Note: I’m working on Novel 2, so here’s an essay that I wrote ten years ago as part of my graduate studies. Feel free to click on the links and the linked images for more info.
In his Poetics, Aristotle speaks of four genres: the tragic, the comic, the epic, and the lyric.
Generally speaking, Aristotle posits tragedy and comedy in the sphere of drama, of which Sophocles Oedipus Rex would be the tragic exemplum, of the fall of a high, noble, but flawed hero (Oedipus), while drama like Aristophanes’ The Frogs would be a comic exemplum, of the rise of a downtrodden or ridiculous hero (Bacchus or even Aeschylus).
Epic and lyric remain in the sphere of verse, the former a sweeping saga of the formation of a people in the midst of a crisis while the latter a relatively small song of a specific event or person.
Within the context of drama, dance, and song, of the high and the low of human nature and human affairs, the novel as a genre is a strange form, neither tragedy, comedy, epic, nor lyric, and yet encompassing and perhaps surpassing these sharply defined genres. If the novel “grew up in an age of empiricism” it grew up reflecting those people in the midst of that empiricism.
They are people, ordinary and comfortable in their “home” world, the world of their childhood, their family, their prejudices and native beliefs, who suddenly confront a larger world, the world of the other, the strange, the unusual. Conceived this way, the novel then becomes the successor of the traditional epic.
Instead of a martial or demi-god hero of the epic, battling his enemies like Achilles, journeying home like Odysseus, or founding a city like Aeneas, one finds in the novel ordinary people faced with extraordinary situations: civil servant Kurtz in the dark Congo, housewife Anna before the train tracks, Dubliner Leopold guiding young Stephen, and young Alyosha guiding the young boys, the would-be saviors of Russia.
This concept, of the ordinariness of the hero of the novel as opposed to the extraordinariness of the hero of the epic, can only occur with the advent of Christianity.
In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Marlowe narrates the story of his friend Kurtz before an unseen, ordinary audience of men in board ship before a dark night. Marlowe serves as reporter and eyewitness of the darkness of imperialism.
His description of the white sterility of European offices and the black organic fertility – of life and its converse, death – of the native people of the Congo stresses the sharp difference that Marlowe, and previously Kurtz, must feel as they negotiate as strangers in a strange land. While Marlowe remains as a reporter, he who looks in from outside, Kurtz, the ordinary but proficient civil servant, becomes like a god-king to his black villagers, even taking upon himself a consort.
But Kurtz does not have the strength to be this “hero,” this demi-god: “Kill all the savages!” is his outburst of his ordinary life, simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by the otherness of the villagers. The world of Heart of Darkness is tragic; Kurtz’s last words “The horror! The horror!” show a fall, from Kurtz’ ordinary worldview to a dark knowledge that drives him mad. But it is a fall of Kurtz’s choosing, of his ambition to better and civilize the savages, and in refusing to see himself in their otherness – “The horror!” perhaps becoming a rejection, a cursing – he damns himself.
Similarly in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, one finds another objective narrator, but the narrator is unnamed and omniscient, split between the tragic world of Anna Karenina and her lover Vronsky and the comic world of Levin and his future wife Kitty. In showing the tragic and the comic worlds side-by-side, the narrator stresses that tragedy and comedy are two ways of looking at the same reality, the same world.
Whereas Anna sees her marriage as limiting her possibilities of love and passion, Levin sees marriage as the doorway to new life and renewal of home and country. It is appropriate, then, that Anna is only comfortable in the city, in the newness of Petersburg and its rejection of the past, while Levin thrives in the country, among his peasants and even working besides them, sharing the same hardship, the same sweat.
Irony imbues the whole novel: Anna falls by striving to rise in her proud social circle, while Levin rises by striving to work in the humble work of his peasants and his country estate. The former is tragic and the latter is comic, but it is a tragedy and comedy of relatively ordinary people, which the novel gives us, and the fall and rise of the novel’s heroes through pride and, especially, humility.
Therefore, one no longer is surprised to see somebody as ordinary as Leopold Bloom as a hero in Joyce’s Ulysses. Ironically, Bloom is a Jew, but he is a Dubliner first, enjoying his potted meat, his pork kidney, his feety cheese. The narrative technique is highly allusive, as seen in the title Ulysses himself, and the narrator is as anonymous and transparent as the singer of the original epic.
Taking the Odyssean homecoming journey as a meta-text, one follows this ordinary hero throughout a rather ordinary Thursday (June 16, 1904), but encountering strange situations: evidence of his wife’s infidelity, memories of his long-dead son, and running into young Stephen Daedalus.
The ordinarily banal becomes heroic in the meta-text, and Bloom’s rather common-sense actions also become heroic – accepting his wife’s infidelity, still enjoying good food and drink even though he misses his son, and, most importantly, guiding Stephen back to his home for cocoa.
Bloom comes home, like Odysseus. But unlike Odysseus, who comes home in disguise and rids his household of interlopers, Bloom comes home through sympathy and a shared dinner table, by temporarily adopting Stephen as a son.
In seeing a connection with this young intellectual, Bloom participates in a community that transcends nationality and religion, thus renewing himself, his household, and his marriage, in that green, Judeo-Christian country that is the comedy of forgiveness.
Similarly we find this comedy of forgiveness in the grand, epic scale in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. The narrator is a fellow townsman who recounts this story as a history thirteen years ago of a scandalous murder and the start of a young Christian hero, Alyosha Karamazov. It is in this novel that the novel as the large-scale prose genre of the extraordinary actions of ordinary folk dovetails with the concept of Christian comedy, humility, shared suffering, and forgiveness.
Alyosha begins as a pious monk, but his love and sympathy moves more towards his mentor, Father Zosima, than towards his own father and brothers. Thus even this virtuous love becomes a sin of pride, and Alyosha must literally fall to the ground, in humility, before he can become a hero. Only after his fall and acknowledgment of his communion with a fellow sinner – Grushenka – can Alyosha rise in the comedy of forgiveness.
Similarly, Alyosha’s brother Dmitri’s proud passion must literally be stripped, humbling his proud heart, before he can feel the suffering of other people and, now being able to express sorrow for his past actions, thus have the chance to be redeemed.
What remains troubling is Alyosha and Dmitri’s brother, Ivan, who refuses to acknowledge the devil of his vision as a being created in his own image and who goes mad in brain fever that is reminiscent of Kurtz, lost in the dark November of his soul.
Thus, one finds in the novel ordinary people faced with extraordinary situations and either falling because of proud isolation or rising because of humble communion. One can see the former with Kurtz and Anna, and one can see the latter with Bloom and Alyosha.
Such a concept of the novel could not occur in antiquity, for the concept of the ordinariness of this type of hero, as opposed to the extra-ordinariness of the traditional epic hero, could only occur with the advent of Christianity itself.