Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Joseph Conrad’s appeal to ‘the emotional atmosphere of the place and time’ in Madame Bovary, The Woman in White, and The Portrait of a Lady

[This is an adapted version of an assignment written for a course on the nineteenth-century novel]

Joseph Conrad’s ‘Preface’ to The Nigger of the Narcissus (2001 [1897]) sets out a number of aesthetic aims.  As a quasi-manifesto it builds on earlier contributions to the discussion of the place of fiction within wider artistic currents and whether artistic objectives should include an overtly moral purpose, most notably by Walter Pater, Walter Besant and Henry James.  Significantly when the ‘Preface’ was republished in Harper’s Weekly in 1905, it was under the title ‘The Art of Fiction’ (Watt, 1974, p.102), a title previously used by both Besant (1884) and James (1884).  Conrad shares with Besant the starting point that fiction is an art, like painting, sculpture and music.  Where they differ is that Besant sees a major purpose of the novel being to instil empathy in the reader, making it a civilising force, and he sets up a criterion of artistic quality for the novel based on its moral orientation (Besant, 2001 [1884], p.67).  Like E. S Dallas, who considers that the ‘moral force’ of a novel is brought out by the use of examples rather than in an overtly didactic manner (Dallas, 2001 [1866], p58), Conrad places less emphasis than Besant on a moral purpose in art; rather for him it is primarily an attempt ‘to render the highest kind of justice to the visible’ (Conrad, 2001 [1897], p.118).  Unlike the scientist or thinker, the artist is concerned with ‘delight’, ‘wonder’ and a ‘sense of mystery’, and the work appeals ‘to our sense of pity, and beauty, and pain’ and, importantly, to a sense of ‘fellowship’ (Conrad, 2001, p.119).  James also is close to Conrad’s position in downplaying the novel’s moral purpose, and argues that the only obligation is to be ‘interesting’ and supply ‘a personal impression of life’ (James, 2001 [1884], p.73).  In the process, any ethical dimension would be demonstrated by showing rather than telling, leaving the reader to interpret moral situations, rather than the author using the novel as a vehicle for an explicitly improving purpose.

Included in Conrad’s argument is the claim that ‘Fiction – if it all aspires to be art – appeals to temperament’, which he characterises as ‘the secret spring of responsive emotions’. (Conrad, 2001, p.119)  Temperament draws people together in recognising shared experiences, perceptions and emotions, linking the author’s own temperament to those of readers’ ‘innumerable temperaments’; in so doing it ‘creates the moral, the emotional atmosphere of the place and time.’ (ibid., p.119)  A speech by Madame Merle in The Portrait of a Lady appears to chime with Conrad’s notion of temperament:  ‘There’s no such thing as an isolated man or woman; we’re each of us made up of some cluster of appurtenances.  What shall we call our “self”?  Where does it begin?  Where does it end?’ (James, 2009 [1881], p.207).  George Eliot perhaps has a similar viewpoint, but with more emphasis on morality than James; she sees the treatment of her characters as involving fair dealing, summed up by the term ‘social sympathies’ that she uses in her 1856 review ‘The Natural history of German Life’ (Eliot, 2001, p.30).  Unfortunately Conrad’s terms are not defined, and the reader is left with a vague notion of how they might fit together as a strategy for communication by author to readers of an emotional atmosphere.  In Conrad’s defence, Watt argues that the ‘Preface’ cannot be considered a coherent theoretical analysis because Conrad did not actually have a theory, but that he was aware of the critical tradition in which he stood (Watt, ibid. p.103).

For Conrad, the goal of the novelist is to bring the world (the ‘visible universe’) to life, thereby causing readers to come together in recognising their shared experiences.  He wants to make the reader see (2001, p.120, italics in original), to which end the writer should choose words to ensure that plot and atmosphere are 'experienced' by the reader.  Unlike Eliot and James, Conrad feels that a narrator should not obstruct the reader's experience.  Aesthetics are vital to experience for Conrad, and he refers to ‘the shape and ring of sentences’ (2001, p.119), emphasising formal structure and its ability to create resonance within the reader.  ‘Seeing’ and ‘resonance’ are not, however, the same as an ‘appeal to temperament’ which presupposes an emotional engagement.  The artist, according to Conrad, should appeal to the senses, thereby exposing the underlying truth, yet he talks only about seeing externals, not the interior life of characters, and it is this excavation of interiority that might be considered a prerequisite of an appeal to temperament.

