The novel as bourgeois epic, by Georg Lukacs 1935

The Novel as Bourgeois Epic

Written: 1934
First Published: 1935 in Literary Encyclopedia, volume 8, pg. 795-831 (in Russian)
Source: Literary Encyclopedia
Translated: by Anton P.


Although in the literatures of the ancient East, antiquity and the Middle Ages there are works that are in many respects related to it, the novel acquires its typical features only in bourgeois society. All the specific contradictions of this society, as well as the specific features of bourgeois art, find their fullest expression in the novel. In contrast to other forms of art (for example, drama), which bourgeois literature assimilates and remakes for its own purposes, the narrative types of ancient literature were such profound changes that here one can already speak of a predominantly new art form.

The general law of the unevenness of spiritual development in comparison with material progress, established by Marx, is clearly manifested in the fate of the theory of the novel.


Based on the general definition of the novel, one could assume that the theory of this specifically new cast form has been developed in bourgeois aesthetics most fully. Meanwhile, the actual course of historical development testifies otherwise. The first bourgeois theorists dealt almost exclusively with those literary genres, the aesthetic principles of which could be borrowed from ancient poetry: drama, epic, satire, etc. The novel develops almost completely independently of the development of the general theory of literature. It does not take this development into account in its constructions and does not influence it (in the 17th-18th centuries, Boileau, Lessing, Diderot, and others). We find the first serious allusions to the theory of the novel in separate remarks by the great novelists themselves, clearly showing that they developed this new genre quite consciously, although they did not go further in their theoretical generalizations than what they absolutely needed for their own work. This inattention to the specifically new in the bourgeois development of art is, of course, by no means accidental. The theoretical thought of the young bourgeoisie naturally had to keep as close as possible to its ancient model in all matters of aesthetics and culture, in which it found the sharpest ideological weapon for its struggle for bourgeois culture against the medieval one. This tendency was further strengthened when the growing bourgeois literature began to pass through the absolutist phase of its early development. All forms of artistic creativity that do not correspond to ancient models, organically growing in a folk, popular, sometimes even in a plebeian form from medieval culture, are ignored by theory at this stage and often even rejected as “non-artistic” (for example, Shakespearean drama). The novel, in its first great representatives, adjoins directly and organically to the narrative art of the Middle Ages; its form arises from the decomposition of the medieval story as a product of its plebeian and bourgeois degeneration.

Only together with classical German philosophy did the first attempts to create a general aesthetic theory of the novel appear, to include it in the system of artistic forms. At the same time, the statements of great novelists about their own writing practice acquire greater breadth and depth of generalization (Walter Scott, Goethe, Balzac). The principles of the bourgeois theory of the novel in its classical form were formulated during this period.

But a more extensive literature on the theory of the novel appears only in the second half of the 19th century. The novel has now finally established its dominance as a typical form of expression of bourgeois consciousness in literature. Attempts to resurrect the ancient epic on the basis of the latest civilization, so widespread in the 17th-18th centuries (Milton, Voltaire, Klopstock) have now ceased. The high point in the development of drama in the most important European countries has long since passed. Naturally, there appears (approximately since the publication of Zola’s theoretical and polemical articles) a more extensive literature on the novel, although it is still more of a journalistic, topical than a theoretical and systematic character, being at the same time the theoretical justification of the “new realism”: the novel was cut off from the great revolutionary classical traditions and conquests, the form of novel decomposed in accordance with the general decline of bourgeois ideology. No matter how interesting these theories of the novel are for getting acquainted with the artistic aspirations of the bourgeoisie since the middle of the 19th century, they still cannot solve the really fundamental problems of the novel, they can neither substantiate the independence of the novel as a special genre among other forms of epic narration, nor clarify those specific features of this genre, those of its artistic principles, which distinguish it from purely entertainment literature. For the Marxist theory of the novel, the views on the novel developed by classical German aesthetics are of practical interest.

The aesthetics of classical idealism for the first time raises in principle the question of the theory of the novel, and at the same time in a systematic and historical context. When Hegel calls the novel a “bourgeois epic,” by this he immediately poses both an aesthetic and historical question: he considers the novel as that literary genre, which in the bourgeois period corresponds to the epic. The novel, therefore, possesses, on the one hand, the general aesthetic features of great epic poetry, and on the other hand, it undergoes all those changes that the bourgeois era, so peculiar in character, brings together. This, firstly, determines the place of the novel in the system of artistic genres: it ceases to be some kind of “lower” genre, past which theory arrogantly passes, its dominant, typical significance in modern literature is fully recognized. And secondly, Hegel deduces precisely from the historical opposition of the ancient epoch and modern times the specific nature and specific problems of the novel for poetry and builds the theory of the novel precisely on the opposition of the poetic nature of the ancient world and the prosaic nature of modern, i.e., bourgeois civilization. Hegel (as Vico long before him) connects the formation of the epic with the primitive stage of human development, with the period of “heroes”, that is, with such a period when social forces have not yet acquired that independence from individuals, which is characteristic of the bourgeois society. The poetic quality of the “heroic” patriarchal time, which is typically expressed in the Homeric poems, rests on the independence and self-activity of individuals; but, as Hegel puts it, “the heroic individual does not break away from the moral whole to which he belongs, but is conscious of himself only in substantial unity with this whole.” The prosaic nature of the modern bourgeois era, according to Hegel, lies in the inevitable abolition of both this amateur activity and the direct connection of the individual with society. “In a modern constitutional state, public authorities do not have an individual appearance in themselves, but universality, as such, reigns in its totality, in which the vitality of the individual turns out to be sublated or secondary and indifferent.” And in accordance with this, modern people, in contrast to the people of the ancient world, break away with their “personal” tasks and relations from the tasks of the whole; the individual does everything that he does with his personal powers, personally for himself, and therefore is responsible only for his private actions, but not for the actions of the “substantial whole”, to which he belongs. This law, which governs the life of bourgeois society, Hegel unconditionally recognizes as a historically necessary result of the development of mankind, an unconditional progress in comparison with the primitivism of the “heroic” era. But this progress has at the same time a number of negative aspects: a person loses his former self-activity, subordination to the modern bureaucratic state as some kind of compulsory external order deprives him of any independence; this degradation destroys the objective ground for the flourishing of poetry, which is being replaced by flat prose and everyday life. Man cannot submit to this degradation without protest. “The interest and the need for such a real individual integrity and living independence will never leave us and cannot leave us, no matter how fruitful and reasonable we recognize the development of order in a mature civil and political life,” i.e., bourgeois development. Although Hegel considers it impossible to eliminate this contradiction between poetry and civilization, nevertheless he considers it possible to soften it to a certain extent. This role is played by the novel, which plays the same role for bourgeois society as the epic plays for ancient society. The novel as a “bourgeois epic” must, according to Hegel, reconcile the demands of poetry with the rights of prose, to find some “middle ground” between them.

In reality, now prosaic, the novel must, according to Hegel, “reclaim for poetry, insofar as this is possible under these prerequisites, its lost rights.” But this must be done not in the form of a romantically frozen opposition between poetry and prose, but by depicting the whole of prose reality and fighting against it; this struggle ends with the fact that, “on the one hand, characters dissatisfied with the ordinary world order eventually come to the recognition of what is authentic and substantial in it, reconcile with its conditions and begin to act within them; on the other hand, they free their own deeds and accomplishments from the prosaic shell and thus put in the place of the prose surrounding them a different reality, related and close to beauty and art.”

In Hegel’s theory of the novel, all the major virtues of the aesthetics of classical idealism, but at the same time its inevitable limitations, found their most striking expression. Due to the fact that classical German aesthetics, although in a perverse, idealistic form, comes close to understanding one of the most essential contradictions of bourgeois society, where material and technical progress is achieved at the cost of the descent of many of the most important aspects of spiritual social activity, in particular art and poetry, classical aesthetics. managed to make a number of important discoveries that constitute its enduring merit.

First, it found out the common thing that connects the novel with the epic. In practice, this connection boils down to the fact that every novel of great importance strives, albeit in a contradictory, paradoxical form, towards the epic, and it is precisely in this unrealizable striving that it acquires its poetic greatness. Secondly, the significance of the classical bourgeois theory of poetry lies in the recognition of the historical difference between the ancient epic and poetry and, consequently, in the recognition of poetry as a typically new artistic genre.

