Is there anything the novel can't do? It's a genuine question.
Since I write novels, I'm predisposed to want to answer that question hopefully. But I do wonder. The question, why hasn't there been a novel about ...?, whether implicitly or explicitly framed, suggests the form could tackle anything. Why hasn't anybody written a whodunit set in the Hittite Empire? Why hasn't somebody novelised Van Eyck's Arnolfini Wedding? Should I write an 80,000-word novel-version of St. John of the Cross's Dark Night of the Soul? And indeed, beyond the ‘should I?’ is the deeper question: ‘can I’? Is it even possible? Maybe there are some things fundamentally immiscible with the form of the novel.
For all its contemporary artistic dominance (the novel bestrode the nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries like a colossus and although it has ceded its dominance to screen narrative nowadays, these newer forms—cinema, and latterly TV—have appropriated many novelistic features to their art)—for all, I say, its contemporary dominance the novel is a relatively recent arrival. Prose romances stretch back to the Ancient Greeks, but ‘the novel’ is a basically 18th- and 19th-century development, and although it has now spread globally it still manifests a particular, European, bourgeois-Protestant logic.
Ian Watt's Rise of the Novel is half a century old now, and whilst there are reasons to be dissatisfied with it (especially its near total neglect of female writers) Watt's fundamental thesis remains (I think) sound: viz., that ‘the distinctive literary qualities of the novel’ relate directly to ‘those of the society in which it began and flourished’, and that it's a form that rises in step with changes in the reading public, of the rise of economic individualism, and of the ‘spread of Protestantism, especially in its Calvinist or Puritan forms’ [Watt, 7, 60]. It starts, in other words, as a bourgeois mode of art that sells to a rising middle-class, focusing on things that mattered to them and reflecting their values back. So: individualized, self-reliant characters. So: detailed descriptions of material possessions (houses, furniture, clothes etc), and a particular emphasis on courtship narratives as framed in terms of prosperity. So also: the mode's hospitality to Bildungsroman, a spiritualisation of economic growth and return on investments. Students are, in my experience, sometimes hostile to Watt's thesis because they are disinclined to ‘reduce’ such human experiences as ‘love’ and ‘spiritual growth’ to socio-economic bases in this manner. To such people I would say: suck it.
If this argument is correct then we might expect the novel, as a form, to work for some things better than others; and we might even argue that there are some things that the novel is just really poor at capturing. And rather than continuing to talk in these windy generalisations I'm going to ask a specific question: can the novel do tragedy? It's clearly, of course, possible to write a novel in which characters suffer and die, and even to reproduce, should you be so minded, the lineaments of a Sophoclean or Shakespearian play in prose; but does tragedy, as tragedy, work in the novel? This seems to me at once a question about the specific form of the novel and a question about our larger cultural addiction to happy endings and disinclination to follow the pity and the terror to its logical catharsis-end (The Lion King is Hamlet, yes; but it's Hamlet-With-A-Happy-Ending, which is in a very large sense to miss the point of Hamlet). Terry Eagleton agrees with Henri Peyre that the novel as a mode simply isn't hospitable to tragedy:
A tragic theatre bound up with the despotic absolutism, courtly intrigue, traditional feuds, rigid laws of kinship, codes of honour, cosmic-world-views and faith in destiny gives way to the more rational, hopeful, realist, pragmatic ideologies of the middle class. What rules now is less fate than human agency … The public realm of tragedy, with its high-pitched rhetoric and fateful economy, is abandoned for the privately consumed, more expansive, ironic, everyday language of prose fiction. And this … is certainly a loss: some critics, as Henri Peyre suggests, blame the death of tragedy on the novel, which “captured the essentials of tragic emotion, while diluting and often cheapening it.” [Terry Eagleton, Sweet Violence: the Idea of the Tragic (Blackwell 2003), 178]Eagleton thinks that tragedy qua tragedy depends upon precisely that public, focused, elevated authenticity that has been dissolved away by the privately consumed art of the novel: which is, of course, more expansive, ironic, told in everyday language and concerning ordinary people. Maybe he's right.
