On”How Novels Think: The Limits of Individualism from 1719-1900″

by vinnyhaddad

Note: This was written way back in my first semester of graduate school in 2009. Wow, the difference I think is incredible. But there is QE value here…

Through a study that navigates the cultural, psychological, economic, political, anthropological, and the philosophical, Nancy Armstrong examines how the development of the modern self-made individual coincided directly with the efforts of eighteenth and nineteenth century novels.  This multifarious investigation requires input from each of these fields because the individual was the center of self- and cultural-imagination during a tumultuous time in British history.

Armstrong’s dialectical approach to reconciling the conflicts present in the rise of the novel and the rise of the modern individual begins by examining the misfit, a misfit because of excessive individualism, as the moral protagonist in the early novel. A society where social status and position were primarily determined through birth began shifting with the economic possibilities introduced through capitalism. “A misfit incorporated the rhetorical power of the supplement to transform the British subject from a state of being, or position, into a process of becoming, or performance, whereby that subject could achieve a place commensurate to its desires and abilities” (28). The individual could be measured against their ability to uphold the social contract. Under this contract, “the individual preserves his freedom only if that individual consents to be governed by no one other than himself” (30) but applies for the protection of that freedom to the state that requires self-restraint against excessive individualism.

To illustrate the inherent contradiction in this early contract for and against the individual, Armstrong points to Robinson Crusoe as a simultaneously bad and good subject of the state. By going against his father and seeking a life above his state-ordained station, Crusoe exhibits an excessive individualism and therefore is a bad subject of the social contract. During a process of expansion and self-enclosure on the island, Crusoe transforms in the Governor of his own state. Once he acquires subjects of his own, Crusoe places rules on them to limit their own individualism for the good of his state. Crusoe, in part, resolves the contradiction of the social contract through “his ability to convince five potential citizens that their failure to conform will… damage the community” (30). Of course, this conversion that Crusoe undertakes is not without repercussions: “the wages of his success of crossing over from the one category to the other…Crusoe loses the moral energy of the misfit as he becomes the exemplary citizen, so that his successful negotiation of contractual logic is his downfall in rhetorical terms” (30). This transformation was indicative of the way a novel worked towards encouraging and simultaneously quelling the individual. “To authorize cultural practices that relied, as Crusoe did, on a largely imaginary form of government, however, fiction had to change horses in midstream. It had to outlaw precisely the precocious individual who had such great appeal…In this way, British fiction replaced self-expression with self-government as the key to social success” (52). As people developed a desire to be as individual as the characters of their favorite eighteenth-century texts, it became clear that the cost of such individualism was great to the state.

The existence of this “imaginary government” moved away from oppressive monarchies based on the threat of violence and towards individuals with social contracts. This new idea of government coincided with the massive expansion of the British Empire and its gradual contraction from those colonies. Therefore, “being British consequently ceased to refer to one’s place of birth…and became instead a set of obligations and constraints that people would carry with them to other countries” (54). The transition from the individual that readers adored to the constrained British subject that was expected was definitely marked by the novel. “The result was a perfectly ambivalent text that represents the excesses of individualism as irresistibly attractive and utterly loathsome at the same time” (58). Through the brilliant exhibitions of individualism in eighteenth century novels, readers saw that the individual “expanded the range of human potential” (61) because of their ability to become as their own Governor. And yet, “those exceptional qualities necessarily destroyed what was mundane, necessary, normal, comfortable and right” (61). This ambivalence towards individuality is exhibited through two texts produced during the heart of this transition: Scott’s Waverly and Shelley’s Frankenstein. Each showed that “an individual’s inclinations and his rightful social position came to be defined not in contrary but in contradictory terms, so that to achieve one was to put the other out of reach” (68). This idea is embodied perfectly in Frankenstein’s monster who “wants to belong to a community that lives by the law of hospitality with an intensity that prompts to destroy what he cannot join” (71). The new rhetorical subjects of the novel live in this ambivalent context where by submitting to their nature, they are necessarily cast out of society. The novel has created individuals that must now “remain incompletely human,” precisely as Frankenstein’s monster.

