The World of the Novel: Contrasting Types in the Stream of Fiction


THE novel of character is one of the most important divisions in prose fiction. Probably the purest example of it in English literature is Vanity Fair. Vanity Fair has no ‘hero’; no figure who exists to precipitate the action; no very salient plot; no definite action to which everything contributes; no end toward which all things move. The characters are not conceived as parts of the plot; on the contrary, they exist independently, and the action is subservient to them. Whereas in the novel of action particular events have specific consequences, here the situations are typical or general, and designed primarily to tell us more about the characters, or to introduce new characters. As long as this is done, anything within probability may happen. The author may invent his plot as he goes along, as we know Thackeray did. Nor need the action spring from an inner development, from a spiritual change in the characters. It need not show us any new quality in them; all it needs to do is to bring out their various attributes, which were there at the beginning. For these characters are almost always static. They are like a familiar landscape, which now and then surprises us when a particular effect of light or shadow alters it, or we see it from a new prospect. Amelia Sedley, George Osborne, Becky Sharp, Rawdon Crawley, these do not change as Eustacia Vye and Catherine Earnshaw do; the alteration they undergo is less a temporal one than an unfolding in a continuously widening present. Their weaknesses, their vanities, their foibles, they possess from the beginning and never lose to the end; and what actually does change is not these, but our knowledge of them.

The figures in Vanity Fair have this unchangeability, this completeness from the beginning, and it is one of the essential marks of the figures in the novel of character. We find those figures in Smollett, Fielding, and Sterne, in Scott, Dickens, and Trollope. Their unchangeability may seem at variance with truth, and it has often been called a fault. It is claimed that they should be more like ‘life’; that they should not keep one side always turned toward the reader; that they should revolve, showing us all their facets instead of an unchanging surface. Mr. Forster calls these characters flat, and regrets that they should be so.

But let us accept the unchangeability of flat characters as a quality rather than a fault. Given their flatness, what can the writer do with them? What will the function of his plot be? Obviously not to trace their development, for, being flat, they cannot develop; but to set them in new situations, to change their relations to one another, and in all of these to make them behave typically.

So Becky Sharp must be introduced to Joe Sedley, to Sir Pitt Crawley, to the Marquis of Steyne, to Dobbin, to Lady Sheepshanks. She must be ‘subjected’ to them, combined with them, colored by them; but at the same time she must show more clearly the characteristics we expect of her, or at any rate must always return to them. The combinations will be as many as the novelist can invent, and if they are to have sufficient variety he must not be trammeled by a rigid plot, or by the need to develop his story dramatically. He must have freedom to invent whatever he requires. So it has been a convention that the plot of a novel of character should be loose and easy.

It is difficult at first sight and formally to place such novels as Roderick Random, Tom Jones, Old Mortality, and Martin Chuzzlewit. In all these novels there is something of the novel of action as well as of the novel of character; they strike a gentlemanly compromise which the reader finds it worth his while to accept. In all of them we shall find a great deal of action; one event leads on to another, and a happy solution of the entanglement is sought. We shall find, on the other hand, that the most successful characters are really independent of the main action, and that their responses are typical rather than useful. Roderick Random and Tom Jones are picaresque novels. This is a very striking class in English fiction; it is unique in certain interesting particulars, and it may be considered separately.

