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Reading Novels

George Hughes

Publication Year: 2002

Reading Novels is a unique piece of practical criticism, a comprehensive "poetics" of a genre that has not attracted a great deal of attention, at least not on this level. It is a reader's and student's guide that reaches beyond issues of individual texts and historical traditions to essential features of the form.

Published by: Vanderbilt University Press


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pp. 1-3

Title Page

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pp. 4-5

Table of Contents

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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-x

George Hughes’s Reading Novels is a unique piece of practical criticism, a comprehensive “poetics” of a genre that has not attracted a great deal of such attention, at least not on this level. It is a reader’s and student’s guide that reaches beyond issues of individual texts and historical traditions to essential features of the form. ...

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pp. xi-xiv

This is a book about analysis of the novel in English. It started off, however, from discussions with teachers of French literature, in the course of which I became aware that interesting things were going on in France, particularly among a generation of academics who have absorbed the work of Gérard Genette and begun to build on it in new ways. ...

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pp. 1-12

According to the French poet Jacques Roubaud, every reading of a poem by every reader is a kind of translation. What makes up the poem in the end is the sum of all the readings. The same might be said of the novel. A novel is usually a long work that cannot be read in one stretch; ...

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Part I: Openings

A writer has somehow imagined a world, and readers somehow follow the writer into it. This process is fundamental to novels—so fundamental that most readers, in most of their readings, simply take it for granted. If we want to develop our understanding of novels seriously, however, we need to have some insight into how it is done. ...

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1. Starting the Analysis

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pp. 15-38

Analysis of a text begins with reconsideration and re-reading. We never encounter a novel as something completely unknown or unpredictable: we come to it with pre-expectations that will constantly be adjusted as we read on. A first reading of a novel is usually an attempt to go right through the work, to gather a global sense of its qualities. ...

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2. Space and Time

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pp. 39-54

A common feature of modern Western art forms is that they try to fix what they show in a particular space and time. A novel will establish a textworld in which events can be related to one another, and the people and things it concerns will be placed in some kind of setting. ...

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Part II: Description, Character, Dialogue, and Monologue

Where do we go after the opening? Novels are typically long works, and it is not feasible to attempt an exhaustive analysis of every part, even if we could agree (which seems unlikely) on what an “exhaustive analysis” would include. As we have seen, the opening section of a novel provides an important primary focus for developing a reading. ...

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3. Description

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pp. 57-70

Most novels contain passages of description. Quick or careless readers may be tempted to skip such passages, often because they seem to lack suspense or simply to be ornamental. But, as Philippe Hamon has pointed out, they can offer a different kind of pleasure to the reader and demand a different competence in reading. ...

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4. Character and Character Portraits

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pp. 71-86

A focus on character, which treats fictional characters as real people, and speculates about what they would, or should, or could have done, is one of the most traditional and popular ways to approach the novel. Discussion of this kind is as typical of theorists as of antitheorists, and it is as typical of naive readings as of sophisticated analysis. ...

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5. Dialogue

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pp. 87-103

In the traditional novel, dialogue is one of the chief sites where novelists seem to show real life directly. Quick and superficial readers skip through descriptions and immerse themselves in dialogue with relief. Dialogue changes the look of the text, producing blank spaces on the page, a variation that is pleasing to the eye and relaxing to read. ...

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6. Monologue and Stream of Consciousness

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pp. 104-110

The modern sense of monologue is, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, a “dramatic composition for a single performer” or “a long speech or harangue delivered by one person.” It is also “a literary composition of this nature.” Insofar as it resembles a speech, then, a first-person novel may be seen as a kind of monologue. ...

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7. Free Indirect Discourse

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pp. 111-116

In Doris Lessing’s The Good Terrorist Alice is sitting at the kitchen table thinking about housework. We are given something like interior monologue, but which is narrated to us using the third-person she: ...

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Part III: Narrative and Narrators

Edith Wharton starts off Ethan Frome (1911): “I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story.” Part III of this book is concerned with how stories like that in Ethan Frome are put together “bit by bit” and told—in other words, with problems of narrative and narrators. ...

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8. Narrative I

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pp. 119-130

In looking at works of fiction, we are looking at narratives, and we need to have some sense of what that implies. Roland Barthes famously said that narratives are “international, transhistorical, transcultural”: they are “innumerable,” “simply there, like life.”1 It is certainly true that we constantly exchange narratives; ...

