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Novels speak about human life in relation to the norms and values that orient them. Ideography, which consists in first selecting a set of values and then inventing examples that embody them, was the most frequent way of building novels before the eighteenth century. Later, realist writers focused less on making abstract values visible than on portraying the surrounding world. First they were eager to grasp the customs and social structures that organize it, but as time went by, more recent novel writers began to suspect that what one actually sees might well be linked to enigmatic, foggy inner landscapes.


The first, easiest answer to the question "What do novels speak about?" is D. H. Lawrence's conviction that novels are about "man alive," as quoted at the beginning of Guido Mazzoni's recent book on the theory of the novel.1 In a slightly more explicit accounting, one could say that novels speak about human actions and passions. These answers are the first, because they are plausible and general. They are the easiest, because they state the obvious. And yet, precisely because they are so obvious, such answers often tend to be overlooked in our search for better, more complete explanations.

One can improve these answers by noting that, culturally and historically, the novel has been divided into older, therefore "less good" romances and more recent, therefore "good" novels. Scholars debated the date and birthplace of the modern version and often awarded the [End Page 279] prize for inventing this version to their own country. Two lines of thought can be detected:

  • • The novel becomes modern when writers, finally, look at the truth of the surrounding world—as did, according to the German Romantics and, later, György Lukács, Miguel de Cervantes in Don Quixote, or, according to Mikhail Bakhtin, nineteenth-century Russian realists.

  • • Alternatively, the modern novel, finally, looks at the truth of its characters' individual psychology, the best-known examples being the Princess of Clèves in Madame de Lafayette's novella, according to French literary history; Samuel Richardson's Pamela and Clarissa in Anglophone scholarship; and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Werther and Wilhelm Meister, according to the German theory of the Bildungsroman.

In addition, since in true, serious science the immediate object of human perceptions is often quite deceptive—the flat, stationary earth, for instance, being in fact a sphere that moves around the sun; our human bodies amounting to sets of cells governed by genetic codes—the novel too should be seen as a consequence of deeper social and cultural forces. These forces may be spiritual and world-historical, as in Hegel's aesthetics; concretely social and historical, as in Karl Marx's views of culture; or structural, as in Claude Lévi-Strauss's anthropological speculations.

In order to emphasize the role of literature in literary studies, the British and American New Critics wisely criticized the overuse of nonliterary information and disapproved two "fallacies" that tempt scholars to turn away from the specific, perceptible properties of literary phenomena: the intentional and the affective fallacies. Later, structuralists condemned the referential fallacy.

Indeed, when reading literature (New Critics recommended) one should be sure not to overstate the importance of the author's explicit intentions or opinions—for example, Honoré de Balzac's frequently expressed sympathy for a strong monarchy. Close familiarity with Balzac's work makes the reader realize that this author's lucid presentation of early-nineteenth-century French society doesn't depend on the political opinions he occasionally mentions in order to please his aristocratic friends. Moreover, one shouldn't pay too much attention to the emotional effect a literary work might trigger in oneself or other readers. For those who are tempted by the affective fallacy might end up liking a sentimental novel for teenagers, such as Markus Zusak's The Book Thief (as I confess I do) more than a monument of avant-garde writing, say James Joyce's Finnegans Wake. Third, the referential fallacy—the structuralists' [End Page 280] gift—consists in imagining that literary texts refer to the real world that lies outside them. To avoid this dreadful mistake, one should never try to escape the so-called "closure of the text," its self-sufficiency.

The warnings concerning the intentional and affective fallacies are prudent pieces of advice rather than strict interdictions. Literature being a human craft, the study of a literary work often needs take into account the artistic intention that guides the writer. For, without noticing the artistic intention, how can one understand, say, Henry Fielding's satiric Shamela, a parody of Richardson's then recently published Pamela? As for the affective fallacy, we should certainly distinguish worthy emotions (being deeply moved by Ippolito Nievo's Confessions of an Italian or even crying while reading the conclusion of Charles Dickens's Great Expectations) from cheaper ones (sympathizing with a Harlequin romance character), but measuring the worth of one's affective impulses does not mean dismissing them. Guided by the work of James Chandler2 and Deidre Lynch,3 I will pay considerable attention to the affective potential of the novel.

