Transition and Transformation:
One could be forgiven for believing that the words ‘fiction’ and ‘novel’ mean one and the same thing. The main reason for this confusion is that both of them have a common denominator; they both tell a story. In the novel, we have the theatre of life and for over two centuries it has been the most effective agent of the moral imagination. Though it has never really achieved perfection in form and its shortcomings are numerable, nevertheless one experiences from it not only the extent of human variety, but also the value of this variety. Fiction existed right from the first time man told a story and thus it is in this respect only, that it is similar to the forerunner of the novel as we know it today, which is any work of fiction in England written before 1670. Novelists express their conscious conclusions about life as they experience it and these manifest themselves not only in the characters they create and their interaction with each other, but also in the way they make them react or respond to the various situations in which they find themselves and in what they say within these situations. They are relatively free to choose their material, but their conclusions about life and the nature of their novels are dependent on their innate personality, as this affects not only the way in which they present their characters, but also our own understanding and response to their inherent values and behaviour. In this sense, novelists can be seen as mediators between their characters and their audience, as this is the only way through which they can convey to us their attitude towards their characters and the total situation they are rendering. The Victorian novel reflected the pressing social problems and philosophies of a complex age, which was prevailingly one of social restraints and taboos, relatively reminiscent of the Puritan period and authors were in the main didactic, moral and purposeful. One of the most important differences between the novelists of the first half of the century and those of the second was that to a significant extent the former were at one with their Age. They drew from it their strengths and weaknesses. They were its mouthpiece and accepted the notion of progress without much argument. The latter were more or less highly critical against their age and in this sense it is easy to view them as being rebellious. One of the greatest achievements of the age was the universal acceptance of respectability. This idea accommodated all classes of the society irrespective of social position, wealth or learning, mainly because it applied to anyone who exploited clean and tidy habits and who was honest and decent in behaviour. Though in reality the ‘respectable’ may not have been numerically large, nevertheless they did perform the role of informing public opinion. In the main, they made up the reading public and it was to them that the greatest novelists of the age addressed themselves. The notion of ‘respectability’ could also be viewed as a worthy attempt to do something about the vices and weaknesses of the age and the novelists were the mouthpieces of their audiences. Prevailing attitudes towards sex also changed in respect of taboos relating to the candid recognition and expression of it. There was indeed a double standard of morality and it affected both sexes differently. However, by the time of Samuel Butler and John Conrad, these attitudes had drastically changed, mainly because the vices of the age existed in too high a level to be ignored. No longer was the novelist out to please only his public. In fact, public acceptability of his works was no longer a great concern. After the Forster Education Acts of 1870, the reading public grew larger and thus it was harder to please everyone, as unlike for novelists such as Dickens and Thackeray, it was beyond their universal command. Inevitably, this sense of alienation led to a stratification of the novel. This, coupled...
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