Novel as the criticism of life [Archives:2003/672/Education]

September 29 2003

By Dr. Bashar Ghazi Askar
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We like novel primarily for its deep and lasting human significance. A great book grows out of life. The novel brings its readers into close and fresh relations with life. Literature is a vital record of what men and women have seen or experienced in life, what they have thought and felt about its various aspects. Literature is life and is sustained by virtue of the life which it embodies.
We are interested in men and women, their lives, motives, passions, and relationships. We are interested in the great drama of life. Man is the core of life on this universe. Man is a social animal; and as such he is unable to keep his experiences, observations, ideas, emotions, passions, fancies to himself. On the contrary, he is under the stress of an irrepressible desire to share them with those around him.
In the first place, like the dramatist, the novelist interprets life by his mere interpretation of it. He selects certain materials out of life. He exhibits characters and motives under certain lights; and in the conduct of his plot indicates his view of the moral balance. In estimating the philosophy of life contained in any novel, we have to test it from two major points of view- truth and morality.
The truth we demand from any fiction is not identical with the truth we demand from science. In fiction everything is true except names and dates whereas in history nothing is true except names and dates. In our estimate of the moral philosophy given or implied in any novel, we have therefore to consider chiefly the impression made upon us by the spirit and temper of the work as a whole. We have to include the problem of moral value in our final judgement upon any work of fiction.
The question of the setting or the unities of time, place and action is very significant in any novel. It includes manners, customs, ways of life, natural background or environment. We may distinguish two kinds of setting- the social and the material. However, the tendency of the modern novel is to spread out in all directions. We have novels of the sea, novels of the war life, of the upper classes, the middle classes, the lower classes, of industrial life, commercial life, artistic life, clerical life, and so on.
The work of the novelist is to be judged by the accuracy and power of his descriptions. In the first place, the novel deals with events and actions, with things which are suffered and done. These constitute what we call the plot. Secondly, such things happen to people and are suffered or done by people, and the men and women who carry on the action from the characters. The conversations of these characters introduce a third element- that of dialogue, so often connected with characterization as to be an integral part of it. Fourthly, the action must take place, and the characters must do and suffer, somewhere and at some time, and so we have a scene and a time of action.
The element of style may also be taken into account. The sixth component is that every novel must necessarily present a certain view of life and some of the problems of life. That is, it must exhibit incidents, characters, passions, motives, and their general attitude. Plot, characters, dialogue, time, place, action must imply the philosophy of life. One function of fiction is to provide amusement for leisure hour and a welcome relief from the strain of practical affairs and any fiction which serves its purpose in this way may be held fully justified by itself.
To conclude, dramatic power, exceptional cleverness, excellence of technique, characterization, humor or other outstanding qualities of its workmanship must be taken into consideration in a comprehensive appreciation and assessment of the novel as a true reflection of life.