The Novel as Protestant Art
So, here's a proposition: The novel was an art form—the art form—of the modern Protestant West, and as the main strength of established Protestant Christendom began to fail in Europe and the United States in recent decades, so did the cultural importance of the novel.
The proposition begins to unravel as soon as we offer it, of course. By the time we are done listing all the demurrals, adjustments, and trimmings, little seems left of the notion that the novel is an artifact of the Protestant West. Little, however. Not nothing. It's hardly a new thesis that the novel exploded out of 18th-century England to become a dominant art form of Western culture. In 1957, for example, the literary critic Ian Watt published a work called The Rise of the Novel, which claimed exactly that. And it's not much of a leap to argue that the Protestantism of those foundational English novelists would have an effect on the shape of the novel down through the ages.
Among academics, Watt is rather casually dismissed these days; certainly his work was significant back in the late 1950s, they might say in distant praise, but it valorizes male British authors, fails to appreciate the truly radical impulses suppressed by all organs of culture (including the publishers of novels), and implies that literature can be judged aesthetically beyond the determinations of power in social politics. All of which is a little odd as a criticism of Watt, for The Rise of the Novel was intent on finding solidly progressive and secularizing reasons for the rise of the novel. Watt looked, as a good socialist might, at economics, particularly the economics of book publishing. And he insisted, as a good rationalist might, on the scientific and industrial changes of society after the Middle Ages and the new understanding of the self as defined by the early modern philosophers, from Descartes to Locke.
What he overlooked is the religious root of it all. Aware of the multiplicities of Protestantism, in all the variety of its post-Reformation sects in Great Britain, Watt nonetheless missed the unities of Protestantism: the central current of manners and morals that Protestantism had created by the time it reached its full cultural victory over Catholicism in England in the 18th century. This general Protestantism was, in a sense, too big for Watt to see: the received setting and given condition of the fiction. It was the secret de Polichinelle of the English novelists, the thing no one bothers to mention because they assume that everyone already knows it. And for too many subsequent literary critics, it became simply unknowable, hidden by their sure and certain faith in the novel as the mirror (or even the motor) of secularization.
The truth is that even after all the necessary caveats and qualifications are registered, the notion of the modern novel's Protestant essence won't disappear—for something in the confident precincts of Western culture really did latch onto extended prose fiction in the 18th century, and it wouldn't let go as the centuries rolled by. Yes, there was poetry and a flowering of music through those long years. Painting, sculpture, dance: all the outpouring of European art from the Renaissance on. Nonetheless, for more than two centuries, the West increasingly took the novel as the art form most central to its cultural self-awareness: the artistic device by which the culture undertook some of its most serious attempts at self-understanding. And the form of that device was developed to explain and solve particularly Protestant problems of the self in modern times.
To get to a conclusion like that, of course, we have to understand what we mean by the novel—the Novel with a capital N; the novel as an art form. And that proves exceedingly difficult. No one has any compelling idea of what unites The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Fanny Hill, Notes from Underground, My Ántonia, Nausea, and Midnight's Children as a single type of writing. No one has any serious notion of what could possibly make the English writers Thomas Love Peacock, Ann Radcliffe, William Harrison Ainsworth, A. A. Milne, Daphne du Maurier, and Anthony Powell a single kind of author, even though we say that they all wrote novels.
Are we then forced back to the broad category of the novel simply as an extended piece of fiction? If so, literary history gives us novels long before 18th-century England came to be. Perhaps we can set aside the epic myth-tellings of the ancient world—Gilgamesh, the Iliad, the Ramayana, and all the rest—since they lack, we typically suppose, the self-conscious invention and falsity, the knowing fictitiousness, that we mean by the word fiction. And perhaps we can set aside works from the Latin Aeneid to the Old English Beowulf by holding a general insistence on prose (while admitting modern verse novels as specialty items in the canon, from Alexander Pushkin's 1831 Eugene Onegin to Vikram Seth's 1986 The Golden Gate).
Still, what are we to call the extended prose narratives of the ancient world—with the Romans giving us Petronius' Satyricon in the 1st century and Apuleius' Golden Ass in the 2nd? What about Murasaki Shikibu's Tale of Genji (c. 1020) in Japan? What about the Chinese Romance of the Three Kingdoms (c. 1500)? If the novel is a modern, Protestant-inflected thing, then we are left without much of a category for Longus' 2nd-century Greek Daphnis and Chloe, the 7th-century Sanskrit Dashakumaracharita, and Thomas Malory's 1470s compilation of medieval romances, Le Morte d'Arthur—along with such 17th-century work as Marie de La Fayette's The Princess of Clèves and Miguel Cervantes' Don Quixote.
But it's exactly there, with a mention of the 1605 Don Quixote, that we begin to sense a change in those extended stories, a new and different world emerging, and Cervantes' work is always cited in this context: the first widely read book of fiction to be taken as modern. Before Don Quixote, we have novels with a sort of asterisk. Nod toward them as politely and judiciously as you want; they are nonetheless novels mostly by courtesy of their being works of extended prose fiction. After Don Quixote, we begin to have novels in the strictest sense anyone could want to give the word: book-length modern stories with a sense of spiritual development over the plot's timeline, characters with interior selves, a drive toward artistic unity, and an ambition for the book to be revelatory commentary on the human condition.