Concerning the referential fallacy, it seems to me quite strange to deem fallacious the readers' efforts to figure out which aspects of reality are present in a given piece of literature. Why does one read poetry and novels if not in order to contemplate and recognize the multiplicity of human situations, feelings, worries, challenges, and decisions that literature offers their readers? Contemplate and recognize as my own, I should add, lots of situations, feelings, worries, challenges, and decisions I have never experienced and quite likely I'll never do. No aspect of the life, love, and difficult choices of Anne Elliot resembled my own when, rather late in life, I read Jane Austen's Persuasion. Yet I recognized them in a quite intimate way: something in me, an older man coming from far away, resonated at every move in this novel, as if I had at some point known, then forgotten, and now remembered again what it was talking about. I recognized the character's feelings, worries, debates, and decisions as mine, a "mine" that doesn't indicate possession but a special kind of interest, care, and empathy. A "mine" one can use, for example, in the expression "this friend of mine," which doesn't mean "this friend I possess" but rather "this friend I love and care about."


The most common, most frequent way of reading literature, novels included, consists in being responsive to the affective, empathic appeal [End Page 281] of literary works; in pondering the aspects of human existence they shed light on; and in paying attention to the writer's craft. We examine the plot, the characters, their passions, their actions, the society in which they live, their strengths, and their failings, as well as the ideals and norms that guide them and their society. Are these characters modeled after actual people? Do they evoke individuals and actions that could genuinely exist, perhaps did exist, and were faithfully evoked by these narratives? The answer seems to me to be "yes, sometimes, to some extent."

Looking at the history of the genre, one realizes that for a long time prose narratives were less involved in what actual people do and feel than in the types they incarnate and the norms and ideals that give shape and meaning to their actions. Instead of carefully observing actual life and imitating it, old-time novel writers (and some recent ones as well) begin their work by selecting a general type, an abstract moral maxim, a species of virtue or vice: for instance, the types of the chaste young woman and man, the maxim "follow your lover to the end of the world," and the virtue of courage. Once these choices are made, a beautiful story is built so that its main characters illustrate them impeccably. No one has ever met a couple resembling Theagenes and Chariclea in An Ethiopian Story by Heliodorus or, closer to us, a character like Princess Leia in the first two Star Wars movies, yet one easily understands their intentions, passions, and actions. The characters and events we see may not resemble those with whom we are familiar in our actual existence, but the types, the ideals they represent, and the rules of behavior they follow are immediately recognizable. Let's call this kind of writing ideography: writing the idea.

Ideography pays less attention to the plausibility of the story than to the clarity with which it exemplifies types, moral maxims, virtues, and vices. And in order to orient the readers' attention toward the exemplified ideas without letting the narrative's implausibility trouble them, such stories are situated in a faraway space, time, and social setting: in Heliodorus, old Greece, Persian-ruled Egypt, free Ethiopia; in Star Wars, a science-fiction galactic world and its moral-political conflicts. In ancient Greek novels and in the works of their seventeenth-century followers, as well as in contemporary science fiction, ideography and art-as-distance are close allies.

But, one can retort at this point, does their alliance generate only novels? What about ancient epic? Don't Achilles in the Iliad and Ulysses in the Odyssey exemplify types—the proud, resentful, invincible hero; the cunning, prudent one? Don't these epics take place long ago, in a [End Page 282] realm where mortals and gods coexist and interact? They certainly do. But the stories they tell are not invented by the rhapsodist: being rooted in myth, they represent long-term memories of things presumed to have happened in a previous, mythical age. By contrast, the ancient Greek novels and their seventeenth-century followers—Oroonoko by Aphra Behn, for instance—are new inventions, new fictions. They do not reminisce about great adventures of old heroes assumed to have existed—heroes who, to some extent, can also be seen as types and incarnations of ideas. These novels invent new stories because they want to exemplify ideas, to make them as striking as possible; and in order to do so they place these invented characters and plots far from the daily world of the readers. The blend between ideography and fiction is thus one of the earliest features of the novel. In contrast with old epic poems, novels have from the very beginning imagined stories meant to illustrate the relationship between, on the one side, characters, decisions, and actions and, on the other side, the norms and ideals that guide them.