The real aim of this form is obviously to provide a number of situations and a variety of objects for satirical, humorous, or critical delineation. In the eighteenth century the novel had not yet freed itself from the trammels of the story centred on a single figure who had always to be present; and, though characterization was then considered the main thing, the narrator remained on the centre of the stage. Perhaps he doubted the capacity of his characters to hold the reader’s interest, and felt that an exciting story, containing adventures, was necessary. In any case a tale, centred round a hero, had to be kept going, and at the same time a number of characters had to be given an excuse for appearing. So we have the hard-worked traveling hero, posting from inn to inn, now in the country, now in London, knocking at the doors of the great, forgathering with rogues and thieves, languishing in prison or on board ship, suffering every vicissitude, good and bad; and enduring it all, not because the novelist has any tender regard for his hero’s sufferings or fortunes, but because he is determined to get a pass to as great a number of contrasting scenes as he can. We see Roderick Random suffering agonies at school in Dumbartonshire; but we are not interested in his agonies — we have eyes only for the author’s immensely effective portrait of the dominie who inflicts them. Roderick suffers again when he studies medicine; but we are interested only in the quack who gulls him. In London he is taught prudence by a pair of sharpers, and the arts of worldly advancement by a member of Parliament. Even this is not enough. The sea must be put under contribution, and Roderick enters the navy. By this time he has passed through enough to kill off three vigorous men; and we only make a sort of formal acknowledgment that he is still alive. But that was not of the slightest importance to Smollett, whose object was to give a picture of as many scenes and characters as possible, and in doing so to paint a broad picture of the life of his time.

Tom Jones is a real character; he is the traveling hero; he is Fielding’s means of introducing a host of characters, but he is as authentic as they. Yet, being a real character, his actions had to be probable; he could not move about with Roderick’s lack of responsibility, nor could such an astounding abundance of accidents befall him. He had, in short, to act the part of a natural young man without a knife to grind, while actually carrying on his business as a traveling tout for characters. He does both; and if, as a consequence, Tom Jones is less various than Roderick Random, it is immensely superior in continuous reality and verisimilitude. The object of these novels was not only to delineate character, but to take the reader on a panoramic tour through society, a tour in which all the features of interest would be unobtrusively indicated. This is generally one of the aims of the novel of character, and in this respect it stands apart from most other forms of the novel. Obviously Thackeray was interested in society, and as obviously Emily Brontë was very little interested in it.

There is an almost exact parallel to this aspect of the picaresque novel in contemporary fiction: the recurring story of the young man who begins in poor circumstances and climbs vertically through all the social classes until he reaches the top. The counterpart of Smollett’s traveling hero is Mr. Wells’s climbing hero. Travel was the chief means of becoming acquainted with the different manifestations of social life in the eighteenth century; success is the chief means to-day. Travel was difficult then; only a minority could undertake it, and these were then in a position to tell the majority how whole areas of society lived with which it would never come into intimate contact. Success is to-day as difficult as communication was in the eighteenth century, and it possesses the same social advantages. The man who has traveled or succeeded will inevitably want to communicate his specially acquired knowledge, as well as to portray the characters with whom he has come in contact; and in the picaresque novel, ancient and modern, there is generally an attempt to provide information such as a social student, or a moralist, or an intelligent newspaper would give.

Old Mortality is a novel of a very different type. At first sight we might feel inclined to put it among the novels of action and have done with it. But it is a novel of character as well. Apart from the main action, in a different world, there are a few characters, Cuddie Headrigg and his mother among them, who are not bound by the plot, and act as independently as if they were in a different novel of their own. The hero, Henry Morton, is a typical novel-of-action figure. The story could quite well be carried forward by the chief roughly characterized figures — Morton, Claverhouse, Evandale, Burleigh. The real children of Scott’s genius, here, as in the other Waverley Novels, are supernumerary. These two sets of figures come into contact, but on a different plane from that on which the plot moves; and whenever they meet, the surface movement of the story is suspended, and we get comedy which seems to make nonsense of the action and suddenly exhibits it as makebelieve. When we think of Scott’s great characters, Cuddie Headrigg, Andrew Fairweather, Edie Ochiltree, Caleb Balderstone, we think of them as a chorus or as an audience to the artificially created action, the noise and fury, fundamentally uninteresting, that sink to the foreseen and insipid end. They help on the action by chance, or unwillingly, or with a skeptical detachment. Once, in Jeanie Deans, this type of character becomes the chief actor, and Scott writes the greatest of his novels.

