The Novel as a Capitalist Fact | kulturpunkt

English Review


The Novel as a Capitalist Fact

In his book The Bourgeois, Franco Moretti offers an analysis of the development of the novel, positing it as the literary genre inseparable from the rise of the bourgeoisie.

by: Tomislav Žilić

In the past work of Franco Moretti, the Italian literary theoretician and Marxist critic, special attention has been devoted to the history of novelistic form and its development as the dominant literary genre of the "modern" world. Moretti has approached the history of the novel from various points of view, resulting in books and texts that use literary-historical, sociological, psychoanalytical and even geographical analysis to create an opus whose multidisciplinarity clearly demonstrates the novel’s complex being. His latest book, The Bourgeois: Between History and Literature (Verso Books, 2013), published by Multimedia Institute in cooperation with Kulturtreger and Kurziv and translated to Croatian by Iva Gjurkin, offers a truly unique insight into the novel's genesis as the bourgeois literary genre, and prose as "the bourgeois style". In The Bourgeois, Moretti painstakingly and with great analytical precision juxtaposes the sequences of history and literature, in an attempt to illustrate the role prose, and especially novel, played in the representation and creation of the bourgeois identity, beginning from the 18th century industrial capitalism and all the way to the solidification of the bourgeoisie into the ruling, capitalist middle class at the end of the 19th century.

Employing a diachronic overview of the novel’s development, Moretti describes how, in tandem with the development of the middle class, the genre adapted and changed following the social and economic context, and he does so using hermeneutical and quantitative methods of textual analysis. In his short historical note, Moretti evokes the Weberian sociological tradition, claiming that the kinship of the bourgeoisie and capitalism was indisputable since capitalism’s early development, and that the intersection of new class realities and new cultural forms was extremely important. Creating a new middle class that occupied the space between aristocracy and proletariat was therefore a direct consequence of the economic changes in the rise of capitalism, and these new social relations were a significant influence on all other aspects of life. Drawing from Lukács, Moretti maintains the idea that literary forms are "fossil remains" of what used to be a living and problematic "present", which drives him to put the narratives and plots he is analysing into a wider context of social phenomena. Tracing all the social changes that took place during the novel’s development since the 18th century, Moretti throws a special spotlight on style, or the entanglement of grammatical and syntactical elements, and the changing semantic fields which he links to the changing capitalist society. In that sense, much attention is given to the keywords he extracted from a wide corpus of texts (following Raymond Williams) as units of language indicative of the changes in the history of culture and capitalism.

These keywords – "useful", "efficiency", "comfort", "serious", "influence", "earnest" and "roba" – span almost all chapters of the book and serve as a sort of connective tissue between the empirical world and the world of the novel. Moretti calls them indications of bourgeois values, spilling from the bourgeois world into fiction, but they also show us the gradual change of semantic fields in the novel’s evolution as a bourgeois form. Simply put, as the perception of what it meant to be a member of the bourgeoisie, or the emancipated middle class, changed, so did the form of the novel itself. As Moretti’s meticulous analysis illustrates, the development of the bourgeoisie, from the social group dominated by merchants and tradesmen to the leading social group of industrialists and owners of the means of production, was reflected in the thematic and formal changes in the novel’s structure. Tracking the progress of socio-economic relations in the bourgeois prose, Moretti begins with the 18th century’s "adventurous" type of capitalism, based on long-distance trade, covers early industrialization and the outlining of the bourgeois middle class, as well as the formation of collective identity, and finally reaches highly industrialized world in which the bourgeoisie holds all the power. In short, the inseparability of the bourgeoisie and capitalism is vividly depicted.

Regarding form, these changes can be seen in the novel’s transformation from the analytical style, which overflows with precise, but often superfluous descriptions of the material world, to what literary history dubs the realist novel, whose stages of development are what The Bourgeois mostly focuses on. Following the genesis of the mimetic approach to literature, which truly marks the prose of the century that saw industrial and bourgeois progress, the realist text allowed for the method and precision required by the new bourgeois world to be transported into the literary one. Analysing numerous formal characteristics of the novel, Moretti highlights the emergence of free indirect style, the realist novel’s narrative technique: a technique that combines the objective and the subjective, by consolidating character and narrator. For Moretti, this is the crucial example of how combining two forms of discourse within a narrative world can signify the "composite discourse of bourgeois doxa", or the impact of bourgeois beliefs, with all their paradoxes, on prose. Interestingly, in mapping the evolution of the 19th century novel as the exemplary "great serious form", able to internalize various aspect of the bourgeois society, Moretti only reaches the final conclusions about the relation of prose and capitalist bourgeoisie by introducing Ibsen’s plays. In the bourgeois (realist) novels of the 18th and 19th century, Moretti finds a world with a rational system, a new inner world of the bourgeoisie, a struggle with the old system’s legacy and the inevitable conflict between opposing social groups. In Ibsen’s plays he finds the drabness of the future – Ibsen’s characters, mostly auto-destructive capitalists clashing with their counterparts, dramatize conflict within one social group. Basically, all the internal conflicts that make the bare bones of the bourgeois, capitalist society slowly reached the peak of their realization in the dramatic form, and it brought to light the burden carried by the bourgeois world’s prose.

Finally, in The Bourgeois Moretti concludes that prose is a specifically bourgeois style because it has been evolving along capitalist society since the very beginnings of the modern, industrial capitalism, and it contains the social and economic changes that took place throughout that history. Of course, the double helix of history and literature is intertwined and must be observed as such. Therefore the novel, as an analytical form, proves extremely supple, able to accommodate the vagueness and paradoxes of capitalist society, as well as the development of the bourgeois as a modern subject, and the same can later be said for drama. Like "fossil remains", they allow us insight into the undeniable link between the social and historical context and cultural forms. The Bourgeois gives us a fascinating overview of these complex subjects, skilfully meandering between texts, social circumstances and the ever-present spirit of capitalism. Finally, by showing how capitalism cannot be separated from the formation and development of the bourgeoisie, it systematically and firmly demonstrates that cultural production cannot be regarded as an isolated phenomenon – the veil between the world and the text is very porous indeed.

Translated from Croatian by Lana Pukanić.

Objavio/la vatroslav [at] 10.12.2015