“Bourgeois existence, and conservative belief: such is the foundation of the realist novel, from Goethe to Austen, Scott, Balzac, Flaubert, (Thackeray“Bourgeois existence, and conservative belief: such is the foundation of the realist novel, from Goethe to Austen, Scott, Balzac, Flaubert, (Thackeray, the Goncourts, Fontane, James....). To this small miracle of equilibrium, free indirect style contributed the final touch.”
Granted, there are some pretty heavy conservatives in the above list of authors. But as you might expect from a Marxist literary scholar, Moretti seems to see “conservatism” lurking behind some of the most fundamental novelistic techniques.
In discussing the apparent undermining of the narrator that the free indirect style ushers in, for example, he concludes as follows when comparing a more “autocratic” author (Pinard) to the seemingly liberal and freethinking one (Flaubert): “From this second viewpoint, Pinard and Flaubert do not stand for, respectively, repression and critique, but rather for an obsolete and stolid form of social control, and a more flexible and effective one.”
This viewpoint is the one Moretti endorses, that Flaubert’s techniques are basically just a more sophisticated form of narrative fascism.
Marxist scholars sniff out conservatism in the most innocent-seeming places. (It is always taken as a given that conservatism is inherently hostile to all forms of existence.) Any society that is not in the midst of violent upheaval is conservative. And any literary description of such a place is also inherently conservative, since “though this or that individual description may indeed have been relatively neutral [a la Flaubert]--description as a form was not neutral at all: its effect was to inscribe the present so deeply into the past that alternatives became simply imaginable.” There you have it: If you describe things too well, it's a conservative act, since you etch these vivid impressions of the contemporary indelibly on the reader’s mind, and make this reader unable politically to comprehend the possibility of a different social structure.
It is notable that in this 200-page book that covers large swaths of 18th- and 19th-century literature, there is not one example brought forth of what a nonconservative, liberal/radical narrative would be. The lesson seems to be that fiction is inherently conservative. Austen is conservative because of the way her narrators tyrannically judge her characters’ thoughts. Flaubert, on the other hand, withholds judgment and disappears into his narrations, and yet this too is somehow seen as being conservative. There is truly no way out. The universe is conservative.
And as the passage quoted up top shows, even free indirect style is implicated! Moretti manages to see this method as a kind of sneaky totalitarianism on behalf of the narrator, whereas one could (and should) see it as the opposite: Free indirect style is actually the narrator loosening authority and letting the characters’ verbiage take over. If anything it’s a kind of grassroots movement within a literary text.
Of course, we will never know how a great Marxist novelist would handle such narrative devices, because there has never been a great Marxist writer. And yet, Marxists cannot leave literature alone. What an odd thing it is, really, if you take a step back, that Marxists in academia are so often primarily attracted not to poli sci, sociology, or history…. but to literature! It’s as if no other field wanted them, and English departments were just desperate enough to let them in.
But let’s move on from this tirade; because really The Bourgeois is a ruminative, dense, hugely enjoyable book for anyone who is into literature.
One of Moretti’s guiding ideas is that fiction is a space where societal resolutions are preserved, while the dissonances have vanished from sight. And that thus you should be able to “reverse engineer from this point to go back to the original dissonances to unlock a dimension of the past that would otherwise remain hidden.” Literature is the stuff that doesn’t show up in the stats, details of existence you would never know if it weren’t for literature. At the same time, its image of the world is an image, not a record of facts, and yet literature engages with these facts, and its image is dependent upon and impacted by actual historical and sociological stuff. It reflects and distorts reality for its own purposes. Moretti realizes he’s going after an elusive and possibly illusive quarry by attempting to see through literary texts into the politics of everyday reality, but it’s a commendable search.
It is 19th-century England that seems to be Moretti’s primary focus. He begins by pointing out that in English the word bourgeois was pushed aside in favor of middle class, especially in the US where there is no tradition of an aristocracy. There is no bourgeois-like word in the English language; we take it directly from the French, whereas in German and other European languages there is a direct bourgeois equivalent. Moretti posits that the term middle class came about because there was a social need for there to be such a class between the nobility and the working class and peasants. This middle class was always plagued by a sense of illegitimacy and a lack of cohesion; they didn't engage in traditional labor (cobbler, blacksmith, bricklayer, so on) and had no traditional guilds or associations, and no matter how much wealth they accumulated they would always be looked down on by the aristocracy. They didn't quite belong anywhere, because within this middle class there was immense differentiation and less solidarity than there was in the lower and higher economic classes.
Because of this Moretti holds that the bourgeoisie was better at exerting power in the economic sphere than it was in creating a culture and establishing a political presence. When it came to politics, the bourgeois tended to defer to the aristocracy. In culture, too, the bourgeois often aped the values of the wealthy.
Some of the best stuff in the book is when Moretti analyzes how word usage shifts through time. He does this using the literary lab and some fancy software that’s able to pick out linguistic tics. In Robinson Crusoe (published 1719), for example, words like heavy or dark apply purely to the weight of an object and the absence of light, respectively. But in the course of the next century, such adjectives are increasingly metaphorical in English fiction. In Our Mutual Friend (published 1865), heavy is applied to the following: frown, eyes, sighs, charges, grudges, reflections; dark is applied to sleep, combination, frown, smile, business, look, cloud of suspicion, and so on. “Their point is no longer to contribute to the ‘literal accuracy’ . . . but to convey miniature value judgments. Not description, but evaluation.” And the finding from analyses of tens of thousands of novels written during this period bear out the fact that such words came to be used in increasingly metaphorical ways. It’s exhilarating that novels can now be studied in such a way.
In another vein, Moretti discusses a kind of crisis of natural description. Starting with the following quote from Lukacs: “We have invented the productivity of the spirit.... And our thinking follows the endless path of approximation that is never fully accomplished . . . everything that falls from our . . . hands must always be incomplete.” This is tied to another statement from Lukacs: “The novel is the epic of a world that has been abandoned by God.” Without God, there is no end, no completion, no ultimate truth; all that’s left is wandering and continual approximations. Moretti ties this thought to the steady accumulation of details in novels: “The better prose becomes at multiplying the concrete details that enrich our perception of the world [i.e., the better prose becomes at production] the more elusive is the reason for doing so.” The more and more you push approximation, the more you seek, the further you get from “meaning,” I think this is what he’s saying. Moretti argues that the 19th-century fiction would bifurcate between this choice: “Productivity, or meaning.” And this brings you to ruminations about some of the most basic attributes of novels, such as why have all these fillers that “don’t do much” and take up the majority of most novels? ...more