The action in Dickens’s novels, except in a few late instances, is simple, melodramatic intrigue. In Martin Chuzzlewit we have one great creation, Pecksniff, and a host of delightful figures; but the action belongs to the cruder and more improbable kind of mystery story. The metamorphosis of MontagueTigg, the fascinating sponger, into an opulent company promoter; his machinations against Jonas Chuzzlewit, ending in the murder; the deception practised by old Martin on Pecksniff for the purpose of unmasking him — compared with such things as these, Scott’s management of the action is serious and responsible. Dickens’s plots, of course, were primarily intended to keep up the reader’s interest from installment to installment of a serial. They were plots in Sir W. JoynsonHicks’s, rather than Aristotle’s, sense; plots against the public. They had no literary function at all. To bring in his characters and set them going Dickens did not need such artifices; he had an exceptional talent in that direction. The meeting of old Martin Chuzzlewit’s relatives in the beginning of the story; the visit of the Pecksniffs to Todgers’s; and with some reservations the journeyings of young Martin and Mark Tapley in the United States — these are brilliant strokes of comic invention, and Dickens is full of them.

It was Thackeray who first made a clear break with the plot, both as a literary and as a popular convention; and it was in this more clearly than in any other respect that he showed his superiority to Dickens in critical sense. Like the eighteenth-century novelists whom he admired so much, he set out to portray society; but if I am to do that, one might imagine him saying, why should I not do it. directly? Why should I have an ambulating hero to take me from scene to scene? Why should I not be in any place where I want to be? So he starts with a number of characters drawn from various classes of social life.

They meet in different places, move up or down the social scale, quarrel or agree, flatter or condescend; and, as their lives unroll, the complex of relationships and the number of characters expand until they embrace society.


In the dramatic novel the hiatus between the characters and the plot disappears. The characters are not a part of the machinery of the plot; nor is the plot merely a rough framework round the characters. On the contrary, both are inseparably knit together. The given qualities of the characters determine the action, and the action in turn progressively changes the characters, and thus everything is borne forward to an end. At its greatest the affinity of the dramatic novel is with poetic tragedy, just as that of the novel of character is with comedy. The dialogue in the most intense scenes in Wuthering Heights and Moby Dick is hardly distinguishable from poetic utterance; the most memorable figures in Vanity Fair and Tom Jones are always on the verge of becoming purely comic figures like Falstaff or Sir Toby.

But in all its forms the dramatic novel need not be tragic, and the first novelist who practised it with consummate success in England — Jane Austen — consistently avoided, and probably was quite incapable of sounding, the tragic note. The instance may seem strange, but it is only so in appearance. The art of Jane Austen has a more essential resemblance to that of Hardy than to Fielding’s or Thackeray’s. There is in her novels, in the first place, a confinement to one circle, one complex of life, producing naturally an intensification of action; and this intensification is one of the essential attributes of the dramatic novel. In the second place, character is to her no longer a thing merely to delight in, as it was to Fielding, Smollett, and Scott, and as it remained later to Dickens and Thackeray — it has consequences. It influences events; it creates difficulties, and later, in different circumstances, dissolves them. When Elizabeth Bennet and Darcy meet first, the complexion of their next encounter is immediately determined. The action is set going by the changing tension between them, and by a few acts of intervention on the part of the other figures; and the balance of all the forces within the novel creates and moulds the plot. One figure in the pure comedic sense there is in the book — Mr. Collins. Mr. Collins has no great effect on the action; he remains unchanged throughout the story. There are other purely comedic elements; for example, the permanent domestic tension between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. But in most dramatic novels such figures and combinations are to be found. Hardy has his peasants to give relief and an additional emphasis of proportion to the action. The real power of the Wessex novels lies of course elsewhere, in the development of a changing tension making toward an end.

Where the plot of Pride and Prejudice differs from the plot of a novel of action is in its strict interior causation. The first aversion of Elizabeth for Darcy was inevitable because of the circumstances in which they met, because Darcy was proud of his social position and Elizabeth encumbered by her unpresentable family, and because they were people of such decided character that they were certain to dislike each other at the beginning. Elizabeth is true to the candor of her mind in believing Darcy to be cold, haughty, and vindictive; she is equally true to it later in acknowledging that she is mistaken, and in changing her opinion. The action is created here by those characters who remain true to themselves; it is their immovability which, like a law of necessity, sets it moving; and through it they gradually and irresistibly manifest themselves.

