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The Epic, The Drama, And The Novel

( Originally Published 1918 )

Fiction a Generic Term—Narrative in Verse and Narrative in Prose—Three Moods of Fiction: I. The Epic Mood—II. The Dramatic Mood: 1. Influence of the Actor; 2. Influence of the Theatre; 3. Influence of the Audience—[Dramatized Novels]—III. The Novelistic Mood.

Fiction a Generic Term.—Throughout the present volume, the word fiction has been used with a very broad significance, to include every type of literary composition whose purpose is to embody certain truths of human life in a series of imagined facts. The reason for this has been that the same general artistic methods, with very slight and obvious modifications, are applicable to every sort of narrative which sets forth imagined people in a series of imagined acts. Nearly all of the technical principles which have been outlined in the six preceding chapters apply not only to the novel and the short-story, but likewise to the epic and the lesser narrative in verse, and also (though with certain evident limitations) to the drama. The materials and methods of fiction may be studied in the works of Homer, Shakespeare, and even Browning, as well as in the works of Balzac, Turgénieff, and Mr. Kipling. The nature of narrative is necessarily the same, whatever be its mood or its medium. The methods of constructing plots, of delineating characters, of employing settings, do not differ appreciably whether a narrative be written in verse or in prose; and in either case the same selection of point of view and variety of emphasis are possible. Therefore, in this volume, no attempt has hitherto been made to distinguish one type of fictitious narrative from another.

Narrative in Verse and Narrative in Prose.—Such a distinction, if it be attempted at all, should be made only on the broadest and most general lines. First of all, it should be admitted that, in an inquiry concerned solely with the methods of fiction, no technical distinction is possible between the narrative that is written in verse and the narrative that is written in prose. The two differ in the mood of their materials and the medium through which they are expressed; but they do not differ distinctly in methods of construction. As far as plot and characters and setting are concerned, Sir Walter Scott went to work in the Waverley Novels, which are written in prose, just as he had gone to work in "Marmion" and "The Lady of the Lake," which are written in verse. In his verse he said things with the better art, in his prose he had more things to say; but in each case his central purpose was the same: and nothing can be gained from a critical dictum that "Ivanhoe" is fiction and that "Marmion" is not. In the history of every nation, fiction has been written earliest in verse and only afterwards in prose. What we loosely call the novel was developed late in literature, at a time after prose had supplanted verse as the natural medium for narrative. Therefore, and therefore only, have we come to regard the novel as a type of prose literature. For there is no inherent reason why a novel may not be written in verse. There is a sense in which Mrs. Browning's "Aurora Leigh," Owen Meredith's "Lucile," and Coventry Patmore's "The Angel in the House," to mention works of very different quality and calibre, may be regarded more properly as novels than as poems. The story of "Maud" inspired Tennyson to poetic utterance, and he told the tale in a series of exquisite lyrics; but the same story might have been used by a different author as the basis for a novel in prose. The subject of "Evangeline" was suggested to Longfellow by Hawthorne; and if the great prose poet had written the story himself, it would not have differed essentially in material or in structural method from the narrative as we know it through the medium of the verse romancer. François Coppée has composed admirable short-stories in verse as well as in prose. "The Strike of the Iron-Workers" ("La Gréve des Forgerons"), which is written in rhymed Alexandrines does not differ markedly in narrative method from "The Substitute" ("Le Remplaçant"), which is written in prose. To be sure, the former is a poem and the latter is not; but only a very narrow-minded critic would call the latter a short-story without applying the same term also to the former. Therefore, the question whether a certain fictitious tale should be told in verse or in prose has no place in a general discussion of the materials and methods of fiction. It is a matter of expression merely, and must be decided in each case by the temperamental attitude of the author toward his subject-matter.

Three Moods of Fiction.—Eliminating, therefore, as unprofitable any attempt at a critical distinction between fiction that is written in verse and fiction that is written in prose, we may yet derive a certain profit from a distinction along broad and general lines between three leading moods of fiction, the epic, the dramatic, and what (lacking a more precise term) we may call the novelistic. Certain materials of fiction are inherently epic, or dramatic, or novelistic, as the case may be. Also, an author, according to his mental attitude toward life and toward the subject-matter of his fictions, may cast his stories either in the epic, the dramatic, or the novelistic mood. In order to understand this distinction, we must examine the nature of the epic and the drama, and then study the novel in comparison with these two elder types of fiction.

