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Artless: Ignorance in the Novel and the Making of Modern Character

  • Author(s): White, Brandon
  • Advisor(s): Blanton, C. D.
  • et al.
Abstract

Two things tend to be claimed about the modernist novel, as exemplified at its height by Virginia Woolf’s The Waves (1931) — first, that it abandons the stability owed to conventional characterization, and second, that the narrow narration of intelligence alone survives the sacrifice. For The Waves, the most common way of putting this is to say that the novel contains “not characters, but characteristics,” “not characters[,] but voices,” but that the voices that remain capture “highly conscious intelligence” at work. Character fractures, but intelligence is enshrined.

“Artless: Ignorance in the Novel and the Making of Modern Character” argues that both of these presumptions are misplaced, and that the early moments of British modernism instead consolidated characterization around a form of ignorance, or what I call “artlessness” — a condition through which characters come to unlearn the educations that have constituted them, and so are able to escape the modes of knowledge imposed by the prevailing educational establishment. Whether for Aristotle or Hegel, Freud or Foucault, education has long been understood as the means by which subjects are formed; with social circumstances put in place before us, any idea of independent character is only a polite fiction. In fiction itself, this process is built into the form of the Bildungsroman, where the narrative ends only when socialization is secured, with fit elements absorbed into the social structure, and unfit elements expunged. With the passage of the Elementary Education Act of 1870, the British government was for the first time able to assert this influence explicitly, establishing secular state control of education and creating an enormous class of newly literate readers. Modernism’s signature style — its baroque locutions, its obscure references — has most often been read as the attempt of educated elites to alienate these inexperienced readers by making literature intelligible only to the eminently intelligent. But when facing the state’s newly acknowledged role in socializing subjects, novelists as otherwise antagonistic to one another’s work as Henry James, Thomas Hardy, D. H. Lawrence, and the aesthetes of the Bloomsbury group, from Lytton Strachey and John Maynard Keynes to Virginia Woolf, all commonly responded, I contend, by resisting education’s role in forming character in the first place. The figures who would go on to shape the modernist movement used their narratives to escape this pedagogical construct, imagining an alternative to the Bildungsroman model capable of chronicling an incremental divestment from social authority.

This reversal of modernism’s priorities offers to reorganize not only our understanding of the period, but of the function of character in structuring a reader’s experience. Critics seldom imagine “modernist character” as a category deserving further definition. Gerard Genette famously suggested that there are no characters in Proust, because all are subject to the author’s totalizing style. Recent inquiries, like Philip Weinstein’s, Gregory Castle’s, or Jed Esty’s, entertain the very notion of modernist character only to suggest that it was sacrificed in favor of form. As this project uncovers, however, many of modernism’s signature formal gestures — from stream of consciousness narration in James to minimalist depictions of the Great War in Lawrence — were first tested and contested as strategies for abetting artlessness in characterization. At root, “Artless” makes a case for the almost perfect convergence between a work’s unraveling and its reader’s reception; the works it considers aspire towards complete readerly accessibility, ultimately effacing any interference from intermediate authorities, even their authors.

My first chapter, “The Educations of Isabel Archer,” makes character’s precedence over form explicit through comparison of a single scene in the two versions of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, the original 1881 edition alongside the New York Edition of 1906. Isabel, James’s heroine, has long been read as the prototypical Bildungsroman protagonist, one whose intelligence is so penetrating that her education is achieved instantaneously when a mere glance arrests the history of her husband’s onetime affair with her close friend. In the original 1881 edition, Isabel observes that “Madame Merle sat there in her bonnet,” and when mere sentences later we find her “standing on the rug,” the reader’s shock can only be commensurate to Isabel’s own. With the original sequence, James had in fact produced stream of consciousness narration, well before its recognized first appearance in Edouard Dujardin’s 1887 Les Lauriers sont coupés. Yet with a single change to the New York Edition, James cancels a formal effect that had captured Isabel’s intelligence at its most potent and immediate. What readers witness in the New York Edition is not Isabel’s awakening knowledge, but her sudden ability to exorcise all that she has thus far been taught. When forced to choose between his character’s independence from social constraint and the formal innovation of “sat,” James chooses character. Isabel’s passage from intelligence to ignorance between 1881 and 1906 thus signifies a reevaluation of the role of education in fiction across the period itself.