One way to address this question would be to look at a specific case study. OK; but, casting around, it starts to dawn on you (or at least, it did on me) that proper examples are thin on the ground. Perhaps that's already a kind of confirmation. Richardson's Pamela is a twisted sort of courtship novel and though laugh-free, and very inadvertently creepy, ends comically in generic terms. Richardson's slumberously vast Clarissa ends with Clarissa's death, but I'm not sure we can genuinely make the case that it generates properly tragic momentum. Tolstoy's Anna Karenina lacks the tragic focus of, say, the Antigone, not just because Tolstoy is committed to balancing Anna's downward path with his account of Levin's upward one, but because its one main purpose is to create a widescreen portrait of a whole society, which necessarily diffuses the tragic focus we find in Sophocles. I could discuss Thomas Hardy's Casterbridge mayor, probe his Pure Woman or peer into the obscurity of his Jude (although that Hardy himself abandoned writing novels after this latter and devoted himself to writing poetry suggests that he wasn't convinced what he'd been doing was really working). But instead I want to say a few things about George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss (1860). I want to concentrate on that novel because it is Eliot's conscious, deliberate exercise in re-writing Greek tragedy as a contemporary English novel; and because Eliot is a great writer.
Shall we call The Mill on the Floss a tragedy? It certainly ends unhappily, with the deaths of its two main characters, siblings Maggie and Tom (‘the bad end unhappily, the good unluckily. That is what tragedy means’ as Stoppard's Player so pithily puts it in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead). And we can go a little deeper. Eliot was a particular fan of Sophocles, and there are several ways in which she set about crafting her novel to transfer, from Greek into English, from drama into this new mode of fiction, a quasi-Sophoclean heft and expressiveness. She particularly loved the Antigone, and we can intuit reasons for that in her private life: openly living with the already-married George Henry Lewes put her beyond the pale of many in polite Victorian society, and her own brother Issac, with whom she had been extremely close as a child, cut off all communication with her. After decades of happiness together, Lewes died in 1878. A couple of years later, in 1880, Eliot married a young admirer called John Cross. Only then, with breathtaking and priggish self-satisfaction, did her brother re-open communications with his sister. The pompous little letter he wrote to her is in the BL now:
So, yes: we can see why Sophocles' great play, with its potent swirl of pseudo-erotic connection between sister and brother superseding the conventions of society at large (even unto death) and its portrait of a wilful individual woman following her heart rather than giving-in to the pressures of convention, spoke so directly to Eliot. She often wrote about it. In her ‘The Antigone and its Moral’ [The Leader (March 29, 1856)] she defined the central problem in Sophocles' play as lying between ‘reverence for the gods’ and ‘the duties of citizenship: two principles, both having their validity, are at war with each’; the conflict between ‘the strength of man's intellect, or moral sense, or affection’ and ‘the rules which society has sanctioned.’ Her essay draws a general conclusion: ‘whenever man’s moral vision collides with social convention the opposition between Antigone and Creon is renewed.’
There's a lot to say about Eliot's preference for Sophocles over Aeschylus and Euripides, but there's one thing that's peculiarly relevant to Eliot's project as a novelist I think, and it goes back to Sophocles' great innovation in the drama itself: Aeschylus, we're told, was the first writer to introduce a second actor on stage. Before him plays had been a single actor interacting with the chorus. Sophocles, though, is the first dramatist to introduce a third actor and suddenly, we might say, things start to get interesting. George Eliot, certainly, was fascinated by the dramatic, ethical and expressive possibilities of this triangulation, and it is the fundamental interpersonal structure of The Mill on the Floss: Maggie Tulliver, her older brother Tom and their father; Maggie, Tom and little Lucy (whom, in a fit of childish jealousy, Maggie pushes in the mud); Maggie, Tom and sensitive, hunchback Philip Wakem, at least until their father's ruination at the hands (as Tom sees it) of Philip's lawyer father makes him put an end to Maggie and Philip's burgeoning relationship. Then, as the novel moves into its final straight, the story focuses on Maggie, cousin Lucy and Lucy's fiancé Stephen Guest, a more conventional love-triangle.