Within the framework of this article, we cannot talk in detail about the general theory of the epic in classical philosophy, although it was this philosophy who did especially much for the theoretical understanding of the composition of Homer’s poems (the significance of reversed motifs in the epic as opposed to forward-looking motifs in the drama, the independence of individual parts, the role case, etc.). These general provisions are extremely important for understanding the form of the novel, because they clarify those formal creative principles, on the basis of which the novel can give a complete picture of the world around it, a picture of its time, as the epic gave it before. Here is how Goethe formulates this opposition between novel and drama: “In the novel, moods and events should be predominantly depicted, in the drama - characters and actions. The novel must move slowly, and the mentality of the protagonist ... must delay the desire of the whole to develop ... The hero of the novel must be passive, or at least not too active.” This passivity of the hero of the novel is required by formal considerations: it is necessary so that around the hero it is possible to unfold the picture of the world in full breadth, while in the drama, on the contrary, the acting hero embodies the integrity of one social contradiction, brought to the extreme limit. At the same time, this theory of the novel reveals (which the theoreticians themselves often do not notice) a specific feature of the bourgeois novel: it cannot find and portray a “positive hero”. True, classical philosophy also narrows this problem, for it consciously strives for some impossible middle between the mutually opposite tendencies of capitalism fighting each other: it is not for nothing that Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister is a model for it: a novel that consciously sets itself the goal of depicting this “middle”. Nevertheless, classical philosophy has clarified to a certain extent the difference between the epic and the novel: thus, Schelling sees the task of the novel in depicting the struggle between idealism and realism, Hegel in educating a person for life in bourgeois society.

How important these conquests of classical aesthetics were is evident from the fact that they finally eliminated all attempts of the 17th and 18th centuries. create and theoretically substantiate the modern epic. The hopelessness of these attempts is manifested most clearly in the fact that Voltaire, in his theory of epic poetry, argues precisely against the heroic principle of the Homeric poems and tries to build a theory of the epic without any heroics, on a purely modern basis, that is, essentially on the social basis of the novel. It is no coincidence, of course, that Marx, speaking of the unfavorability of capitalism for poetry in general and epic poetry in particular, points precisely to Voltaire’s Henriade as an example of a failed epic poem.

A theoretically correct attitude to the form of the novel therefore presupposes a theoretically correct understanding of the contradictions in the development of capitalist society. Classical German philosophy could in no way rise to such an understanding. For Hegel, Schelling and others, bourgeois development was the last “absolute” stage in the development of mankind. Since, thanks to this, they could not understand the historical doom of capitalism, the understanding of the basic contradiction of capitalist society (the contradiction between social production and private appropriation) lay beyond their horizon. Even Hegel’s philosophy could only at best come close to formulating some of the important consequences of this fundamental contradiction. And even here, this idealist philosophy could not understand the true dialectical unity of social opposites. And within these limits, Hegel comes only to a true anticipation of the contradictions of capitalist development, to a presentiment of the inseparability of its progressive character, which revolutionizes production and society, from the deepest degradation of man, which this development entails.

Bourgeois theoreticians – even of the classical period – are faced with a dilemma: either to romantically glorify the heroic, mythical, primitive-poetic period of mankind and seek salvation from the capitalist degradation of man in a return to the past (Schelling), or else to weaken the contradiction of the capitalist system, intolerable for the bourgeois consciousness, to such an extent that at least some acceptance and affirmation of this system became possible (Hegel). Not a single bourgeois thinker has risen above this theoretical dilemma, certainly not in the theory of the novel. And the great novelists, too, can approach the correct presentation of this contradiction only when they unconsciously cast aside their Romantic or conciliatory theories.

In view of all this, although classical aesthetics sees a specific difference between the epic and the novel, although it even sees, since the character of objectivity imparted to the ancient epic by myth is quite clear to it, the whole enormous significance of the specific form of the novel (“the novel is objective only by virtue of its form” says Schlegel), it is not able to specifically develop these features of the novel and does not go further than the generally correct opposition between the novel and the epic.


The foundations for creating a truly scientific theory of art were first laid in the teachings of Marx and Engels on art. The materialist explanation of the uneven development of art in relation to material progress, the hostility of the capitalist mode of production to art and poetry, given by Marx, contains the key to understanding the uneven development of individual art forms and genres. And Marx’s brilliant thoughts about the ancient and later artificial epic in the Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy and Theories of Surplus Value, in the corresponding chapters of Engels’ book The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, devoted to the decomposition of tribal society, contain direct indications of the dialectical development of the epic form, one of the most important stages of which is the novel.

According to its goals and features, the novel contains all the characteristic features of the epic form: the desire for the adequacy of the form of depicting life to the content of life, the universality and breadth of coverage of the material, the presence of many plans, the subordination of the principle of transferring life phenomena through an exclusively personal, subjective they are related (as, for example, in lyrics) to the principle of plastic representation, when people and events appear in the work as if by themselves, as living images of external reality. But all these tendencies reach their complete expression only in the epic poetry of antiquity, which forms the “classical form of the epic” (Marx). In this sense, the novel is a product of the decomposition of the epic form, which, along with the death of ancient society, lost the ground for its flourishing. The novel strives for the same goals as the ancient epic, but can never achieve them, because in the conditions of bourgeois society, which form the basis of the development of the novel, the methods for achieving epic goals become so different from the ancient ones that the results are directly opposite to the intentions. The contradiction in the form of the novel lies precisely in the fact that the novel, as the epic of bourgeois society, is the epic of a society that destroys the possibilities of epic creativity. But this circumstance, as we will see, which is the main reason for the artistic shortcomings of the novel in comparison with the epic, at the same time gives it a number of advantages. The novel as a decomposition of the epic opens the way to its new flourishing, new artistic possibilities, which Homeric poetry did not know.

From the above-noted contradiction between theory and practice in the development of writing, from the lag of theory behind practice in this area, it seems to follow that only the works of the great novelists themselves can serve as material for constructing a theory of writing with its specific features. However, along with, so to speak, the “official” theory of the great poets and thinkers of the revolutionary period of the bourgeoisie, we also find in them an “esoteric” theory, in which a clearer understanding of the main contradictions of bourgeois society is revealed.

So for example. Hegel, referring in The Phenomenology of the Spirit to Diderot’s The Nephew of Rameau, draws very far-reaching conclusions from the structure and form of this remarkable work: “Consciousness of good and bad, neither noble and base consciousness, do not contain the truth, but all these components are transformed into each other, and each one is the opposite of itself ... But the language of rupture is the highest language and really existing spirit of this whole world education.”

The principles of this Hegelian “esoteric” theory of the novel also contain the principles of the “esoteric” poetics of Balzac, who expresses it mostly through the lips of his heroes (and therefore most often in an ironically weakened form). Thus, in Illusions perdues, Blonde says: “In the realm of the spirit, everything is two-sided ... the greatness of Molière and Corneille is that they know how to make Alceste say yes, but Philinta say no, that Octavian and Cinna also contradict each other. Rousseau wrote in The New Heloise one letter in defense of the duel and another against it. Will you dare to determine his true opinion? Which of us could be the judge between Clarissa and Lovelace, between Hector and Achilles? Who is the real hero of Homer, as Richardson judges?” In practice, this poetics does not at all lead Balzac (as well as Hegel of the Phenomenology period) to nihilistic skepticism; it only means that in his work Balzac brings to the end the deepest contradictions of bourgeois society and dwells on the depiction of the dynamic intertwining of these contradictions as the driving forces of this society. That Balzac, like Goethe and Hegel, strove theoretically to find some kind of utopian “middle” of these contradictions and even depicted it in some of his novels, this is not important for us here, because his significance in the history of the novel lies precisely in the fact that on the main path of his work, he evaded this utopia and did not go beyond the depiction of existing contradictions. This is his dignity and strength.

However, the creative comprehension of antagonistic contradictions as the driving forces of capitalist society (rooted in their general form in the class antagonism between property owners and have-nots) is only a prerequisite for the form of the novel, and not this form itself; Hegel already noted that a correct understanding of the “general state of the world” forms only a prerequisite for one’s own “poetic principle”, for the creation and development of action. The problem of action is the central point in the theory of form of the novel.

Any knowledge of social relations remains abstract and narratively uninteresting if it has not become the main, unifying component of action; every description of things and situations remains dead and empty if it is a description of only an outside observer, and not an active or slowing down moment of action. This central position of action is not a formal invention of aesthetics; it follows, on the contrary, from the need for the most perfect representation of reality. If it is necessary to depict man’s real relation to society and nature (i.e., not only man’s idea of ​​these relations, but the being underlying consciousness in its dialectical connection with consciousness), then the depiction of action is the only suitable way for this. For only when a person acts, through social being, does his true being, the true form and the true content of his consciousness, find expression, whether he knows about it or not, and no matter what misconceptions about it in his mind he may have. The poetic fantasy of the narrator consists precisely in inventing a plot and a situation in which this “being” of a person, typical in his social existence, would find effective expression. With such a gift of invention, which of course involves deep and concrete insight into social problems, great storytellers can create a picture of their society from which more can be learned even in the details of economics than “from the books of all the professional historians, economists and statisticians of this period taken together” (Engels on Balzac).