The dramatic novel stands apart from the novel of action and the novel of character, in both of which there is a hiatus between the plot and the characters; there should be none in the dramatic novel. Its plot is part of its significance. A change in the situation always involves a change in the characters, while every change, dramatic or psychological, external or internal, is either caused or given its form by something in both.

But if a change in the situation involves a change in the characters, the propriety and truth of the progression — in other words, of the plot — are of the first importance. That progression will be inevitable on two planes. It will have an inner truth so far as it traces the unfolding of character, and an external truth inasmuch as it is a just development of the action. Or, rather, the identity of these two aspects of truth will here be complete, as it is in no other kind of novel.

Necessity and freedom, the logical and the spontaneous, are of equal importance in the dramatic plot. The lines of action must be laid down, but life must perpetually flood them, bend them, and produce the ‘erosions of contour’ which Nietzsche praised. If the situation is worked out logically without any allowance for the free invention of life, the result will be mechanical, even if the characters are true. Some of Hardy’s novels have this fault. ‘The characters,’ Mr. Forster remarks, ‘have to suspend their natures at every turn, or else are so swept away by the course of fate that our sense of reality is weakened. . . . Hardy arranges events with emphasis on causality, the ground plan is a plot, and the characters are ordered to acquiesce in its requirements. There is a ceaseless emphasis on fate, and yet, for all the sacrifices made to it, we never see the action as a living thing as we see it in Antigone or Béréenice or The Cherry Orchard. The fate above us, not the fate working through us — that is what is eminent and memorable in the Wessex novels.'

When freedom is overstressed the effect is equally false. There is a notorious instance of this in Jane Eyre, a novel which just misses being truly dramatic. Jane loves Rochester, but she will not live with him while his wife is alive; this is the real dramatic problem. All Jane’s character, all that should of necessity decide the direction of the action, is summed up in her refusal to go against her conscience. The story should have been worked out to the end on this assumption. Instead Charlotte Brontë has the insane Mrs. Rochester conveniently burned to death; she defeats fate, she defeats Jane, making her qualities irrelevant and meaningless. In The Newcomes Thackeray ‘ by a most monstrous blunder . . . killed Lady Farintosh’s mother at one page and brought her to life at another.’ We hardly notice it; we do not care much what becomes of the plot. But Charlotte Brontë could not make a single false move in the plot of Jane Eyre without giving a wrong direction to the whole book.

Wuthering Heights is more totally impressive than either Jane Eyre or The Return of the Native, because the balance between necessity and freedom is held more tautly, and proportion is won through the very intensity of the strain which these two forces impose on each other. Catherine and Heathcliff act of their own will, and their action is perfect freedom; yet at the same time they are figures in a tragedy whose terms and end are ordained from the beginning. The progression in both dimensions is unerring, and it is one progression.

The end of any dramatic novel will be a solution of the problem which sets the events moving; the particular action will have completed itself, bringing about an equilibrium, or issuing in some catastrophe which cannot be pursued further. Equilibrium or death — these are the two ends toward which the dramatic novel moves. The first, for reasons which it would be idle to enter into, generally takes the form of a suitable marriage.

We may mention one other respect in which the dramatic novel diverges from the character novel: its confinement to a narrow scene, and to one complex of life. We find this concentration of the area of action in Hardy, in Emily Brontë, even in Moby Dick, where, though the state is vast, it is in a sense unchanged; there is no escape from it. The reason for the isolation of the scene in the dramatic novel is obvious enough. Only in a completely shut-in arena can the conflicts which it portrays arise, develop, and end inevitably. All the exits are closed, and as we watch the action we know this. There is no escape into other scenes; or, if there is, we know that they are false exits, bringing the protagonist back to the main stage again, where he must await his destiny.


