Richard Chase, The American Novel and Its Tradition

Chase, Richard. The American Novel and Its Tradition. Doubleday, 1957.

Summary of Work
Richard Chase seeks to discuss the development of the American novel as it diverged from the English novel. He states that it is very important to make a distinction between the two traditions, as the English novel seeks to derive social order out of the disparate elements or plot points in the novel and is largely a novel of manners that adheres to social expectations and the unities, whereas the American novel is much more focused on exploring the possibilities and realities of specific, narrow situations and much less interested in wresting order out of the chaos of those events. The American novel, Chase says, has therefore regularly not been a novel as the term has been generally defined, but instead a romance. He states that the novel is a work which focuses mainly on character and the development of that character, whereas the romance focuses mainly on action or plot and has very little character development. The narrators of the novel are more often omniscient and able to display a proper scenery and social sphere that the character develops within, but the romance utilizes a very narrow section of society simply as a backdrop, and the personal motivations and thoughts of the characters take center stage as they go through the plot. This view of the novel is largely the viewpoint of Henry James, the American novelist whom Chase finds to be the greatest American novelist in the history of the American novel. He also gives a brief commentary on melodrama, which is the height of extremes and dualities, saying that the American novel often indulges in such language in order to further plot or explore extreme or peculiar situations.

Of Hawthorne and his work, particularly The Scarlet Letter, Chase says that it is firmly in the category of romance and not the novel, particularly because of the lack of scenery except as backdrop to the main characters in the novel; furthermore, he finds that there is no character development, but rather the characters serve largely as psychological forms and allegory, and they do not change their natures throughout the work. Like James, Chase finds these facts to be somewhat the faults of the novel, although the creation of a psychological novel is, Chase admits, an important and quality development for the American novel. He compares symbol and allegory at this point, stating that allegory functions in its purest form when the readers know what each particular part of the story represents so that they can always refer back to that representation, which is never changing: this is Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. On the other hand, symbols are a fusion of many meanings, and those meanings change throughout the course of the novel; therefore, the A on Hester Prynne’s chest could be seen as a symbol, but more importantly, the whale in Melville’s Moby Dick is a symbol.

Of Melville’s masterwork Moby Dick, Chase states that while it starts out with high promises of realism to be a novel, it falls into the category of romance, not a novel, and despite its certainly masterful pieces within the whole work, there are many parts that are poorly flung together to fit the emotional fits that befit Ahab and the romance tale of his obsession. Yet in Moby Dick lies a central tenet of American literature: a life of contradictions through experience and a life of ironic perception. These features appear throughout the development of the American novel, and Melville’s work is a perfect example of that. He also terms Moby Dick an epic romance, more akin to the poetry of Homer than the structure of the prose novel because of the melodrama and otherworldly elements it contains.

Chase attributes the development of regionalized language and straightforward diction to the novels of Mark Twain, particularly that of Huckleberry Finn. He states that the colloquial language of the novel forever changed the way American writers approached their characters, swaying from the formal English language and into the representation of the spoken language. Yet even here, Chase asserts that the novel is more of a tragi-comic romance than it is a novel, given the focus on the action and the interior narrative of Huck than on the social atmosphere around him and the unifying of social issues.

Next he discusses novels of manners, which deal with how to navigate social class and fix problematic characters or behaviors, or, if they cannot be fixed, to cast them out. He claims that Jane Austen, while not the most masterful writer, is the master of the purest form of the novel of manners. American novelists, by comparison, Chase finds sorely lacking in ability. He claims that F. Scott Fitzgerald is a second, possibly third rate author who nevertheless he will discuss because he is one of the only people who have successfully attempted a novel of manners in the US. He discusses The Great Gatsby in this sense, calling attention to the discussion of scene and character and the reverse development of Gatsby from an experienced rags to riches man back to a child with idyllic imaginations, while all around him he struggles to integrate into a rich society that has a set of rules he cannot meet or follow, which in combination with his imaginings, leads to his death. Despite the success as a novel of manners, Chase finds Fitzgerald’s style lacking, and he is stymied by the fact that Henry James thought that Fitzgerald did the most for the American novel since Mark Twain.