This final situation brings to the fore the main (as it were) triangulation of the novel: one, Maggie; two, the object of her love—the sexual connection she has with Stephen, the spiritual and intellectual connection she has with Philip, and three, her larger context; family, or social, powerful represented by the blood connection she has with Tom. The main theme of the novel, of course, is that Maggie comes into conflict with larger, impersonal but restrictive forces, of economic necessity, gender oppression and, when she runs away with Stephen, moral disapprobation; and this is most forcefully manifested in Tom's individual disapproval, just as the worst aspect of Eliot's (patchy, in truth) social ostracism was the way her beloved brother Isaac cut her:
At the center of The Mill on the Floss lies the human dilemma from Sophocles’ Antigone that George Eliot believed to be permanent: the conflict between the conventions of society and individual judgment. An honourable but conventional person, Tom Tulliver, clashes with his more imaginative sister Maggie over these opposing claims … Tom seeks conventional honor in exacting middle-class conventionalism; but Maggie seeks honor in her ideals of love and charity. In many ways Tom symbolises the Old Law, Maggie the New. [David Moldstad, ‘The Mill on the Floss and Antigone’, PMLA 85 (1970), 527-31]Eliot also works structurally, as it were: setting out in this novel formally to reproduce the structure of a Greek drama.
So: Attic tragedy follows a particular formal pattern. There's an opening speech by a character or a god, that sets the scene: this is called the parodos. The bulk of the play consists of stasima (a stasimon is a choral ode) alternating with episodes (epei(s)-odia, between the odes, you see) in which two, or in later tragedy three, actors interact with each other and with the chorus. Things end with an exodos.
How many episodes? In Greek drama there could be as few as three, or as many as six. In Seneca and Roman tragedy, largely copied from the Greek, the number of episodes was mostly five, which is where Renaissance theatre derives its convention that a play should have five acts; but Eliot is very particularly not copying Shakespeare or even Seneca, but instead going back to the Sophoclean source. So: Floss has a parodos in its first chapter, whose narrator (‘I remember those large dipping willows, I remember the stone bridge…’) takes the role of chorus. The episodes of the story are interspersed with stasimon-like commentary by the narrator. There are 6 episodes:  Maggie’s youth;  the family’s loss of the Mill;  Maggie’s friendship with Philip;  Tom’s recovery of the fortune, Tulliver horsewhipping Wakem and dying;  Maggie’s affair with Stephen;  the Flood. In each case Eliot interposes narrative with observation, commentary and sections of what amount, almost, to prose poetry in describing the world she has created. The exodos is Eliot's ‘Conclusion’.
The Greek element exists beneath the surface, as it were, of a thoroughly and minutely realised English idiom—the same idiom that Eliot would refine and hone, without classical underpinning, ten years later for her Realist masterpiece Middlemarch. In this earlier novel, though, Eliot is doing sophisticated things with the Greek mode of externalising interior states and the novelistic mode of internalising them. So, for example: Philip Wakem is physically deformed, but Mr Tulliver is emotionally or psychologically deformed, a fact reflected in his surname, since the Greek τυλιος, tulios, from τυλη, means ‘lumpy or hunchbacked’. Eliot plays many such Greek games in her novel. ‘St Oggs’ is a perfectly English sounding name, perhaps related (we might think) to the Gaelic ‘Ogham’. Then again we might want to note that the Greek: ὄγκος, ogkos, means ‘pride, self-importance, pretension’, as well as ‘swelling, tumour’. ‘The Floss’ is another very English sounding name, from the Old-English for ‘flow’ [cf the German flosz, river]. But then we turn to the Greek verb φλύω and find that it means ‘to boil over, to bubble up, to overrun’, but also ‘to babble, to fill up with words’, both of which are peculiarly appropriate to this work.
Then again, not every critic has seen Maggie as a straightforward Antigone.