I. The Epic Mood.—The great epics of the world, whether, as in the case of the Norse sagas and possibly of the Homeric poems, they have been a gradual and undeliberate aggregation of traditional ballads, or else, as in the case of the "Aeneid" and "Paradise Lost," they have been the deliberate production of a single conscious artist, have attained their chief significance from the fact that they have summed up within them-selves the entire contribution to human progress of a certain race, a certain nation, a certain organized religion. The glory that was Greece is epitomized and sung forever in the "Iliad,"—the grandeur that was Rome, in the "Aeneid." All that the Middle Ages gave the world is gathered and expressed in the "Divine Comedy" of Dante: all of medieval history, science, philosophy, scholarship, poetry, religion may be reconstructed from a right reading and entire understanding of this single monumental poem. If you would know Portugal in her great age of discovery and conquest and national expansion, read the "Lusiads" of Camoëns. If you would know Christianity militant against the embattled legions of the Saracens, read the "Jerusalem Liberated" of Tasso. If you would know what the Puritan religion once meant to the greatest minds of England, read the "Paradise Lost" of Milton.

The great epics have attained this resumptive and historical significance only by exhibiting as subject-matter a vast and communal struggle, in which an entire race, an entire nation, an entire organized religion has been concerned,---a struggle imagined as so vast that it has shaken heaven as well as earth and called to conflict not only men but also gods. The epic has dealt always with a struggle, at once human and divine, to establish a great communal cause. This cause, in the "Aeneid," is the founding of Rome; in the "Jerusalem Liberated" it is the recovery of the Holy Sepulchre; in the "Faerie Queene" it is the triumph of the virtues over the vices; in the "Lusiads" it is the discovery and conquest of the Indies; in the "Divine Comedy" it is the salvation of the human soul. Whatever nations, whatever races, whatever gods oppose the founding of Rome or the liberation of Jerusalem must be conquered, because in either case the epic cause is righteous and predestined to prevail.

As a result of this, the characters in the great epics are memorable mainly because of the part that they play in advancing or retarding the victory of the vast and social cause which is the subject of the story. Their virtues and their faults are communal and representative: they are not adjudged as individuals, apart from the conflict in which they figure: and, as a consequence, they are rarely interesting in their individual traits. It is in rendering the more intimate and personal phases of human character that epic literature shows itself, when compared with the modern novel, inefficient. The epic author exhibits little sympathy for any individual who struggles against the cause that is to be established. Aeneas' dallying with Dido and subsequent desertion of her is of little interest to Virgil on the ground of individual personality: what interests him mainly is that so long as Aeneas lingers with the Carthaginian queen, the founding of Rome is being retarded, and that when at last Aeneas leaves her, he does so to advance the epic cause. Therefore Virgil regards the desertion of Dido as an act of heroic virtue on the part of the man who sails away to found a nation. A modern novelist, however (and this is the main point to be considered in this connection), would conceive the whole matter more personally. He would be far less interested at the moment in the ultimate founding of Rome than he would be in the misery of the deserted woman; and instead of considering Aeneas as a model of heroic virtue, would adjudge him as personally base. From this we see that the novelistic attitude toward character is much more intimate than the epic attitude. The wrath of Achilles is significant to Homer, not so much be-cause it is an exhibition of individual personality as because it is a factor in jeopardizing the victory of the Greeks. Considered as types of individual character, most of Homer's heroes are mere boys. It is the cause for which they fight that gives them dignity: embattled Greece must repossess the beauty which a lesser race has reft away from it. Even Helen herself is merely an idea to be fought for: she is not, as a woman, interesting humanly. It is only in infrequent passages, such as the scene of parting between Andromache and Hector, that the ancient epics reveal the intimate attitude toward character to which we have grown accustomed in the modern novel.