Finally, Chase discusses three novels by William Faulkner, who he considers to be the second or third best American novelist, second only to James and perhaps third depending on how one compares Mark Twain to Faulkner. The majority of this final chapter is dedicated to The Sound and the Fury, discussing how Faulkner managed to (mostly) successfully provide unique language styles to each of his characters as they tell their part of the story while at the same time offering solid character development over plot, where the plot happens because of character development. Chase finds no language more masterful than Faulkner’s when he knows what his character sounds like, and he also demonstrates the best of American prose with his crafting of Benjy’s narrative through the eyes of an idiot. It shows obsessions, character development, tragedy, and most importantly to befit James’s and Chase’s definition of the novel, provides a creation of order and unity through Dilsey, who is the only character capable of keeping the Compson family from falling apart at the end of its 200-year stint in the South. Furthermore, Chase claims that the only reason that this novel is the greatest novel written up to the point of his writing is because there have been novelists who came before to establish certain mechanical elements or traditions, and that finally there is enough American history available to create a proper background and scenery for character development to take center stage in the American novel. Chase finds the work a transcendence of romance to create an amalgamation of realism, romance, and the qualities of the novel that James laid down.

Discussion of Work
Chase’s book provides important information about how the American novel is viewed in comparison with the English novel; his introduction, which defines specific differences between English and American, novels is useful because it provides a framework from which to view American novels and their development over a century of writing. However, Chase falls prey to worshipping Henry James, finding no issues with him or his writing, seemingly unquestioning of the structure as pure and perfect in form for all to follow. In doing so, he excludes many masterworks from the title of “novel,” instead relegating them to what is implicitly considered and insinuated a lesser form.

His treatment of Hawthorne, Melville, Faulkner, and especially Fitzgerald are full of backhanded compliments or appraisals: it fits perfectly the, “well, they did this or that, but they still will never measure up to James” form that he establishes from the beginning of the novel. The blind spot essentially disables him from seeing, even as he describes the incredible feats of Faulkner, how Faulkner will come to transcend James in their importance of the development of the novel in the twentieth century. It also disables him from understanding how the language of Fitzgerald would come to be recognized as some of the most carefully and well-crafted language and writing of the Jazz Age.

Another failing of this work is that it completely ignores and excludes authors of color. He does mention that Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man exists in passing, but only to state that the tradition he is speaking of has influenced it. He doesn’t even mention anything about the work. Certainly, the development of the American novel was heavily influenced by the writing that came out of the traditions of African American communities, let alone other communities of color. Faulkner would be as much influenced by the stories and cultural traditions of communities of color as he was by Mark Twain, as is evident in his portrayal of the character Dilsey in his work and his intricate discussions of the race issues inherent in the Southern mind. Perhaps these things are overlooked because throughout his work, Chase is insistent that morals and moral teachings and lessons are not meant to be read in the American novel: the American novel is simply an exploration of history and moral lessons that the characters deal with in all their contradictory experiences.

Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote

Cervantes, Miguel de. Don Quixote. Trans. Edith Grossman. Ecco, 2005.

Summary of Work
For the purposes of time for studying for my comprehensive exams, I have elected to only read the first part of Don Quixote for my studies. What follows is a summary of the first part.

Cervantes begins his novel by having a conversation with a friend who tells Cervantes that he should write the tale (completely true!) of Don Quixote as he will, and then add all the proper embellishments in later, since that seems the easiest way to get things started. Cervantes agrees and begins the tale, urging readers to simply enjoy what he’s written in its simple format.

Don Quixote started out as an eccentric minor nobleman in the village of La Mancha. He had a great estate, but he did not care for it and kept selling pieces of it off in order to buy more books about chivalry and knights errant, since he loved to read the tales in them. By his late middle age, he decides he will become a knight-errant like the men he read about in his books, and he prepares armor and his horse, an old nag who he names Rocinante, and gives himself the name Don Quixote de la Mancha. He also decides he needs a lady to perform the deeds for, so he renames a farm girl he cares for Dulcinea del Toboso to dedicate his deeds to.