Clearly Maggie shares Antigone’s strong-minded rebellious spirit, and her “sisterly piety”, and she too is torn by opposing principles “at war with each other.” But when we consider Maggie’s case she seems to be divided by principles of a very different kind to those exerting their contrary influence on Antigone. Opposing Maggie’s version of “sisterly piety” and “reverence for the gods” … are not the “duties of citizenship” as for Antigone, but rather other forms of feeling, or in Eliot’s vocabulary, varieties of sympathy: her compassion for Philip Wakem and her passion for Stephen Guest. [Josephine McDonagh, ‘Eliot’s Early Novels’, Levine (ed) The Cambridge Companion to George Eliot (2001) 53-4]‘Maggie’s dilemma,’ argues McDonagh, in a point to which I'll return in a moment, ‘seems reducible to a conflict not of laws or duties but of feelings, and indeed feelings for opposing men; the father and brother versus the friend and the lover’. It's interesting, and may or may not be significant, that Mill on the Floss contains no references at all to Antigone. Maybe Eliot felt she didn't need to spell out explicitly what was so obvious; but that doesn't seem to have been her practice elsewhere. Take Philip Wakem, the intelligent, sensitive crippled boy whom Maggie rejects (because he's ugly, and then because her brother tell her to) but whose quiet, empathetic intellect proves essential to Maggie's own spiritual growth. It seems clear to me that he is called Philip in allusion to Sophocles' magic cripple Philoctetes; and it seems that way in part because Eliot all but lays it out. When they are still children, Tom injures his foot, and during his convalescence he, Maggie and Philip become close (although after his recovery Tom distances himself from Philip again):
After that, Philip spent all his time out of school-hours with Tom and Maggie. Tom listened with great interest to a new story of Philip's about a man who had a very bad wound in his foot, and cried out so dreadfully with the pain that his friends could bear with him no longer, but put him ashore on a desert island, with nothing but some wonderful poisoned arrows to kill animals with for food.Poor old Philip! But maybe this sort of textual specificity is not something carried systematically through the novel. Indeed elsewhere Eliot pokes mild fun at Tom's tutor, the Rev. Mr. Stelling, who ‘was so broad-chested and resolute that he felt equal to anything’ and who was certain he ‘would by and by edit a Greek play, and invent several new readings. He had not yet selected the play, for having been married little more than two years, his leisure time had been much occupied with attentions to Mrs. Stelling; but he had told that fine woman what he meant to do some day, and she felt great confidence in her husband, as a man who understood everything of that sort’ [Floss, 2.1]. This is a dig at scholarship, of course, rather than tragedy as such, but it stages the larger issue: the Rev. Stellings domestic duties, insofar as they come into conflict with his Attic ambition, take precedence. The novel is much more a domestic, private mode than it is a tragic, public one, we might say.
“I didn't roar out a bit, you know,” Tom said, “and I dare say my foot was as bad as his. It's cowardly to roar.”
But Maggie would have it that when anything hurt you very much, it was quite permissible to cry out, and it was cruel of people not to bear it. She wanted to know if Philoctetes had a sister, and why she didn't go with him on the desert island and take care of him.
One day, soon after Philip had told this story, he and Maggie were in the study alone together while Tom's foot was being dressed ... “What are you reading about in Greek?” [Maggie] said. “It's poetry, I can see that, because the lines are so short.”
“It's about Philoctetes, the lame man I was telling you of yesterday,” he answered, resting his head on his hand, and looking at her as if he were not at all sorry to be interrupted. Maggie, in her absent way, continued to lean forward, resting on her arms and moving her feet about, while her dark eyes got more and more fixed and vacant, as if she had quite forgotten Philip and his book.
“Maggie,” said Philip, after a minute or two, still leaning on his elbow and looking at her, “if you had had a brother like me, do you think you should have loved him as well as Tom?”
Maggie started a little on being roused from her reverie, and said, “What?” Philip repeated his question.
“Oh, yes, better,” she answered immediately. “No, not better; because I don't think I could love you better than Tom. But I should be so sorry,–so sorry for you.”
Philip colored; he had meant to imply, would she love him as well in spite of his deformity, and yet when she alluded to it so plainly, he winced under her pity. [Mill on the Floss, 2:6]
Early in the novel Eliot is explicit on precisely this matter. Young Tom and Maggie are entertaining their younger cousin, pretty little Lucy (who will go on, when grown-up, to plight her troth with handsome Stephen Guest). The kids are supposed to stay in the garden, but Tom wants to look at the pond and leads the two girls astray to see if they can find any water-snakes.