The history of literature is never tidy. For all that it is an art form produced by ostensible heroes, the novelist understood as solitary genius, every breakthrough in some aspect of the form proves to have predecessors—failed or unrecognized or unfocused attempts to achieve the new effect before authors and audience were ready to grasp it. One could find this fact, as we have, in the awkwardness of defining the novel as the art form of a particular era. Or one could find it in the question of what to do with Boccaccio, who predates Cervantes by 250 years. Indeed, we get the word novel from the Italian novella, which means new—the new style of shorter tales that the influential Boccaccio wrote in the Decameron.
For that matter, how are we to take Gargantua and Pantagruel, which Rabelais began publishing in France 70 years before Don Quixote appeared? In 2007, the Czech novelist Milan Kundera took to the pages of the New Yorker to insist that Rabelais belongs with Cervantes, and probably above him, as "the founder of an entire art, the art of the novel."
Most readers will understand what Kundera means. Gargantua and Pantagruel is a sprawling mess, true enough—a large, loose, baggy monster of a book, to use the phrase with which Henry James described Dickens' 1844 Martin Chuzzlewit. And in James' disparaging line we can hear the High Victorian goal of making the novel a tight and self-complete work of great art, as unified as a Beethoven symphony: symbol, plot, character, and diction all moving toward a single end. Rabelais had no such ambition, which tends to weaken Kundera's claiming of Gargantua and Pantagruel as the foundation of the modern novel. In his seminal 1965 study of the book, Mikhail Bakhtin identified the mad festival of Gargantua and Pantagruel as entirely premodern: a definitively Renaissance work by a bawdy Christian humanist very much in the line of Erasmus.
In this, I think, we have to side with Bakhtin. Only the thinnest account of Western literature would dismiss Gargantua and Pantagruel as merely a cul-de-sac and a curiosity. Nevertheless, there is a discernible difference between Cervantes and Rabelais, just as there is a difference between Cervantes and Boccaccio, for Don Quixote presents us with something new and distinct in the post-classical West: both more modern and more of what we recognize as a novel than anything that had come before.
I do not wish to hide the evaluation of Cervantes toward which I'm aiming. Hearing an attempt to dismiss Don Quixote as incidental to the history of the modern novel, we should leap to the book's defense. This is where the novel first emerges; this is one of the few truly great works of world literature, and without it we do not have much of what follows: No Cervantes, no Dickens. At the same time, hearing an attempt to claim Don Quixote as the very definition of the modern novel, we should shy a little. It's a long, improbable path from Cervantes' La Mancha to Mrs. Gaskell's Cranford, and the possibilities of books as diverse as Daniel Deronda, Là-bas, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and The Glass Bead Game are not easily discerned in the pages of Don Quixote.
Similarly, the 18th-century English works of Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding—the writers on whom Ian Watt focuses in his account of the emerging novel—are not derived from Don Quixote quite as easily as literary histories often assume. In her 2000 study Cervantes, the Novel, and the New World, the academic Diana de Armas Wilson attacks Watt as a narrow-minded British nationalist and quite possibly an anti-Hispanic racist for undervaluing Cervantes in an effort "to install Daniel Defoe as 'the first key figure in the rise of the novel.' "
But surely we can distinguish Cervantes and Defoe without being accused of chauvinism and bigotry, for the two authors are writing different forms and aiming at different ends. Something has changed between Cervantes and Defoe. Something separates the Catholic Spain of 1605 in which Don Quixote appears from the Protestant England of 1719 in which Robinson Crusoe is published. Something has allowed the inner life of the hero to appear on the page. And, I want to claim, those somethings involve the Protestant presentation of the spiritual journey of the main character as a unique self—together with the English novel's determination to provide alternate lives for the reader to experience vicariously and the confident sense of modernity as an age defined by more than its rebellion against the medieval past.
However modern Don Quixote seems when compared with the Decameron or Gargantua and Pantagruel, Cervantes' work can also feel unmodern to readers now. Think, for example, of how new characters suddenly appear, chance-met along the hero's journey, and promptly begin telling stories: barely related interpolations that serve mostly to bulk up the text with something interesting. This picaresque device will last until at least Dickens' 1839 Nicholas Nickleby, but the Victorian age quickly thereafter grew too embarrassed to use it much. The rise of magazines allowed such smaller tales to take clearer shape within an author-and-reader agreement about the genre of short stories, and the interpolated tale came to seem something like an admission of failure: an acknowledgement that the author had not succeeded at finding the unified work of art that defined the High Victorian novel, from Jane Eyre to The Wings of the Dove.
Think, too, of the curious metafictional comedy of the second part of Don Quixote (with the characters portrayed as having read the first part of the novel that created them)—from which one could point out a different direction the central current of the art form might have taken. In fact, some novels did flow down that rival streambed, starting with the classic self-referential, Möbius-strip comedy of Laurence Sterne's 1759 Tristram Shandy (by an author who often refers to Rabelais, in confirmation of our sense of an alternate history the novel could have followed).
In other words, the influence of Cervantes was certainly present in the beginning: Interest in the author's work helped begin the 18th-century run of British picaresques and thereby contributed greatly to the establishment of the novel as a ready form of art in the English language. In the 1850 David Copperfield, Dickens' clearest signal that he was leaving the picaresque for the unified art work of the Victorian novel, the eponymous hero pauses to name the books he read when he was young—and they are all the spawn of Cervantes: Gil Blas, Tobias Smollett's stories of Roderick Random, Peregrine Pickle, and Humphrey Clinker. Even Tom Jones, The Vicar of Wakefield, and Robinson Crusoe, in the way David describes reading them as imaginary (and sexually innocent) journeys fulfilling the child's desperate desire to escape. Oppressed by his mother's new husband, the young David retreats to reading—"reading as if for life," in Dickens' beautiful phrase—in the picaresque books that are his only inheritance from his father.
