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Tuesday
May242011

McEwan and the Progenitors of the Novel

Early on in ATONEMENT, Cecilia and Robbie bring up the question of novels (Part I, chapter 2, page 24). Particularly, they bring up the two progenitors of this art form called the novel in English: Henry Fielding and Samuel Richardson. We already know that Cecilia has spent a lot of time on her bed, reading Samuel Richardson's CLARISSA.

CLARISSA is one of the longest novels in English, if not the longest period, written in the eighteenth century in the epistolary form. Characters write letters back and forth to each other. It's all point of view with almost no explication; the plot advances through various perspectives. (Does that sound like ATONEMENT?) It's the (long) story of Clarissa's seduction and beytrayal by a known rake, someone who sleeps with her and then abandons her without marrying her. In the end, she dies, as seems to be the punishment for most "fallen" women in fiction before the early twentieth century.

As stated, Richardson and Fielding are considered the progenitors of the novel in English. We could debate whether they, in fact, were; but enough people say so as to make the argument almost meaningless.

Between them stands a divide. Richardson wrote instructive novels, those called "didactic fiction" in literary circles. These novels were to teach moral lessons, to serve up life examples, mostly in the form of cautionary tales, particularly to women, the bulk of the novel's audience back then (and now, too). Thus, CLARISSA functions as a warning as much as a plot. Better to stay in the bosom of your family, under your father's tutelage and care, rather than venture out into the world where other men will take advantage of you (and you will die).

Fielding, on the other hand, wrote novels for pure enjoyment, for pleasure. His purpose was to entertain. TOM JONES, for example. He so hated Richardson's moral finger-wagging that he wrote a parody of one of Richardson's novels, PAMELA, about a young girl who this time resists the rake. Fielding called his twisted, bawdy, and hilarious version SHAMELA. Indeed, Fielding's novels are always peppery tales, full of sex and carousing. They are thought to offer a "realistic" portrait of eighteenth-century England.

Note the strange divide: the more realistic novelist is the less didactic one. We might want to come back to that as a point of contention this summer. Is it true that the more realistic one is, the less preachy? Isn't realism itself a point of view--and thus a stance, an opinion, itself then an ethical or moral construct? Can you divorce ethics from realism? Should you?

But back to ATONEMENT. As Robbie says, "There's more life in Fielding, but he can be psychologically crude compared to Richardson" (page 24). Which is yet another interesting point: that the less down in the muck of life you are, the more psychologically astute you can be. Do you agree?

I'd ask you to think about this divide that McEwan invokes early on in the book. Is he himself a didactic novelist? Does this novel teach a moral lesson? Is the point of a novel to teach a moral lesson? Do you think McEwan would agree with that? Do you?

And while we're at it, and back to ATONEMENT itself, is Cecilia a fallen woman, a modern version of Clarissa? Or Lola? Or Briony? And if so, how?

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