He sets off and stops at an inn for the evening, and believes that the inn is a castle and the innkeeper a king who has been enchanted to look like an innkeeper. He also mistakes prostitutes for princesses, and he recites poetry to them. He struggles and is unable to remove his helmet he has made for himself, so he eats dinner through the opening in the helmet, all the while believing he is being entertained in a castle. While he is there, he realizes he has not been knighted, and so he asks the innkeeper to knight him. The innkeeper talks to him about it and when he asks for payment, he discovers Don Quixote has no money, and so the innkeeper tells him he must carry money. Don Quixote said that the knights of old never carried any and were always provided for, and so he saw no need to carry money, which is why he had none on him.

That night he keeps vigil in the stables because he believes that will allow him to be knighted in the morning. While he is speaking of Dulcinea and keeping watch, more guests arrive. In trying to get water for their animals, they move Don Quixote’s armor, and it infuriates him so that he kills one of the guests and knocks another unconscious. Mortified, the innkeeper quickly performs a bizarre knighting ceremony and sends him on his way. Don Quixote determines to go home to get more clothing and some money, and he encounters a master whipping his young servant. He stops the farmer and asks what is going on, and the farmer boy says that he is being whipped because he complained about not getting the wages promised him. Don Quixote tells the farmer to pay him and makes him swear he will by the name of knighthood, and Don Quixote continues on, disregarding the farm boy’s plea to go back to the house with them to ensure that he was paid before he left. When Don Quixote leaves, the farmer goes back to whipping the boy even harder than he had previously been doing.

Later on the journey, Don Quixote meets a group of merchants, and he tries to order them to claim that Dulcinea is the most beautiful woman alive. When they ask for a picture so they can see her before they say she is the most beautiful, they insult him and he starts to attack, but Rocinante stumbles and the merchants beat him. He is left lying in the road. A laborer from his village finds him and carries him on his mule back to La Mancha, Rocinante in tow. Don Quixote is busy discussing how his trials are like those of knights of old, and the villager realizes that he is insane. He takes Don Quixote back to his own house, where the barber and priest are visiting at the behest of family members who are worried that the books in the home have driven Don Quixote to madness.

The priest and barber work together to go through Quixote’s books and burn the ones on chivalry that they find inappropriate. His niece wants them to burn all the books there. Still, the priest goes through the titles, saving some because of rarity or virtue, and wants to keep the poetry, but the niece persuades them not to because then her uncle may become a poet, which would be even worse than he is now. He also finds a novel by Cervantes, which he keeps in hopes that there will be a sequel to the novel.

Don Quixote wakes, delusional, and wants to get to the library, but he finds it walled off. He believes an enchanter has done it to keep him from his books and has carried off the books on a dragon, as per what his niece told him. Quixote believes the enchanter to be his nemesis, and believes he will defeat him. he determines to sally forth again, this time with a squire, Sancho Panza.

They first come to a field of windmills, which Quixote believes are giants, and he charges them, injuring himself as he finds that they “become windmills” as he goes to attack because the enchanter changed them to windmills. He finds a replacement for his lance by breaking off a tree limb, and when Sancho complains about hunger, Quixote explains that often they may go without food and have to weather the elements, and that knights do not complain about these things. A few days later, they encounter monks taking a lady and attendants on a journey, and Quixote insists that the lady is a damsel in distress, and he attacks the monks, knocking one down. Sancho tries to steal that monk’s clothing as spoils of war, but is soundly beaten for it. The monks ride off, and Quixote tells the ladies they must go to Toboso to tell Dulcinea of his grand deed. One of her attendants gets angry at him, and they do battle, but mid-battle the narrative cuts off due to a supposed end in the manuscript at hand.

Next Cervantes describes the process of finding the rest of the tale, finding the tale written on Arabic parchment. He hires a Moor to read and translate the stories, and the narrative continues.

The attendant cuts Quixote’s ear, and he knocks the man down in return, threatening to kill him. He spares him only because the ladies promise they all will present themselves to Dulcinea. After the battle, Sancho asks his master for an island to be governor of, believing he has earned it. He also worries that they might go to jail for what they have done, but Don Quixote ensures him that knights-errant and their squires never go to jail.