And even while Dickens reveals the influence of Don Quixote on the beginnings of the modern novel, Cervantes' metafictional play may actually prove to have had a greater effect on the final years of the modern novel, a key element in the creation of postmodern picaresques from William Burroughs' Naked Lunch (1959) to David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest (1996). Left aside is much claim of Cervantes' influence between the early formation of the novel and the late rise of postmodernism—much claim of Cervantes' influence during the central period of the modern novel's cultural importance.
To readers trained by the success of the English novel from Jane Austen to Virginia Woolf, Don Quixote will seem least modern in precisely the feature that leads historians to call it modern: its turn against the failures and oddities of late medieval culture. The book's primary literary device is mockery—and thus a kind of acknowledgment—of its predecessors in the proto-novels of the heroic late-medieval Romances and such Pastorals as Sannazaro's 1480 poetic Arcadia and Montemayor's 1559 prose Diana.
Not all the world was pleased. In the poetry of Don Juan, for example, Byron indulges a digression to bemoan the loss of the Romances in Don Quixote's laughter. But complain as Byron might, the simple fact is that Cervantes won, his work too good not to provide us with permanently comic lenses through which to view that lost time. And as heirs to modernity's early victories, the artists of 18th-century England no longer had to spend much time contemplating their escape from the comic failures of the late Middle Ages. The original gothic novels, from Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764) through Jane Austen's parody in Northanger Abbey (1818), actually emerge from a sentimental hunger for the supernatural thickness of lost medievalism.
Meanwhile, in the main line of the English novel—in the works of Watt's central figures—the comic and tragic possibilities of the new age proved too interesting in themselves to bother much with attacking a distant and defeated age. Robinson Crusoe, Clarissa, and Tom Jones are modern because they dwell in the modern present, not because they spend much time mocking their culture's premodern past. They don't need to indulge Cervantes' extended disparaging or correcting of the late medieval era.
The smoke of the 18th-century English battles that involved Catholicism, from the Jacobite Rising of 1745 to the Gordon Riots of 1780, can hide from us the extent to which much of middle-class Britain (which is to say, England's class of novel readers and writers) heaved a great sigh of relief at the Protestant settlements of William and Mary. After the Glorious Revolution in 1688, novels were free to be modern, the old medieval systems unimportant to an English Protestantism that had made its peace with—no, that was creating and sustaining—what they perceived as the modern world.
Perhaps the point could best be phrased this way: Don Quixote is undoubtedly the door by which we came to the modern novel. But doors, one remembers, do not belong entirely to the rooms we enter through them. On the other side, they are part of the rooms we leave behind. And what we enter, after Don Quixote, is the English novel of the 18th and 19th centuries, by which the rest of the world's novelists would be formed. The novel, in other words, as modern. And the novel as Protestant, all the way down.
The history of the novel gives us any number of explicitly, deliberately, determinedly Protestant book-length stories—just as it gives us any number of extended prose fictions that promote an explicit, deliberate, and determined Catholicism. Or Marxism. Or feminism, atheism, fascism, libertarianism, and extraterrestrialism, for that matter.
And as far as those vocally Protestant works go, we can probably set aside the ones with such a loud didactic purpose that they seem thereby overwhelmed as novels—although we would have to acknowledge the hypocrisy of disdaining openly religious Protestant teaching while refusing to let didacticism disqualify other novels, from Les Misérables, Middlemarch, and Uncle Tom's Cabin (whose anti-slavery moral is itself almost overpowered by the book's Protestant sermons) to Lady Chatterly's Lover, The Grapes of Wrath, and Catch-22 (its anti-war message once mocked by the poet Philip Larkin as "the American hymn to cowardice").
We can recognize, in other words, a set of moralizing Protestant books that seem to contain little in their plotting, prose, or psychological observations to recommend them beyond their edifying purpose. Charles M. Sheldon's Christian fable In His Steps: "What Would Jesus Do?" (1896), for example: a book that sold 30 million copies in its day. In a perfect world, we would have time to read together the neglected book-length fiction published by the Religious Tract Society, discussing in detail Evelyn E. Green's The Head of the House: A Story of Victory over Passion and Pride (1888) and Mrs. Walton's Little Faith; Or, The Child of the Toy Stall (1880). But not today.
Even on a much higher literary level, authors can seem didactically Protestant when they indulge an explicit anti-Catholicism—as, for example, Charlotte Brontë does in her 1853 novel Villette. Brontë had gone to Belgium to study a decade earlier, paying for her schooling by tutoring students in English. In Villette, she draws on the experience to show her English readers something of what modern European Catholicism looks like in all its rich, thick, and horrifying attraction. "Lucy Snowe," Brontë names her semi-autobiographical heroine, a young Englishwoman teaching on the Continent. And after Lucy may (or may not) have encountered the ghost of an unchaste nun who had been buried alive on the old convent's grounds—eventually, in a highly charged scene, finding the nun's habit in her own chaste bed—she announces, "God is not with Rome." Is it any surprise that Lucy decides against the Catholic conversion to which she had been urged by Paul Emanuel, her love interest and the figure who may (or may not) have drowned in what Brontë herself described as the "little puzzle" of the novel's strange ending?
