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True to Life: A Study of Lifelikeness in Fiction through Proust, Austen, Nabokov, and Joyce


The subject of this dissertation is verisimilitude, or lifelikeness, in fiction: the impression a work of fiction can give a reader that a scene or a character or any other one of its elements is remarkably real-seeming, remarkably "true to life." By studying works by four writers who were masters at creating this effect--Marcel Proust, Jane Austen, Vladimir Nabokov, and James Joyce--I attempt to reveal its sources.

Chapter one is entirely focussed on a single type of lifelikeness: the ability of a work of fiction to make us more aware of our experience by capturing what Proust calls "general essences": subtle general phenomena we have experienced in our own lives but that have never before been the objects of our full conscious awareness. In moments when this capturing takes place, the characters and events it involves are imbued with a striking "realness." In the chapter's first half, I show that this kind of lifelikeness is at the heart of Proust's aesthetics; several key scenes of the Recherche--including the famous encounter with the towers of Martinville in "Combray"--express a philosophy of art in which the capturing of "general essences" is art's main source of value. In the chapter's second half, I argue that the Recherche is true to its own philosophy--that it lives up to Proust's ideal of literature as "a kind of optical instrument that [the author] offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have seen in himself."

From a work that many consider the high point of realism in the novel, we now go back a hundred years to one of its most important early innovators. Chapter two is a study of Pride and Prejudice that attempts to explain the impression so common among Austen's readers that her characters are extraordinarily "alive." It does this in the form of a typology of verisimilitude--a study of four different ways a novel can be true to life. In Pride and Prejudice we find again the "illuminative" verisimilitude we found in Proust and distinguish from it three other types. First there is "plausibility," in which the writer is akin to the juggler--he keeps the apple of compelling storytelling in the air without dropping the orange of believability. Next there is "inclusive" verisimilitude, produced when the representation of a certain object includes features the object has in real life but that are typically left out when the object is represented in art. And finally there is "rightness," which comes from certain writers' great skill at imaginatively inhabiting the minds and bodies of characters.

My chapter on Nabokov has two sections. The first is an investigation of the relationship between literature and reality in Nabokov's ideas about literature. We find in his published lectures two important caveats for thinking about verisimilitude in fiction: first, that plausibility means adherence to the rules of a novel's world, which may differ in certain respects from those of the real one; and second, that truth to life in fiction is less a mirror than a prism: not just a reflection of the world, but the world as it appears through the medium of a writer's consciousness. The second section of the chapter is an analysis of Nabokov's novel Pnin that explores the ways fiction can be lifelike in its depictions of the sensory world.

Finally, in my chapter on Ulysses, I round out this inquiry by exploring some methods of lifelikeness I haven't yet discussed: verisimilar obscurity; the interweaving of the fictional with the real; verisimilar cross references; the depiction of "low" realities; and the "stream of consciousness" technique in its ability to bestow on characters a full mental life. Joyce did not invent these techniques, but he carried them much further than any other writer had done; Ulysses, the most "patterned" of novels, is also in certain ways the most lifelike, and much of what is distinctive in its style comes from these new extremes.

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