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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Scope of the Novelist
By Thomas Hill Green (1836–1882)
 
From the Essay on the ‘Value and Influence of Works of Fiction’

THE NOVELIST not only works on more various elements, he appeals to more ordinary minds than the poet. This indeed is the strongest practical proof of his essential inferiority as an artist. All who are capable of an interest in incidents of life which do not affect themselves, may feel the same interest more keenly in a novel; but to those only who can lift the curtain does a poem speak intelligibly. It is the twofold characteristic, of universal intelligibility and indiscriminate adoption of materials, that gives the novel its place as the great reformer and leveler of our time. Reforming and leveling are indeed more closely allied than we are commonly disposed to admit. Social abuses are nearly always the result of defective organization. The demarcations of family, of territory, or of class, prevent the proper fusion of parts into the whole. The work of the reformer progresses as the social force is brought to bear more and more fully on classes and individuals, merging distinctions of privilege and position in the one social organism. The novel is one of the main agencies through which this force acts. It gathers up manifold experiences, corresponding to manifold situations of life; and subordinating each to the whole, gives to every particular situation a new character as qualified by all the rest. Every good novel, therefore, does something to check what may be called the despotism of situations; to prevent that ossification into prejudices arising from situation, to which all feel a tendency. The general novel-literature of any age may be regarded as an assertion by mankind at large in its then development, of its claims as against the influence of class and position; whether that influence appear in the form of positive social injustice, of oppressive custom, or simply of deficient sympathy.  1
  To be what he is, the novelist must be a man with large powers of sympathetic observation. He must have an eye for the “humanities” which underlie the estranging barriers of social demarcation, and in relation to which the influence of those barriers can alone be rightly appreciated. We have already spoken of that acquiescence in the dominion of circumstance to which we are all too ready to give way, and which exclusive novel-reading tends to foster. The circumstances, however, whose rule we recognize, are apt to be merely our own or those of our class. We are blind to other “idola” than those of our own cave; we do not understand that the feelings which betray us into “indiscretions” may, when differently modified by a different situation, lead others to game-stealing or trade outrages. From this narrowness of view the novelist may do much to deliver us. The variations of feeling and action with those of circumstance, and the essential human identity which these variations cannot touch, are his special province. He shows us that crime does not always imply sin, that a social heresy may be the assertion of a native right, that an offense which leads to conventional outlawry may be merely the rebellion of a generous nature against conventional tyranny.  2
  Thus, if he does not do everything, he does much. Though he cannot reveal to us the inner side of life, he at least gives a more adequate conception of its surface. Though he cannot raise us to a point of view from which circumstances appear subordinate to spiritual laws, he yet saves us from being blinded, if not from being influenced, by the circumstances of our own position. Though we cannot show the prisoners the way of escape from their earthly confinement, yet by breaking down the partitions between the cells he enables them to combine their strength for a better arrangement of the prison-house. The most wounding social wrongs more often arise from ignorance than from malice, from acquiescence in the opinion of a class rather than from deliberate selfishness. The master cannot enter into the feelings of a servant, nor the servant into those of his master. The master cannot understand how any good quality can lead one to “forget his station”; to the servant the spirit of management in the master seems mere “driving.” This is only a sample of what is going on, all society over. The relation between the higher and lower classes becomes irritating and therefore injurious, not from any conscious unfairness on either side, but simply from the want of a common understanding; while at the same time every class suffers within its own limits from the prevalence of habits and ideas, under the authority of class convention, which could not long maintain themselves if once placed in the light of general opinion.  3
  Against this twofold oppression the novel, from its first establishment as a substantive branch of literature, has made vigorous war. From Defoe to Kingsley, its history boasts of a noble army of social reformers; yet the work which these writers have achieved has had little to do with the morals—commonly valueless, if not false and sentimental—which they have severally believed themselves to convey. Defoe’s notion of a moral seems to have been the vulgar one that vice must be palpably punished and virtue rewarded; he recommends his ‘Moll Flanders’ to the reader on the ground that “there is not a wicked action in any part of it but is first or last rendered unhappy or unfortunate.” The moral of Fielding’s novels, if moral it can be called, is simply the importance of that prudence which his heroes might have dispensed with but for the wildness of their animal license. Yet both Defoe and Fielding had a real lesson to teach mankind. The thieves and harlots whom Defoe prides himself on punishing, but whose adventures he describes with the minuteness of affection, are what we ourselves might have been; and in their histories we hear, if not