Because the epic authors have been interested always in communal conflict rather than in individual personality, they have seldom made any use of the element of love, the most intimate and personal of all emotions. There is no love in Homer, and scarcely any love in Virgil and in Milton. Tasso, to be sure, uses a love motive as the basis for each of the three leading strands of his story; but because of this, his epic, though gaining in modernity and charm, loses something of the communal immensity —the impersonal dignity—of the "Iliad" and the "Aeneid." On the other hand, novelistic authors, since they have been interested mainly in the revelation of intimate phases of individual personality, have seized upon the element of love as the leading motive of their stories. And this is one of the main differences, on the side of content, between epic and novelistic fiction.

Certain great works of fiction stand upon the border-land between the epic and the novel. "Don Quixote" is, for instance, such a work. It is epic in that it sums up and expresses the entire contribution of Spain to the progress of humanity. It is resumptive of the nation that produced it: all phases of Spanish life and character, ideals and temperament, are epitomized within it. But, on the other hand, it is novelistic in the emphasis it casts on individual personality, the intimacy with which it focusses the interest not so much upon a nation as upon a man.

The epic, in the ancient sense, is dead to-day. Facility of intercommunication between the nations has made us all citizens of the world; and an increased sense of the relativity of national and religious ideals has made us catholic of other systems than our own. Consequently we have lost belief in a communal conflict so absolutely just and necessary as to call to battle powers not only human but divine. Also, since the French Revolution, we have grown to set the one above the many, and to believe that, of right, society exists for the sake of the individual rather than the individual for the sake of society. Therefore the novel, which deals with individual personality in and for itself, is more attuned to modern life than the epic, which presents the individual mainly in relation to a communal cause which he strives to advance or to retard.

The epic note, however, survives in certain momentous modern novels. "Uncle Tom's Cabin," for example, is less important merely as a novel than as the epic of the great cause of abolition. Underlying many of the works of Erckmann-Chatrian is an epic purpose to advance the cause of universal peace by a depiction of the horrors of war. Balzac had in mind the resumptive phase of epic composition when he planned his "Human Comedy" (choosing his title in evident imitation of that of Dante's poem), and started out to sum up all phases of human life in a single monumental series of narratives. So also the late Frank Norris had an epic idea in his imagination when he planned a trilogy of novels (which unhappily he died before completing) to exhibit what the great wheat industry means to the modern world.

In the broad and social sense, the epic is undeniably a greater type of fiction than the novel, because it is more resumptive of life in the large, and looks upon humanity with a vaster sweep of vision; but in the deep and personal sense, the novel is the greater, because it is more capable of an intimate study of individual emotion. And it is possible, as we have seen, that modern fiction should be at once epic and novelistic in content and in mood,—epic in resuming all aspects of a certain, phase of life and in exhibiting a social struggle, and novelistic in casting emphasis upon personal details of character and in depicting intimate emotions. Probably no other author has succeeded better than Emile Zola in combining the epic and the novelistic moods of fiction; and the novels in the Rougon-Macquart series are at once communal and personal in their significance.

II. The Dramatic Mood.-It is somewhat simpler to trace a distinction both in content and in method between novelistic and dramatic fiction, because the latter is produced under special conditions which impose definite limitations upon the author. A drama is, in essence, a story devised to be presented by actors on a stage before an audience. The dramatist, therefore, works ever under the sway of three influences to which the novelist is not submitted :—namely, the temperament of the actors by whom his plays are to be performed, the physical conditions of the theatre in which they are to be produced, and the psychologic nature of the audience before which they are to be presented. The combined force of these three external influences upon the dramatist accounts for all of the essential differences between the drama and the novel.

