Friday, May 28, 2010

Surprised into sympathy - Trollope and Eliot on sympathy

No novel is anything, for purposes either of comedy or tragedy unless the reader can sympathise with the characters whose name we find upon the page.  Let the author so tell his tale as to touch his reader’s heart and draw his reader’s tears, and he has so far done his work well. (295)

Anthony Trollope is wrong about this, obviously.  Novels can serve many purposes and work in many ways and touch neither the heart nor the tear ducts and yet be well-done work.  Set that aside, because Trollope’s 1879 essay “Novel-Reading” is a catholic, expansionary essay.  Trollope is defending sensation novels (“If there be such truth, I do not know that a novel can be too sensational”), not limiting novel-reading but extending it.  That he has not quite absorbed Zola or The Good Soldier is not relevant.

Trollope, author, by this point of how many novels?, is telling us what he is trying to do in his own novels.  Sometimes they have scheming villains and tricky plots, but sometimes, and I’m thinking of The Warden (1855), since I recently reread it, he does without villains or external obstacles of any sort.  A clergyman has a crisis of conscience.  He has to work his way through it.  That’s the story.  The Trollopean reader will find himself at least a bit sympathetic with every character, except, possibly, hilariously, guest stars Thomas Carlyle and Charles Dickens.

In this way, George Eliot resembles Trollope, at least in her early novels.  Maitzen excerpts what looks like the non-dull portion of “The Natural History of German Life” (1856), written just as Eliot is turning to fiction herself.  The essay is a defense of fictional realism, particularly regarding peasants and rural life, and an attack on “idealized proletaires.”  She has some justifiably sharp words for Dickens – “his frequently false psychology, his preternaturally virtuous poor children and artisans, his melodramatic boatmen and courtezans” (124).  Since she cannot yet offer Adam Bede or Silas Marner as evidence, she turns to the finest scene in Walter Scott’s The Antiquary (1816) to show us the way the life of the poor should be handled in fiction.  Rohan is reading The Antiquary for the Scotch Challenge now, so let me save that.

What’s interesting here, actually, is that Eliot’s notion of realism is directly tied to some idea of sympathy. True realism, including coarseness, selfishness, and whatever other ugly qualities are part of the portrait are the only path to true sympathy.  “Appeals founded on generalizations and statistics require a sympathy ready-made, a moral sentiment; already in activity; but a picture of human life such as a great artist can give, surprises even the trivial and the selfish into that attention to what is apart from themselves, which may be called the raw material of moral sentiment” (123).  The trivial and selfish person here is, unfortunately, me, the reader.  I think this is the right path, that we are often surprised into sympathy in fiction.  What a complication – we need not the artist, but the great artist.

I have identified Eliot as a leading figure of the International Sympathy Project, in which novelists around the world developed the techniques necessary to surprise the selfish reader into sympathy.  The writers in The Victorian Art of Fiction barely seem to know that the rest of the world exists, aside from occasional mentions of Dumas or Sue or Hawthorne.  In the last two essays, by Henry James and Robert Louis Stevenson, the fog in the Channel has finally lifted, so Turgenev and Flaubert are as likely to be mentioned as Dickens and Thackeray.  I don’t blame the earlier writers for having more parochial concerns.  I just want companion anthologies: English Writers on Non-English Fiction. Non-English Writers on English Fiction.  More, more.

Monday is Memorial Day, so Wuthering Expectations will take the day off.


  1. No matter what his opinions on novels, 'The Barchester Chronicles' are still wonderful :) I am about to finish rereading the series for the umpteenth time and am approaching the final book with a mixture of anticipation and sadness...

  2. I hope to reread the Barchester books soon, and then move on to more Trollope. How many are as good as the Barchester books?

  3. The Palliser series is also outstanding, as are The Way We Live Now and He Knew He Was Right.

  4. That's my list, except I also have Orley Farm on it.

    So that already adds up to 15 novels. I have read 15 novels by how many writers? Not very many.

  5. I haven't read Trollope yet but recently won via twitter a set of the Palliser novels. I hope that's a good place to start.

    I've really enjoyed your discussion of these essays because I'm going to be reading VICTORIAN this summer. It helps me see how they all fit together.

  6. Poor old Dickens! Yet some of his work is false and some of it is dead to rights. And most of it can surprise you into sympathy, if that counts for anything (it may not.) Some small portion of it, indeed, is as good as Eliot, I think.

  7. Oh, I think huge swathes of Dickens are as good as Eliot. But they have such different ways of attacking the sympathy problem. I think Eliot is right in arguing that Dickens generally allows for less surprise. The reader's warm feelings for Oliver Twist or whomever don't change much as the book rolls on. There are some pretty significant exceptions even to this idea, though, aren't there? Edith in Dombey and Son; maybe even Mr. Pickwick. No, definitely Pickwick.

    Rebecca - I think one or two Palliser books will be a great place to start. The only advantage to starting with the Barchester books is that the first one is unusually short - you get a little psychological boost there! Or I do - OK, one down.