Of course, Villette has in mind more than just its heroine's decision against godless Rome. The nuanced psychology of the novel—the constricted Lucy, holding together her loves, her hates, and her sufferings—may be the high point of Brontë's art. Certainly it is what led both George Eliot and Virginia Woolf to declare Villette, even with its gothic elements, superior to the earlier Jane Eyre (1847).
But neither can we simply dismiss as merely a Protestant religious tract something like Charlotte Yonge's The Heir of Redclyffe, another novel with anti-Catholic elements from that same year of 1853. The feminist revolution in criticism over recent decades has had the good effect of bringing back into print neglected women writers, even when they do not much support a feminist reading of literature, and Yonge's reputation has risen as critics have newly encountered such surprisingly good work as her 1856 children's book The Daisy Chain. Yonge's The Heir of Redclyffe, an enormous bestseller in Britain, may have been started as purely a didactic story by its serious High Church author. But along the way it manages a clever inversion of Romantic literature, with the Byronic loner recast as Christian hero—his secret virtues isolating him from the world just as surely as secret vices might have. In an (admittedly offhand) remark about the dreadful books that passed for "worthy" popular fiction, Henry James confessed, "Occasionally, like The Heir of Redclyffe, they almost legitimate themselves by the force of genius."
Even without much mention of rejected Catholicism, a resolutely Protestant setting can convey a didactic tone. It's true that such settings have been used to attack Protestant sects. You can find it in Dickens' mockery of the evangelical chapels, signaled even in his first fiction, The Pickwick Papers (1837), with the comic Reverend Stiggins. You can find it, for that matter, in books from James Hogg's Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1842) to (the Catholic) Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood (1952), both of which can be read as disturbing satires of certain forms of Protestantism. Still, it's hard not to notice the sectarian lesson in, for example, the all-embracing Protestant atmosphere of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (1869), which opens with the March girls acting out Pilgrim's Progress while their clergyman father is off ministering to the Union forces fighting in what Alcott understands as the Civil War's great Protestant crusade for abolition. Even Mansfield Park (1814) uses the assumption of an advancing Wesleyan-tinged Protestantism to resolve the moral collapse of a family made wealthy by the West Indies slave trade—and the novel, together with Emma (1815), marks the broadening of Jane Austen's extraordinary art to reach even the political condition of England and the nation's spiritual character.
In discussions of Protestant stories, Harold Frederic's curious 1896 work, The Damnation of Theron Ware, is sometimes mentioned: a book with a definite religious purpose, for all that it is shaped as a novel. Even after the flood of religious-doubt fiction in the 1880s—The Autobiography of Mark Rutherford, Walter Pater's Marius the Epicurean, Mrs. Humphry Ward's bestselling Robert Elsmere—the novel of "loss (with possible regaining) of faith" continued to be a well-defined category of Victorian literature. For that matter, attacks on the failures and hypocrisies of Christian clergy remain an artistic pastime down to the present day. And thus it's possible to read The Damnation of Theron Ware in the religious-doubt line of Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh (1903) or even in the hypocritical-preacher line of Sinclair Lewis' Elmer Gantry (1927), either of which would make more complex the book's message. Nevertheless, Frederic's eccentric book is not quite what we would want for an archetypal Protestant novel—which is why, perhaps, it remains less read even than the other titles that appear with it on lists of neglected American classics.
So, let's think a little about mainline, mainstream works, undeniable instances of the art form. From the pastor Fritz Kruppenbach in Rabbit, Run (1960) through the theologian Roger Lambert in Roger's Version (1986) and the preacher Clarence Wilmot in In the Beauty of the Lilies (1996)—to say nothing of the philandering Reverend Tom Marshfield in A Month of Sundays (1975), a book thick with references to Nathaniel Hawthorne and The Scarlet Letter—John Updike often gives prominent place to Protestant religious figures. Are his novels therefore particularly Protestant? "If there was ever such a species as the Protestant novelist," the self-described "Catholic agnostic" novelist David Lodge has insisted, "Mr. Updike may be its last surviving example."
And what about that ur-American novel itself, Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (1850), far more the foundation of a literature of national self-understanding, I am convinced, than the often-cited Moby-Dick (1851) or Huckleberry Finn (1884)? Do we see The Scarlet Letter as a particularly Protestant book, with its setting among Boston's 17th-century Puritans and its figure of the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale? Or see The Warden (1855) that way, the book with which Anthony Trollope began his Barsetshire chronicles of Anglican clergy? Or the letters of the fictional Reverend John Ames, with which Marilynne Robinson constructed Gilead (2004)?
For all of them, the answer is obviously yes—and yet, no. These books are Protestant in the sense that they contain explicitly Protestant settings. Protestant, for that matter, in the sense that they were written by practicing Protestants. And Protestant in the sense that they show the psychological, social, and metaphysical effects of Protestant theology.
Setting alone, however, is not enough to define a novel, or we would be forced to count Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago (1957), Grossman's Life and Fate (1959), and Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962) as Communist novels simply because of their setting in the Soviet Union. Similarly, the religion of the author does not necessarily determine the book, else innumerable works written in the days of the Protestant establishment in Britain and the United States—everything from Gulliver's Travels (1726) to To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)—would automatically be defined as Protestant simply because their authors were practicing Protestants of one degree or another, even though the books offer little explicitly Protestant content and often only cold comfort for Protestant readers. Finally, if we are to take as the defining feature an investigation of the modern world that Protestant ideas helped create, then nearly all novels, the central stream of the art form, would be Protestant—which makes Protestantism the genus of the novel itself, rather than something identifying a particular species of novels.
