The Paradox of Objectivity in the Realist Fiction of Edith Wharton and Kate Chopin
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The Paradox of Objectivity in the Realist Fiction of Edith Wharton and Kate Chopin Karin Garlepp Burns In his preface to The Ambassadors, Henry James defends his use of the third person narrator by protesting that the first person form is inadequate for the complexity of his hero's consciousness and his situation, which "forbid the terrible fluidity of self-revelation" of the first person perspective (320-21). Coming from a writer who made the objectivity of human consciousness a central and inexhaustive subject for fiction, James's defense of third-person, objective narration indicates just how embedded the ideal of objectivity in fiction was at his time. Although to each writer a precise idea of objectivity and how it could be imparted in fiction could vary widely, the ideal was very much in vogue among American novelists at the turn of the century. Revered and promulgated by William Dean Howells, this ideal passed on to male and female realists alike. The advantages of objective narration would strongly appeal to realists who were continually fending off the criticism that fiction was mere fantasy and not to be taken seriously as a valid representation of real life. As a favorite target of attack, critics such as Thomas Beer focused on American popular fiction, which capitalized on the immediacy of the genre to depict simplistic, sentimental scenarios that reduce and warp the complex "truth" of reality. Such criticism, of course, was not new to fiction in general . Since at least the eighteenth century, the loaded nature of the term fiction itself—associated with the unruly imagination, whimsical invenJNT : Journal of Narrative Theory 29.1 (Winter 1999): 27-61. Copyright O 1999 by JNT: Journal of Narrative Theory. 28 JNT tiveness, cosmetic ornamentation, pretense, and downright lies—occasioned the protestations of its practitioners, many of whom had journalistic ties that trained them to value the solidity of facts and morality of truthtelling . By the nineteenth century, the genre still struggled for moral and literary legitimacy, as Henry James's lifelong crusade to defend his craft as an "art" reflects. Alfred Habegger reminds us that by the 1850s in particular , American popular fiction was written and read primarily by women, leading to a contemporary sense of the novel itself "as inherently feminine—that is, juvenile, precious, or visionary" (3). Place fiction within the industrial age, with its increasing dependence on and reverence for the sciences as an emerging authority, and storytelling would seem indelibly tainted with feminine frivolity. The genre was widely criticized yet prospered like no other. Paradoxically , because it is the literary medium that most easily draws readers into a created world—it doesn't demand a knowledge of artistic conventions as poetry and drama do, and its prose medium as well as dramatic aspect induce the most natural illusion of everyday reality—fiction could be and was considered most dangerously apt to distort reality. Objectifying the fictional world can thus be seen as a strategy for maintaining the validity of fiction for both male and female realists. One could say that the novelist used objectivity as a way of controlling the easily riotous and untamed world of fiction by emulating God's role as responsible creator while advancing the nineteenth-century cause of progress as literary "scientist." An important difference marks the female from the male novelists' objectivity in their stories, however. As Kate Millett has expressed, "Sex is a status category" (24). To overcome the lower status accorded their sex in a well-established patriarchy, women must resort to prevailing male practices as their only access to power and credibility. Female realists, in particular , had not only to face charges against fantastic fiction, but to be accepted as equals in the elite literary milieu continually threatened from the outside by their own sex, in the guise of female "scribblers" comprising the majority of popular novelists. It is well known that Hawthorne, Howells , and James, among others, deplored this seamy side to their profession . Whereas control was equally important for both genders in writing fiction, then, desire for authority as women writing within a male dominated literary world additionally prompted their use of objectivity. This dual purpose often resulted in a...


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