That evening, they join a group of goatherds for the night and learn the tale of the woman Marcela, who was the cause of Chrysostom’s death, for he loved her and she rejected him. As they go to the funeral, Marcela appears and makes her case for her not being at fault for his death, for she told him that she was not interested in marriage when they first met. Afterward, they go to an inn for the evening, which he mistakes again for another castle. There, the women attend to Don Quixote’s wounds, and he believes that the innkeeper’s daughter has fallen in love with him and will come to try and tempt him to sleep with her, when in actuality, Maritornes, the servant woman, is coming in to share a bed with a carrier, who also happens to be sleeping in the same space as Sancho and Don Quixote. She accidentally goes to the wrong bed, and Don Quixote mistakes her for the daughter, and he tries to woo her, causing the carrier to be angry and attack. Everyone is fighting when the innkeeper comes to see what is going on. Don Quixote is passed out but believing he is dead, the officer in the inn starts an investigation.

From that moment on, Don Quixote believes the inn is enchanted, and tells Sancho so. When the officer comes in the room, Don Quixote insults him, and the officer beats him again. Don Quixote promises to heal Sancho with a potion or balsam, which calms Sancho’s anger, but after they make it and drink it, they are immediately very sick. Sancho is upset again, but then Don Quixote claims it doesn’t work on squires. They leave the inn, and refuse to pay because knights don’t pay at castles, and he rides away, but Sancho is captured and thrown and tossed in a blanket. Too hurt to get off his horse, Don Quixote watches, believing it all an enchantment, and while all the commotion is going on, the innkeeper steals Sancho’s saddle bags as payment for their stay.

They soon encounter clouds of dust, which Don Quixote thinks is two great armies, but which is actually herds of sheep, and he rides off, killing many sheep before the shepherds are able to unseat him from his horse. His explanation for the sudden change is again the sorcerer. That evening as they discuss their misfortunes, they come across mourning priests escorting a dead body; they refuse to identify themselves, and Quixote knocks one off of his horse, causing all of them to flee. Sancho, meanwhile, steals goods from the mule the priest was riding, and when the priest leaves, Sancho yells after him that this was the work of Don Quixote, the Knight of the Sorrowful Face. Don Quixote loves the title, and when he asks why he chose that, Sancho tells him that after his teeth had been badly damaged in battle, he always looks sad without them. Rather than give Sancho credit for the name, he tells him that the name was the idea of the Sage writing his life story, and that he gave it to Sancho.

Next, they see a barber travelling with a glittering basin, and Quixote believes it is the mythic Mambrino’s helmet, and he charges the barber, who runs away, leaving his mule and the basin. Sancho gets the mule’s saddle and saddle packs. He is also promised that he will have a lot of money when Don Quixote marries a rich princess.

Next, they encounter galley slaves being taken to work for their crimes, and although Sancho warns him about who they are and that the government is taking them, Don Quixote frees them and justifies it by saying that sometimes criminal actions are justified and necessary. When he tells the men to present themselves to Dulcinea, they beat him and run away with all of Sancho’s and Don Quixote’s belongings. At this point, Sancho is very concerned that the Holy Brotherhood will come after them for their misdeeds.

They next ride into the woods of the Sierra Morena, and one of the slaves accosts them again and steals Sancho’s donkey. However, they then find a saddle bag with money and clothing and a notebook, and Don Quixote gives Sancho that money to make up for the losses he’s incurred. They then see a naked man running through the woods, and they find him and hear his tale. His name is Cardenio, and he had a friend by the name of Ferdinant wooed a farmer’s daughter in secret, only he is afraid of what his father might say, so he, at the advice of Cardenio, his friend Ferdinand, asks his father for some money to go to buy some horses at Cardenio’s parents’ home. There he meets Lucinda, who is unparalleled in beauty. When he mentions that Lucinda loved books about chivalry, it gets Don Quixote talking about them, and he and Cardenio start to fight, and Cardenio runs away.

In order to do penance for what he has done, he goes deep into the woods. He also send Sancho with a dictated letter that he is to have written out and to take to Dulcinea while he is in the mountains. While Sancho is gone, Don Quixote determines that he will be like Amadis and pray in Dulcinea’s name, wandering the valley and writing poetry on the trees, going mad and rending his clothing as well. Sancho, meanwhile, runs into the priest and barber from his village and they ask him what is going on. He tells them everything, and they concoct a plan to get Quixote down from the mountains and back to the village. As they speak with Sancho, they realize that Don Quixote’s delusions have also infected Sancho, who believes Don Quixote will end up an emperor or archbishop, although he hopes not a clergyman because that will limit Sancho’s rewards.