But that point, Protestantism as the genus of the modern novel, is where we have been heading all along. In The Rise of the Novel, Ian Watt claims Fanny Burney as an important figure in the history of the art form, reaching with her satirical 1778 Evelina toward what Jane Austen would perfect: a joining of two arms of the early British novel. While Samuel Richardson showed us the "minute presentation of daily life," Henry Fielding gave us a "detached attitude" in the narrative voice, allowing the narrator to tell the story from "a comic and objective point of view." Burney's insight and Austen's genius, in Watt's interpretation, lie in finding a way to combine the two.
Noting what Watt would call the narrative voice of "some august and impersonal spirit of social and psychological understanding," C. S. Lewis and many others have claimed for Jane Austen the tone of Samuel Johnson, in the calm and classical modes of both Johnson's irony and Johnson's assured morality. But Austen is not a moralizer, however morally assured she is. G. K. Chesterton once joked that Charles Dickens had for his characters the fondness with which a father looks at his children, while H. G. Wells had for his characters the fondness with which a butcher looks at a pig. There's something to that, a nice way to divide all authors—and while Jane Austen is clearly fond of her strong-willed heroines, she does have more than a little of the butcher's eye, which she learned not from Samuel Johnson but from Henry Fielding.
Nonetheless, as Harold Bloom intelligently observes, Austen descends in a far more direct line from Richardson's Clarissa (1748) than from Fielding's Tom Jones (1749), just as she is in turn the direct ancestor of George Eliot and Henry James, rather than of Thackeray and Dickens: "Doubtless, Austen's religious ideas were as profound as Samuel Richardson's were shallow," Bloom notes, but Emma and Clarissa are alike in being deeply "Protestant novels without being in any way religious."
Not that the other early line of the English novel, the one that flows from Fielding, is un- or anti-Protestant. The Thackeray revealed in his letters seems, at best, an ambiguous believer. But he was delighted when he stumbled on the Pilgrim's Progress title for Vanity Fair (1848), and rightly so. The reference to John Bunyan's spiritual classic helped him shape the novel away from being the kind of digression-filled picaresque he always loved and toward being a leading early example of the Victorian unified art. Charlotte Brontë would dedicate Jane Eyre to him during the magazine serialization of Vanity Fair, discerning even in the unfinished story a complete and coherent satire that assumes the truth of Christian virtues in order to expose the hypocrisy of a British Christian society that fails to practice what it mouths in such pious tones.
One of the best ways to see the Protestant definition of the Victorian novel—one of the best ways to see the Victorian novel however one wants to define it—is to abandon the Edwardians' adolescent sneer that their Victorian Christian parents and grandparents were the most hypocritical people who ever lived. Not only is the Western understanding of the vice of hypocrisy shaped by its biblical expression, but the actual writings of the Victorians demonstrate the opposite of what the Edwardians supposed and inscribed in us, their descendants, as the proper scornful picture of those Victorians.
In truth, never was there a people more obsessed with identifying and rooting out hypocrisy in all its ever-more minute forms. They wrote about it so much because it bothered them so much. The early Oliver Twist (1838) is not as highly regarded by critics as Dickens' later work, but toward the end it contains a scene of unexpectedly acute psychological observation as Bill Sikes attempts to lose himself, to forget the guilt of his killing of Nancy, in heroically fighting a house fire. It's an authorial courtesy to a character that suggests Dickens was willing to treat even a murderer with sympathy—a courtesy he refused to pay the hypocrites who ran the poorhouse. The sin of hypocrisy burns like Satan's signal-fire for the Victorian novelists. Not for them the saturnine sophistication of the Continental aphorists or the Catholic cultures' droll shrug at insincerity and pretense, the comedy of the Goliard poets and Rabelais derived ultimately from the ex opere operato principle of sacramental theology.
In other words, the Victorians wanted a clean world, an honest world, and their novelistic social concern aims at little else. Of course, in rejecting hypocrisy, one can either denounce the behavior or reject the ideal that the behavior fails to match. The Edwardians and post-Edwardians often used the fact of hypocrisy as an argument for abolishing the entire ideal frame of the culture. But the robust line of Victorian writers, the heirs of Fielding, typically used their obsession with hypocrisy to demand reformation of the behavior.
Observing such figures as the always-moral Cheeryble brothers in Nicholas Nickleby and the moral-after-being-visited-by-ghosts Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, both George Orwell and the usually excellent French critic Louis Cazamian (thanked by Ian Watt in the preface to The Rise of the Novel) object that, in documenting personal evil, Dickens closed his eyes to the structural problems of social evil. The benighted novelist seemed to demand only the improbable conversion of individuals—a philosophie de Noël, as Cazamian scoffed.
Part of that 20th-century complaint derives simply from its era, a time in which much experience of art was forced into the categories of socialist dogma, and Victorian work like Dickens' had to be read mostly as failed novelizations of Engels' The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844. But in fact, in his focus on the individual rather than the complete economic restructuring of the modern world, Dickens was very much instantiating a Protestant insight into morality, derived from a Protestant metaphysics.