The conditions under which this action arises, its content and form are determined by the corresponding stage in the development of the class struggle. However, the epic and the novel solve this central problem common to them in a diametrically opposite way. For both, it is necessary to reveal the essential features of a particular society by showing individual destinies, through the actions and sufferings of individuals. In the relationship of the individual to society, in the form of individual destiny, the essential features of the concrete historical existence of a given social form are revealed. However, at the highest stage of barbarism, in the Homeric period, society was still relatively united. The individual placed at the center of the narrative could be typical, expressing the main trend of the whole society, and not a typical contradiction within society. Royal power “along with the council and the people’s assembly means only ... military democracy” (Marx), and Homer does not show any way by which the people (or part of the people) could be forced to do something against their will. The action of the Homeric epic is a struggle for a single society, society as a collective that opposed an external enemy.

With the disintegration of tribal society, this form of depiction of action must disappear from the epic, since it has disappeared from the actual life of society. The characters, actions or situations of individuals can no longer represent the whole society, become typical of the whole society. Each individual already represents one of the struggling classes. And the solution of the question of the typicality of people and their destinies depends on the depth and correctness of understanding this form of class struggle, its essential aspects. The higher the stage of social development at which later attempts arise to renew the formal elements of the ancient epic, the more false is the pseudo-epic depiction of society as a single entity, which is the result of these attempts. Since a class society has arisen, a great epic can draw its epic greatness only from the depth and typicality of class contradictions in their dynamic integrity. These opposites are embodied in the epic image in the form of the struggle of individuals in society. From this arises – especially in the late bourgeois novel – the appearance that the opposition between the individual and society is its main theme. This, however, is only an appearance. The struggle of individuals against each other acquires its objectivity and truth only because the characters and destinies of people typically and correctly reflect the central moments of the class struggle. Since, however, capitalist society creates an economic basis for an all-round mutual connection that embraces the entire life of people (social production), the novel of the capitalist period can give a picture of society in the living totality of the contradictions that drive it. For Balzac, love and marriage “grande dame” can be a thread, on which traits are strung, characteristic of the transformation of an entire society. Love stories, for example. Greek novels (the novel Daphnis and Chloe by Longus and others) are idylls cut off from the whole life of society.

The dialectic of the uneven development of art is revealed, however, in the fact that the very basic contradiction that creates the possibility of real action in the novel, which makes the novel the predominant form of art for an entire historical era, at the same time leads to the least favorable conditions for solving the central problem of artistic form, the problem of action. The nature of capitalist society is such, firstly, that the social forces manifest themselves here in an abstract, impersonal and elusive form for poetic narration (Hegel already noticed this, however, without understanding economic reasons and therefore in a very imperfect and distorted form), and secondly, that bourgeois everyday reality is often not conducive to a direct clear understanding of the main social contradictions due to the spontaneity of bourgeois society, in which no one can take into account the influence of their actions on other people, and the clash of interests often takes on an impersonal character. The problem of form, therefore, lies for the great novelists in overcoming this unfavorable character of the material, in order to find situations in which the struggle against each other would have a visible, clear, typical character, and not the character of an accidental collision, so that from a sequence of such typical situations build a really significant epic action.

“Typical characters in typical circumstances” – this is how Engels defines the essence of realism in the field of the novel in his letter about Balzac. But this typicality means what we see precisely in Balzac: a necessary removal from the “average” everyday reality, a removal that is artistically necessary in order to get epic situations, epic action, so that the main contradictions of society are concretely embodied in human destinies and are not only abstract comments on them. The creation of typical characters (and thus typical situations) means, therefore, a concrete, figurative representation of social forces, means a new, non-imitative, non-mechanical revival of the “pathos” of ancient art and ancient aesthetics. By pathos, ancient philosophy understood the elevation of a narrowly individual experience to the point of dissolving in some great idea, in a civic feat, in a word, in the life of a social whole. Such a relative unity of the universal and the individual is unattainable in bourgeois life. The separation of public functions from private affairs condemns all bourgeois civic poetry to abstract universality; such poetry, precisely because of its pathos, loses its pathos in the ancient sense of the word. But isolation in one’s own affairs, isolation from each other in bourgeois society becomes not an accidental phenomenon, but a universal law, and therefore the search for the “pathos” of modern life in this direction can, to a certain extent, be crowned with success. “So the night butterfly flies, after the sunset of the universal sun, into the lamplight of the private” (Marx).

The great representatives of the realistic novel very early saw in private life the real material for the novel. Fielding has already called himself a “historiographer of private life”, Restif de la Bretonne and Balzac define the task of the novel in the same spirit. However, this historiography of private life does not descend to the level of a banal chronicle only when the great historical forces of bourgeois society are concretely manifested in an individual phenomenon. Balzac declaratively states in the preface to The Human Comedy: “Chance is the greatest novelist in the world; for the work of the writer to be fruitful, it is enough to study reality. French society is the real historian, and I am only its secretary.”

This proud objectivism of content, this great realism in the depiction of social development can be embodied in artistic creation only when the boundaries of “average” everyday reality are pushed apart, when the writer reaches the “pathos” of “private life”, in the words of Balzac. But this “pathos” can only be approached in very indirect, very complex ways. The social forces perceived by the artist, the inconsistency of which he depicts, should appear in the form of characteristic features of the figures depicted, that is, they should be distinguished by the intensity of passion and clarity of principles that are absent in everyday bourgeois life, and at the same time be perceived as individual features of a given individual person. Since the inconsistency of capitalist society is manifested in each of its individual points, since the humiliation and corruption of a person permeate all external and internal life in bourgeois society, then any passionate and completely profound experience must inevitably make a person the object of these contradictions, a rebel (more or less less conscious) against the depersonalizing action of the automatism of bourgeois life. Balzac emphasizes in one of his prefaces that readers have completely misunderstood his Pere Goriot if they thought to find some kind of submissiveness in him: this naive and ignorant, often emotional Goriot is in his own way as much a rebel as Vautrin. Balzac excellently notes here the point where, along with pathos, an epic situation can arise, an epic action in the modern novel such a height of passion, at which the internal conflict of some essential component of bourgeois society is manifested in it, and at the same time everyone is in a state of subjectively justified, although not always conscious rebellion, representing in his person one moment of social contradiction. It is only thanks to this that such figures are in living interaction, and the great contradictions of bourgeois society take on a concrete form in them, like their own individually experienced problems. And such a composition of the novel, saving poetic fiction from destruction in the prosaic desert of everyday bourgeois life, is by no means an individual feature of Balzac. The device, with the help of which Stendhal brings into interaction the too late-born Jacobin Julien Sorel with the Romantic royalist aristocrat Matilda de la Mole, or Tolstoy, his prince Nekhlyudov with Katya Maslova, as a result of which an epic action arises - this method, with all the difference in creative methods in other respects based on the same principle. The unity of the individual and the typical can only be clearly revealed in action. Action, says Hegel, “is the clearest exposure of the individual, both in regard to his way of thinking and his aims; what a person is in the deepest foundation of his being, is realized in reality only through action.” And this effectiveness, the real unity of man and “destiny”, the unity of man with that form of manifestation of social contradictions, which determines his fate, it is this that informs man of this new, mediated and indirect form of ancient “pathos”. He is typical not because he is a statistical average of the individual properties of any stratum of people, but because in him, in his character and in his fate, the objective, historically typical features of his class are manifested and are manifested simultaneously as objective forces and as his own. individual destiny.

The correct comprehension of this unity determines the fruitfulness of epic motives, their ability to be the basis for the deployment of a broad action in which the whole world is revealed. The more concretely the pathos of an individual artistic image merges with the social contradiction that defines it purely, the more the composition of the novel approaches the epic infinity of the ancients. The plausibility of the action in the sense of the average statistical probability plays almost no role in this case. The great novelists from Cervantes to Tolstoy have always had complete control over chance, and the external connection between the individual actions in their works is extremely weak. Don Quixote is a series of separate episodes, interconnected solely by the pathos of the hero’s figure in its contrast with Sancho Panza and the rest of prosaic reality. Nevertheless, there is a unity of action in a great epic style, because the figures of the novel, acting in specific situations, always concretely reveal the most essential. On the contrary, among the new novelists, very skillfully constructed constructions are empty and scattered in the epic sense, for even correctly observed opposites remain only opposites of characters and worldviews and cannot be resolved in actions.

It would seem that the new pathos as the basis of the composition of the novel separates this composition from the epic and brings it closer to the drama. However, in reality this is not entirely true. The ancient social pathos, which manifests itself directly, really finds its pure and adequate expression in tragedy. But the new, multifariously mediated “pathos of private life” can only take the form of action if all the mediating links are depicted in the form of concrete people and concrete situations: it therefore destroys the form of the drama. The dramatic nature of the composition of some of Balzac’s (and even Dostoyevsky’s) novels does not contradict this; in fact, it is impossible to imagine a drama that would contain such a diversely ramified wealth of mediating details. The artistic inferiority of the dramas of the great novelists (Balzac, Tolstoy) is by no means accidental, just as it is not accidental that the abundance of contradictory features of bourgeois life has found its adequate expression in a number of remarkable novels, while attempts to simplify and reduce this diversity, to invest it in intensive the integrity of the drama are almost all wrecked.


