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Understanding the receptivity of literature, how one work admits many readers, begins with an analogy: unity is to text as identity is to self. Unity here means the way all a text’s features can be related through one central theme. Identity describes a person’s sameness within different behaviors as variations on one identity theme (Lichtenstein). To find unity or identity, however, the interpreter himself plays a behavioral variation on his identity theme. In interpreting, his identity re-creates itself as he shapes the text to match his characteristic defenses, fantasies, and coherences. Thus, what a poet says about fictional, political, or scientific texts expresses the same identity theme as the poems he writes. To understand reading, criticism, and any knowing or making in symbols, then, we need to let go the Cartesian craving for objectivity and accept the themes in ourselves with which we construe the world—including literary works.
Though in his criticism Zola welcomed attempts by his contemporaries to abandon traditional forms of the plot, his novels reveal a constant concern for ordered construction. L’Assommoir demonstrates a particularly rigorous unity of design. In its internal organization one can discern a system of interrelated features deriving from a scheme of three controlling structural oppositions that, throughout the novel, character, action, and description illustrate: work/idleness, cleanliness/filth, abstention/indulgence. The development of the plot is the process by which the two principal characters, Gervaise and Coupeau, progressively abandon the positive values of this scheme and submit to the opposite tendencies. Zola traces this process within a symmetrical framework of measured effects and equivalent phases of development organized around the central chapter of the work to form a rigorously structured rising and falling action which adds to a novel of stark, repelling contingencies an engaging formal dimension of harmonious order.
In his early fiction, Henry James’s characters tend to see reality in terms of an idealized pastoral image. This “fallacy” is paradoxical, being both a romantic falsification and an imaginative creation of values. The pastoral complex associates images of frail, vulnerable, but perfect and innocent figures; bright, tranquil, but diminutive fragile scenes; an intruding horror; and a resultant redoubling of efforts to transform the ideal into a perfect harmony. The Europeans and “An International Episode” exploit this Arcadian motif, and in “Brooksmith” the mode is thoroughly explored, even to the elegiac apotheosis of the dead “shepherd.” In the highly ambiguous late novels, The Turn of the Screw and The Golden Bowl, the residual power of the pastoral impulse remains ironically operative. For James the process of life is not to be denied, but the stasis of art and the need to create it are requisite for meaning, richness, and worth in the “felt” life.
Although singled out for special praise by such fellow practitioners of the craft as Dostoevsky and Chekhov, Gogol’s story “Kolyaska” has been ignored by the adherents of both major schools of Gogol criticism: those seeking to demonstrate that Gogol was primarily a social satirist and those who consider him a master of the grotesque. Yet an analysis of “Kolyaska” shows that it is in fact paradigmatic, presenting in quintessential form both Gogol’s central theme of man’s futile search for identity and his favorite narrative strategies of blurring the contours of the visible world by alogism and creating comic incongruity by a “worm’s-eye view” of reality. The point at which the thematic and narrative lines meet is best defined as irony, a concept that enables us to reconcile both satire and the grotesque, both the laughter and the tears so often said to be evoked by his works.
Scrutiny of ambiguous syntax, puns, and buried metaphors in key passages reveals a less eclectic, more defined vision than readers have usually recognized in An Essay on Criticism. Its center is an image of Nature that adumbrates various analogies involving expansive energy and limiting boundaries, inspired intention and realized form. Pervading the poem, reappearing in different forms, these analogies define the relationships between Nature and Art, creative process and artistic form, artistry and criticism. Implicit in all such relationships is a further image of creating power’s radiating from God, and of the created being’s attempting to rise back to its “Source, and End” where all seeming discords and divisions are perfectly unified. Pope’s Essay follows this image by asking its reader not just to mediate between apparently opposing critical precepts but to transcend their limits to recognize the unconfined truths that bring precepts into being.
Coleridge’s “Dejection” is an ode rather than a conversation poem. It differs from the eighteenth-century ode and establishes a distinctively Romantic ode in adapting the personal voice, meditative structure, and private subject that Coleridge had developed in the conversation poems, but because Coleridge observed odic decorum it lacks the conversation poem’s controlling characteristic, an initial illusion of artlessness manifested in the pattern of thought, rhythm, syntax, and transitions. The inability of critics to agree whether the speaker of “Dejection” masters his crisis is a consequence of Coleridge’s innovation in employing the device of “simultaneous composition” in a poem of greater seriousness than any of the conversation poems. The speaker cannot plausibly resolve a crisis that affects his life at the root within the span of a single meditation, and because he is enmeshed in the experience as he articulates it, he has no perspective from which to evaluate it.
The relationship between the two worlds of As You Like It becomes a metaphor of love, defined by conspicuous narrative and theatrical artifice. The expository opening scenes have a storybook flatness which becomes a metaphor of a world that limits self-realization while the liberating sojourn in the forest, a festive world of disguise and imagination, parallels the spectators’ experience in the playhouse as a withdrawal from everyday life. The pattern of withdrawal and return also objectifies the psychological development of love: the courtship of Rosalind and Orlando progresses from impulsive love at first sight at court, through subjective and imaginative responses to desire in the forest, to fulfillment in marriage. The play concludes by placing subjective freedom, expressed metaphorically through theatrical artifice, in the larger setting of forces beyond the self, established metaphorically in narrative artifice.
Over the years, Webster criticism has been haunted by a tendency to see the essential conflict in the tragedies as a struggle between the forces of good and evil. In recent years, critics have scarcely approached the possibility that his vision may be a paradox in which both sides of an apparent contradiction are equally “true.” The antitheses in Webster may not be good and evil so much as two irreconcilably opposed impulses of human nature that can be identified with the Nietzschean terms “Apollonian” and “Dionysian.” From this perspective Francisco, Monticelso, Ferdinand, or the Cardinal is not so much representative of evil as of the Apollonian obsession with obedience, responsibility, sexual restraint, and punishment. Vittoria and the Duchess, freed from moralistic quibbles, are Dionysian rebels. Flamineo and Bosola, like the rest of us, are caught between the demands of equally imperative but mutually exclusive ways of seeing reality.
The notion that the meaning of an idea is inseparable from its history is reflected in the way that Carlyle, Arnold, and Ruskin took recourse to historical categories of thought in their creations of meaning. Sartor Resartus, Culture and Anarchy, portions of The Stones of Venice, and the later volumes of Modern Painters are analyzed to suggest that the distinctive feature of the Victorian mind is not to be found in any of its diverse contents but rather in the way that history is made to function as a formal property of thought. Indeed, whereas Enlightenment and Romantic writers were inclined to locate the ground of intelligibility in forms of transcendence, the Victorians were forced by their sense of the historicity of things to derive their meanings from the world of processes and events, sequences and developments.