However powerfully our society controls us, it is an epiphenomenon created by the metaphysical drama of the soul. However completely our culture shapes us, it is, on the cosmic scale, only the prismatic spray tossed up by individuals acting out their individual salvation plays. Where, except in the reformation of many separate selves, could we find a solid basis for change in their society and culture? The nation remains important, particularly in its role as educator: "This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want," the second ghost tells Scrooge. "Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom." But the nation is not the actual object of grace and salvation. Only the individual soul has true metaphysical weight and consequence, and the novel is the story of a soul's journey.
If the individual soul's journey increasingly defines the social line of the English novel from Fielding through the 18th-century picaresques of Smollett and on to Thackeray and Dickens—together with writers as diverse as Mrs. Gaskell, Mark Twain, and James Joyce; novels as different as Moby-Dick, Crime and Punishment, and Herzog—so even more does it define the personal line that runs from Richardson through Jane Austen and Henry James and down to Alice Walker and innumerable others.
I confess there's something in this kind of novel I find tedious. Austen and James, many others in the Richardson line, are beyond carping; to prefer Dickens to them is as individually revealing and critically pointless as preferring the planet Mercury to the planet Mars. Still, I do prefer Wuthering Heights to Jane Eyre, War and Peace to Madame Bovary, Death Comes for the Archbishop to The Awakening (and Rabelais to them all). Reading even much of Virginia Woolf, I find myself tiring of the relentless search inside the psyche, the endless dwelling on internal reality, as though feelings and thoughts about the self were as important and interesting as actions and thoughts about the external universe.
Except that feelings and thoughts about the self actually are important. They were important even in the premodern Aristotelian and Stoic rational accounts of the good life, although they were understood mostly as tools: instruments to be left behind once virtue had been achieved. And feelings and internal consciousness become more than important—they become vital—in the modern turn to the self.
This is what the novel as an art form emerged to address, and what the novel as an art form encouraged into ever-greater growth. The inner life, self-consciousness as self-understanding, becomes the manifestation of virtue and the path for grasping salvation. It's there in 1813 when Jane Austen has Elizabeth Bennett declare, "Till this moment I never knew myself," at the great turning point of Pride and Prejudice, and it's there in 1908 when E. M. Forster has Lucy Honeychurch exclaim that she has at last seen for herself "the whole of everything at once," at the great turning point of A Room with a View—Forster's most Austen-like book, intended (as he described it in his diary) to be "clear, bright, and well constructed."
Plenty of novels, and perhaps the majority of stories told outside the novel tradition, lack thick characters with revealed interior lives. In much of the genre fiction of our time—science fiction, mysteries, and thrillers; romances, westerns, and Napoleonic War sea-stories, for that matter—the thinness of the characters can be a benefit, keeping clear the fact that those characters are acting in a kind of chanson de geste: They instantiate recognizable types, and they perform iconic actions. In the roman tradition (which is to say, in the central stream of the modern novel), the characters are generally required to be fuller: to have unique and individual interior lives. They are required to be realistic, the novelists say, although the range of novelistic interior lives contains its own share of well-defined types.
More to the point, such books seek to explain (and by explaining, validate and make ever more central) the kind of distinct and self-conscious self whose invention in modernity is suggested by its absence in previous literature. This is why we hesitate, backing and filling a little, before naming as novels such ironic 18th-century chanson fiction as Voltaire's Candide and Samuel Johnson's Rasselas, but do not hesitate at all to give the name to Sarah Fielding's relatively minor book of roman fiction, The Countess of Dellwyn—although all three were published in the same year, 1759, 40 years after Robinson Crusoe and 150 years after Don Quixote.
The self-investigation of the self, the attempt to discern the truth amidst the clash of feelings with perceptions of social and physical reality, emerges as the proper spiritual journey of individuals and the true rightwising of their souls: Pilgrim's Progress, rewritten in self-consciousness. This is the purest stream of the modern novel, however much we like Dickens—however much we understand the outward peregrinations of Nicholas Nickleby, David Copperfield, and Pip Pirrip as reflecting an inward journey toward mature self-understanding. And this stream has its wellspring in Clarissa Harlowe.
When Samuel Richardson began publishing Clarissa in 1748, he was determined to compose a story that responded to the charges of licentiousness against his 1740 novel Pamela (and to Fielding's mockery in his 1741 parody Shamela). Subtitled Virtue Rewarded, Pamela ends with the heroine's successful marriage as she reforms her former jailer and converts him into a true husband. And yet, Clarissa is the more triumphant book, even though it culminates in its heroine's death. Clarissa Harlowe's virtues are the stronger for their not being rewarded, the more edifying for belonging to her alone.
We tend to remember only Clarissa's long struggle to keep her integrity despite the selfish machinations of her family, and her long struggle to keep her chastity while held prisoner by a man willing to use even drugs and rape to bring her body, her mind, and her will into his possession. But Richardson devotes most of the final third of the enormously long epistolary book to Clarissa after her final escape from Lovelace: 300,000 words given over to her damaged health and consequent death. And why not? It's here that Clarissa reaches her clearest expressions of her strength and her will to be true to her ideal self.
The heroine of Pamela wants to keep her sexual integrity, yes, but she also wants to change others and modify the world to match her own virtue, returning to marry the contrite Mr. B in the second half of the book. The heroine of Clarissa is a far more passive character, externally, just as she is a far more active character, internally—which makes her the original behind Jane Austen's Fanny Price, Charlotte Brontë's Lucy Snowe, and Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway (whose first name is also Clarissa). Richardson's Clarissa Harlowe demands no real change of heart in anyone else, and she seeks to modify the world only insofar as she needs that world to leave her alone.