The modern novel arose from the side of its content from the ideological struggle of the bourgeoisie against feudalism. But the sharp opposition to the medieval worldview, which filled the first great writers almost entirely, did not prevent them from accepting the heritage of medieval narrative art. This heritage is far from being exhausted by those plot elements of adventures, etc., which are assimilated by the new novel in a satirically folk or ideologically reworked form. The new novel borrows from the medieval story the freedom and diversity of the overall composition, its division into a number of separate adventures, interconnected only by the personality of the protagonist, the novelistic roundness and relative independence of these adventures, and the breadth of the depicted world. Of course, all these elements are radically reworked both in content and form, and not only where they are interpreted in a parodic-satirical way. Plebeian features begin to penetrate more and more into the composition. Heine rightly considers this moment to be decisive: “Cervantes created a new novel by introducing a true image of the lower classes into the chivalric novel, mixing with it the life of the people.” However, new material, the artistic mastery of which led to the creation of a new form of storytelling, arises not only from this material, close to life, democratic renewal of the adventure theme of the old story, at the same time everyday prose also penetrates into the new storytelling. Cervantes and Rabelais, these creators of the new novel, reflect this most significant fact in their novels, although they draw different conclusions from it. Both the aristocrat Cervantes and the bourgeois Rabelais rebel against the degradation of man in a dying feudal society, on the one hand, and against his degradation in the emerging bourgeois society, on the other, although each of them sees the way out in his own way. Subsequently, never again achieved the unity of the sublime and the comic in the image of Don Quixote is due precisely to the fact that Cervantes brilliantly fights, creating this character, against the most important features of two successive eras: against the exhausted heroism of chivalry and against the vile base that was clearly revealed from the very beginning. prose of bourgeois society. This peculiar “struggle on two fronts” contains the secret of the incomparable greatness and, if I may say so, the fantastic realism of this first great novelistic motley stuff of people and actions. Here, the independence and self-activity of a person can still manifest themselves relatively freely (Hegel considers this period a kind of return of ancient heroism and correctly explains the greatness of Shakespeare by the opportunities that his era provided him with). The prose of bourgeois life in that period was still only a shadow that fell on the motley variety of moving life, a life full of amazing collisions and adventures; the narrowness of individual life, the mutilation of man by the capitalist division of labor had not yet become a dominant social fact in the Renaissance.

However, this struggle against feudalism and against the looming bourgeois ugliness gives the artist something much more than just grateful material for creativity. The motley world of forms of medieval life remains a grateful material even in the face of the most bitter struggle against all its social content; and the emerging bourgeois society with its new ideology is still imbued with the pathos of the liberation of mankind from feudal humiliation, from social and ideological slavery, from the economic, political narrowness and pettiness of the Middle Ages. The inscription on the gates of Theleme Abbey “Do what you want!” still imbued for Rabelais with the legitimate and exciting pathos of the liberation of mankind; this pathos is not diminished in the eyes of the modern reader by the fact that the call to “do whatever you want” was bound to degenerate in the future into the hypocritical “laisser faire, laisser passer” of the cowardly and base liberal bourgeoisie. In Rabelais’ utopia, the inspired pathos of the struggle against any crippling of the free and all-round development of man resounds all the time, the pathos that later inspired the historical struggle of the Jacobins, which led to a brilliant criticism of capitalism by the utopians, especially by Fourier. Therefore, Rabelais’ struggle against the prose of the new bourgeois life is not a petty-bourgeois revolt against the “bad sides” of civilization (as in the later Romantic opponents of capitalism). The utopia of the “middle”, the reconciliation of fighting opponents, of course remains a utopia also in Rabelais and Cervantes, but for its artistic embodiment it does not need to renounce the depiction of antagonistic forces in all their opposition; such an angle of view allows the emerging novel to take a completely different position on the issue of the “positive hero” than it became possible later. The essence of the ruling classes of bourgeois society is such that a great and honest poet cannot find a “positive hero” among them. During the period of the emergence of the bourgeois novel, the unique coverage of social opposites, old and new forms of slavery from the point of view of human freedom and self-activity, allowed the novelist to introduce into the image of his hero, with all the satirical and ironic notes, features of genuine “positive” greatness. In further development, any “positiveness” of the hero is destroyed by criticism, irony and satire the more decisively, the more the asserted domination of the bourgeoisie leads to a regression of individuality and the emergence of “bourgeois-limited people” (Engels). The more the novel turns into an image of bourgeois society, into its creative criticism and self-criticism, the more clearly the artist’s despair sounds in it, caused by the contradictions of his own society that are insoluble for him (Swift compared to Rabelais and Cervantes).

The features of the Renaissance also give rise to the original style of the original novel: realistic fantasy. The great social and ideological principles of the epoch are grasped and depicted realistically by the novelist; the depicted types are realistic, which, through the motley variety of adventures, are led by the artist to genuine actions, to the true discovery of their essence; the manner of writing is realistic, drawing the necessary details in their organic connection with the great social forces, the struggle of which is revealed in these details. But the plot itself is consciously unrealistic, fantastic. Fiction arises here, on the one hand, from a utopian understanding of the great forces of the era, and on the other, from a satirical comparison of the decaying old world and the emerging new world with the great principles of the struggle against the degradation of man. This fantasy is still filled with the cheerful revolutionary energy of the emerging new society. And at the same time, this fantasy is not opposed to realism, it does not contrast – even from the artistic side – with the general realism of presentation, but, on the contrary, is combined with it into an organic whole. Its source is in the height of the general worldview of these writers, in their ability to correctly capture and depict the truly important features of their era, without caring about the external plausibility of individual situations and combinations in which these features find their expression. The struggle against the Middle Ages, while at the same time assimilating its thematic and formal heritage, makes it possible for Cervantes and Rabelais to cultivate this peculiar realistic fantasy. And those writers who in a later period devoted their activities to the struggle against feudalism could still, albeit in a weakened form, continue the line of this realistic fantasy (Voltaire’s novels). Swift’s Gulliver from the formal side is a continuation of the line of Rabelais, but the purely satirical nature of Swift’s realism opens up a new stage in the development of the novel.


With his gloomy pessimistic view of bourgeois society, Swift is almost as alone in the 18th century as with his fantastic satirical form, which lies aside from the main path of development of the novel in the most important capitalist country, in England, as well as in France. Not that other writers show in their works less negative facts, less terrible situations and stunning pictures from the “spiritual animal kingdom” of the emerging capitalist society, the society of primitive accumulation. In the works of Defoe and Lesage, Fielding and Smollett, Restif and Laclos, even Richardson and Marivaux, each of them realistically depicts such a world in his own way, which in its content could provide quite sufficient material for Swift’s pessimism. But the main tone of the whole image of these writers is different: it is the victory of bourgeois endurance and strength over chaos and arbitrariness. Walter Scott says of Gil Blas: “This book leaves the reader with a feeling of satisfaction with himself and the world”; Defoe’s Mall Flanders and most of the other great novels of this period also end in a happy denouement. Writers are inclined positively towards their epoch, towards their class, which is carrying out a great historical upheaval. But this self-affirmation of the bourgeoisie is connected with a large dose of self-criticism: all the horrors, all the abomination of primitive accumulation in England, all the moral decay and arbitrariness of absolutism in France are exposed in vivid realistic images. It can even be said that with the depiction of these birth pangs of capitalist society, for the first time, a realistic novel in the narrow sense of the word arises, for the first time everyday reality is won over for fiction.

The novel leaves the boundless realm of fantasy and resolutely turns to depicting the private life of the bourgeoisie. The novelist’s claim to be the historian of private life takes shape during this period with complete clarity. The broad historical horizons of early novels are narrowing, the world of the novel is increasingly limited to the everyday reality of bourgeois life, and the great driving contradictions of socio-historical development are depicted only insofar as they are concretely and actively manifested in this everyday reality. But these contradictions are nonetheless portrayed, and the realism of everyday life, the newly discovered “poetry of everyday life”, the artistic victory over the prose of this everyday life, all these are only means for a living concrete depiction of the great social conflicts of the era. Consequently, this realism is very far from a simple copying of everyday reality, from a simple reproduction of its external features, as was often required by the official aesthetics of that time. Novelists strive quite consciously for a realistic depiction of the typical, for a realism for which careful finishing of details is only a means. Fielding says bluntly that a sketch of living people, even if it is artistically successful, is of no value if the people depicted are not types. He ironically cites as an example one of his acquaintances, who amassed a large fortune without fraudulent tricks; this man, says Fielding, although he exists in reality, he is not suitable for the heroes of the novel. However, the principle of the typical, which underlies this great realism, does not appear only in such a negative choice. Fielding continues: “For although every author must keep within the bounds of plausibility, this does not at all mean that the characters or incidents he describes should be everyday, ordinary or vulgar, such as are found on every street or in every house, and such as can be found in boring newspaper articles.”