There are, of course, no novels purely of character or merely of conflict; there are only novels which are predominantly the one or the other. Nobody is likely to dispute this distinction, or to insist that it is absolute; and, trusting to this, I can now go on to my next generalization, which is that the imaginative world of the dramatic novel is in Time, the imaginative world of the character novel in Space. In the one, space is more or less given, and the action is built up in time; in the other, time is assumed, and the action is a static pattern, continuously redistributed and reshuffled, in space. It is the fixity and the circumference of the character novel that give the parts their proportion and meaning; it is the progression and resolution of the dramatic novel that do the same thing for it. The values of the character novel are social, in other words; the values of the dramatic novel, individual or universal, as we choose to regard them. On the one hand, we see characters living in a society; on the other, figures moving between birth and death. These two types of the novel are neither opposites, then, nor in any important sense complements of each other; they are rather two distinct modes of seeing life: in time, personally, and in space, socially.

A more vivid sense of the meaning of this distinction can be evoked by calling to mind the different feeling of time and space in various novels. In the dramatic novel, in general, the articulation of space is vague and arbitrary. London might be a thousand miles away from Wuthering Heights or Casterbridge. From the London of Vanity Fair and Tom Jones, on the other hand, every place has its just geographical distance; and no part of England, no small town, no country estate or remote parsonage, is inaccessible. We are conscious of England in Tom Jones and Vanity Fair; we are only aware of the Yorkshire Moors and Egdon Heath in Wuthering Heights and The Return of the Native.

Or consider another difference. By what seems at first a paradox, we shall find in the dramatic novel a far more intense visual realization of the scene than in the novel of character. No doubt this is partly because the scene in the former becomes colored and dyed by the passions of the chief figures; because we always see them against it, and closed in by it. But it is more

essentially because the scene here — the scene in Hardy’s novels and in Wuthering Heights — is not an ordinary and particular scene at all, like the Sedley’s drawing-room, or Sir Pitt Crawley’s country estate, but rather an image of humanity’s temporal environment. The Yorkshire moors and Wessex are not places differentiated and recognizable like Mr. Bennett’s Five Towns or Trollope’s Barchester; they are universal scenes where the drama of mankind is played out. When we think of Thackeray’s characters we think of them in the costume and against the background of their time; their clothes, the houses they live in, and the fashions they observe are part of their reality; they exist in their period as in a suddenly fixed world. But we recall Hardy’s figures as we recall things which are amenable to no fashions save those of nature; as we remember heaths, rocks, and trees. The scene against which he sets his men and women has not essentially changed since the time when figures capable of the few universal emotions with which he endows them might have lived in it. Space here, then, is undifferentiated and universal; though apparently narrow, an image of the world itself; and moreover unchangeable, for, no matter what fashions may alter the surface of human life, thus a mind like Hardy’s will always be able to see the world. The scene here, in short, is the earth, as in the novel of character it is civilization. For the character novelist will show us that the human scene, that world in itself, is infinitely various and interesting; that Queen’s Crawley is a very different place from Russell Square, and that there is an inexhaustible diversity of places and states of life in the Five Towns. We shall see the universal becoming particularized, humanity in all its varieties of prison house, ornamental or plain; and, if we are no longer conscious of the earth, we become free citizens of society, with a pass to all sorts of places.

Or take another striking difference, between the feeling of time in the character novel and in the dramatic novel; how it seems to linger in the one and fly in the other. If we open Vanity Fair at the first chapter and listen to Becky Sharp, and then take up toward the end, when we know that a great number of things have happened and many years elapsed, we shall have a curious feeling of having marked time, of still being in the same spot; somewhat the same feeling one might have if one were to fall asleep in a room where people were discussing some question, and waken to find the discussion at exactly the same stage. In the last chapters of Vanity Fair Becky is still talking very much as she did in the first. Let us turn next to the passage which introduces Catherine Earnshaw, and to her last interview with Heathcliff. There the shock we receive is of a different kind. We know at once that, while we have been sleeping, something extraordinary has happened: time, almost like a physical process, has passed over the figure of Catherine. This test may be applied to any great dramatically conceived figure, except for a few, like Captain Ahab in Moby Dick. For Ahab does not change. The action of the whole book, indeed, hardly moves for a while; there is only the long stretch of description, reverie, waiting, and then the fatal combat, described in the last few chapters — a combat which we do not see approaching, which could only come suddenly, absent one moment, unconditionally present the next.