“Here, Lucy!” he said in a loud whisper. Lucy came carefully as she was bidden, and bent down to look at what seemed a golden arrow-head darting through the water. It was a water-snake, Tom told her; and Lucy at last could see the serpentine wave of its body, very much wondering that a snake could swim. Maggie had drawn nearer and nearer; she must see it too, though it was bitter to her, like everything else, since Tom did not care about her seeing it. At last she was close by Lucy; and Tom, who had been aware of her approach, but would not notice it till he was obliged, turned round and said,–The Greek, τι μέγεθoς, means ‘that greatness, magnitude’ or ‘necessary sublimity’. Little kids may feel with heroic, or tragic, intensity (do indeed feel, I'd say, with an intensity of which adults are incapable), but they can't do anything very much, and that means that their little dramas can never be properly tragic. And what Eliot considers true of children, scales in her telling to adults as well. We are not heroes, she says; we are ordinary, middling people. Tragedy does not describe our sorrow, even when that sorrow is very acute. Here is Floss's narrator on the plight of Tom and Maggie's father, whose pride and obstinacy bring him to financial ruin, and take somatic form in an apoplexy that leaves him bedridden.
“Now, get away, Maggie; there's no room for you on the grass here. Nobody asked you to come.”
There were passions at war in Maggie at that moment to have made a tragedy, if tragedies were made by passion only; but the essential τι μέγεθoς which was present in the passion was wanting to the action; the utmost Maggie could do, with a fierce thrust of her small brown arm, was to push poor little pink-and-white Lucy into the cow-trodden mud. [Floss, 1:10]
Mr. Tulliver, you perceive, though nothing more than a superior miller and maltster, was as proud and obstinate as if he had been a very lofty personage, in whom such dispositions might be a source of that conspicuous, far-echoing tragedy, which sweeps the stage in regal robes, and makes the dullest chronicler sublime. The pride and obstinacy of millers and other insignificant people, whom you pass unnoticingly on the road every day, have their tragedy too; but it is of that unwept, hidden sort that goes on from generation to generation, and leaves no record,—such tragedy, perhaps, as lies in the conflicts of young souls, hungry for joy, under a lot made suddenly hard to them, under the dreariness of a home where the morning brings no promise with it, and where the unexpectant discontent of worn and disappointed parents weighs on the children like a damp, thick air, in which all the functions of life are depressed; or such tragedy as lies in the slow or sudden death that follows on a bruised passion, though it may be a death that finds only a parish funeral.Poor old Mr Tulliver, who evokes in us neither pity nor any sort of terror. Perhaps it's not that Gray's mute inglorious Milton is denied his public eloquence and glory by the mere happenstance of being born to ordinary parochial life, but rather that ordinary parochialism ontologically contradicts greatness as such—not that Gray's villager might have written Paradise Lost if only things had gone a little different to him, but rather than a Milton who doesn't speak gloriously isn't Milton in any meaningful sense at all. Indeed, isn't it within the bounds of possibility that Gray is celebrating, rather than lamenting, this silent ingloriousness? The next line mentions Gray's parochial Cromwell, guiltless of his country's blood: isn't it better to be laid in a country graveyard without blood on your hands than with? (Pericles' on his deathbed declared his proudest boast was that ‘no Athenian ever had to put on mourning because of me’). Maybe it's not the novel form, or even the larger social ethos, that makes tragedy such an ill fit to Eliot's art. Maybe it's that the lines of force of her ethical imagination are always tugging her out of drama as such, away from the conflict, and towards something neither comic nor tragic but rather a sense of the fundamental undisclosure of life as it is lived, and the spiritual benefits of that state. Adam Mars-Jones somewhere says that ‘mourning is a wound that is also somehow an achievement’. He wasn't talking about tragedy when he said so, but he might as well have been. Tragic drama stages mourning as a mode of ritualised social-religious sublimity, parsing its shattering absences and ruptures into a sort of transcendent achievement. But Eliot, however hard she tried to capture a Sophoclean grandeur and depth in The Mill on the Floss, was working against the grain of her genius. At her best she understands not that grief is not an achievement, but rather than achievement itself is a kind of chimera, that the best things we can do as human beings, things to do with kindness and connection and unobtrusiveness, are actually pointed, forceful, marvellous unachievements. When she writes novels—even when, as in this case, she writes a tragic novel—her aim is to capture the wisdom of the sort of being-in-the-world that evades the drama of tragedy and the melodramatic eventfulness of fiction.
At the end it's the river that is the uncertain quantity, flowing through a pastoral landscape for most of this novel only to rise up, a deus ex machina (or deus ex fluvio) to wrap-up the plot with preternatural abruptness. By the time she came to writing her greatest novel, Middlemarch, she knew better, and specified breaking the power of the river as a precondition for her heroine's happy blankness: Dorothea's energy ‘like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.’