How to write about a novel

If you’re studying English literature at university, you almost certainly have to face the task which you didn’t face at A-level: read a novel fairly quickly, and write about it without a term of teaching. And it’s a daunting task.

Novels, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, are the dominant form of modern English literature. In fact, they are so dominant that we don’t (outside of literature studies, prize lists, and Radio 4 discussions) refer to them as novels at all. Rather, we hear about: “The new bestseller”, “His fascinating thriller”, “the epic adventure’, “this science-fiction classic”, “the latest romance from…”, and so on. Perhaps, rather than disparaging this, we should learn from it. Like the course of true love, the pathway of a novel from pen (or processor) to public ne’er runs smooth, and we should at least reflect on the process by which it got there. In fact, we might do well to consider a number of issues of this kind before considering the content of the novel itself. Allow me to offer some suggestions:

  • Process — what do we know about the author’s creative and literary process? Will this affect the way we approach the novel, or is it irrelevant in this case?
  • Publisher — did the publisher or another intermediary have a role in shaping the novel? Again, is this important?
  • Public — how did the public at the time respond to the novel, and did this have an impact on the novel?
  • Posterity — how have people since responded to the novel, and does this change its importance?
  • Politics, philosophy and polemic — is the author informed by a particular world-view, and are they seeking to use the novel to impose this upon us
  • Priorities — what does the author think is important in a novel (if we know this?)
  • Purpose — collecting the aforementioned together, why did the author write?


 Picking these up together, let’s consider for a moment arguably the two greatest novelists of the 19th century, Charles Dickens and George Eliot. We know a great deal about both of them, since they wrote many letters and were much discussed in their day. — In terms of process, both Dickens and Eliot wrote novels which were published chapter by chapter, week by week in magazines. This was a common process then, but would be unusual now. Dickens did not generally write a chapter until the previous one had been published, and fairly frequently changed the later chapters based on reaction to earlier chapters. While writing Dombey and Son, he received a letter stating “I cannot believe that Edith can be Carker’s mistress”. Dickens concurred, and changed the planned plot accordingly. George Eliot, on the other hand, preferred not to allow publication to begin until she had completed the final chapter. —Dickens’s publisher also had a profound effect on his writing, demanding, and getting, an alternative, more ambiguous ending to Great Expectations, although, thankfully, we also have the original ending to compare it with. — Both Eliot’s and Dickens’s writing were highly successful with the public, greeted with the same kind of enthusiasm (though on a smaller scale) that the publication of a Harry Potter novel has been met with in our century. — Posterity has been extremely kind to George Eliot. Although Daniel Deronda is rarely read, most of her books have been filmed and televised, and critics find few flaws in them. Dickens has remained popular as an author, but some aspects of Dickens – particularly his hypocrisy and his sentimentality – are now looked down on. Referring to The Old Curiosity Shop, with it’s famously sentimental death scene, Oscar Wilde later quipped: “it would take a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of Little Nell”. On the other hand, Dickens has been filmed and televised more often than any other author except Shakespeare, and is quite properly regarded as Britain’s greatest novelist. An extremely useful series of books for understanding the posterity of a novel – which is to say, the responses of its readers over decades or hundreds of years – is the Critical Heritage Series. These books, with titles like Thomas Hardy, the Critical Heritage are compendiums of key criticism or comment from contemporary readers up to the present. — Dickens has often been seen as a reformer in terms of his politics, philosophy and polemic, although the issue of hypocrisy might brand him as someone who preferred pontification to action. He presided over a magazine promoting Victorian values, but was himself an adulterer. One of his daughters, who was a don at Oxford, was once shown an early photograph of her father. After a moment of reflection, she is reported to have said: “What a wicked man.” George Eliot, on the other hand, should be understood at least partly from her philosophy. From a strict evangelical upbringing, she moved into a form of atheism and translated Strauss’s Life of Jesus, which as aimed at ‘demythologising’ the gospels. However, later in life she wrote that she found herself closer to her natural enemies (the evangelicals) and further from her natural allies (atheists and liberals). This tension – with a strong fondness for and affection for evangelicalism which is seldom found in other Victorian writers – is clear in Adam Bede and Silas Marner.—This is probably reflected in George Eliot’s priorities as a writer, and it is clear that she is concerned to weigh the moral character of each of her characters. Dickens’s priorities are best illustrated in a letter written to him by Wilkie Collins, in which he is counselled: “Make ’em laugh, make ’em cry, but above all, make ’em wait”.—With two such great writers, who wrote over a long period of time, there is no single purpose which is apparent. Dickens clearly wrote, at least in part, to be popular, famous, rich and successful, but his need to write in order to achieve this became less as time went on. His father had been imprisoned in the Marshalsea debtors’ prison, and Dickens himself had been forced to work ten hour days at the age of 12. This explains to some extent his desire for financial security early in his career, but his direct contact with poverty and the debtors’ prison also accounts for much of his social commentary and real anger at the condition of those who fell on the wrong side of the law. George Eliot wrote under a pseudonym at least to some extent so that her work would be taken more seriously than that of an obviously female author. She sets out a manifesto of a sort in Silly Novels by Lady Novelists, in which she criticises trivial and ridiculous plots, and praises European Realism.

