English Literature (Classic and Modern) “In the novel we can know people perfectly” – E. M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel. Discuss this idea in relation to the novel The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath and “Women and Fiction” by Susan Cahill (Introduction)…
Both are aware that the novel is not “real” in any factual or historical sense, but that nonetheless there are elements of the narrative that can be recognized as valid, “true to life” and worthy of reflection. The literary critics E.M. Forster and Susan Cahill have examined such notions about the nature of fictional writing, and their very different views can contribute to a deeper understanding of modern novels. This paper considers both Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar and Susan Cahill’s approach to women’s literature, and examines them in the light of Forster’s key observation that “in the novel we can know people perfectly.” (Forster, 2005, 69) Forster discusses many so-called “aspects” of the novel including such matters as plot, fantasy, and structure, but he devotes two whole chapters in the centre of the book on the subject of “people.” He highlights ability of Dickens, in the character of Pickwick, for example, to sketch life-like characters: “Nearly everyone can be summed up in a sentence, and yet there is this wonderful feeling of human depth” (Forster, 2005, 76) In Forster’s view, the novel has enduring features when it comes to characterization. In this genre the omniscient author presents us with all we need to know about a person. We can know them perfectly because they are not real in the sense that living human beings are: “ we can get a definition as to when a character in a book is real: it is real when the novelist knows everything about it… and we get from this a reality of a kind we can never get in daily life.” ( Forster, 2005, 69) The rules of the novelistic universe are, for Forster, different than those in the real world, and this is what makes people knowable in that fictional dimension. More recent critics question this approach, seeing it as too simplistic, and implying a continuity in creative techniques that may not be demonstrable into the modern age. Susan Cahill, for example, explains the importance of uncertainty and struggle in writers, and especially female writers. Cahill maintains that how this results in different themes and a different, more ambivalent and relative narrative voice that is unsure of itself. Loneliness is a common theme, (Cahill, 1975, p. 8), especially for women writers, and modern female authors do no not necessarily carry forward the omniscient narrative tones of the nineteenth century. They are far more likely to report conflict and contradiction and some of “the forces that crush the spirit rather than encourage it to grow.” (Cahill, 1975, p. 8) Sylvia Plath’s narrator Esther, is an example of a “round” character, which means that a wide range of thoughts and feelings are laid bare for the reader. Some facts about her appearance are given, but they are presented obliquely via a description of a make-up kit that she was given “fitted out for a person with brown eyes and brown hair.” (Plath, 2005, p. 3) Other characters are presented with much less detail, and appear from the perspective of Esther at all times. This gives the novel a strong emphasis on the central character. What the reader is to make of this interesting character is, however, not always very clear. Because of the eccentric, or perhaps even disturbed, tone of the narrative, the reader quickly comes to the conclusion that the first person narrator is not exactly reliable. From the beginning of the novel, one suspects that there more to Esther than meets the eye. The opening ...
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