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Rescuing Story From History

By the end of the 18th century, the novel had already begun to replace the rich variety of narrative genres that preceded it. This is a familiar theme in the history of the arts in the modern period. One particular artistic form comes to be preferred for its freedom; it crowds out the other forms, which are disdained for their traditional limitations; finally the artist is less free than she was at the beginning, having only one genre for her thoughts rather than many. (The same thing has happened with the lyric poem.)

The great novelists of the 19th century well understood the subtle handicaps of that apparently freest of forms. In his foreword to The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky berates his readers in advance for their anticipated preference for the psychologically "interesting" figures of Ivan and Dmitri, and insists that it is Alyosha, the holy brother, who is the true hero. Tolstoy implicitly does the same thing in Anna Karenina, giving us a Levin whose motivations are not entirely novelistic, as a counterweight to his Anna and Vronsky, who are, as it were, virtuoso compositions of novelistic psychology. In The Mill on the Floss and Middlemarch we can, I think, see George Eliot struggling in the same way to release her heroines from the sociopsychological determinism that the novel form itself subtly imposes. In Madame Bovary we see the same theme but with a different strategy...

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