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The Modernist Novel Speaks Its Mind


This study conceives the modernist novel as arising from a problem in genre. The end of the nineteenth century left English literature with a rich tradition of narrative prose describing the social and material worlds. At the same time, its aesthetic discourse was dominated by a Romantic poetics which described artworks as staging an opposition between spirit and matter, nature and freedom; and which placed lyric poetry, as an expression of spirit rather than a mimesis of nature, uppermost in its ranking of genres. The difficulties in reconciling this aesthetic to novelistic form account for the strangeness of the modernist novel, whose linguistic form aspires to the condition of lyric at the same time that its plot stages the failure of such an aspiration, the inability of Romanticism to imagine its own fulfillment. I begin with Henry James as a transitional figure; continue with William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf as exemplars of a Romantic-lyric poetics of the novel; and conclude with James Joyce, whose fictional forms resemble those of his contemporaries but ultimately reject many of their Romantic commitments. Some reference is made to twentieth-century philosophers, in particular Ludwig Wittgenstein, as thinkers with points of concordance.

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