These writers overcome the prose of life, ever growing in its strength, with the strength, energy and initiative of their typical heroes. The great realists of this era see to what extent man has become the plaything of social and economic social forces, how little his will and moral rules influence his fate. Nevertheless, the poetic character of Gil Blas, Tom Jones, Moll Flanders is determined by their energetic activity as typical representatives of the rising class: life, determined in its events and processes by these socio-economic forces, throws them here and there, but they still swim out safely. on beach. With the emergence of capitalist society, the beginning domination of man over nature arises, and at first the social forces, no matter how terrible their concrete manifestation, still do not differ in that complete alienation from the thought and will of the individual, which is characteristic of them in the already firmly established and automatically functioning capitalist society. Byron calls Fielding “the prosaic Homer of human life”. This review is somewhat exaggerated. But there is no doubt that in the best places of the most significant novels of this time there is some kind of peculiar approximation to the primary epic. So for example. the struggle of man with nature as a symbol of the emerging dominance of society over nature is depicted in the first part of Defoe’s “Robinson” with incomparable epic power and in places really approaches the poetry of things in the ancient epic.

And this poetry is characteristic of many significant poets of this period. It is a poetic reflection, an epic depiction of the progressive unleashing of productive forces by capitalism, which is fighting for social hegemony. This progressive character remains here clearly the predominant ingredient in spite of all the horrors that accompanied capitalist development. In “Robinson” this ingredient is almost entirely dominant, without apologetic hushing up of contradictions; hence his special poetry, which was revealed, although not so noticeably and clearly, also in other novels of this period.

This victorious energy of the heroes of the first realistic novel also contains something “intermediate” between the great contradictions of the era and undoubtedly gives them a relatively “positive” character. But the narrowing of the horizon compared with the great novelists of the first period is already very clear in the question of the positive character of the hero. This downward movement should be explained not by the lesser talent of writers, but by the increasing capitalization of society and the degradation of man caused by it. The “positiveness” of the hero is now bought at the price of his bias towards a certain limitation and mediocrity. We are not referring here to Robinson’s boring puritanical religiosity; in Gil Blas and Tom Jones, in the major artistic images of this era, the energy of human self-activity also already bears the stigma of bourgeois mediocrity. The extent to which this trend does not depend on the question of the personal talent of writers is evident, firstly, from the fact that in less capitalistically developed France the figure of Gil Blas could remain comparatively free from this limitation, which cannot be said of any image of English writers, who as realists often stood above Lesage, and secondly, the heroes of all these novels, despite their bourgeois positivity, became more and more unacceptable to it as positive heroes in the course of the further development of the bourgeoisie (cf., for example, the criticism of Tom Jones by Thackeray).

The ever-increasing wave of capitalist reification, the standardization of everyday life, and the leveling of the individual give rise, within the framework of the realistic novel, to the most diverse forms of expression of subjective protest. Thus, by the way, arises (as Schiller brilliantly understood) a tendency to the idyll as to the depiction of such a holistic “naive” relationship of man to nature, which is inevitably and ruthlessly denied by bourgeois civilization. But the greatness of the era under consideration is reflected in the fact that even the idyllic narratives of that time are imprinted with a militant character, a character of protest (Goldsmith’s Wakefield Priest). It is precisely those novels in which this subjective and emotional protest is expressed that most clearly show that the great writers of this period, along with criticism of the survivals of the old society, provide self-criticism of their own class, which is building a new society. And we see here that the more vigorously this struggle against the old system, the more the creative mastery of the spiritual life of the depicted people is associated with the struggle against the dead and deadening conventions of feudal-aristocratic society, the deeper and wider the artistic representation becomes (for example, Richardson, Abbé Prevost, Diderot, Sterne). This is a struggle which the bourgeoisie wages on behalf of the whole society for the autonomy and independence of human feelings. But the more this tendency goes inward, the more it expresses itself in the lyrical protest of human individuality against the clutches of material life, the more it corrupts the form of narrative, the more lyric, analysis and description crowd out character, situation and action, the more the great traditions of realistic mastery are liquidated, and all this direction becomes a harbinger of Romanticism. Rousseau and Goethe, as the author of Werther, mark the most concentrated expression of these tendencies. However, although in some ways they are preparing a Romantic decomposition of the form of the novel, in their work they themselves are still far from this decomposition. Nevertheless, such predominant components in their novels as letters, diaries, confessions, lyrical descriptions of passion, etc., are already beginning to decompose the epic form of the novel. The practical impotence of a person to internally master the increasingly fetishized world of capitalist society leads to an attempt to find support for human subjectivity that has lost itself in itself, to create for it its own “independent”, non-reified world of inner life. In Lawrence Sterne this tendency finds quite clear expression for the first time. He turns the objective fantasy of old novels into subjective fantasy, combinations of real features of reality into a bizarre ornamental form. He deliberately breaks the unity of the narrative form in order to create subjective unity with the help of fantastic patterns, the unity of contrasting moods of tenderness and irony; these contrasts now become that mirror in which objective contradictions are reflected. The ideological basis of this decomposition of form is the relativistic transfer of real life contradictions into “one’s own chest”: it is expressed in the relativistic contrast between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza; each of the Shandy brothers combines in his person Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, for each is a Don Quixote of his own ideals and a Sancho Panza in relation to the ideals of the other. This subjectivism and relativism of Sterne, taken to the extreme, expresses one very important feature of bourgeois ideology, which subsequently grows ever stronger: its reaction to the growing power of worldly prose.


The French Revolution ended, as Marx says, the heroic period of the development of the bourgeoisie. “As soon as a new social formation had taken shape, the antediluvian giants and everything Roman, resurrected from the dead, disappeared ... Having gone headlong into the accumulation of wealth and into a peaceful struggle in the field of competition, the bourgeoisie forgot that its cradle was guarded by ancient Roman ghosts.” If in the period between the French Revolution and the independent action of the proletariat on the arena of world history, bourgeois ideology rises for the last time to great systematic syntheses (Hegel, Ricardo, French historians of the Restoration), then something similar must be said about the novel. The image of everyday reality, which has reached such perfection in the 18th century, is now turning into a simple artistic device, into a means of epic-monumental expression of the tragic irreconcilability of capitalist contradictions that has become fully apparent. In a certain sense, it can be said that the novel returns to the fantasy of its original period, but this fantasy is already becoming a realistic fantasy of the exposed contradictions of bourgeois life; optimistic pathos turns into a tragic premonition of the inevitable death of bourgeois civilization.

But the new realist fiction is different in that it has already gone through Romanticism. We cannot here, of course, give a social and ideological characterization of the European Romantic movement; therefore, we will confine ourselves to what is absolutely necessary for understanding the development of the novel. The many-sidedness of the Romantic movement came from the fact that it combines in varying degrees among different writers or groups both reactionary rejection of the French Revolution and a vague protest against the deadly reification, which victorious capitalism carries with it. The struggle against the prose of bourgeois life acquires a reactionary character in Romanticism, turned to the past, but since those social movements, the ideological expression of which is Romanticism, all the time remain, consciously or unconsciously, on the basis of bourgeois reality, then the Romantic protest against bourgeois prose itself inevitably relies on the tacit recognition of capitalist reification as some kind of inevitable “destiny”. In the realm of the novel, Romanticism cannot even attempt to overcome the prosaic nature of life with the help of such a creative method, which would make it possible to discover in social reality the elements of human amateur activity that are still preserved in it and make them the subject of a broad realistic depiction. Romanticism of the 19th century perpetuates, on the contrary, in its work the frozen opposition between objective prose and subjective poetry and degenerates into a powerless protest against this prose. This socially determined reduction of the poetic principle to the level of something powerless-subjective is manifested in Romantic poetry in part in the thematic choice of such social structures that have not yet been embraced by capitalism (the historical novels of Walter Scott); partly in contrasting the poetic and prose elements with the help of a fantastically exaggerated form (E. T. A. Hoffman, etc.); partly in complete isolation from the soil of social reality, in an attempt to freely recreate poetic reality from the subject as a special “magical” sphere (Novalis); finally – and this is the most important point for the further development of the novel – in the symbolic-fantastic exaggeration of the frozen materiality of the external world, in an attempt to deprive it of its prosaic character with the help of such symbolic stylization, to make it poetic again. The unscrewed and wildly rushing cannon on the deck of the ship in Victor Hugo’s novel 1793 is perhaps the most expressive example of such a stylization. The cannon, says Hugo, “suddenly becomes some kind of supernatural beast. This is a machine that has turned into a monster. It could be said that this is a slave who takes revenge; as if the malice that lives in things that we call dead suddenly came out ... It cannot be killed, because it is dead. But at the same time it lives. It lives a dark life that comes from infinity.” Romanticism, which has inscribed on its banner a merciless struggle against the prose of modern life, ultimately comes down to a powerless capitulation to this “fatal” prose and even turns into a symbolic glorification (mostly involuntary), into a poetic apology for this hated prose of life.

