused on the same author. However, if earlier Hardy only describes James's aesthetics and art, in this chapter she points to the disadvantages and dangers of his approach to literature. In the introduction, she already notes that most critics responding to James's indictment of Tolstoy's novels insist that "the large loose baggy monster has unity, has symbolic concentration, has patterns of imagery and a thematic construction of character", i.e. defend Tolstoy by using the Jamesian standards, whereas she argues that the expansive novels of Tolstoy and George Eliot are indeed large and loose but that has its own advantages. In chapter 2, and later in the chapters on George Eliot and Tolstoy, she elaborates on this point and shows her priority or preference. 1st, the largeness and looseness of the expansive novels allows "the novelist to report truthfully and fully the quality of the individual moment, the loose end, the doubt and contradiction and mutability". 2nd, George Eliot, Dickens and especially Tolstoy refuse to "discriminate between characters who are major and those who are minor terms". They create "a world composed of individual lives, not of manipulated agents". James's minor characters "do not have a full weight of substantial life behind them" and if this is economy and Varenka in Anna Karenina is 'waste' then economy can be mean and waste generous. "Tolstoy's creation of this dense population of characters who have no grotesque definition and often no obvious function, whose lives impinge naturally and sporadically on the destinies of the main characters, is an essential part of his admirable freedom of what James calls his 'waste'." 3rd, James's aesthetic obsession often betrays itself, and in his conclusions, "the expense of truth shows itself in the final symmetry or completion". 4th, in Tolstoy's novels, objects and events exist in themselves rather than act as "transparent windows for the main relationships of the action". If for symmetry and economy everything in Henry James contributes to the main action, and everything in D. H. Lawrence has symbolic meaning and contributes to the main scheme, in Tolstoy, he recognises emotional complexity and prioritises truthfulness; he, for example, shows natural phenomena "in their own vivid right, unmoved by the demands of story and emotion" and the phenomena "never become mere dramatic properties".
In the last chapter, on Anna Karenina, Barbara Hardy praises Tolstoy's naturalness and lack of contrivance. Comparing him to George Eliot and Henry James, she argues that there are no crises of chance and very few crises of moral decision in the novel. "These crises determine the developmental structure of the novels, and they themselves are determined by the moral categories which George Eliot and James set up, and by the generalisation which emerges from these categories". In the works of these 2 authors, for all the subtlety of their particulars, there is still a basic division, and we can categorise characters by applying a fundamental test- "are the people acting from self-interest or from love?". We cannot do the same for Tolstoy's characters, they're too complex, too inconsistent and self-contradictory and multi-faceted. Because of the absence of (this kind of) categories, we "see a slow accumulation of events, not a succession of moral crises". Hardy remarks, "Tolstoy gives us characters whose destinies are less plainly determined by actual choice, and where there is decision it is underplayed or strung out in time. The moment of choice is not isolated". 
In addition, "[t]he segregation of characters into moral categories appears in novels where part of the interest- and a very important part- depends on the movement of some characters from 1 category into another". In Dickens and George Eliot and Jane Austen, "the novel hinges on a central moral conversion". In contrast, "Tolstoy shows moral change as momentary and sporadic, not as part of a clear pattern of improvement or deterioration". 
Even though several times in the book Barbara Hardy shows awareness of the problems of comparison and says that we can recognise different kinds of triumph, it becomes clearer and clearer in the last chapter that she has more admiration for Tolstoy than the other writers discussed in the book. She stresses on the naturalness of his books- "technical device never distorts character and action, by omission or stereotype, and seldom gives that heightened and poetic halo which cannot be appraised by realistic standards". James demands antitheses to be direct and complete; that obviousness can be seen in his works and also in George Eliot and Dickens, whereas in Tolstoy, who of course contrives and organises, the contrivance is very muted. In the end, the ending of Anna Karenina is "a faithful record of the abrupt, the difficult, the inconclusive". 

A good, enjoyable book (probably partly because I agree with many things she says). I recommend it. 


  1. I have been meaning to read this. Hardy makes the case for Eliot about as strongly as anyone can. I wonder how the Jamesians have responded.

    1. I like this book.
      By the way, I think Henry James places Turgenev above Tolstoy, no?