Subsequent chapters track the role of formal and narrative structures in allowing readers to recognize — and ultimately embrace — artlessness. In the case of Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure (1895), as described in my second chapter, “Educational Epidemiology,” the story of the “Fawley curse” provides a model for narrative’s pedagogical potential: to have learned the story is to share in its misfortune. This model multiplies relentlessly, almost epidemiologically, so that the party at greatest risk becomes Hardy’s own reader. By extending the pedagogical production of narrative beyond its own pages, Jude the Obscure frames the ease with which education entangles individuals in a social fabric, even against their will. We ourselves face a choice: between sympathy to Sue and Jude’s characters, or obedience to the narrative form that has infected us. As the following chapter, “Knowing War in Women in Love,” suggests, the curiously repetitive characterizations and tautological phrases that riddle D. H. Lawrence’s 1920 novel capture how thoroughgoing artless representations must be to escape the pedagogical system entirely. In response to then contemporaneous changes to libel law and to philosophical disputes over the definition of personhood, Lawrence essentially removed the entire field of referential definition from the novel between drafts, excising the very connection between words and reference that allows a set of phrases to single out a person in particular. Lawrence’s characters remain uncompromised by convention because their circumstances can never be named. Women in Love carries artlessness to a new extreme, marking the moment when the stakes of character became compelling enough to organize all else around it. Lawrence’s characters operate in a world so thoroughly desocialized that they — with Lawrence’s original readers — are able to overlook that even the most mobilizing social event of their lifetimes, the First World War, is unfolding on the novel’s every page without ever being referenced.

Artlessness’s elaboration thus gives us a different way of accounting for the interests that informed the modernist moment: character in fact predominated over form, ignorance over intelligence. But in the high style of the Bloomsbury group, by which modernism is best known, these values appear obviously inverted. My final chapter, “Time Passes: How Bloomsbury Civilized Ignorance,” concludes by alternating between early and late moments in Bloomsbury’s collective career to uncover what became of modernist character. Early expressions of artlessness, such as Strachey’s portrait of the headmaster of Rugby, Dr. Thomas Arnold, in the briefest, most withering, and most personal sketch of Eminent Victorians (1918), have simply grown to exaggerated proportions by the time of Queen Victoria (1921). So total there is Strachey’s tone that all of Queen Victoria becomes an encounter with ignorance, refusing to allow intelligence to penetrate for even a moment. Alternatively, the assertions of old age cast prior achievements in a new light. Through John Maynard Keynes’s 1938 essay “My Early Beliefs,” where he regrets his Cambridge contemporaries’ blithe indifference towards time, Keynes’s efforts in The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919) can be freshly read not as a send-up of the stupidity that had marred the Paris Peace Conference, but as an attempt instead to force an alternative treatment of time. The graying heads of state have read Europe’s recent past with the complacent quiescence owed to a completed Bildungsroman, and by animating the temporality of what he repeatedly calls “the character of the Peace,” Keynes endeavors to unlearn that assumption. This chapter concludes by considering Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927), a novel that in its pivotal section, “Time Passes,” seems to fragment character in favor of style just as much as contemporary critical accounts of modernism have alleged. Yet I argue that the central figure of “Time Passes” is not Lily Briscoe or Mrs. Ramsay, but Mrs. Bast, the unschooled and ostensibly unimportant housekeeper, whose sole attestation is that she “never knew the family.” Mrs. Bast, I suggest, is in fact Jacky Bast, the wife of E.M. Forster’s Leonard in Howards End, the clerk whose fatal flirtation with education forms the basis of many charges of modernism’s intellectual elitism. Yet by amending Forster’s story, a coherent concept of character, rooted in ignorance, survives even “Time Passes,” and better still, is responsible for putting it into order.

If modernism maintains no interest in alienating the masses, this dissertation ultimately allows us to consider who is meant to read modernist texts, and for what purpose. As critics, I contend, we have potentially long been engaged in overreading modernism. The widespread puzzlement of Women in Love’s every critic is proof alone that it is not intended to reward the intellectual efforts of professional scholars. “Artless” then not only names a particular historical phenomenon, a teleology by which modernism was made, but also supplies a theory of reading practice. For all the intelligence ascribed to Henry James or to the Bloomsbury set, what we witness in James’s revision of “sat,” or in Keynes’s willingness to undermine the certainty of even his own economic forecasts, is an essential effacement of authorial authority. Artlessness finally amounts to a conviction that characters are capable of spelling their own terms, free from even the interference of their authors. The process is obvious, even automatic. Any reader then is capable of seeing artlessness unfold, and of watching the hold of any prior determinant, be it the missteps of one’s own education, or officially sanctioned history, or the novel as a genre, gradually lose its influence. By encountering artless texts, it is the reader of the early modernist novel, irrespective of class or background, who comes to unlearn.

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