But why were such inventions needed? What purpose could this mixture of ideography and fiction have served? Giambattista Vico, in his New Science (1725), distinguished between a heroic age of polytheism, polygamy, and lack of concern for dead human bodies, and a civilized age, one that worships Providence, respects the sanctity of the relations between woman and man, and venerates the dead. The civilized age understands the unity of the world; places it under the governance of a wise, just, and unique divinity; subjects sexuality and procreation to social and moral requirements; and sees individuals as irreplaceable. Thus, the characters of old epic and their passions, invincible anger, and cunning, served by alliances with multiple gods, cease to offer the only model of human greatness. Instead, a set of rules, which include trusting Providence, living a chaste and loyal life, and abolishing human sacrifice, begin to govern a world whose main purpose is peaceful civic and domestic life rather than successful seduction and victory in war. The paradigm of this world is not the proud warrior consumed by his wrath or the subtle king who repeatedly escapes the traps set by the gods, but the couple of virtuous lovers whose mutual attachment, sparked and protected by Providence, is stronger than any adversity.

This fictional couple remains, however, an ideal. To illustrate it, the ancient novel and its Renaissance disciples cannot just observe reality carefully. They have to invent exalting, if implausible, stories. And they can do it so easily because reports of human actions always involve a double look. When I say, "Last night, my neighbor knocked at my door [End Page 283] asking if I could lend her a bit of sugar," I describe an actual sequence of gestures: a knock at the door, my opening the door, a mutual recognition, a verbal communication. But at the same time the sentence refers to the norms of behavior that guide the links between neighbors in my city: friendly politeness and mutual help. Similarly, Wittgenstein's well-known example "he raised his hand" narrates a gesture, but if this gesture takes place at a meeting that examines a motion, "he raised his hand" means "the person voted." Each description of a gesture or an action involves a double look that targets not only its physical aspect but also the intentions and goals of the agent, as well as the ideals, norms, and customs related to this action. This is to say that the ancient novels—and in fact any novel—narrate both actions as they can be observed and the moral and social factors they depend upon. And whereas in the older heroic legends carried on by the epic tradition, these moral/social factors follow from the story, in ancient novels, the actions follow from an initial moral/social choice. These novels are meant to be transparent parables. Parables of two kinds: some of them show readers how virtuous, faithful, and courageous—in other words, perfect—human beings should be and perhaps can be, and also how all-powerful Providence tests their strength and mysteriously protects it.

Alternatively, other ideographic novels aim at showing how terribly different from ideal behavior real behavior can be, how people relentlessly lie, cheat, violate all norms, and neglect all ideals. This happens in Satyricon by Petronius, in the medieval Roman de Renard, later in the Spanish picaresque novels, and in Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders and Roxana. These two kinds of novels—those that idealize the human condition and those that denigrate it—are both based on the double look at behavior and at norms. Both are implausible, and both seek to instruct by showing what one first knows or should know.

And because both kinds of older novels generate implausible situations—too much good and virtue in one case, too much iniquity in the other—they persuade their public by using the simplest technique: repetition. Idealistic or disparaging, ideographic novels are organized as long sequences of similar episodes: chains of ordeals that test the virtue of the perfect characters or countless opportunities to cheat favoring the vicious ones. Sooner or later readers get used to the life depicted in these episodes, especially since both idealistic and disparaging novels depict a homogeneous world, either as a relentless persecutor of virtue or as an equally relentless promoter of corruption. We are of course familiar with this narrative procedure, used by many TV series: The Fugitive, for [End Page 284] instance. Thus, old, ideographic novels handle the double look by first selecting a strong moral thesis and a couple of strong moral types. Then they imagine a long sequence of exemplary situations and actions that illustrate this thesis and these types.

Since old novels belong to what Giambattista Vico called the civilized world rather than the heroic one, they don't only emphasize full conformity to moral ideals or, by contrast, full disobedience but also insist on civilized rather than heroic ideals. Domestic and peaceful, the ideals followed by good characters include, as we saw, loyalty and faithfulness, both in love and friendship. As for the wicked protagonists in "disparaging" anti-idealist novels, the ideals they ruthlessly violate, such as respect for property and justice, also belong to the civilized world. An important feature of these characters, be they good or wicked, is that the happiness they pursue or the ill deeds they perform always target individual aims. The loyal lovers in Ethiopian Story who face ordeal after ordeal before succeeding, in the end, to marry and be happy, as well as the lonely pícaro (Lazarillo de Tormes) or pícara (Moll Flanders, Roxana) who cheat, lie, steal, and even, in Roxana's case, tacitly consent to murder (of her own daughter)—all act, nobly or ignobly, for their own personal satisfaction. When in the Ethiopian Story, the couple discovers that the young, virtuous woman is the daughter of the queen and king of Ethiopia, Providence extends the reward of their virtues to the entire country. Ethiopia indeed becomes a better kingdom whose ruler, advised by the people and the clergy, outlaws human sacrifice. But this political improvement doesn't follow directly from the young lovers' struggle to be united: the novel seems to say—and most idealist, ideographic novels seem to say—that a happy polis is the providential outcome of a successful search for civilized, individual bliss.


