The Melancholy of Modern Fiction

— If the modern novel — the most modern — is the exponent of modern thought and feeling, it must be inferred that life is nowadays a much more melancholy affair than it used to be. To whatever cause we may attribute it, the fact is very striking as it is thus manifested in the fiction of the period. I read a good many novels, and I object so much to spending my time over decidedly unpleasant ones that I wish authors would kindly label their works in some such way that one might be warned off by the title page from the perusal thereof. It is not that I cannot read a sad story ; but some sad stories are beautiful and carry in them a compensation for the pain they inflict, and other sad stories are simply unpleasant without mitigation. I can read Mrs. Gaskell’s Sylvia’s Lovers and like it ; such a novel as The Wages of Sin, by Charles Kingsley’s daughter, I would not willingly have read, had I known what manner of book it was. There are kinds of sadness and degrees of it. Mr. Thomas Hardy is a writer who is almost uniformly grievous, yet his art is so rare and so powerful that the reader consents to follow him to whatever dreadful end he leads. No one has a more profound apprehension of the force of circumstance to entangle men and women in its net, and no one paints so vividly momentous situations, where the history of a life hangs upon some thread of impulse, some apparently trifling turn of events. And yet Mr. Hardy has this in common with Shakespeare and other truly great artists, that his deepest tragedy is consequent upon character, and is not the simple working of fate. The Mayor of Casterbridge brings about his own downfall ; his destiny is involved in his nature, and circumstance does but help to determine foregone conclusions. Mr. Hardy’s last novel is a tragedy truly of a most piteous and heartrending sort, where the catastrophe is the result less of character than of fate ; the complications of circumstance are most to blame for the fatal web in which poor Tess is caught.

Beside the novels which portray special types of character, carrying with them each its own individual destiny, there are others peculiarly characteristic of the period, which depict life itself as it appears to the modern observer in its general aspect or in some one of its phases, usually the most melancholy one. It is this scene of life rather than the actors in the scene on which the real interest is concentrated. Take such a book as A Marked Man. While the hero is a well-painted figure, it is not what he is so much as what happens to him that concerns the author. His life is a spoiled one, his best affections are denied their natural channel, and at the end of his days he leaves his life with the mournful complaint, “ But, three years [of happiness] in fifty ! ” and his daughter echoes his thought, sighing out, “ Oh, why is it ? why ? ” and finds no answer to her hopeless query. As another example of this school of fiction-writing whose aim is to depict life as it is, take The House by the Medlar Tree. It is too unhappily true to life to be tolerable reading for any one past youth who knows what trouble is, who does not need and does not wish to have the woe of life thrust upon his notice and pressed down into his soul more than it already and inevitably is. For my own part, I think that a preface by Mr. Howells, recommending a book for its realism, will hereafter be enough to guard me against it. Some may agree with him to prize such novels as masterpieces of modern art, but is the depression they produce a wholesome effect to receive from a work of art ? In no other form of art is that the outcome of the highest efforts of genius,—a clouding of the aspect of the world, a lowering of the mental nerve. To read such books as A Country Town, A Modern Instance, The Wind of Destiny, The Failure of Elizabeth, is gratuitously to weaken one’s vitality, which the mere fact of living does for most of us in such measure that what we need is tonic treatment, and views of life that tend to hopefulness, not gloom.