There is not a single major writer in this period of the development of the novel who would be completely free from Romantic tendencies; in this deep and widespread influence of Romanticism on bourgeois literature since the time of the French Revolution, the social necessity that gave rise to Romantic tendencies is manifested. However, the great writers of this era are great precisely because they do not capitulate with a gesture of irreconcilable opposition to the advancing prose of bourgeois life, but try in the most diverse ways to find and artistically depict elements of human amateur activity that have still been preserved. Their struggle against the degradation of man under a well-established capitalist system is deeper than the struggle of the Romantics, precisely because it is more vital and does not suffer from imaginary “radicalism”. But Romantic tendencies operate in all these writers as parting-shot moments. We only say partially. Although the great realist writers of the 19th century overcome Romanticism, because in the creative struggle against the degradation of man they go much further into the depths of the objective world than the Romantics, yet they do not overcome the Romantic legacy entirely. Where they are no longer able to overcome the reification of social formations, they willy-nilly must turn to the means of Romantic stylization. Both forms of overcoming Romanticism, real and imaginary, are most clearly expressed in Balzac. But this duality in the attitude of the great writers of the period under review to Romanticism is expressed in each of them in his own way. Each of them can be reproached twice for making too great concessions to the prose of life, on the one hand, and to Romantic subjectivism, on the other. This two-sided criticism of the classical novel was already heard in the debate about Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister. Schiller writes in his letter to Goethe, summarizing his final impression of the novel, that the latter’s Romantic apparatus, in spite of all Goethe’s art, will nevertheless seem only a “theatrical game”, only an “artificial device”; and the consistent Romantic Novalis rejects Goethe’s work as “a Candide directed against poetry”: “This is a poeticized bourgeois and domestic story ... Artistic atheism is the spirit of this book; it is very skillfully built; with the help of cheap prose material, a poetic effect is achieved.”

This duality in the struggle of the best thinkers and artists against the descent of man under the capitalist system, rooted in the last analysis in the fact that this struggle against degradation is itself inevitably waged on bourgeois soil, while the knowledge of the causes that give rise to this degradation threatens to break through all bourgeois boundaries, this duality determines the writers’ position on the issue of a “positive” hero. Hegel’s demand that the novel should educate the reader in respect for bourgeois reality, should have led in the end to the creation of a positive personality, put forward as a model. But this positive hero, as Hegel himself once cynically put it, would turn out to be not a hero, but a philistine, “the same as all the others ... The adored woman, who was once the only one, an angel, is approximately the same as all the position is connected with labors and troubles, marriage is a domestic cross, and everything comes down to the same rigmarole, like the others.” Thus, the implementation of the Hegelian demand would inevitably lead to vulgarity; in order to realize it in poetic form, the ironic dialectics of this realization must be made felt (cf. the epilogue of War and Peace). In general, for the reasons we have touched upon above, the reconciliation of social contradictions can enter as an element in the composition of the novel only when it is essentially not achieved, when the author depicts something other and more than this desired reconciliation of contradictions, namely: their tragic unsolvability. The failure of the author’s conscious intentions, the artistic depiction of a different picture of the world instead of the one that was conceived, is precisely the greatness of the writers in this period of development of the novel. Describing Tolstoy as a “mirror of the Russian revolution”, Lenin describes very clearly this paradoxical relationship between the intention of the artist and his work: “Do not call a mirror what obviously does not reflect the phenomenon correctly? But our revolution is an extremely complex phenomenon; among the mass of its direct perpetrators and participants there are many social elements who also clearly did not understand what was happening ... Tolstoy reflected the sore hatred, the ripened desire for the best, the desire to get rid of the past, and the immaturity of daydreaming, political bad manners, revolutionary softness” (Lenin). These profound criticisms are true – mutatis mutandis – also of Balzac and Goethe; and indeed, Engels criticized both of them from a similar methodological point of view. Setting out in search of their fantastic and mostly reactionary bourgeois utopia of the “middle”, along the way they discovered and depicted a whole vast realm, the realm of the world-historical contradictions of capitalist society.

The depiction of these contradictions, which are insoluble under capitalism, makes impossible – in successful works – the figure of a “positive” hero. Balzac writes in one of his prefaces that his novel would have been unsuccessful if the figures of Caesar Biroto, Pierrette, Madame de Mortsauf were not more attractive to the reader than, say. the figures of Vautrin or Lucien de Rubempre; in fact, Balzac’s novels are successful precisely because the opposite is true. The deeper the artist reveals the contradictions of bourgeois society, the more mercilessly he exposes the baseness and hypocrisy of capitalist society, the less feasible becomes Hegel’s cynical demand for a “positive” bourgeois hero. Above, we indicated that, although limited, but free and strong “positive” heroes of the novel of the 18th century. became in the 19th century increasingly unacceptable as goodies. The demand to give a “positive” hero becomes for the bourgeoisie of the 19th century more and more an apologetic demand, a demand that the writer not reveal, but gloss over and reconcile contradictions. Already Gogol sharply opposed this demand. “But it’s not that hard that they will be dissatisfied with the hero; it is hard that lives in the soul an irresistible confidence that the same hero, the same Chichikov, would be satisfied with the readers. Do not look deeper into the author’s soul, do not move at the bottom of it what escapes and hides from the light, do not reveal the most secret thoughts that a person does not entrust to anyone else, but show him as he seemed to the whole city, Manilov and other people, and everyone would be welcome and take him for an interesting person.” In these words, Gogol clearly reveals the main social problems of modern literature: what great writers strive for as representatives of the world-historical progressive tendencies of the bourgeois revolution contradicts the instinctive demands placed on literature by the average individual of bourgeois society. Precisely what constitutes the greatness of the classics of the novel isolates them from the majority of their own class; it is the revolutionary character of their aspirations that makes them unpopular among the bourgeoisie.


Along with the great novel, there has always been an extensive fiction literature of a purely entertaining nature. It never seriously approached the great social questions, but simply painted the world as it is reflected in the average bourgeois consciousness. However, during the period of the rise of the bourgeoisie, this entertaining fiction was far from being so sharply opposed to the great artistic novel, as in the period of the bourgeois decline. Literally, the old entertaining fiction still lived on the traditions of strong folk narrative art; in social terms, it only rarely sank to a deeply false, falsifying apologetics. We see something completely different in the period of the ideological decline of the bourgeoisie. Apologetics is becoming an ever more predominant feature of bourgeois ideology, and the more sharply the contradictions of capitalism come to light, the more crude are the means used to falsely glorify it and slander the revolutionary proletariat and the rebellious working people. Therefore, the serious, truly artistic novel in the period after 1848 always had to swim against the current, more and more isolated from the broad readership of its own class. If this oppositional mood does not lead to going over to the side of the revolutionary proletariat, then it creates around the bourgeois writer an atmosphere of ever deeper social and artistic isolation.

Thanks to this situation, major writers of this period can use from the legacy of the past just a legacy of Romanticism. Their lively attitude to the great traditions of the rising period of the bourgeoisie is weakening more and more; even when they feel they are the heirs of these traditions, when they diligently study this heritage, they still look at it through a Romantic prism. Flaubert is the first and at the same time the greatest representative of this new realism, who is looking for ways to realistically master bourgeois reality in spite of apologetics with its base and banal lies. The artistic source of Flaubert’s realism is hatred and contempt for bourgeois reality, which he very accurately observes and describes in its human, psychological manifestations, but in analysis he does not go beyond the frozen polarity of contradictions that have come out, without penetrating into their deep subterranean connection. The world depicted by him is the world of finally established prose. Everything poetic now exists only in subjective feeling, in people’s impotent indignation against the prose of life; and action in the novel can only consist in depicting how this feeble protesting feeling is trampled down from the very beginning by this base bourgeois prose. According to his main idea, Flaubert introduces as little action as possible into his novel, draws events and people who almost do not rise above the bourgeois everyday life, does not give either an epic plot, or special situations, or heroes. Since hatred and contempt for the described reality constitute the starting point of his creative method, he consciously rejects the broad narrative manner characteristic of all the old realists and even approaching the epic style in the largest of them. This art of storytelling is replaced by Flaubert’s artistic description of exquisite detail. The banality of life, against which this realism romantically rebels, is depicted in a purely artistic way: not the objectively important features of reality are the focus of the artist’s attention, but the banal everyday life, which he vividly recreates through the artistic disclosure of its interesting details.