1. Influence of the Actor.—First of all, because of the influence of his actors, the dramatist is obliged to draw character through action, and to eliminate from his work almost every other means of characterization. He must therefore select from life such moments as are active rather than passive. His characters must constantly be doing something; they may not pause for careful contemplation. Consequently the novelist has a wider range of subject than the dramatist, because he is able to consider life more calmly, and to concern himself, if need be, with thoughts and feelings that do not translate them-selves into action. In depicting objective events in which the element of action is paramount, the drama is more immediate and vivid; but the novel may depict subjective events which are quite beyond the presentation of actors in a theatre. Furthermore, since he is not obliged to think of actors, the novelist has a greater freedom in creating characters than the dramatist. The great characters of the drama have been devised by playwrights who have already attained command of the theatre of their place and time, and who therefore have fashioned their parts to fit the individual actors they have found ready to perform them. Consequently they have endowed their characters with the physical, and even to some extent the mental, characteristics of certain actual actors. M. Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac is not merely Cyrano, but also Constant Coquelin; Sardou's La Tosca is not merely La Tosca, but also Mme. Sarah Bernhardt; Molière's Célimène is not merely Célimène, but also Mlle. Molière; Shakespeare's Hamlet is not merely Hamlet, but also Richard Burbage. In working thus with one eye upon the actual, the dramatist is extremely likely to be betrayed into untruthfulness. In the last scene of "Hamlet," the Queen says of the Prince, "He's fat and scant of breath." This line was of course occasioned by the fact that Richard Burbage was corpulent during the season of 1602. But the eternal truth is that Prince Hamlet is a slender man; and Shakespeare has here been forced to belie the truth in order to subserve the fact. On the other hand, the dramatist is undoubtedly aided in his great aim of creating characters by holding in mind certain actual people who have been selected to represent them; and what the novelist gains in range and freedom of characterization, he is likely to lose in concreteness of delineation.

2. Influence of the Theatre.—Secondly, the form and structure of the drama in any age is imposed upon the dramatist by the size and shape and physical appointments of the theatre he is writing for. Plays must be built in one way to fit the theatre of Dionysus, in another way to fit the Globe upon the Bankside, in still another way to fit the modern electric-lighted stage behind a picture-frame proscenium. The dramatist in constructing his story is hedged in by a multitude of physical restrictions, of which he must make a special study in order to force them to contribute to the presentation of his truth instead of detracting from it. In this regard, again, the novelist works with greater freedom. Seldom is his labor subjected to merely physical restrictions from without. Sometimes, to be sure, certain arbitrary conditions of the trade of publishing have exercised an influence over the structure of the novel. In England, early in the nineteenth century, it was easier to sell a three-volume novel than a tale of lesser compass; and many a story of the time had to be pieced out beyond its natural and truthful length in order to meet the demands of the public and the publishers. But such a case, in the history of the novel, is exceptional. In general, the novelist may build as he chooses. He may tell a tale, long or short, happening in few places or in many; and is not, like the modem dramatist, confined in place to no more than four or five different settings, and in time to the two hours' traffic of the stage. The novel, therefore, is far more serviceable than the drama as a medium for exhibiting the gradual growth of character, the development of personality under influences extending over long periods of time and exerted in many different places.

3. Influence of the Audience.—Thirdly, the very con-tent of the drama is determined by the fact that a play must be devised to interest a multitude rather than an individual. The novelist writes for a reader sitting alone in his library: whether ten such readers or a hundred thousand ultimately read a book, the author speaks to each of them apart from all the others. But the dramatist must plan his story to interest simultaneously a multitude of heterogeneous observers. The drama, therefore, must be richer in popular appeal; but the novel may be subtler in appealing to the one instead of to the many. Since the novelist addresses himself to a single person only, or to a limitless succession of single persons, he may choose the sort of reader he will write for; but the dramatist must please the many, ' and is therefore at the mercy of the multitude. He writes less freely than the novelist, since he cannot pick his auditors. His themes, his thoughts, and his emotions are restricted by the limits of popular appreciation.

This important condition is potent in determining the proper content of dramatic fiction. For it has been found in practice that the one thing most likely to interest a crowd is a struggle between character and character. Speaking empirically, the late Ferdinand Brunetière, in his preface to "Annales du Théâtre et de la Musique" for 1893. stated that the drama has dealt always with a struggle between human wills; and his statement, formulated in the catch-phrase, "No struggle, no drama," has since become a commonplace of dramatic criticism. The reason for this is simply that characters are interesting to a crowd mainly in those crises of emotion that bring them to the grapple. A single individual, like the reader of a novel, maybe interested intellectually in those gentle influences beneath which a character unfolds itself as mildly as a blowing rose; but to the gathered multitude a character does not appeal except in moments of contention. Hence the drama, to interest an audience, must present its characters in some struggle of the wills,—whether it be merely flippant, as in the case of Benedick and Beatrice, or gentle, as in that of Viola and Orsino, or terrible, with Macbeth, or piteous, with Lear. The drama, therefore, is akin to the epic, in that it must represent a struggle; but it is more akin to the novel, in that it deals with human character in its individual, rather than its communal, aspects. But in range of representing characters, the drama is more restricted than the novel; for though the novelist is at liberty to exhibit a struggle of individual human wills whenever he may choose to do so, he is not, like the dramatist, prohibited from representing anything else. In covering this special province, the drama is undeniably more vivid and emphatic; but many momentous phases of human experience are not contentious but contemplative; and these the novel may reveal serenely, without employment of the sound and fury of the drama.