Of course, the consequence is that she would burn to the ground everything around her, if that's what it takes to be left to herself—and she nearly does: No one who tries to manipulate or use her escapes the encounter with Clarissa unscathed. But that is as must be. The "divine Clarissa" has serious internal business to do: the willing of herself into self-integrity, a matching of her self-understanding and self-possession to the virtuous pattern of the salvation to which she has been elected. For most of the novel, she either does not understand or does not care that her breathtaking loveliness is itself a force in the world, sexually active in ways she does not wish to be. In the long time of her dying, however—as the conversion of the rake John Belford into her defender proves—Clarissa's pale beauty is clarified beyond sexual attractiveness into a pure expression of her sanctification. No wonder Lovelace, shot in a duel with another of Clarissa's defenders, dies with the prayer "let this expiate" on his lips.
I don't know what more a reader could want for a Protestant art form. And there Clarissa sits, a million words near the beginning of the literature: the defining wellspring, the inescapable origin, of one of the few streams down which the entire modern project of the novel will run.
It's curious that while we can speak, at least in a loose way, of the Richardson line and the Fielding line in the English novel, it is almost impossible to draw from Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe any direct influence on the serious works of the art form. But still, somehow, everyone agrees that the novel occupies an enormous place in the foundation of the new literature.
The set of books known as "Robinsonades" obviously does owe its existence to Robinson Crusoe. Often appearing as children's books, the genre runs from The Female American (1767) through The Swiss Family Robinson (1812) to—oh, I don't know, R. M. Ballantyne's The Coral Island (1857), I suppose, or Jules Verne's Castaways of the Flag (1900) or wherever one arbitrarily stops counting. But these books typically manage to be descendants of Defoe only in the gross sense of imitating the deserted-island setting and the plot of systematic organization of the means of survival, using modern knowledge in a primitive place. The Swiss Family Robinson, for example, is Protestant work of a kind, in that it was written by a Swiss pastor and contains regular notice that the shipwrecked family is pious and often prays. But only incidentally does the story contain the Protestant view of the self that Robinson Crusoe gave the genre of the novel, and never does it reach toward the deeper interior journey with which Defoe infused his own work. Not even the Robinsonades, the self-declared imitators, follow the moral aim (or the imprecise prose and awkward structure, for that matter) that Defoe gave his novel. In many ways, Robinson Crusoe is an isolated oddity in the history of the English novel.
And yet, it is also, by universal critical agreement, one of the most consequential English novels ever written. Perhaps we can resolve the contradiction by suggesting that the 1719 Robinson Crusoe comes to us as something like the ground on which Clarissa could begin to flow in 1748 and Tom Jones in 1749: not a stream itself, but the necessary condition for the possibility of those streams. And the ground is defined in the novel's earliest moments, when Crusoe admits, "I was to be the willful Agent of all my own Miseries"—rejecting his father's advice to enter business and going instead to sea in what he calls his "Original Sin."
If Clarissa is a tale of sanctification, then Robinson Crusoe is the necessary prior story: a tale of salvation and awareness of being born again. The isolated hero learns to see as "the Work of Providence" all that has happened to him—and thereby becomes master of the island on which he is stranded. Nearly dying of fever in the summer of 1660, he offers "the first Prayer, if I may call it so, that I had made for many Years." And as he recovers, we reach the central moment of the novel. Robinson Crusoe finally reads the Bible he has brought from the wrecked ship, and—without a church community or a teacher to aid him, sheerly from the power of the divine text itself on an individual conscience—he writes, "I threw down the Book, and with my Heart as well as my Hands lifted up to Heaven, in a kind of Extasy of Joy, I cry'd out aloud, Jesus, thou Son of David, Jesus, thou exalted Prince and Saviour, give me Repentance!" (It would be interesting, if beyond our scope here, to think about Protestant art's use of the spiritual memories of childhood, that old-time religion, to provide what Catholics would understand as the interpretive guides of ecclesial tradition and the deposit of faith.)
As the critic Philip Zaleski observes, it was once common to read Robinson Crusoe this way—to take the novel as it takes itself: a Presbyterian tale of redemption revealed to its hero by adversity, in God's great plan and care for the individual sinner. Perhaps Defoe's religious sense suggested writing a story of isolation, or perhaps the author merely began a story of isolation (inspired by the nonfiction 1712 accounts of Alexander Selkirk's adventures) and found thereby a way to express his religious sense. Regardless, he created with Crusoe's island something like the ideal novelistic setting for a tale of a Protestant worldview: The journey of the self is the deepest, truest thing in the universe, and the individual soul's salvation is the great metaphysical drama played out on the world's stage. Could Clarissa Harlowe have been as isolated in herself, if Robinson Crusoe had not first been shipwrecked alone on his island?
Unfortunately, Karl Marx, not otherwise known for his literary criticism, used Robinson Crusoe as a model text of modernity in his 1867 Das Kapital—writing, "Of his prayers and the like we take no account." And thereby Marx established a new standard way to read the novel. Robinson Crusoe, we were all to understand, was an account of the economics of modernity's rising middle class and its effect on the West's imperial expansion.
