Wednesday, June 5, 2019
Themes Or No Themes In Literary Works
About 1/2 way through The Age Of Innocence.
Pretty good, stilted prose notwithstanding.
I guess it’s one example of a jewelled style not being essential to a good or great novel.
But what I want to note given our various backs and forths about theme is how this book wears its theme(s) on its sleeve. And it’s pleasurable to see how it works its explicit way through each step of the novel.
If we wanted to say which novels are most explicit about their themes, the idea(s) underlying and unifying them, this one would be, as the sportswriters say, “in the conversation.”
You did not read my paper carefully. The theme that they talk about is not an overt theme, which many (mostly not great) novels do not have, unless war and peace is the theme of W and P. No New Critic would write an essay on the themes of pride and prejudice in P and P. The point was finding something hidden that required a special method which Frye and Holland explain. Many novelists think a theme a serious book makes. Lousy books have themes.
Your paper is long gone from the forefront of my mind.
I thought I had read it carefully and think Inrecall you saying as much in my first round of notes to you.
But whatever as to that.
I understand the idea of imposing on a work an idea not apparent in it or stating its theme at such a level of generalization or abstraction that it’s useless. Both comprise bad literary criticism. What I’m now and have been talking about is an idea or cluster of ideas that *arise from* a work and illuminatingly unify it.
And in fact such an illuminating essay on the themes of pride and prejudice could be written about that novel, exploring them as the novel presents them and presents them in everything that goes, in how the characters are constituted and what they do. If no New Critics have done that, though probably some literary critics have, one, new, old, or post-new should. And if it’s for the first time, a great critic could write a seminal essay of literary criticism about Austen’s novel.
Finally while sure lousy novels can have themes, The Age Of Innocence is the opposite of a lousy novel. I say, and this is where I came in, its idea of cluster of ideas, which make sense of its overlapping worlds, or put another way, combine them into an overall world view, is explicit and is pleasurable in its clear presentation throughout the novel.
I'm not big on thematic unity. The unity is in the hidden logic of one thing following another in a compelling way. There is no hidden reason why Hopkins goes from judging God for being unjust to praying for God to bring him relief from his despair. Or how Hamlet goes from sullen, somewhat nasty prince, (and much else) to a more peaceful state of mind despite it all, but we are moved by what happens, and it feels important, but the theme and its unity don't explain it. The theme seems to make its locus of value too conceptual.
Dorothy Van Ghent:
...A novel itself is one complex pattern, or Gestalt, made up of component ones, in it inhere such a vast number of traits, all organized insubordinate systems that function under the governance of a single meaningful structure, that the nearest similitude for a novel is a 'world.' This is a useful similitude because it reflects the rich multiplicity of the novel's elements and, at the same time, the unity of the novel as a self-defining body...
Dorothy Van Ghent:
...human experience is organized into patterns that are in movement...events.
..Plot is a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality...
If we can’t say why a character does something or why in different instances does different things, that’s authorial lapse, unless the intended point is that there’s no sense to it.