Since the mind of the multitude is more emotional than intellectual, the dramatist, for his most effective moments, is obliged to set forth action with emotion for its motive. But the novelist, in motivating action, may be more considerate and intellectual, since his appeal is made to the individual mind. In its psychologic processes, the crowd is more commonplace and more traditional than is the individual. The drama, therefore, is less serviceable than the novel as a vehicle for conveying unaccustomed and advanced ideas of life. The crowd has no speculation in its eyes: it is impatient of original thought, and of any but inherited emotion: it evinces little favor for the original, the questioning, the new. Therefore if an author holds ideas of religion, or of politics, or of social law that are in advance of his time, he will do better to embody them in a novel than in a drama; because the former makes its appeal to the individual mind, which has more patience for intellectual consideration.

Furthermore, the novelist need not, like the dramatist, subserve the immediate necessity for popular appeal. The dramatic author, since he plans his story for a heterogeneous multitude of people, must incorporate in the same single work of art elements that will interest all classes of mankind. But the novelistic author, since he is at liberty to pick his auditors at will, may, if he choose, write only for the best-developed minds. It is an element of Shakespeare's greatness that his most momentous plays, like "Hamlet" and "Othello," are of interest to people who can neither read nor write, as well as to people of educated sensibilities. But it is an evidence of Meredith's greatness that his novels are caviare to the general. Mr. Kipling's "They" is the greater story because it defends itself from being understood by those it is not really for. In exhibiting the subtler and more delicate phases of human experience, the novel far transcends the drama. The drama, at its deepest, is more poignant; but the novel, at its highest, is more exquisite.

Dramatized Novels.—The proper material for the drama is, as we have seen, a struggle between individual human wills, motivated by emotion rather than by intellect, and expressed in terms of objective action. In representing such material, the drama is supreme. But the novel is wider in range; for besides exhibiting (though less emphatically) this special aspect of human life, it may embody many other and scarcely less important phases of individual experience. Of late, an effort has been made to break down the barrier between the novel and the drama: many stories, which have been told first in the novelistic mood, have afterward been reconstructed and retold for presentation in the theatre. This attempt has succeeded sometimes, but has more often failed. Yet it ought to be very easy to distinguish a novel that may be dramatized from a novel that may not. Certain scenes in novelistic literature, like the duel in "The Master of Ballantrae," are essentially dramatic both in content and in mood. Such scenes may be adapted with very little labor to the uses of the theatre. Certain novels, like "Jane Eyre," which exhibit an emphatic struggle between individual human wills, are inherently capable of theatric representment. But any novel in which the main source of interest is not the clash of character on character, in which the element of action is subordinate, or in which the chief appeal is made to the individual (instead of the collective) mind, is not capable of being dramatized successfully.

III. The Novelistic Mood.—It is impossible to deter-mine whether, at the present day, the novel or the drama is the more effective medium for embodying the truths of human life in a series of imagined facts. Dramatic fiction has the greater depth, and novelistic fiction has the greater breadth. The latter is more extensive, the former more intensive, in its artistry. This much, how-ever, may be decided definitely. The novel, at its greatest, may require a vaster sweep of wisdom on the part of the author; but the drama is technically more difficult, since the dramatist, besides mastering all of the general methods of fiction which he necessarily employs in common with the novelist, must labor in conformity with a special set of conditions to which the novelist is not submitted. George Meredith may be a greater author than Sir Arthur Wing Pinero; but Pinero is of necessity more rigid in his mastery of structure.


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