In The Waves, one of the characters dreams of “a wandering thread, lightly joining one thing to another.” This essay situates this dream within the problem of modern fiction. Fiction was defined by Aristotle as an arrangement of actions according to necessity or verisimilitude. As such, it was opposed to history, which only told events, as they happened, in their empirical succession. When Virginia Woolf contrasts the tyranny of the plot with the truth of the shower of atoms falling upon the minds at every moment of any ordinary day, she exactly overturns the opposition. Now the problem is: how to organize the shower of atoms in the form of fiction with a beginning, a middle, and an end? Flaubert and Conrad had sorted out the problem by making a compromise between the truth of the interpenetration of sensory microevents and the “lie” of the plot. Through examples borrowed from Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and The Waves, the essay analyzes the various ways in which Woolf tries to dismiss this compromise. It also focuses on the political implication of the problem: modern fiction opposes the democracy of life to the old hierarchy of action, but it does so at the cost of sacrificing the social and literary character who haunts modern fiction: the child of the plebeian who, like Emma Bovary or Septimus Warren Smith, proves able to live any form of experience.
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Jacques Rancière; The Thread of the Novel. Novel 1 August 2014; 47 (2): 196–209. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00295132-2647149
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