The priest and barber borrow clothing from the innkeeper’s wife and they set out. The barber is dressed as a woman, who they are hoping Don Quixote will perform a favor for. They send Sancho ahead, telling him that he will tell Don Quixote some story about having seen Dulcinea and her response. While they wait for Sancho to bring him down the mountain a little ways, they run into Cardenio, who tells the rest of his story, explaining that Ferdinand, claiming he was wooing in Cardenio’s name, stole away Lucinda because her parents found his riches appealing. Lucinda ends up accepting his proposal, and Cardenio ran to the wilderness in grief and hatred.

While they are together, they meet a young woman named Dorothea, who tells her story of being wooed but resisting until he tricked her and she succumbed, afraid of being raped if she refused his marriage offer. Then he abandoned her, and she has been out chasing him; the party learns that the man was Ferdinand, the very man who had stolen away Lucinda. Cardenio, thrilled, learns that Ferdinand had found a letter revealing Lucinda’s love for Cardenio, and he vows to help avenge Dorothea. Dorothea then accepts the role of the damsel in distress to help the priest and barber get Don Quixote down from the mountain.

She tells Don Quixote of a giant who attacked and won her kingdom away from her and about how her father, a sorcerer, had told her that Don Quixote would be her avenger. She has him swear that he will undertake no other errand until he has helped her save her kingdom. As they all head down the mountain, Sancho gives more details of his trip to Toboso, and Don Quixote states that a sorcerer must have given him wings to fly there, because it is some distance to Toboso and he was back far too quickly for it to have been anything else. Then the young farm boy who Don Quixote thought he saved from the whip appears and tells him of his misfortunes, and he steals food and runs off, telling Don Quixote the world would be better off without interfering knights-errant.

They get back to the inn that Sancho and Don Quixote believe is enchanted, and that evening the priest reads some tales to them that came from the innkeeper’s collection. The tale he reads aloud tells of a man who had the most beautiful wife and a best friend, but he is dissatisfied because he does not know if his wife will always be faithful. He forces his friend to try to woo away his wife, which at first the friend tries not to do, but then, when his friend discovers the deception, has to do. He falls in love with the wife, and she with him, and the concoct a plan to prove her virtue to the him so that she can sleep with the friend whenever she wishes. The lady in waiting is also in on this, and she helps the scheme, but in return brings her lover to the castle whenever she pleases. This bothers the wife, but she cannot say anything about it.

Just then, Sancho bursts in and says that Don Quixote has slain the giant holding the princess’s kingdom, and he has his head. But instead, Don Quixote has been sleepwalking and has slashed the nice, full wineskins in the room he was sleeping in. Sancho, still believing it was the giant, is devastated that he cannot find the head and believes now he has lost his chance at a governorship. The priest continues the story after this interruption. One night, the husband finds that the lady-in-waiting is bringing her lover to the house, and in exchange for her life, she says she will tell him an important secret. But his wife, worried about the potential discovery, flees with his friend, and he dies of grief.

Ferdinand and Lucinda arrive in disguise to the inn, and he tells all present that he has kidnapped the girl after she tried to hide in a convent after running away from their marriage. They all reunite, and Dorothea gets Ferdinand and Cardenio receives Lucinda. At this point, Sancho is devastated that Dorothea is not a princess and he will not be rich. When Sancho tells Don Quixote, he gets angry at him and says that this is further evidence that the place is enchanted. Ferdinand agrees that Dorothea needs to keep up the act to help the priest and barber get Don Quixote home, so she does. At this point, a traveler arrives with a woman named Zoraida, and they learn that she is a Moor who is looking to be baptized after saving many Spanish men from imprisonment and falling in love with the man she is with.

All the people present, when they hear Don Quixote speak, are amazed at his intelligence, especially considering that he is so mad. That evening, they awake to the singing of a boy, and they discover that he is a lord who was in love with Clara, the daughter of a judge (who is the brother of the captive Spanish man Zoraida saved). She has never spoken with him, but she also loves him. Also that evening, Maritornes and the innkeeper’s daughter trick Don Quixote and get him hanging from the barn window by having him try and grab a harness through the window while standing atop Rocinante. He stays there all night until he falls in the morning as four horsemen arrive at the inn.