What Vico at the beginning of the eighteenth century called civilization was, however, already undergoing a deep transformation that is still changing the face and perhaps the depth of today's world. The ideals that celebrate the wisdom of Providence, the stable links between woman and man, the crucial role of family in society, and respect for the dead were being slowly replaced by a new set of values celebrating the moral and, later, social equality between human beings; their ability to rule themselves, to take care of their own life and place in the world; and the specificity of various forms of human life. Instead of Providence, [End Page 285] self-rule; instead of stable families within a stable order, social equality and mobility; instead of a transparent, single past, myriads of social and ethnic patterns, each vivid and significant. Sociologists explain these changes by reference to geographic and scientific discoveries, the rise of a commercial, capitalist society, and the emergence of a culture less dependent on religion.

In the realm of the novel, these changes diminished the role of ideography: now, writers focus less on making visible what they know and more on portraying what they see. What will be labeled "realism" summarizes this new, trilateral movement toward the literary presentation: first, of equality between human beings; second, of individual social and ethnic mobility; and third, of the specificity of each nation, gender, class, profession.

To be fair, the art of telling stories about what is here, in front of us, is an old one. The narrative subgenre that specializes in it is the novella, a species of narrative closely related to everyday curiosity and gossip about our fellow humans' actual behavior and psychology. The Italian novellas, rooted in the tradition of short oral tales, developed a straightforward way of narrating simple conflicts triggered by striking characters that make a few well-motivated moves. These stories can be tragic, as is, for instance, the tale of the envious ensign who persuades his Moorish captain that the latter's wife is in love with a squadron leader—thus causing the innocent woman to be murdered (Cinzio, A Moorish Captain). Or they can be comic, as is the story of the young Peronella who cheats on her husband under his nose (Boccaccio, Decameron, 7.2). Coherent action and plausible psychology made novellas' plots a favorite source of inspiration for playwrights—Shakespeare (in the case here of Othello) as well as many others.

Turning toward this new set of values—beginning with moral equality—the long, complex, eighteenth-century novels Pamela and Clarissa concentrate on what is there, in front of us, close to us, rather than on what we know and want to exemplify. This doesn't mean that Pamela and Clarissa are not meant to serve as examples. They are. But these characters are plausible women living in a world close to that of the original readers, and become exemplary characters only gradually, thanks to the way they act. The double look notices the vividly credible details (Richardson's writing "to the moment") before figuring out the reasons for which Pamela is so virtuous, Clarissa so strong, and Lovelace so duplicitous. And yet the memory of the ideographic approach is still present and in many ways these characters appear over-idealized. Few [End Page 286] actual people can measure up to Pamela or Clarissa, and few men are as intelligently wicked as Lovelace. But idealism here is closely allied with the impulse to look at the world as it actually is, hence the label "realism" that is often attached to Richardson's novels. The moral equality between servant and master shown in Pamela and the female moral superiority present in Clarissa don't yet have the strong social resonances they will acquire in the nineteenth century. But a new chord was struck, and however surprising its sound may have seemed to some contemporaries, including Fielding (as his Shamela testifies), this new chord would never be forgotten.

This entire set of new values—including the ability of humans to rule themselves as they think fit and change their place in society, as well as the immense variety of specific social and cultural arrangements that populate the world—became fully apparent only after a set of dramatic social and military events had shaken the established order on both sides of the Northern Atlantic: the American Revolution, French revolutions, and European mass wars (the Napoleonic wars) that lasted more than twenty years and sacrificed the lives of almost a third of young European men.