The genius and impishness of Max Weber's 1905 The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism was that it turned Marx on his head: The economic condition of the rising middle class didn't create Protestantism, the book argued; Protestantism created the conditions necessary for capitalism, and culture is driven, even in its economic forms, by religion and spiritual anxiety. But Weber's work did not provide a rescue for Robinson Crusoe. By the time we reach R. H. Tawney's much more British-centered 1926 Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, Defoe's novel has become completely intertwined with economic questions—until (as the critic Irvin Ehrenpreis pointed out) in mid-century the influential New Marxist critic György Lukács could systematically analyze the history of the novel as the history of bourgeois consciousness, with Defoe's central role "casually taken for granted."
We shouldn't downplay Defoe's monetary fascinations; surpassing even Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope, the man is rivaled in this respect only by Benjamin Franklin and perhaps James Joyce in Ulysses. From Robinson Crusoe to Roxanna, Defoe was always convinced that he was revealing something important about his characters by recounting down to the farthing the money in their pockets. But that kind of bookkeeping is neither the center of the novel nor, really, the gift Defoe gave the subsequent history of the art form. It is, in a sense, only the dross of a setting at a particular time, like the rest of the social, political, and cultural facts circumstantially known to the author because he happens to be writing in a certain era.
What Robinson Crusoe provides the form of the novel comes rather from its sense of purpose. The individual figures in novels undergo travails and adventures—whether comic, bawdy, and ironic (as in Fielding's 1749 Tom Jones) or more tragicomically serious (as in his 1751 Amelia)—all aiming toward resolving their external situation by revealing its parallels with the characters' internal situation. Before Robinson Crusoe, we could have something like the 1715 French Gil Blas, the picaresque of one thing after another, but afterward we get the English revision that gradually remakes the European novel of action, from Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield in 1766 to Thackeray's The Luck of Barry Lyndon in 1844.
With all its awkward proto-novel carelessness, wordiness, and clunky digression, Robinson Crusoe is far from possessing the great ambition of a unified art form at which the High Victorian novels aimed. Nonetheless, with Defoe, we arrive at the modern novel in its essence: a deeply Protestant book about the great journey, the only story that is metaphysically true, of the individual soul struggling with itself in this world that God, in his Providence, has made.
In a 2013 essay about Catholicism and the arts, the poet Dana Gioia wrote, "Catholic literature is rarely pious. In ways that sometimes trouble or puzzle both Protestant and secular readers, Catholic writing tends to be comic, rowdy, rude, and even violent." And in a brief online reply, the Protestant theologian D. G. Hart suggested that "perhaps the problem is that Protestants are too devout and guard what qualifies as genuinely Christian while non-Protestant Christians are more used to the big tent of mixing and matching." Admitting "the paucity of Protestant novelists"—by which he seems to mean something like the difficulty he would have assembling a Protestant parallel to Gioia's list of Catholic writers—Hart concluded with a dismissal of both Gioia and the project of identifying religious fiction: "Protestants intuitively know (but often refuse to admit) that novels don't need to be Christian, that the question of whether a novel is Christian is actually silly."
Silly is a curious word to use for either Gioia's particular study or the more general search for the truths of Christianity in a major art form of Western Christendom for nearly three centuries—especially when the complaint is made by someone writing in English. The greatest contributions of Great Britain and the United States to the arts have come in literature, after all. We could lose the paintings of all Anglophones, just as we could lose their classical-music compositions, without absolutely terminal damage to the history of those arts. But the novel would be destroyed beyond repair. Still, D. G. Hart is not exactly wrong. Novels don't need to seem especially Christian to Protestant readers and writers, because the novel itself is a Protestant-inflected art form—always influenced by the definitions it obtained from its birth in English literature as a central art of Western culture: the device by which, more than any other, modernity tried to understand itself.
To write a Catholic novel is thus to attempt something a little tricky, a little verging on the self-contradictory. And when a Catholic-aiming novel fails, it typically fails because it is at war with its own form. So, for instance, G. K. Chesterton's small disaster The Man Who Was Thursday (1908): a piece of allegorical fiction possessing many wonderful characteristics, without "being coherent as a novel" among them. John Kennedy Toole's 1980 Catholic comedy A Confederacy of Dunces is often described as Rabelaisian, but the term is accurate only relative to other modern fiction. In hard truth, we cannot simply go back to Rabelais and start over, pretending the march of modernity and the parallel histories of the novel and the self hadn't happened (much as I, as a Catholic reader, wish that we could; much as it's possible to interpret several late-20th-century literary movements, especially magic realism, as attempts at that return).
To write a Protestant novel is, instead, to do something a little unnecessary, a little verging on the redundant. And when a deliberately Protestant novel fails, it often fails because it seems didactic and preachy, engaged in what the art form itself promises that readers can take for granted. Hesba Stretton's Little Meg's Children (1868) is unbearable now, however worthy the lessons of the book may be: its tale of the abuse of poor children overrun by its sermons on Evangelical religion. Oliver Twist does the greater Protestant work with less concern for Protestant catechetics.
Many different campgrounds and overlooks, enclaves and inns, are available for writers as they walk the paths of the novel, and Gioia is surely right that the Catholic one remains interestingly large and robust. But the land itself is Protestant territory. Modernity's sense of the self owes a great deal to the philosophers, from Descartes to Kant, who theorized about it. But that sense of self owes even more to the novel as an art form—a form created, defined, and sent on its way, everywhere in the world, by English-language authors confidently breathing a Protestant air.
And as the atmosphere grows thinner and thinner in the West, as confidence fails, where shall we seek our future arts, our future selves?
Joseph Bottum is a bestselling essayist in the Black Hills of South Dakota and author of An Anxious Age (Image).
Copyright © 2015 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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