The essence of the Romantic legacy is as follows, based on a falsely posed dilemma of objectivism and subjectivism. The dilemma is posed falsely because both this subjectivism and this objectivism are empty, excessively inflated. But the setting of this dilemma was inevitable, because it arose not as a result of personal characteristics or insufficient honesty or talent of writers, but was generated by the social position of the bourgeois intelligentsia during the period of the ideological decline of the bourgeoisie. Closed in the magic circle of the objectively necessary world of phenomena, the great realistic writers of this epoch try in vain to find an objective solid ground for their realistic creativity and at the same time to conquer the world that has become prosaic for poetry by the inner forces of the subject. With her conscious design, Zola overcomes Flaubert’s Romantic tendencies, but only in design, only in his own imagination. He wants to put the novel on a scientific basis, to replace fantasy and arbitrariness of fiction with experiment and documentary data. But this scientific character is only another variant of Flaubert’s emotional and paradoxical Romantic realism: in Zola, the pseudo-objective side of Romanticism comes to dominate. If Goethe or Balzac found much useful in the scientific views of Geoffroy de Saint-Hilaire for understanding their own creative method of depicting society, then this scientific influence only strengthened the dialectical tendency that had always lived in them, the desire to reveal the main social contradictions. Zola’s attempt to use the views of Claude Bernard in the same sense led him only to a pseudoscientific recording of the symptoms of capitalist development, but not to penetration into the depths of this process (Lafargue rightly says that for Zola’s writing practice, the vulgar popularizer Lombroso was much more important than Claude Bernard). Zola’s experimental and documentary method practically boils down to the fact that Zola does not participate in the life of the surrounding world and does not creatively formulate his own life experience as a wrestler, but approaches from the side – in a reporter’s way, as Lafargue correctly puts it – to some social complex with the goal of describe it. Zola describes very clearly and precisely how he composed his novel and how, in his opinion, they should be composed by a realistic writer: “The naturalist novelist wants to write a novel about the theatrical world. He proceeds from this general design, not yet possessing a single fact, not a single image. His first step will be to collect all the data about the world he intends to describe. He knew such and such an actor, saw such and such a performance. Then he will talk with people who are best informed in this area, will collect individual statements, anecdotes, portraits. But that’s not all. He will read written documents ... Finally, he will visit the places himself, spend several days in some theater to get acquainted with the smallest details of theatrical life, will spend evenings in the box of some actress, will try, if possible, to feel the theatrical atmosphere. And when all these documents are collected completely, then the novel will be written by itself. The novelist only has to logically distribute the facts ... Interest is no longer concentrated on an entertaining plot; on the contrary, the more banal it is, the more typical it will be.” The false objectivism of such an approach is manifested very clearly here in the fact that, firstly, Zola identifies the banal and average with the typical and opposes it only to the simply interesting, individual, and secondly, he sees the characteristic and artistically significant no longer in action, not in the active reaction of man to the events of the external world. The epic depiction of actions is replaced by a description of states and circumstances.

The opposition between narration and description is as old as bourgeois literature itself, for the creative method of description arose from the writer’s immediate reaction to prosaically frozen reality, which excludes all human initiative. It is quite characteristic that Lessing already vigorously protested against the descriptive method as contrary to the aesthetic laws of poetry in general and epic poetry in particular; At the same time, Lessing refers to Homer, showing by the example of the shield of Achilles that in a real epic poet every “ready-made object” is resolved into a series of human actions. The futility of the struggle of even the best writers against the ever-increasing tide of bourgeois worldly prose is excellently illustrated by the fact that the depiction of human actions is more and more supplanted in the novel by the description of things and conditions. Zola only gives a sharp theoretical formulation of the spontaneous decline of narrative art in the modern novel. Zola is still at the beginning of this development, and his own works, in many of their exciting episodes, are still close to the great traditions of the novel. But the main line of his work is already opening a new direction. To be convinced of this, it suffices to compare the scene of the races in Nana and in Anna Karenina by Tolstoy. Tolstoy has a living epic scene in which, from the saddle to the assembled audience, everything is epic, everything consists of the actions of people in significant situations for them. Zola has a brilliant description of an incident in the life of Parisian society, an incident that has no effective connection at all with the fate of the protagonist of the novel, and in which the rest of the figures are present only as casual spectators. Tolstoy’s racing scene is an epic episode in the plot of the novel, Zola’s is a simple description. Tolstoy therefore does not need to “create” some sort of “relationship” between the objective elements of this episode and the characters in the story, for jumps are an essential part of the action itself. On the contrary, Zola is forced to connect the races with the rest of the content of his novel “symbolically”, by means of a random coincidence of the names of the winning horse and the heroine of the novel. This symbol, inherited by Zola from Victor Hugo, runs through all his work: a fashion store, an exchange, etc. etc. are symbols of modern life brought to gigantic proportions, like Notre Dame Cathedral or Victor Hugo’s cannon. Zola’s false objectivism manifests itself most clearly in this inorganic coexistence of two completely heterogeneous creative principles: only the observed detail and only the lyrical symbol. And this inorganic character captures the whole composition of his novel: since the world described in them is not built from the specific actions of specific people and specific situations, but is, as it were, a simple receptacle, an abstract environment, into which people are introduced only retroactively, then the necessary connection between character and action disappears; for the minimum of action required here, a few middle strokes suffice. However, Zola’s writing practice in this case is higher than his theory, that is, the characters of his heroes are richer than the plots he conceived, but that is why they are not translated into actions, but remain the subject of simple observations and descriptions. The number of these descriptions can therefore be increased or decreased at will. The scientific nature of Zola’s method, which only slightly conceals with its objectivism the impoverishment of social elements in the picture of the world he draws, cannot do so, lead neither to a correct cognitive display of the contradictions of capitalist society nor to the creation of artistically integral narrative works. Lafargue correctly points out that Zola, with all the accuracy of his individual observations, passes over the most important social moments (the alcoholism of the workers in The Trap, the contrast between old and new capitalism in Money) without attention. However, Zola’s factual errors in understanding social phenomena are not so important for the development of the novel (although the old realists, who themselves participated in the social struggle of their time, for the most part correctly guessed the truth in decisive questions), but the fact that these errors contributed to the acceleration of the decay of the form of the novel. The modern heirs of the great “writers of private life” are only lyrical or journalistic chroniclers of current events.

Flaubert and Zola mark the last turning point in the development of the novel. We therefore had to dwell on them in some detail, because the tendencies towards the disintegration of the form of the novel first appear in them in a clear, almost classical form. The further development of the novel proceeds, despite all its diversity, within the framework of those problems that are already outlined by Flaubert and Zola, within the framework of the false dilemma of subjectivism and objectivism, which inevitably leads to a number of other equally false antitheses.

With the disappearance of the truly typical of characters and situations, a false dilemma appears: either banal-average or something only “original” or “interesting”. And in accordance with this false dilemma, the modern novel moves between two equally false extremes of “scientificity” and irrationalism, bare fact and symbol, document and “soul” or mood. Of course, there is no shortage of attempts to return to genuine realism. But these attempts only in very rare cases go beyond some approximation to Flaubert’s realism. And this is no coincidence. Zola, as an honest writer, speaks of his own writing in a later period: “Whenever I delve into any topic, I come across socialism.” In modern society, the writer does not need to work out the thematically immediate questions of the proletarian class struggle in order to come across the problem of the struggle between capitalism and socialism, this central problem of the era. But in order to cope with the whole complex of questions related to this, the writer must break out of the vicious circle of decadent bourgeois ideology. And only a very few writers are capable of this, while the rest remain ideologically and creatively closed in this ever closer, ever more contradictory circle. The ideology of the descending bourgeoisie, which is acquiring an apologetic character, narrows the scope of the writer’s creative activity more and more.