These wars made clear not only that the set of values Vico had called "civilized" ceased to rule the world but also that the old heroic, exalting view of life was back. The progressive and destructive march of history became obvious, as did the irretrievable nature of the "civilized" past. In the early-nineteenth-century novel, the old narrative interest in the formation of stable couples, in love and loyalty, trust in Providence, and repulsion for human sacrifice gave way to a new epic turn that decisively widened the horizon of the genre by focusing on revolution (such as Michael Kohlhaas by Heinrich von Kleist), civil war (Walter Scott's Waverley), and the place of military heroes in contemporary society (Balzac's Colonel Chabert). Equally important, the novel's new attention to the actual world allowed it to reflect not only on the moral equality between human beings—as did the eighteenth-century English novel—but also on social equality, social mobility, and the specificity of national, class, and professional behavior and values. Hence the long, detailed descriptions and explanations about various institutions, professions, and ethnicities to be found in Dickens, Balzac, Alessandro Manzoni, Adalbert Stifter, Leo Tolstoy, Herman Melville, and many other writers.

The story of social realism, as this wave has been called, is well known. Let me just note that the topic of couple formation often remains at the heart of these novels (Melville, whose genius was attracted by the [End Page 287] cruel struggle between humans and between humans and nature, is a remarkable exception). Providence, however, ceases to help the lovers find each other, remain faithful, and reach happiness together. The task of discovering one's true life partner is now assigned to the characters themselves. Moreover, their new freedom to rule themselves, to take care of their own lives and places in the world, allows them to make mistakes and select the wrong path. No character of older ideographic stories would have made the initial errors of Dickens's David Copperfield and of Helen Graham, the protagonist of Anne Brontë's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, only to discover later, thanks to experience and reflection, who their true, dependable mates are. Freedom may lead to error, these novels warn their readers, but in the end, in a world of mobility and diversity, the balance between free choice and experience is the highest good.

Optimistic social realism, however, was not there to stay. By paying attention to reality rather than deciding in advance which values should be exemplified, novel writers were soon to discover that the promises of equality and freedom—the promises of commercial, capitalist society—didn't necessarily lead to a happier world. As some writers, including Balzac and Dickens, had been well aware, these were, indeed, promises not facts, and, as Nikolai Chernyshevsky in Russia (as well as George Gissing, Émile Zola, and Theodore Dreiser) would later assume, only a better-organized society might be able to keep them. And beginning in the late 1850s other novelists, feeling that these promises were nothing but illusions, developed a new, pessimistic variety of realism. Some of them, including Gustave Flaubert, concluded that under the guise of freedom and progress, humanity forgot its heroic past and reached a pathetic state of general mediocrity. According to others, including Ugo Tarchetti, Theodor Fontane, and Thomas Hardy, human beings are rarely able to free themselves from Blind Will and experience genuine happiness, as Arthur Schopenhauer argued in his philosophy, widely read also beginning in the 1850s. For these writers, love is an illusion and couples never reach a stable state of trust and mutual support. Characters are irreversibly alone, most often unable to follow good moral maxims. Their small transgressions and capricious moves lead to catastrophic consequences. F. Scott Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby later joined this family. In such cases, the double look grasps, on the one hand, individual characters carried by impossible desires, and on the other, a foggy moral realm, where norms and ideals can barely be distinguished. [End Page 288]


Perhaps the late-nineteenth-century suspicion of clear-cut norms and ideals was what encouraged novel writers to explore, among many other things, a different, quite enigmatic, side of human behavior. Our condition, biological and social, makes it incumbent upon some of us to fulfill certain tasks; for instance, to look after other human beings who cannot take care of themselves—newborns, orphans, invalids. When such tasks are clearly defined by customs and norms, one can speak of explicit duty. But this is not always the case. Sometimes the expressions "it is incumbent on you to do this" and "it falls to you to do this" convey the sense that an unexpected, difficult-to-explain impulse to take care comes both from inside and outside, whether one agrees or not.