Questions about what it meant to be an individual in society, or if that idea was self-contradictory, was also reflected in questions about gender. At stake was the notion of a universal man that embodied morality and the social contract. Darwin’s theory of evolution sparked plenty of interest in the natural application of gender roles. “Against the backdrop of preceded and followed its publication…Darwin’s theory of evolution can be understood as a response to the self-contradictory cultural imperative to acknowledge and repudiate those forms of desire considered natural and primitive” (98). Evolutionary science illustrated that men were naturally disposed to violence due to their reproductive energies. After the initial battle of survival, men presented themselves to women as potential mates. Interestingly, those same traits that led men to survive were not necessarily attractive to the female of choice. This science placed the woman as the ultimate arbiter for the species. In novels on the other hand, issues of violence and power gave women roles of displacement. Domestic violence was excused in Wuthering Heights because the woman incited the man to violence and in Dombey and Son because “he has lost his power to compete with other men and so dominate women” (91). In order to come to some conclusion about what it meant to be human with this new theory in mind, humanity had to be “defined in terms of its limits, or which elements of humanity it had to exclude in order to remain what it was” (103). By attributing the negative, violent, base qualities of men to women in literature, society was able to cast off those qualities without sacrificing the ideal, middle-class man that could achieve in the modern world.

A sector of popular Victorian fiction did not focus on the harnessing of an individual’s energy for the social good, but instead explored the possibility that “we are all points of intensification through which these desires circulate to form one all-encompassing and mindless mass of humanity” (105). Armstrong illustrates that the collision of cultures presented by globalization placed pressure on the British to understand humanity in the context of the savage. Whereas it was understood that all human beings descended from Adam and Eve, and therefore major differences were the result of climate, religion, and culture, a new notion of polygenesis arose. This theory presented the savage as a different race altogether, sprouting up in different parts of the globe, and evolutionarily not as adept at scientific development as the European. Armstrong argues that “some novels used polygenetic thinking to expose the implicit conflict between a subject compelled to pursue his or her desires and a social order that demanded conformity to moral and sexual norms” (108). These “different” novels, such as Dracula, ultimately “acknowledge the degree to which fiction had to imagine what was unnatural and aberrant in order to maintain the normative subject and make readers want to embody it” (134). In other words, novels began to move beyond the realistic and the plausible in order to illustrate the limits of realism, ultimately revealing the limits of individualism itself. However, by revealing the limits of individualism, the rise of the gothic, according to Armstrong, “equates the pleasure of escaping the limits of individualism with the loss of humanity itself [and] ultimately compels us to defend individualism at any cost” (135). The tendency of the “novel” to oscillate between desperately preserving individualism and simultaneously expressing doubts about that individualism is what marries them in their journey through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

By tracing the relationship of British understanding of individualism and the novel, Armstrong does unfortunately need to make some assumptions about the novel that help her argument. First, Armstrong is defining a novel as an author’s commentary about the individual or the limits of an individual. She chooses characters to examine that embody that individuality, either its excesses or its limitations. This definition of a novel implicitly excludes novels that do not overtly examine the British individual in society. In doing so, she must cap her examination of the novel from 1719-1900, and is decidedly complicit in accepting Robinson Crusoe as the first novel because of its embodiment of the individual.

Secondly, Armstrong must take the leap that the rise of the novel and the rise of the individual happen so inseparably that the form of the novel was the only means to understand the individual: “no other medium then available could have reconstituted the imagined relation between individual reader and national readership with the rhetorical dexterity of the novel” (52). Such an interesting and provocative statement left me wanting to understand what about the form of the novel gave it such distinct rhetorical dexterity that allowed it to be the only form able to explore the individual. Armstrong decidedly eliminates all other forms of literature from having the ability to explore the individual: sermons, plays, poetry, histories, and religious writing of the time lacked a certain quality present in the form of the novel that allowed it this ability. Yet, in every examination of a literary text, Armstrong explains how different characters embody different aspects of the individual, and how the action of the plot reveals the author’s commentary about the beauties, dangers, and limits of such individualism. A section that examined the why the form of the novel or the various styles of writing under that umbrella term “novel” would have solidified this attribution of individualism solely to the rise of the novel.