VICTORIAN/LATE NINETEENTH CENTURY LITERARY CRITICISM. Literary Criticism Sandya Maulana , S.S. VICTORIAN/LATE NINETEENTH CENTURY LITERARY CRITICISM.
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The Victorian age in Britain brought about many significant changes in many aspects of life, including humanities, and more specifically, literature. Faster transportation was possible, due to the invention of faster steamboats and steam train and railway system. British colonies had encompassed many parts of the world and paved the way for the British Commonwealth. Life in Britain had turned both more metropolitan and cosmopolitan, and was closer to the current definition of modern life. Problems arose, of course, due to these changes. Farming areas were reduced, more people living in cities and working in factories, and the high number of unemployed citizens affected the rise in crime and decline in welfare. These problems became the main themes of the fiction, mainly novels, of the era, through the hands of Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, William Thackeray, and Benjamin Disraeli. This marked the rise of realism in the English literature.
The Victorian age also marked the beginning of different point views in treating literature. The era saw many changes and alternatives in literary criticism. In this class, each of the three critics chosen here represents a different attitude towards literature. Matthew Arnold discusses the pedagogic, moralistic, and disinterested study of poetry. Henry James sees fiction, especially the realistic novel, as the dominant genre of literature and proposes a variety of expressions and possibilities in its creative process. On the other hand, at the end of the Victorian era, Oscar Wilde adopts the famous “art for art’s sake”, denounces realism, and implies that literature should delight and be devoid of its social, political, and economical burdens.
In all branches of knowledge the aim of the critical power is the same: “to see the object as in itself it really is.” Arnold remarks that criticism must be “disinterested.” It must be an “endeavor to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world. The disinterest that he preaches has a not too distant relationship to the idea of aesthetic disinterest in Kant’s analysis of the reader’s response to the work of art. Arnold is not suggesting a withdrawal from effective social criticism but instead insisting on measured, intelligent, and often necessarily indirect critical activity. In an age marked by the emergence of historical criticism, Arnold argues in The Study of Poetry against historical judgments of poems. Like several of his Romantic predecessors, Arnold thinks not so much of the quality of a poem as a whole as he does of the presence of an undefinable poetic quality somewhere in poem. Arnold also suggests that critical power grows as the result of a liberal education. Sound critical judgments are made by educated people, not by those who make a mindless application of principle or method.
Notable work: The Function of Criticism at the Present Time (1864)
Beyond his fiction, James was one of the more important literary critics in the history of the novel. James wrote many valuable critical articles on other novelists; typical is his insightful book-length study of his American predecessor Nathaniel Hawthorne. When he assembled the New York Edition of his fiction in his final years, James wrote a series of prefaces that subjected his own work to the same searching, occasionally harsh criticism. In his classic essay The Art of Fiction (1884), he argued against rigid prescriptions on the novelist's choice of subject and method of treatment. He maintained that the widest possible freedom in content and approach would help ensure narrative fiction's continued vitality. The essay itself is actually an answer to Walter Besant’s pamphlet on the same subject. It criticizes Besant's conception on how fiction should be written and how "good" fiction should be. Contrasted to Besant's view, it is explained here that "good" fiction should be returned to readers and various critics (i.e. letting them decide what is "good"). Later on, the essay criticizes (and disagrees with) Besant's laws of fiction which tell how fiction should be written. James himself expands upon Besant’s ideas that fiction should be written from experience and experience only. James implies that experience is not always first handed and there are simply no limitations to everything that an author can imagine that may be defined as experience.
Notable work: TheArt of Fiction (1884)
As a critic and a writer, Oscar Wilde was an Aesthete, a person who believes that art should be enjoyed for its aesthetic purpose only, devoid of social and political importance. As an Aesthete, Wilde embraced the “art for art’s sake” concept. This is evident in his essay defending the Aesthetic movement and “art for art’s sake”, titled The Decay of Lying. The essay in presented in a dialogue between Vivian and Cyril. As summarized by Vivian, it contains four doctrines:
Besides defending the Aesthetic movement, the essay is also a stab at the realistic tendency of English literature at that time.
Notable work: The Decay of Lying (1897)