One can do little to counter the double pressure of incumbency: from inside as a rush to care and from the outside as a task that falls upon us to perform. It does not elicit choice, deliberation, or decision. As the ethos of equality and self-rule became dominant, nineteenth-century writers often reflected on this issue. In many novels of the period, blood ties are absent between adults and the children they look after. Several of Dickens's characters are orphans (Oliver Twist, Arthur Clennam in Little Dorrit, Esther Summerson in Bleak House, Nell Trent in Old Curiosity Shop) raised by relatives or acquaintances, some of whom happily assent to this task although they don't have direct ties to the orphans (Mr. Brownlow in Oliver Twist), while others, whose duty consists in raising the children, resentfully perform it (Mrs. Clennam in Little Dorrit and Miss Barbary in Bleak House) or cannot bring themselves to carry it out properly (Nell's grandfather in Old Curiosity Shop). Likewise, in Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, Jean Valjean selflessly devotes his life to raising the orphan Cosette although she is not his daughter: the task that falls to him to perform relates to something more significant than blood ties, yet this something cannot be fully explained.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the rise of pessimistic realism encouraged writers to examine behavior that cannot be directly linked to norms and duties. Consider the difficult move Isabel Archer must make at the end of Henry James's Portrait of a Lady. After a visit to England where Caspar Goodwood, her previously rejected suitor, declares his love again and asks her to stay with him, Isabel returns to Rome. Will she join her husband, the dubious, deceptive, deeply flawed Gilbert Osmond, or leave him? Osmond has a daughter, the teenage Pansy, whom he detests and sends to a convent. Whatever Isabel's decision [End Page 289] concerning her marriage, one of the reasons she goes back to Rome is that she promised Pansy she would return. ("Isabel reflected a little. 'I won't desert you,' she said at last. 'Good-bye, my child.'"4) Somehow, Isabel senses that it is incumbent on her to protect the child's happiness, but we do not know how and why Isabel assumes that it falls to her to take care of Pansy. We gradually become aware, however, that Pansy is hers in the particular acceptation of the word that signals care and protection, not possession.

In this novel, incumbency is expressed as a promise: Isabel's promise not to desert Pansy. The deep, silent region where incumbency takes shape can give rise to a pledge, but—precisely insofar as it is different from duty—can, as well, dispense us from keeping one. In James's The Ambassadors, Mrs. Newsome, Lambert Strether's wealthy fiancée, sends Strether to rescue her son Chad from an adulterous relationship in France and bring him home to virtuous Massachusetts. Once in France, Strether gradually realizes that it is not incumbent upon him to intervene in the young man's life. Something crucial, yet difficult to put into words, makes him disown his earlier promise and his own projected marriage to Mrs. Newsome.

Something difficult to put into words: Henry James's characters feel their way around, unable to give expression to their emotional and psychological twists and turns. And in the aftermath of James, throughout the twentieth century, novel writers would evoke enigmatic, foggy moral landscapes, as if this genre, after having reflected for a long time and in various ways on the ties between what one sees and what one knows, finally understood that the double look might also be asked to link the visible and the unknown.


From ideography, which invents examples of already known virtues and vices, to the realist focus on what is seen and understood, and to the later art of bringing together the visible and the unknown, the novel always invites readers to ponder the links between individuals and the norms and ideals that guide their actions. A passage from Carson McCullers's The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter evokes this invitation. At the end of this novel, Biff Brannon, the coffee shop owner, reflects on the people and events in his town. And, "in a swift radiance of illumination," he [End Page 290]

saw a glimpse of human struggle and valor. Of the endless fluid passage of humanity through endless time. And of those who labor and of those who—one word—love. His soul expanded. But for a moment only. For in him he felt a warning, a shaft of terror. Between the worlds he was suspended. He saw that he was looking at his own face in the counter glass before him. Sweat glistened on his temples and his face was contorted. One eye was opened wider than the other. The left eye delved narrowly into the past while the right gazed wide and affrighted into a future of blackness, error, and ruin. And he was suspended between radiance and darkness. Between bitter irony and faith. Sharply he turned away.5

Not unlike the readers of this work, Brannon, after having witnessed its characters and their actions, catches a glimpse of the sad, generous wisdom that links the vast movement of life ("the endless fluid passage of humanity through endless time") to individual efforts and feelings ("And of those who labor and of those who—one word—love"). Such certainties can, however, last "a moment only." They are not theoretical thoughts, but heartbeats, shafts of terror, drops of sweat.

A novel is a mirror carried along a high road, as someone once said, but here the mirror stands in front of the readers who, like Biff Brannon, see in it their own eyes gazing, beyond the visible, at the limpid past and the dark future. The double look suspends them "between radiance and darkness. Between bitter irony and faith." And as if these waves of resonance, these moments of contemplation, were the best gift offered by the novel, readers can now turn away, pull themselves together, and return to their daily lives.

Thomas Pavel
University of Chicago


1. Guido Mazzoni, Theory of the Novel (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017), p. 1.

2. James Chandler, An Archaeology of Sympathy: The Sentimental Mode in Literature and Cinema (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).

3. Deidre Shauna Lynch, Loving Literature: A Cultural History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).

4. Henry James, Novels, 1881–1886 (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1985), p. 764.

5. Carson McCullers, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (London: Penguin Classics, 2000), p. 312.

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