The selection of How Novels Think by Nancy Armstrong was definitely thick to read through and I apologize now if I lose you in my reading of it!
Armstrong started off by explaining that artwork has moved from merely representing a physical image of a person, to beginning to encapsulate the thoughts and emotions of the subject, the artist, and the viewer. This spread from visual art to the form of literature as authors began not just explaining a social fact (such as the novel of manners did), but endeavored to question the mind of society by bringing the reader in to the internal thoughts of the characters.
On the basic level, Armstrong begins to describe the elements of a novel. For instance, she says that “protagonists…had to harbor an acute dissatisfaction with his or her assigned position in the social world and feel compelled to find a better one.” This is represented in the tensions of Jane Austen novels as we see the contrast between the older generations who push for marriage on the basis of changing rank and social class and the younger generation which is slowly beginning to open its mind to ideas of emotions and desire.
The selection is particularly concerned with individualism, and how individualism is both expressed in the novel and in turn shaped within us, the readers. One of my favorite quotes from this selection is when Armstrong says “Novels thus gave tangible form to a desire that set the body on a collision course with limits that the old society had placed on the individual’s options for self-fulfillment, transforming the body from an indicator of rank to the container of unique subjectivity.”
Not only does this express the pursuit of individualism which Armstrong is trying to show, but it also displays the phenomenon that many of us may have felt as readers engrossed in a good novel. When I was younger people joked with my parents that they never saw me without a book in my hand, for the very reason that Armstrong gives here. Novels have become a mode of escape for readers, allowing us to channel our individual desires.
The conversation of individualism is given voice through three different philosophers. The first is Locke who says that the “world supplies raw content in the form of objects, and the mind transforms sensations of those objects into ideas.” For Locke, individualism was being able to apply our own ideas to the world around us, in other words making a “logical inference” about what we see. The problem with Locke’s viewpoint, however, is that in showing us objects, the world may in fact be predisposing us to react not with a unique and individual mindset.
Next is David Hume, who contrasts Locke in that he believed “ideas and feelings are shaped by “custom” rather than logical inference.” In other words, Hume says that we draw on our individualized experiences and how we are accustomed to reacting to things to know how to channel our emotions. The example given in the text is that based on past feelings of anger and love, we determine how to react to situations of neglect and benefit.
Lastly, the author discusses Adam Smith’s outlook by also including work from Rosseau. The basis of their belief is that everyone has it in their nature to sympathize with others. Rosseau’s example is a brutal one in which a person watches a mother as she saw her child mauled to death. Smith says that although a person can see how the mother reacts and react accordingly, the person’s individuality is like a cage separating them from truly experiencing what the mother experiences. He also says that each of us has within us an impartial spectator which critiques how we respond. This “impartial spectator” reminded me of the topic of self-policing, as well as idea of role playing. We see how others react and we process that in contrast to how we react, and in turn evaluate whether our reaction was good or not.
Ultimately, the individual is at odds with thoughts and emotions that emanate from within themselves and the thoughts and emotions that are forced upon them by the world in which they live. The text deals heavily with sensibility, which is their ability to respond to the world around them. The individual’s sensibility and individuality is ultimately the degree to which they are able to apply individual experience to their sensibility.
In terms of the development of the novel through the Victorian era and Romantic period, the defining of individualism created a broader appreciation for characterization. The characters in novels were bound to test the limits of “normative reality” and in doing so created a new platform of thought for readers everywhere. The novels showed a new kind of sensibility that was more about individuality than about logical adaption to society. Through the expression of novels, authors expressed individual thought. In addition, however, it is through the expression of novels that readers see their individual thought take shape. And how, in fact, novels have come to think for us.