We cannot here give even in the most general terms the history of the development of the modern novel. We will only note, along with the general decadent tendency of bourgeois ideology, culminating in fascist barbarism, in the conscious suppression of all attempts at a truthful depiction of reality, those main types of resolution of the problem of the novel, which have been tested over the past decades. We repeat: they all remain in the plane of that false dilemma, which we have already stated in Flaubert and Zola. The Zola school, in the exact sense of the word, soon disintegrated, but Zolaism, the false objectivism of experimental novels, continues to live, only the threads that still connected Zola himself with the old realism are torn more and more, and Zola’s program is carried out in an ever purer form (this does not exclude the appearance of individual successful works of this kind, such as some novels by Upton Sinclair). Of course, subjectivism and irrationalism, which manifested itself immediately after the disintegration of the Zola school in the narrow sense of the word, are much more strongly represented. This tendency gradually turns the novel into an aggregate of snapshots from the inner life of a person and leads in the end to the complete decomposition of any content and any form in the novel (Proust, Joyce). As a protest against these phenomena of disintegration, the most diverse, mostly reactionary, attempts to renew the old sensuous visualization and liveliness of the narrative arise. Some writers flee from capitalist reality to the village, stylized as something as far as possible from capitalism (Hamsun), or to the world of colonies not yet embraced by capitalism (Kipling); others try, aesthetically reconstructing the conditions of the old narrative art, to artificially restore narrative as an artistic form (framing the story, decorative historical stylization in the spirit of Konrad Ferdinand Meyer), etc. Of course, such writers also appear who make a heroic attempt to swim against currents and, on the basis of honest criticism of modern society, to preserve or resurrect the great traditions of the novel. As the contradictions deepen and the degradation of the capitalist system, on the one hand, as socialism victoriously strengthens in the U.S.S.R., on the other, as revolutionary sentiment grows among the intelligentsia, the best representatives of Western literature break with the bourgeoisie, which opens up broad prospects for their work in the field of the novel (R. Rolland, André Gide, Malraux, J.-R. Blok, and others).


We have already had occasion to point out the role played by the historical uprising of the proletariat in the downward development of bourgeois revolution. The maturation of proletarian class consciousness in the course of the revolutionary development of the proletariat gives rise, both in all areas of culture and in the sphere of creativity, to new problems and new creative methods for solving them. Above, we could see that the problem of the degradation of man in capitalist society was bound to become the central problem of the entire aesthetics of the novel. Marx characterizes the different attitude of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat to the fact of the general degradation of people in capitalist society as follows: self-alienation. But the first class feels satisfied and affirmed in this self-alienation, sees evidence of its power in alienation, and in it has the semblance of human existence. The second class, on the other hand, feels destroyed in this alienation, sees in it its impotence and the reality of inhuman existence. This class, to use Hegel’s expression, is in revolt against this rejection, “an indignation which is necessarily caused by the contradictions between the human nature of a class and its condition in life, which is a frank, resolute and all-encompassing denial of this very nature” (Marx and Engels). Therefore, the proletariat, with its revolutionary class consciousness, is capable of understanding the entire dialectic of capitalist development; the working class sees in the poverty of its situation a “revolutionary-destructive side” that will overthrow the whole of the old society; it also knows that capitalism is the bad side that causes movement, that makes history by giving rise to struggle.

From this class-necessary and fundamentally new position of the proletariat on the question of the contradictions of capitalist society, very important new problems of form arise in connection with the corresponding changes in the subject matter of the novel. For the proletariat, and consequently also for the socialist novelist, society is not a “ready-made” world of frozen objects: the class struggle of the proletariat unfolds in the world of the heroic self-activity of man. Already in the bourgeois novel we saw to what epic tension man’s struggle for his external existence and internal well-being could lead, while it was still boldly waged against feudal or capitalist degradation. The pathos of this struggle is intensified for the proletariat not only because the existence of the working individual is still much more threatened under capitalism, but also because the struggle against this eternal threat to individual existence is inextricably linked with the general questions of the entire proletarian class, with the great problem of transforming society. For the proletarian, the struggle for his personal existence inevitably turns into a struggle for the revolutionary organization of the entire working class in order to overthrow capitalism. The building of proletarian class organizations is the work of the heroic activity of the proletariat. This heroic activity is further enhanced by the fact that the struggle of the proletariat is at the same time a process of humanizing the workers degraded by capitalism. The dialectic of man’s self-generation through labor and struggle is reproduced here at the highest stage of historical development. If here, according to Marx, “the educator must himself be educated,” then this process is not an adaptation to the prose of bourgeois life, as Hegel demanded for the bourgeois novel, but, on the contrary, a continuous struggle until the destruction of the last remnants of the degradation of man in society and in the person himself. And from this situation it follows of itself that the proletarian personality leading such a struggle must necessarily become a “positive” hero. This new rapprochement with the epic will become even clearer if we remember that while even in the greatest bourgeois novel objective social problems could be expressed only indirectly, through the depiction of the struggle of some individuals against others, here, in the class organization of the proletariat, in the struggle of class against class, in the collective heroism of the workers, an element of style appears, already approaching the essence of the ancient epic, here the struggle of one social formation against another is depicted. The world-historical significance of M. Gorky lies precisely in the fact that he understood all these new tendencies arising from the historical position of the proletariat and expressed them in an artistically complete form.

The noted features of the class development of the proletariat receive their highest expression after its victorious coming to power. The victorious proletariat, having taken state power into its own hands, continues the struggle to uproot the roots of class society. The conquest of state power, the dictatorship of the proletariat, the planned socialist transformation of the economy, the elimination of economic contradictions that were characteristic of capitalism, etc., all this leads to a number of fundamental changes, thematic and formal, in the field of the novel. Socialism destroys the fetishized objectivity of economic categories and social institutions. The imaginary independence of these latter, their actually hostile opposition to the working masses, disappears. “The state is us” (Lenin). The struggle against the degradation of man is moving qualitatively to a higher stage, at which it is actively directed against the objective sources of this degradation (the gap between town and country, between physical and mental labor, etc.), and this class struggle in the field of economics is accompanied by ideological struggle against the remnants of the old society in the minds of people. The former uncertainty about the future ceases, and this makes it possible to eradicate those types of ideology that inevitably had to develop on the basis of this uncertainty (religion). The class struggle for the abolition of classes is inextricably linked with the development of innumerable forms of new initiative and activity, a new heroism of the working masses; it is inextricably linked with the struggle for the new man, for the “comprehensively developed man.”

All these moments of development give rise to a radically new type of novel in socialist realism. But we would confuse the prospects of development with this development itself if, behind the victories of today, we forgot about the struggle, about external and internal obstacles, if instead of the tortuous paths prescribed by the objective dialectics of the class struggle and socialist construction, we would draw some kind of utopian straight line.

That is why it is necessary to clearly understand that here we are talking about a tendency towards the epic. The proletariat’s struggle to “overcome the vestiges of capitalism in the economy and in the minds of people” develops new elements of the epic. It awakens the hitherto dormant, deformed and misdirected energy of the millions of people, raises from among them the foremost people of socialism, leads them to actions that reveal in them abilities previously unknown to themselves and make them leaders of the masses striving forward. Their outstanding individual qualities consist precisely in carrying out public construction in a clear and definite way. They acquire, therefore, to an increasing extent, the characteristic features of epic heroes. This new deployment of elements of the epic in the novel is not simply an artistic renewal of the form and content of the old epic (even mythology, etc.), it arises out of necessity from the emerging classless society. It does not break the connection with the development of the classical novel. For the construction of the new and the objective and subjective destruction of the old are inextricably, dialectically linked with each other. It is precisely by participating in the struggle for socialist construction that people overcome in themselves the still existing ideological survivals of capitalism. Fiction has the task of showing the new man in his individual and social concreteness at the same time. It must master the richness and versatility of social. construction for artistic creation. “History in general, the history of revolutions in particular, is always richer in content, more diverse, versatile, livelier, more cunning than the best parties, the most conscious vanguards of the most advanced classes imagine” (Lenin). The task of the novel during the period of building socialism lies in the concrete image of this wealth, this “cunning” of the historical development, this struggle for a new man, for the eradication of any degradation of man. And the literature of socialist realism is really stubbornly and honestly fighting for this new type of novel, and in this struggle for a new artistic form, for a novel that is approaching the grandeur of the epic, but at the same time without fail retaining the essential features of the novel, it has already achieved significant successes (Sholokhov, Fadeev and others).

The new attitude of the socialist realist novel to the problems of epic style gives the question of inheritance a very special significance at this stage of development. The method of socialist realism requires an ever more energetic manifestation of the dialectical unity of the individual and the social, the individual and the typical in man. No matter how the social conditions of bourgeois realism differ from the conditions for the development of socialist realism, the old realists, with their selfless boldness in posing and solving problems, represent that literary heritage, the critical assimilation of which is essential for socialist realism. Assimilation of the legacy of this great realism must of course be critical; it means, first of all, the deepening of the creative method of artistic realism. Then, from the necessary trend in the development of the socialist novel towards the epic form, the requirement follows that the ancient epic and its theoretical development should also be included as an important part in the program for the development of cultural heritage. It is a great historical happiness for the literature of socialist realism that its great master and leader M. Gorky is a living intermediate link between the traditions of the old realism and the prospects of socialist realism. Russian literature did not know that long reign of decadentism, which was established in the West during the long years of revolutionary calm. M. Gorky was still in direct and even personal relations with the last classics of the old realism (Tolstoy). Gorky’s work is a living continuation of the great traditions of the realistic novel and at the same time their critical processing in accordance with the prospects for the development of socialist realism.