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9. Narrative II

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pp. 131-147

If we accept that one of the chief ways in which readers consider the treatment of narrative in fiction will be through accounts of plot and the variants they encounter on the prototypes of plot, we have still to clarify what happens at a local level in the text. What options are available in organizing the narratives that will be read as contributing to the plot? ...

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10. Narrators

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pp. 148-160

Some aspects of the narrator’s role have already come up in discussion of the incipit (see chapter 1). Proceeding with analysis of a novel, we need to distinguish between different kinds of narrator that are likely to emerge, the ways in which they can be developed, and their involvement with narrative. ...

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Part IV: The Language of the Text

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pp. 161-164

When we decide to start analysis of a literary text, we do so in the hope that it is possible to observe the features of the text in a reasonably stable way, and to discuss them. As we have already seen, there will always be differences in our readings, because we do not share complete and coherent systems of value, ...

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11. Sentence Structure and Connection

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pp. 165-182

According to traditional views of language, the sentence is a basic unit that is, as the Oxford English Dictionary says, “grammatically complete.” Since we are concerned with the analysis of texts, however, we must be cautious about considering sentences in isolation as separate units. ...

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12. Verbs: Tense, Time, and Voice

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pp. 183-193

Novels contain narratives, and narratives involve time. Verbs are obviously important to narratives, since as Aristotle pointed out, the verb is a word “involving the idea of time.”1 Vladimir Propp’s analysis of narratives suggests that “verbs or actions are more structurally significant than nouns or characters.”2 ...

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13. Adjectives

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pp. 194-198

The novelist in one of A. S. Byatt’s stories thinks about words as she walks along the street: “It was mostly adjectives. Elephantine bark, eau-de-nil paint on Fortnum’s walls, Nile-water green, a colour fashionable from Nelson’s victories at the time when this street was formed.” Searching for adjectives in this way sounds a little contrived and precious. ...

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14. Figures: Metaphor, Metonymy, Irony

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pp. 199-212

The traditional view of metaphor, from Aristotle to the present day, has been that it is a deviant use of words, or trope, which achieves a special literary or poetic effect. In recent years cognitive linguistics has called this into question, suggesting that metaphor is not an unusual device in language, but common and necessary. ...

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15. Words and Meanings

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pp. 213-221

In ordinary circumstances we often assume that words considered on their own have fixed and stable meanings. We isolate the words we use for objects and translate them into other languages. We give definitions of single words in dictionaries. We use single words as titles for texts (like Kipling’s “If” or Henry Green’s Caught). ...

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16. Repetition and Figures of Construction

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pp. 222-233

Texts in general use repetition, and fictional texts are no exception. Repetition works in part to establish order or pattern: as E. H. Gombrich points out, we need principles of categorization of information to survive: “We could not function if we were not attuned to certain regularities.” ...

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17. Lists

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pp. 234-238

Lists fill textual space: they are descriptive, they classify things, and yet they may function instead of arguments. Students in composition classes are taught that lists should always be drawn from the same category of things (thus, “books, magazines, newspapers” or “blue, green, yellow, and pink” are fine, ...

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Part V: Endings

As readers, Frank Kermode suggests, we partake of some “abnormally acute appetites”—in particular, “we hunger for ends and crises.”1 Part V of this book is concerned with the question of endings. If we hunger for ends, how do novels actually satisfy that hunger? ...

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18. Endings

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pp. 241-248

Although novels are often long, they are finite texts, they come to an end. As we have seen in chapter 8, closure is fundamental to narrative. Novels contain narratives, and we therefore read them as directed toward various kinds of closure. In our reading we have, as Frank Kermode points out, “considerable investment in coherent patterns” ...

Checklist of Questions for the Analysis of a Passage

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pp. 249-252

Appendix 1: Film and the Novel

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pp. 253-256

Appendix 2: Stereotype and Cliché in the Novel

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pp. 257-260


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pp. 261-282

Works of Fiction Cited

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pp. 283-286

Select Bibliography

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pp. 287-292


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pp. 293-306

E-ISBN-13: 9780826591531
Print-ISBN-13: 9780826514004

Page Count: 320
Publication Year: 2002