An appeal to temperament, however loose the definition, is at the forefront of Flaubert’s intentions in Madame Bovary.  There is an attempt to ‘precipitate within the reader an intense amalgam of emotional, mental and sensual reverberations’ (Brooks and Watson, 2001, p10).  Running counter to this aim, Madame Bovary might be thought to please nobody because of the conjunction of a high literary style and provincial subject matter – (ibid., p10).  Those seeking a sophisticated literary technique might be repelled by the sordid subject matter and banality, while those content with low matter would probably be alienated by the style.  Additionally, there is the danger of the pace boring the reader (ibid., p12).  There is a self-conscious alienating effect at work in which Emma’s consciousness is not probed and she remains enigmatic.  For Tony Tanner, fetishism mystifies the relationship between reader and character by focusing attention on ancillary objects (p.405ff).  Thus we see surfaces, but seldom delve deeply into the depths of characters and their circumstances, and ultimately never have a sense of Emma as an entire person.  Attention to detail helps the reader see (in Conrad’s terms) Emma’s world, but it is a moot point whether the result engenders empathy with her, or a kind of voyeurism.

Anyway, responses vary according to a given reader’s temperament: temperament is not a unitary quality, but will vary according to such factors as the reader’s class position and gender.  There is also a danger in assuming that a reader will reach a single monolithic verdict on a novel as this can change over the course of the narrative, and afterwards, upon reflection.  While engaged with Madame Bovary, for example, one will perhaps consider Emma’s actions as creating tragedy, whereas afterwards they might seem of less import, as the uncomfortable question whether Madame Bovary can be considered a tragedy or a farce suggests (Brooks and Watson, p.45).  Readers bring their own expectations and preferences to the text, and this will influence whether they see Emma as a tragic heroine or selfish and foolish.  Significantly, Brooks and Watson do not think that these questions are resolvable (ibid., p.46) because, by not taking a moral stance, the novel is effectively a tabula rasa upon which the reader projects his or her prejudices.  Flaubert does not seek to guide the reader in reaching a judgement (or indeed in not reaching one).  That others did take the moral stance that he did not is shown by his prosecution in January 1857, which sought to show that the novel was ‘a seduction of the senses and of sentiment’. (ibid., p.46)

Running through these discussions, including Conrad’s notion of bringing the world to life, is an emphasis on psychological realism, how the texture of life is evoked and reader identification obtained.  James talks of ‘the air of reality (solidity of specification)’ (quoted in Correa, 2001, p.138).  Correa summarises this as a convincing impression of life, rather than a faithful mirror of an unmediated external reality (ibid.).  There can be more plausibility (Madame Bovary or The Portrait of a Lady, for example); or less, because of coincidences and the inclusion of generic elements such as Gothic and melodrama, (The Woman in White; see Pedlar, 2001, pp.48ff for a discussion of generic aspects of Collins’s novel).  Either way, realism was seen to underwrite the engagement between reader and text.  Its theoretical underpinnings assumed that it was possible to portray individuals in sufficient breadth and depth to depict the social sympathies that bound them to each other.  Sensation novels, seen as a hybrid ‘combining realism and romance, the exotic and the everyday, the gothic and the domestic’ (Pykett, 2006, p.51), did not on the surface lend themselves to this depiction of social sympathies.  There was a moral dimension to the distinction, because an assumption underlying the realist novel was that it would provide guidance through example.  The Woman in White undercuts this assumption by showing that looser adherence to realism does not necessarily entail that the resolution will not be a moral one, with appropriate deserts – rewards and punishments – for the characters.  This is not an amoral universe.

It is the evocation of an air of reality, locating the narrative within a ‘place and time’, which will have an affective consequence for the reader.  Roland Barthes talks of the ‘reality effect’, objects included for no other purpose than to reinforce the tactility of the world as it is presented (Levine, 2012, p.93).   Caroline Levine, discussing Barthes, considers novelists to have valued the placement of objects within their stories ‘as an integral part of lived experience’ that could help to ‘capture social relations’ (Levine, 2012, p.93).  This may be the case, but one needs caution in case apparently arbitrary objects have a greater function than merely to provide ‘solidity of specification’.  Levine gives the detail of the broken barometer in Madam Bovary as an example of, for Barthes, such an innocuous object. Its inclusion, though, is more complex than that: after the amputation of Hippolyte’s leg, Charles asks Emma for a kiss.  She rushes from the room, slamming the door, at which the barometer falls and smashes.  Its destruction symbolises her feelings towards her husband, who has destroyed her aspirations.  Such elements work on more than one level and the reader can be equally engaged whether taking the surface details at face value or appreciating their deeper significance, but contrary to Barthes’ conceptualisation they do not resist ‘serving a narrative meaning’ (Levine, ibid.).  They support deeper connections between reader and text, often perhaps at a subconscious level.