In the novel of character at its best we feel that time is inexhaustible. The great character creations — Uncle Toby, Parson Adams, Lismahago, Mr. Collins, Cuddie Headrigg, Micawber — are beyond time and change, just as the great dramatic figures are completely enclosed in them and subject to them. In no novel of character, of course, is time quite stationary, though certain of the characters may remain so; but the more time is slowed down or ignored, — the more all urgency is taken from it, — the more favorable does it become for the emergence of characters. There is something humorous, something giving a sense of security, in the very slowing down of time, as may be seen in Tristram Shandy, Ulysses, and the slowmotion picture.

It is this imperviousness to time, this almost mythical permanence, which deepens our delight in such figures as Falstaff, Uncle Toby, Cuddie Headrigg, and Mr. Micawber. To admit that they were capable of change would be to limit their significance, not to enrich it; changed, they would no longer be universal in their place, which is a stationary spatial world in which time has reached an equilibrium. This is the reason why, when Dickens fits out Micawber with a new existence at the end of David Copperfield, the effect is so displeasing. Not only is a term set to a delight which seemed unending, but Micawber himself is at one stroke robbed of his eternal validity. We still think of him as everlastingly ‘waiting for something to turn up,’ for our imagination ignores the last transformation and gives him back to us as he was.

So much for the temporal vacancy of the novel of character; its spatial vitality, if this analysis should be accepted by anyone, will appear as obvious. There is in the great character novels a feeling of intensely filled space as extraordinary in its way as the feeling of crowded time in the dramatic novel. Witness the almost nightmare luxuriance of life in Dickens’s London; the mob of characters which jostle one another in his books, so that the scene seems crammed to bursting point.

When we think of the world of characters the picture that comes before us is something like those crowded frontispieces which used to adorn the collected editions of Dickens’s novels, where we see standing side by side and one behind the other the forms of Mr. Pickwick, Pecksniff, Micawber, Dick Swiveller, Uriah Heep, Sam Weller, Sairey Gamp, Montague Tigg, the Artful Dodger, the Fat Boy, and a host of minor figures, until the page seems to he unable to hold any more. This crowded effect,

this sense of living and moving space, is produced, once more, by the unchangeability of the characters. None of them ceases to occupy his place when another appears; all existing permanently, all exist contemporaneously; and even if they have their places in separate novels, we think of them together. We think of Dickens’s and Thackeray’s characters as all living at the same time, and as all living forever, and we think of them therefore as a crowd.


We must needs believe that neither of the two types of novels which we have discussed could give us its characteristic sense of human variety if it

did not observe its limitations. Without its shut-in arena the one could not evoke such a range and absoluteness of experience in its figures. Without the unchangeability of its types the other could not show us such a clear-cut diversity of character and manners. To see sharply the difference between a multitude of living things we must arrest their movement. They must not change while we look, or the change will confuse our sense of distinction; difference will merge at times into identity. Tf the author tries to overleap natural bounds and, combining the conventions, sharply differentiates his characters like the character novelist, and continuously develops them like the dramatic novelist, he will weaken and confuse the effect of both attempts, will give a sense neither of inevitable development nor of rich and clear-cut diversity, but will be caught into a flux. He will write the kind of novel which Matthew Arnold once called ‘a slice of life.’ If all this is so, however, the limitations of the dramatic and the character novel, in appearance arbitrary, are in reality reasonable and necessary; for only by observing them can the writer convey the desired effect and externalize his peculiar vision of life.