The Oppressiveness of Modern Novels
To me, I confess, much of the noteworthy fiction of to - day is oppressive, irritating to the nerves, even when the gentle art of torturing the gentle reader (the art which of late years has risen to such high esteem) is not in overt exercise. And this in no small degree from the very success which attends its anxious effort to reflect the familiar face of the actual.
There are many pictures, of course, in public galleries and other respectable places, which one would be reluctant to have upon one’s sitting-room walls for steady contemplation. But there is one in particular which I can never see without an instant sense of fatigued protest, — the portrait of an eminent philanthropist, depicting him with scrupulous verisimilitude “ in his habit as he lived,” down to the very shoes which he wore (shining, new, and obviously uncomfortable), the glossy beaver he had just laid aside, and the exact pattern of the aggressive red carpet upon which he stood. It is all very real; one might easily mistake it for life, — almost as easily as one mistakes the sham policeman in a waxwork show; but one turns from it, hastily, to some head, — some ruffian head, perhaps, — half lost in unctuous shadow, and draws the long breath of refreshment and relief. Oh, the subtle restfulness of it, after the other ! And how nobly clear it remains in the memory ! While of the eminent philanthropist I for one remember little more than the hat, the shining shoes, and the red carpet.
What is the occult power to oppress which lies in this skillfully counterfeited red carpet, and these shoes so simulated by art that they almost creak ? I cannot think that some mere flaw of temper causes the unreasoning irritation with which I contemplate them; nor that which sometimes comes over me when the illusion of modern fiction is at its height, and the re-created workaday world is vividly real about me. Is it not rather an instinctive craving for the disentangling of the essential from the superfluous, for enfranchisement from the tyranny of accessories, and a latent consciousness of failure in the art which leaves me to be still baffled and confused by obtrusive irrelevances ?
But the gentle art of torturing the gentle reader, it is needless to say, is very frequently indeed in overt exercise. A novel is “ powerful,” as everybody knows, in proportion as it awakens unrest and deepens dissatisfaction with the existing scheme of things, — as it furrows the brow, harrows the nerves, constructs the heart. The more painful, depressing, hopeless, life may be made to appear, the better !
Furthermore, it is all brought so very close to us ! In the great fiction of the world, there is, I think, a certain effect of aloofness. In reading the cleverest of our own there often comes to me an absolute feeling of physical proximity, its detail is so minute, so multiplied, — we are made to visualize it all so sharply. Mr. Howells’s stories, for instance, charming as in many ways they are, one instinctively throws aside when one craves solitude. His people seem so near, so real, so insistently every-day !
If we consider, I venture to say, we shall find that we know the faces of none of the characters of the great fiction of the past as we know, or may know, those of the brain-children of the typical latter-day novelist, — not even Beatrice Esmond, not Don Quixote himself. Nor are we made aware of any very minutely distinguishing traits, mental or physical, pertaining to them. Radiant, heroic, grotesque, repellent, as the case may be, they are satisfyingly apparent, sufficiently real, but they are a little removed from us; their outlines are slightly indefinite, like those of a composite picture. Perhaps, indeed, we never lose the latent consciousness that they are composite pictures, — that each is not one, but many. Certainly, I have never had, while setting myself to learn their life histories, the vague feeling of unworthiuess which one has in listening to gossip about one’s neighbors, — as I have had more than once in the case of the scrupulously individualized heroes and heroines and satellites of to-day. And never have Rosalind, Hamlet, the deathless Don — nor even Becky Sharp and Mrs. Gamp — harassed me by their presence !
There is an old objection to the novel, perennially revived by well-meaning people, though, in the sense in which they mean it, it hardly applies to any fiction of to-day which is worth considering. “ Novels,” they say, “ give such false views of life ! ” Well, one is almost tempted to answer, " That is what novels are for ! ” Though in thus answering one would speak with a haste perhaps even more unjust than David’s. Yet the reflection of the hard facts of life is so far, as it seems to me, from being the chief end of fiction, that one feels that the reality-scorning romance of the dressmaker’s journal or the “ family story paper ” comes nearer to fulfilling its true function than most of today’s novels of the higher sort. For it, after a fashion, does relieve the pressure of the actual (assuredly the primary object of fiction), while they deliberately press the actual upon us with even sharpened sting.