All of this is very good, but it does not actually take us into the novel itself –  though it is probably fair to say that there is no profound discussion of a novel without at least some understanding of the novelist. At their most basic level, novels have three things: story, characters, and context, and anything more ambitious than the most prosaic chronicle also has a writing style, often encapsulated in the narratorial voice. Context is the space in which the novel takes place. At its simplest, context is established by description, as in the first chapter of Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native, where the heath is described in great detail. Hardy’s novels are hugely visual. In Tolstoy’s War and Peace, though, a great deal of context is established by recounting the histories of the characters and of the circles they move in, and in direct comparison of one character with another. A novel must have a story of some kind, though this is not necessarily the same as the plot. A story can be very simple – the dean of a cathedral who suffers from tuberculosis of the spine decides to build a spire, against the advice of his colleagues, whose construction is so colossal that it destroys the lives of all those involved (William Golding’s The Spire). We will come back to this plot in a moment. Equally, it can be highly complex. Dickens plotted his novels in vast spider webs of interrelating characters. A thriller or a detective novel depends for its effect on a convoluted plot, while a sophisticate espionage novel, on the lines of LeCarré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy may leave some of the readers baffled at the first reading as to what actually happened. Traditionally, the novel takes characters and tests them, or allows them to develop, in situations which are outside the normal compass of their lives. However, for example in Jane Austen’s Persuasion, this testing and development may be extremely subtle, by comparison, say, with the boys on the island in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Characters have more or less detailed lives and personalities in novels. In many examples of genre-fiction, characters may be little more than figures, fulfilling a role governed by the plot. However, most often we know the characters best through their voices, so it would be appropriate to describe a novelist’s eye for description, and ear for character. Thomas Hardy has a magnificent eye for description, but, except in The Mayor of Casterbridge, his characters tend to be wooden, or worse, inconsistent in order to suit the needs of the plot. The most striking example of this is when Tess murders Alec in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and shows no remorse or guilt, despite the fact that everything else we know about her is that she is an amiable and compassionate young woman. George Eliot has a magnificent ear for character. We can tell which character is speaking in Eliot without having to have it spelled out. However, the descriptions, though competent, are less gripping. Dickens, of all novelists, has the most complete sense of both. It’s been pointed out frequently that we know more about the minor characters in Dickens than we do about the leading figures in the novels of many other writers. Writing style may be more or less overt. The plot of William Golding’s The Spire is hard to discern because it is written in a stream-of-consciousness style which presents everything through the eyes of dean Jocelin, who, apart from being driven mad by his spinal tuberculosis, has very little understanding of what is really going on and his own part in it.  

 What then, to say about a novel? To my mind, the author begins with an intention. William Golding, in The Hot Gates, explains that he was sure he had a publishable novel on his hands when, after several failures, he worked out the plot of Lord of the Flies. There is nothing dishonourable in wanting to be published. Joseph Conrad, in discussing The Secret Agent, said he wanted to work out how a series of apparently unconnected events on the same day, reported in the newspaper, could have had a single cause. The author clearly has to have a readership in mind, and he (or she) has to come up with something to say to them which will achieve his intention – whether that be to see the futile brutalities of the Belgian Congo brought to an end (Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was part of this movement), or to simply persuade people to buy the book. Finally, the author must put pen to paper, and tell the story, getting enough of the character, context and story down in a suitable style to keep the reader reading, but not at such length that the book becomes unpublishable.  

 In writing about the book, you can’t really start with the author’s intention: that would be presumptuous. Rather, you can only start at the other end with the words, going on to analyse the key characters, observe the context and the way it relates to the characters, and noting how the story develops. If you look at this in the light of the writing style, you should be able to discern the key messages or themes that the author is trying to bring out. If you can observe this in the light of the likely audience – and you should be able to pick up clues to what that audience was – then you should finally be able to conclude by discussing likely authorial intention, and, from there, assessing the success and impact of the novel, in which case your structure would be something like this:

  •  How the story is told
    • writing style
    • context
    • characters
    • plot/storyline
  • What themes and underlying messages emerge
  • Who the author was writing to
    • Generally a lot of information is contained in the novel about the assumptions the writer is making about their readers
    • Background information can help to fill this out
    • In critiquing a novel from another time or another country, it is particularly important to understand the intended reader, because assumptions from your time and your culture can be quite misleading
  • What the author was trying to achieve, and how well it was achieved

 Of course, in real life, you rarely get asked to just critique a novel. You are much more likely to be asked to answer a question. The really good questions often focus on authorial intention, which gives you a way in. Sometimes they focus on the reaction of the original readers, perhaps by comparing it with the assessment of later critics. The less good questions will tend to dive straight in at the themes or messages level, which can make it hard to reach a point any deeper than that. The very least helpful questions are the ones which limit you to analysing one or two characters, or commenting on the writing style, or the description, or, heaven help you, on the story line. However. When faced with a question, there is only one thing to be done: informed by all the background, and by what you know of the story, characters, context and style, what you have been able to deduce about the audience, and your surmises about authorial intention — with all that in mind ANSWER THE QUESTION. No examiner ever gave points for answering a different question from the one set.

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