Heroism and the Provincial Novel
- Philip ChadwickPhilip ChadwickThe Manchester Grammar School
It is generally accepted that 19th-century realist novelists sought to create heroes and heroines who were at once representative and exceptional: representative because they incarnate something instantly recognizable across space and time, exceptional because they must command narrative interest. The heroes of the provincial 19th-century novel struggle to navigate these competing impulses. Their creators inherited a literary tradition that tended to extol larger-than-life figures who, through military exploits or adventures on the border of empire, inspired admiration or worship. However, consonant with the realist novel’s rejection of both epic and Romantic heroes, the authors of provincial novels depict a world of fragmentation, a world that can no longer accommodate heroic ambition. Their provincial settings comprise an arena in which greatness cannot be realized: the province is too far removed from the world historical stage, it seems, too full of petty rivalries, to enable the hero to flourish. The provincial novelists George Eliot and Fyodor Dostoevsky can be read as case studies of writers who embody this tension. While the thrust of most criticism on both writers is to recast the dearth of heroic activity as a virtue (with the meanness of world historical opportunity being amply assuaged by opportunities for small acts of prosaic, diffusive kindness), Dostoevsky and Eliot treat with regret the inability of their protagonists to realize their heroic aspirations. In so doing, far from throwing their lot in with the limitations of the novel as a genre (i.e., its anti-epic parameters), they maintain a desire to transcend the limits of the novel genre’s mundane presentness. By rescuing their characters from the provincial environments in which they have been unable to realize their heroic feats and by destining them for future action elsewhere, the “here-now” chronotope of the provincial novel is rejected in favor of a “there-then” chronotope which, by definition, cannot be explicated in the form of the novel (and as such, their novels must end with the exile of their protagonists). Although readings of their novels that emphasize the importance of prosaic goodness remain persuasive, they do not altogether invalidate these writers’ desire for heroic activity.