Empty Houses

Empty Houses: Theatrical Failure and the Novel

David Kurnick
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 280
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  • Book Info
    Empty Houses
    Book Description:

    According to the dominant tradition of literary criticism, the novel is the form par excellence of the private individual.Empty Houseschallenges this consensus by reexamining the genre's development from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century and exploring what has until now seemed an anomaly--the frustrated theatrical ambitions of major novelists. Offering new interpretations of the careers of William Makepeace Thackeray, George Eliot, Henry James, James Joyce, and James Baldwin--writers known for mapping ever-narrower interior geographies--this book argues that the genre's inward-looking tendency has been misunderstood. Delving into the critical role of the theater in the origins of the novel of interiority, David Kurnick reinterprets the novel as a record of dissatisfaction with inwardness and an injunction to rethink human identity in radically collective and social terms.

    Exploring neglected texts in order to reread canonical ones, Kurnick shows that the theatrical ambitions of major novelists had crucial formal and ideological effects on their masterworks. Investigating a key stretch of each of these novelistic careers, he establishes the theatrical genealogy of some of the signal techniques of narrative interiority. In the process he illustrates how the novel is marked by a hunger for palpable collectivity, and argues that the genre's discontents have been a shaping force in its evolution.

    A groundbreaking rereading of the novel,Empty Housesprovides new ways to consider the novelistic imagination.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4009-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction Interiority and Its Discontents
    (pp. 1-28)

    In at least one version of the story, the modern novel is born from theatrical failure. Henry James is famously supposed to have learned his lesson in the theater, and the lesson was to stay out of the theater. Fortunately for literary history, this account goes, he alchemized his personal embarrassment into narrative innovation. In the years immediately following theGuy Domvilledisaster of 1895, James conducted a series of formal experiments in his fiction, arriving at a set of rules that made the novel into an object of undeniable artistic merit. Chief among these were the strict limitation of...

  5. ONE Acoustics in the Thackeray Theater
    (pp. 29-66)

    Passing through London on his way to Cambridge, an eighteen-year-old Thackeray paid a visit to family friends, bought some new clothes, and, in the words of his biographer Gordon Ray, attended “the play.”¹ The definite article is not Ray’s affectation; in fact, the formulation was at the root of an exchange on the theater recorded by an earlier Thackeray biographer, Herman Merivale, who reports that

    like all good and unspoiled souls, [Thackeray] loved “the play.” Asking a listless friend one day if he liked it, he got the usual answer, “Ye-es—I like a good play.” “Oh! get out,” said...

  6. TWO George Eliot’s Lot
    (pp. 67-104)

    In her essay “Notes on Form in Art” George Eliot argues for the inseparability of artistic form and content by reviving a metaphor so close to death that we may not at first recognize it as a metaphor. “Poetic Form,” she writes, “was not begotten by thinking it out or framing it as a shell which should hold emotional expression, any more than the shell of an animal arises before the living creature . . . The beautiful expanding curves of a bivalve shell are not first made for the reception of the unstable inhabitant, but grow & are limited by...

  7. THREE Henry James’s Awkward Stage
    (pp. 105-152)

    Two things quickly become clear to the reader ofA Small Boy and Others, a book frequently described as the first volume of Henry James’s autobiography. The first is that the book is not about Henry James. The balance promised by the title tips continually in the direction of those “others,” as omnipresent as they are indistinguishable. “Discrimination among the parts of my subject . . . [was] difficult—so inseparably and beautifully they seemed to hang together,” James writes on his first page.¹ The memories that follow emanate as if from a composite consciousness anchored in but never coextensive...

  8. FOUR Joyce Unperformed
    (pp. 153-191)

    InStephen HeroJames Joyce famously claims Aquinas as a source for his theory of epiphany.¹ But Joyce’s Dublin acquaintances recalled epiphany less as an effort to apprehendquidditasthan as a cruel game of social exposure. While Stanislaus Joyce concurred with his brother’s description of epiphanies as “manifestations or revelations,” his account of Joyce’s unnerving habit of jotting down ephiphanic material gives these words a resonance more petty than scholastic: “Jim always had a contempt for secrecy, and these notes were in the beginning ironical observations of slips, and little errors and gestures—mere straws in the wind—by...

  9. Epilogue In the Kingdom of Whomever: Baldwin’s Method
    (pp. 192-206)

    The claim that ends the previous chapter risks absurdity, or sentimentality: What justifies labeling utopian a demand not for the transformation of the social order but for a depathologizing of specifically sexual difference? This epilogue will not so much answer this question as demonstrate its structuring importance in the work of an author who stands in several important senses at the end of the tradition traced inEmpty Houses. James Baldwin is not only one of the more notable Anglophone twentieth-century novelists to attempt continually and with minimal success to enter the theater. He is also one of the major...

  10. NOTES
    (pp. 207-244)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 245-254)