The Novelist’s Responsibility

The Indian Express – Mar 24, 1941

The Novelist’s Responsibility

Dr. Inge in the latest of his books speaks of the modern novel as not so much reflecting as influencing the life of the time. There are modern novels of a kind which he frankly dislikes and the influence of which he believes to be mainly, if not wholly, evil. It is an interesting question how far imaginative literature affects human character. If people say that the effect is enormous, we feel like asking them why in that case men have not changed a great deal more for the better under the influences of the noble literature of the past.

Has a reading of Othello ever persuaded a naturally jealous lover to damp down his jealousy? Has the wretched fate of Macbeth ever taught a naturally ambitious man the folly of ambition? There is enough morality in the great plays and novels to have infected the world with the noblest ideals of conduct; but the world seems to have been curiously insensitive to it, and a man may be a great reader without being immune from the vices of his illiterate neighbour.


On the other hand, if someone says that literature has no influence on character, one particular book, more than anything else, seemed to help to shape lives of the men and women among whom we grew up. The Bible did not magically convert all Christians with Christians. Many of them remained rogues and hard-faced men in spite of all the fine passages from the Scriptures to which they listened in church on Sundays. At the same time, who can doubt that the world, as a result of being steeped in the Literature of the Bible, was governed by ideas of justice, mercy and righteousness to an extent that would have been impossible if the Old and New Testaments had never been written? I cannot, for one.

The virtues of Puritanism—and perhaps, some of the vices—were the creation of this book. Cruelty and other forms of evil survived, but they were vices of human nature not monopolized by Bible-readers. Human nature, torn between good and evil, has so far proved to be incapable of perfection. All that one can say dogmatically is that the Bible has exercised as great an influence on conduct as on painting and music. Most painting and most music have remained mediocre, as most conduct has remained mediocre, but how much worse they might have been, how much poorer in the genius that reaches after perfection, but for the inspiration of the book?


It may be argued, however, that religious literature exists on a different plane from secular literature, and that we turn to plays and novels, not for teaching, but mainly for entertainment. I agree that most people do not go to the theatre in the same mood in which they go to church; and I think they always rightly go to the arts, not in search of lessons but in search of pleasure. I do not think I have ever taken up a novel as non-professional reader except for the purpose of enjoying myself. This does not mean, however that plays and novels do not influence conduct, or, at least our ideas of conduct.

Even the popular entertainment called sport is generally supposed to have an influence of this kind. Orators have often told us the effect of sport in creating the team spirit and inculcating in the young the ideal of fair play. How far it does this, I do not know. I have seen many a brilliant selfish player who had about as much of the team spirit as a hungry seagull. I have seen others who kept within the bounds of fair play only so long as the referee was watching them. At the same time, I think the ideal of fair play is much more widespread than it would have been but for the popularity of sport. I do not believe that the phrases “playing the game” and “It’s not cricket” are entirely can. The ideal sportsman is, of course, a much finer human being than the ordinary sportsman; but he is influential as a model to which the ordinary sportsman knows in his bones that he ought to conform.


If an entertainment with so little didactic purpose as sport can influence character in this way, it seems reasonable to believe that other entertainments equally frivolous may also help to shape the course of our lives. According to some authorities, the cinema has already had a marked effect on civilization and its ideals. I always keep an open mind about small boys who were turned into thieves as a result of seeing films, since I do not believe that any normal small boy with a normally decent home-training was ever affected in this fashion by the cinema. At the same time, films have undoubtedly a superficial influence on many people.

There are young women who do their best to make up like the vamps of the screen, and who talk in that husky sort of voice that is either deliberately assumed by the vamps or which is the result of a flaw in the machinery of recording voices that prevents the natural female voice from coming through. Imitation is one of the instincts and pleasure of youth, and a girl may be forgiven for seeing herself as a star of Hollywood. But I wonder, whether any girl whose character is altered by addiction to films had any character worth talking about to being with. We are often given to blaming some outside influence for what is really our own weakness.


As for novels, I have met one man of the younger generation who declares that his life was changed as a result of his reading a novel by D. H. Lawrence. In my own generation I never met a man whose life, so far as I know, had been changed by a novel. I once knew a boy who said to me that, when he read about Newman Noggs in Nicholas Nickleby, he could not help wanting to be a drunkard; but he grew I up and he has not become a drunkard—not even in order to be like Newman Noggs.

Possibly, the association of selflessness with drunkennes in Sidney Carton has fired other boys with the same ideal. But the ordinary boy, after the first flush of enthusiasm, soon realizes that it is possible to drink too much without being selfless. Hence, I fancy, Dickens’s attractive drunkards have been responsible for creating new drunkards in real life.

The influence of fiction, it seems to me, is rarely direct. Is it insensible and accumulative. Dickens had an enormous influence on the English outlook on life, but is there any evidence that he ever converted a flesh-and-blood Scrooge into a Father Christmas? What he did rather was to create an atmosphere of charity, good humour and justice that was in the end to help to transform society. Greed, cruelty, and passing by on the other side continued even while he was a national idol; but he stripped them of some of their respectability. He undermined much that is evil, and so helped to prepare the way for a transition to a kindlier world. There are still Gradgrinds and Murdstones in existence, but I am sure that there are fewer of them and that they are less respected, than if Charles Dickens had never written.


The novelist who is a good man, indeed, necessarily raises standards. He does so even though he has no propagandist and no particular desire to reform his kind. In Sir Walter Scott several generations of readers found standards of chivalry and courage which must have influenced their imaginations, whether they lived up to them of not. And a hundred years later we had Conrad preaching in a most unpreacher-like fashion the gospel of courage in another form. In the maintenance of ideas literature has manifestly always played a great part, even if unconsciously and even if opposition to other ideals considered to be orthodox. Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and George Eliot’s Adam Bede were once considered dangerous works by some of the orthodox; but in both there are standards that made for tolerance. Thomas Hardy later encountered a great deal of intolerance by raising the same standard of tolerance in Tess of the D’Urbervilles. It is, perhaps, one of the incidental functions of literature to spread an atmosphere of tolerant humanism in a world in which the orthodoxies, religious, political, and economic, have sometimes forgotten that men and women are human.

In the present century, some of the novelists have been more consciously preachers than their predecessors in Victorian and pre-Victorian times. In Mr. H. G. Wells and in D. H. Lawrence we find a strong desire, not merely to describe the conduct of men and women in the contemporary world. Whether they have actually influenced conduct it is hard to say. Ideas of right conduct have been changing in any case as a result of the decline of orthodoxy, and it may be—that the novelists have been the mouthpieces, rather than the makers, of their generation.


There are some people who impute all the changes of which they disapprove to the novelists and dramatists. They seem to think that nobody would say “Lousy” and “Oh, hell!” and such things if the dramatists had not shown them the way by producing dialogue full of that sort of stuff on the stage. They accuse these dramatists of setting a bad example to the weak-minded by showing young men and women on the stage slapping each other and behaving in a fashion that even an unorthodox Victorian would have considered grossly ill-mannered.

It is not possible, however, that it was the last war and neither literature not the drama, that introduced new standards of conduct—both in morals and in manners—or, at least, that popularized them?

In any case, modern fiction is not all of a pattern, but is as varied as modern life. If it must be held responsible for the conduct which a man dislikes in the age, it should also be held responsible for the things of which he approves. There is enough fortitude, good humour and love of justice and mercy in the world to make the novelists proud to have been their creators. Perhaps they have been in a measure. I for one should not be disposed to question it.



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