When the horsemen, servants of the young singer, discover him and try to bring him back, he refuses and the judge intervenes, asking him why he refuses to return home. The young man tells him of his love for his daughter. And as this is happening, two guests try to sneak out without paying, and a fight ensues. Don Quixote refuses to help the innkeeper because of his promise to Dorothea, angering the innkeeper, his wife, and daughter. About that time, the barber who was accosted by Sancho and Don Quixote arrives, sees his basin and the saddle pack, and demands it back. Sancho refuses, saying it is the spoils of war. Another fight breaks out, and the priest settles it by financially compensating all involved and hurt by the antics of Don Quixote and Sancho.

At this time, the Holy Brotherhood have arrived, and the recognize Don Quixote. They have a warrant for his arrest, and the priest convinces the Holy Brotherhood that Don Quixote is insane and it would be best to not arrest him but let him come home with them, because he cannot be held accountable for what he has done in madness. They determine that in order to get him back to the village, they need to build a cage on an ox cart to get him home. The barber pretends to be a sage dictating Don Quixote’s return to the village and his marriage to Dulcinea, and this prompts Don Quixote to accept he is enchanted and needs to experience affliction of this kinds. Still, he wonders why he travels slowly if he is enchanted.

They meet more people on the road, who speak together about Don Quixote. Sancho threatens the barber and priest and accuses them of being jailers, and the barber threatens to lock up Sancho too, so Sancho stays silent. He goes to talk to his master about the reality of the situation, and to prove that Don Quixote is not enchanted, he asks him if he needs to go to the bathroom, and when Don Quixote replies he does, Sancho tells him that it means he is not enchanted, for enchanted people have no such needs. He tells Sancho that there are many types of new enchantments.

The canon traveling with them starts talking to Don Quixote, and he is astounded at how easily Don Quixote mingles fact and fiction. As they talk, a goatherd is chastising a female goat. They go ask what is going on, and he talks about how he was a friend of Anselmo, the man in the story the priest read to them, and that he and his friends have been driven to a simple life because of the unfaithfulness of Leandra, a beautiful woman who ran away with a soldier to the woods and was then abandoned. She was put in a convent to recover her honor.

The goatherd, in his tale, insults Don Quixote, and they start to fight. Then Don Quixote mounts his horse, seeing an icon of the Virgin Mary which he believes to be a living, sorrowful woman. He attacks penitents on the road and ends up beaten again. Sancho believes him dead and mourns over his body, which wakes Don Quixote. They decide to go home since he is having such bad luck, and they will hopefully be able to go out again. They get home and Sancho’s wife asks what he has brought, and he promises her that he will have land and be a governor soon. Don Quixote is driven in the cart to his home, to the amazement of all in the village, and his niece and housekeeper care for him, worried that he will disappear again.

Discussion of Work
Don Quixote, considered the first, and quite often the best ever, novel, is of the picaresque genre. The work itself is very episodic: almost any scene could be taken out of the novel and read as its own short story about the knight errant. The work is also a frame narrative, with Cervantes as the main narrator, but with his narration coming from manuscripts written by other people, who have either listened to the tales firsthand or pieced it together from other sources. The obsession the author has with proving the reality of the narrative through such documentation speaks of the outward importance of the frame for readers, who enjoy this as a fictional history not unlike the books of chivalry that Don Quixote reads and becomes delusional over. The frame is made even further complex with the priest reading stories and there being fanciful romance stories like those of Cardenio’s and Zoraida’s.

The work itself raises questions about the powers of the written word and about how much access people should have to them or what people should be allowed to write. The blending of fact and fiction also becomes a concern, as the people note that Don Quixote and then Sancho, who seems to be a very rational and realistic man, cannot tell fiction and real life apart, even bringing fictional beliefs into real world situations with them.

The work itself speaks to the fact that many storytelling devices were in existence long before the novel, and the things we may consider innovations of later periods, like the frame narrative, were in fact well-developed early on in other forms of storytelling. This novel is also a great example of how a roguish character who causes all sorts of mischief can be both likable and hilarious while doing misdeeds in good spirit. Even far into the novel, readers don’t get tired of his adventures, even in their similarity, because there are always new people he encounters with interesting stories and interesting reactions to Don Quixote’s madness.