A Magnificent Seven
What do classic English novels have to say about life? Plenty, says a noted literary scholar. By Edward Mendelson ’66
Anyone who reads a novel for pleasure or instruction takes an interest both in the closed fictional world of that novel and in the ways the book provides models or examples of the kinds of life that a reader might or might not choose to live.
Most novels of the past two centuries that are still worth reading were written to respond to both these interests. They were not written to be read objectively or dispassionately, as if by some nonhuman intelligence, and they can be understood most fully if they are interpreted and understood from a personal point of view, not only from historical, thematic, or analytical perspectives.
A reader who identifies with the characters in a novel is not reacting in a naïve way that ought to be outgrown or transcended, but is performing one of the central acts of literary understanding.
The novels listed here are arranged chronologically so that the entries correspond more or less to the sequences of experiences that occur in the course of life and also to the historical sequence in which the seven novels were written. Taken as a whole, the list is designed to provide something on the order of a brief (extremely brief) history of the emotional and moral life of the past two centuries, an inner biography of the world of thought and feeling that came into being in the romantic era of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
I. Birth: Frankenstein
Mary Shelley gave Frankenstein its unique power by portraying its grotesque horrors as the consequence of the most familiar and ordinary causes. The whole moral and emotional content of her book is an extended restatement of a single sentence by her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, in the first feminist manifesto written in English, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792): “A great proportion of the misery that wanders, in hideous forms, around the world, is allowed to rise from the negligence of parents.”
II. Childhood: Wuthering Heights
Wuthering Heights is a story of passion, but not the passionate sexual desire that drives adult men and women. Catherine and Heathcliff think only about each other, yet they are almost indifferent to each other’s sexual lives. What they want from each other is not the transient and incomplete satisfaction that adults find in sex, but the total unity that Emily Brontë portrays as the enclosed province of their childhood, a unity more profound and comprehensive than anything that ordinary adults can experience.
A Room of Woolf’s Own
Virginia Woolf gets more attention than anyone else in this book, because, I believe, she thought more deeply than any other English novelist about the moral and emotional aspects of personal life.
The standard map of modern literature, taught in schools and taken for granted everywhere, places Yeats, Eliot, and Joyce on the highest slopes, with other writers arrayed in lesser and outlying positions. This account is based on the intellectual prejudice, shared by its three heroes, that archetypes are more real than individuals, that myths are more true than observations, that a vision of grand patterns matters more than any attempt to integrate the local particulars of individual lives.
Hidden within this account is a deeper prejudice, which is that the shape and complexity of a work is the test of its greatness, that a work of art need not be emotionally moving except to the degree that its structure and patterns inspire inarticulate awe.
Museums and concert halls and anthologies are filled with the unfortunate consequences of this assumption, but that does not make it any less mistaken. When you remember that all the great art of the past seems to have been created to be moving as well as to be ingenious, and that the same measure of greatness can still be applied to modern literature, the map of modern literature begins to look different from the version taught in schools.
Virginia Woolf, who understood human life in terms of its changes through time, rather than in terms of permanent archetypal states, takes the central place in modern fiction, as W. H. Auden takes the place in modern poetry, and Samuel Beckett takes the central place in modern drama.
III. Growth: Jane Eyre
Charlotte and Emily Brontë had the same two parents, spent most of their lives in the same isolated Yorkshire parsonage, and received more or less identical educations. But the two sisters wrote and thought in almost exactly opposite ways about nature, society, morals, love, sex, and truth. Everything that Wuthering Heights says about childhood, growth, and adulthood is contradicted by Jane Eyre.
Despite its fantasies and improbabilities, Jane Eyre offers the most profound narrative in English fiction of the ways in which erotic and ethical life are intertwined.
IV. Marriage: Middlemarch
Through her sober realism and urbane maturity, George Eliot insists that the story she tells is driven by the ordinary realities of daily life, with all its routines and disappointments and boredom and compromises, with all its humdrum disorder and its gray interminglings of darkness and light. Beneath that sober rationality, Middlemarch revels in the wondrous strangeness of legend and myth.
Middlemarch is, I believe, the greatest English novel, even though, when I think in terms of George Eliot’s whole career instead of this single book, she does not seem to me as great a novelist as Charles Dickens or Virginia Woolf. Part of the book’s greatness is the eloquence with which it gives voice to two aspects of its author: an intellect that makes stern judgments on the faults of its characters, and a sympathy that forgives them for their faults and shares in their wishes. In the greatest moments of the book, and in the shape of the story as whole, those two aspects do not conflict, but join in an effort to see truth and feel love simultaneously.
V. Love: Mrs. Dalloway
Mrs. Dalloway is a book about the kind of love that everyone wants but that no grown-up person seriously expects to give or to get. Peter Walsh loves Clarissa Dalloway simply and absolutely for herself . . . the unique person he calls “Clarissa herself.”
Like much of Virginia Woolf’s fiction, Mrs. Dalloway mingles triumphant satisfaction and elegiac sadness. The book’s triumphant parts and its elegiac parts depend upon each other, because both elegy and triumph, in this book, are ways of valuing the personal uniqueness that is summed up in the idea of “Clarissa herself.”
VI. Parenthood: To the Lighthouse
Virginia Woolf rebuked the patriarchal social order in her two political books, A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas, and throughout her essays, diaries, and letters. To the Lighthouse, however, is not a political or social tract, but a historical and psychological novel. To the Lighthouse is a family history in which the timeless maternal past is supplanted by a patriarchal world of change—and a time approaches somewhat like the one imagined at the end of A Room of One’s Own, when sexual differences will no longer matter, when neither matriarch nor patriarch can rule the future.
VII. The Future: Between the Acts
In her earlier books, Virginia Woolf had half ironically and half seriously evoked the visionary, liberating and unifying powers of the artist. Vision in Mrs. Dalloway and art in To the Lighthouse revived lost meaning and joined together things that had been divided. In her final novel Virginia Woolf takes a more jaundiced view of vision and art, as if she were preparing herself, without regrets, to abandon both.
Everything comes to an end in Between the Acts, and then, as the book itself comes to an end, something unknowable begins. Between the Acts takes an old person’s view of death: the disappearance of any individual seems less momentous than it might in youth or middle age. “For us,” an old man in the book tells his sister when she reminisces about a children’s game, “the game’s over.”
Edward Mendelson ’66, a professor of English at Columbia University, is the author of The Things That Matter: What Seven Classic Novels Have to Say About the Stages of Life (Pantheon Books, 2006), from which this essay is adapted. Used with permission.