the “music,” yet the “harsh and grating” cry of suffering humanity. Fielding’s merit is of the same kind; but the sympathies which he excites are more general, as his scenes are more varied, than those of Defoe. His coarseness is everywhere redeemed by a genuine feeling for the contumelious buffets to which weakness is exposed. He has the practical insight of Dickens and Thackeray, without their infusion of sentiment. He does not moralize over the contrast between the rich man’s law and the poor man’s, over the “indifference” of rural justice, over the lying and adultery of fashionable life. He simply makes us see the facts, which are everywhere under our eyes, but too close to us for discernment. He shows society where its sores lie, appealing from the judgment of the diseased class itself to that public intelligence which, in spite of the cynic’s sneer on the task of “producing an honesty from the combined action of knaves,” has really power to override private selfishness.  4
  The same sermon has found many preachers since, the unconscious missionaries being perhaps the greatest. Scott was a Tory of the purest water. His mind was busy with the revival of a pseudo-feudalism; no thought of reforming abuses probably ever entered it. Yet his genial human insight made him a reformer against his will. He who makes man better known to man takes the first steps towards healing the wounds which man inflicts on man. The permanent value of Scott’s novels lies in his pictures of the Scotch peasantry. He popularized the work which the Lake poets had begun, of reopening the primary springs of human passion. “Love he had found in huts where poor men lie,” and he announced the discovery; teaching the “world” of English gentry what for a century and a half they had seemed to forget, that the human soul, in its strength no less than in its weakness, is independent of the accessories of fortune. He left no equals, but the combined force of his successors has been constantly growing in practical effect. They have probably done more than the journalists to produce that improvement in the organization of modern life which leads to the notion that because social grievances are less obvious, they have ceased to exist. The novelist catches the cry of suffering before it has obtained the strength or general recognition which are presupposed when the newspaper becomes its mouthpiece. The miseries of the marriage market had been told by Thackeray with almost wearisome iteration, many years before they found utterance in the columns of the Times.  5
  It may indeed be truly said that after all, human selfishness is much the same as it ever was; that luxury still drowns sympathy; that riches and poverty have still their old estranging influence. The novel, as has been shown, cannot give a new birth to the spirit, or initiate the effort to transcend the separations of place and circumstance; but it is no small thing that it should remove the barriers of ignorance and antipathy which would otherwise render the effort unavailing. It at least brings man nearer to his neighbor, and enables each class to see itself as others see it. And from the fusion of opinions and sympathies thus produced, a general sentiment is elicited, to which oppression of any kind, whether of one class by another, or of individuals by the tyranny of sectarian custom, seldom appeals in vain.  6
  The novelist is a leveler also in another sense than that of which we have already spoken. He helps to level intellects as well as situations. He supplies a kind of literary food which the weakest natures can assimilate as well as the strongest, and by the consumption of which the former sort lose much of their weakness and the latter much of their strength. While minds of the lower order acquire from novel-reading a cultivation which they previously lacked, the higher seem proportionately to sink. They lose that aspiring pride which arises from the sense of walking in intellect on the necks of a subject crowd; they no longer feel the bracing influence of living solely among the highest forms of art; they become conformed insensibly to the general opinion which the new literature of the people creates. A similar change is going on in every department of man’s activity. The history of thought in its artistic form is parallel to its history in its other manifestation. The spirit descends, that it may rise again; it penetrates more and more widely into matter, that it may make the world more completely its own. Political life seems no longer attractive, now that political ideas and power are disseminated among the mass, and the reason is recognized as belonging not to a ruling caste merely, but to all. A statesman in a political society resting on a substratum of slavery, and admitting no limits to the province of government, was a very different person from the modern servant of “a nation of shopkeepers,” whose best work is to save the pockets of the poor. It would seem as if man lost his nobleness when he ceased to govern, and as if the equal rule of all was equivalent to the rule of none. Yet we hold fast to the faith that the “cultivation of the masses,” which has for the present superseded the development of the individual, will in its maturity produce some higher type even of individual manhood than any which the old world has known. We may rest on the same faith in tracing the history of literature. In the novel we must admit that the creative faculty has taken a lower form than it held in the epic and the tragedy. But since in this form it acts on more extensive material and reaches more men, we may well believe that this temporary declension is preparatory to some higher development, when the poet shall idealize life without making abstraction of any of its elements, and when the secret of existence, which he now speaks to the inward ear of a few, may be proclaimed on the house-tops to the common intelligence of mankind.  7
 
 
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