Dallas is reluctant to accept a distinction between ‘the novel of character’ and plot-driven novels (Dallas, 2001 [1866], pp.59-60), in which characters rule or are ruled by circumstances respectively.  Pedlar (2001, p.60) distinguishes the two modes in terms of locus of control: free will versus determinism.   It is an artificial distinction because, as Dallas continues, novelists mix the two (for example, while Madame Bovary might be categorised as a novel of character, Emma cannot be said to rule her situation, and it is a novel noted for a lack of interiority one would expect in a novel of ‘character’).  This caveat aside, Madame Bovary and The Woman in White can be seen as exemplifying these contrasting approaches.  By not offering opportunities for the reader to engage with the psychological depths of character, The Woman in White, emphasising sensation, might be considered to offer fewer opportunities for the reader to empathise, and therefore to engage in an emotional response.  Yet this does not appear to be the case, and the perils of Laura and the villainies of Sir Percival and Count Fosco do generate such an effect; after all, the term ‘sensation’ indicates that it is designed to elicit an emotional response.  On the other hand, The Woman in White’s series of shifting first-person point of views and interruptions in narrative generate suspense, while precluding strong identification with any one character; the ‘hero’ role, normally a point of identification, is here divided between Walter, who disappears for the central section of the novel, and Marian.

The Woman in White does not capture the emotional atmosphere of a recognisable time and place in the way that Madame Bovary does, given that its world is so different, because of its plotting, from any that its readers might have encountered; but within its sensationalist parameters it appeals to the reader’s temperament as much as Madame Bovary does.  John Sutherland notes that The Woman in White exploded on its readership like a ‘bombshell’, generating ‘raw excitement’ (Sutherland, 1996, p.vii).  Similarly, Jenny Bourne Taylor refers to ‘panic’ generated by the sensation novel (Taylor, 2001, p.422).  While Kate Flint refers to the developing distinction in the later nineteenth century between fiction that was demanding and that which was relaxing and escapist (Flint, 2012, p.16), a bifurcation that grew into high and low culture, these cannot be demarcated in terms of their appeal to temperament, or how well or badly they convey a sense of time and place.  The reader may suspend a comparison with the real world in The Woman in White, but both Madame Bovary and The Woman in White can, in different ways, be said to appeal to ‘the secret spring of responsive emotions.’


Besant, W. (2001 [1884]) ‘The Art of Fiction’, in Regan, S. R. (ed.) The Nineteenth-Century Novel: A Critical Reader, London, Routledge and The Open University.

Brooks, M. and Watson, N. (2001) ‘Madame Bovary: A Novel About Nothing’, in Walder, D. (ed.) The Nineteenth-Century Novel: Identities, London, Routledge and The Open University.

Collins, W. (1996 [1859-60]) The Woman in White, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Conrad, J.  (2001 [1897])’Preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus’, in Regan, S. R. (ed.) The Nineteenth-Century Novel: A Critical Reader, London, Routledge and The Open University.

Correa (2001) ‘“The Art of Fiction”: Henry James as Critic’, in Walder, D. (ed.) The Nineteenth-Century Novel: Identities, London, Routledge and The Open University.

Dallas, E. S. (2001 [1866]) ‘The Gay Science’, in Regan, S. R. (ed.) The Nineteenth-Century Novel: A Critical Reader, London, Routledge and The Open University.

Eliot, G. (2001 [1856]) ‘The Natural history of German Life’, in Regan, S. R. (ed.) The Nineteenth-Century Novel: A Critical Reader, London, Routledge and The Open University.

Flaubert, G. (2010 [1856]) Madame Bovary, trans. Moncrieff, C. Richmond, Surrey, Oneworld.

Flint, K. (2012) ‘The Victorian Novel and its Readers’, David, D. (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to the Victorian Novel, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

James, H. (2009 [1881]) The Portrait of a Lady, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

James, H. (2001 [1884]) ‘The Art of Fiction’, in Regan, S. R. (ed.) The Nineteenth-Century Novel: A Critical Reader, London, Routledge and The Open University.

Levine, C. (2012) ‘Victorian Realism’, in David, D. (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to the Victorian Novel, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Pedlar, V (2001) ‘The Woman in White: Sensationalism, Secrets and Spying’, in Walder, D. (ed.) The Nineteenth-Century Novel: Identities, London, Routledge and The Open University.

Pykett, L. ’Collins and the Sensation Novel’, in Taylor, J. B. (2006) The Cambridge Companion to Wilkie Collins, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Sutherland, J. (1996) ‘Introduction’, in Collins, W. The Woman in White, Oxford, Oxford University Press

Tanner. T (2001) ‘Fetishism in Madame Bovary’, in Regan, S. R. (ed.) The Nineteenth-Century Novel: A Critical Reader, London, Routledge and The Open University.

Taylor, J. B. (2001) ‘Collins as a Sensation Novelist’, in Regan, S. R. (ed.) The Nineteenth-Century Novel: A Critical Reader, London, Routledge and The Open University.

Watt. I. (1974) ‘Conrad's Preface to The Nigger of the “Narcissus”’, in Novel: A Forum on Fiction, vol. 7, no. 2, pp.101-15.