Georg Lukács’s The Theory of the Novel, first published in book form in 1920, presents one of the first theories to give the novel serious philosophical consideration, rather than taking its existence for granted and treating it primarily as entertainment or instruction. Lukács wanted to explain the novel historically and philosophically; to reveal the cultural and ideological prerequisites that make the novel what it is and which determined that it arose when it did. The result was a beautifully expressed and effective theory of the novel, an unprecedented and truly successful concept of novel as the result of a particular state of mind and culture. However, there are certain aspects of Lukács’s theory that restrict it from being as universally applicable as it seeks to be. The goal of this paper is to identify and eliminate these restrictive factors, and to reformulate the central idea of The Theory of the Novel so that it applies to an important instance of the novel form that is not satisfactorily explained by Lukács’s theory as it stands: the nineteenth-century Russian novel, which has a history and motivation entirely different from that of the European novel which Lukács explains so perfectly.

Overview of Georg Lukács’s Theory of the Novel

In The Theory of the Novel, Georg Lukács begins defining the novel by contrasting it with epic. He describes literature before novels as the product of a “spontaneous totality of being,” a fundamentally different mode of existence from that of the modern, novel-producing era. For Lukács, literature follows a definite timeline, beginning with perfect totality and epic as its product, then moving through tragedy and philosophy before arriving at interiority and the novel. Epic was a product of an era in which people conceived of no division between the inner life and the outside world. This was a time in which there was no interiority, no sense of personal isolation or private contemplation. In this “happy age,”1 the myriad repetitive details and vast meandering storylines of epic were a perfect crystallization of the experience of life, not an oversimplification but the true essence of existence. Epic did not attempt to represent life; it was life in the truest, purest sense. It was not the self-expressive art of an individual artist, but the unanimous expression of an entire culture. Describing the world that created the epic, Lukács declares, “It is a homogeneous world, and even the separation between man and world, between ‘I’ and ‘you,’ cannot disturb its homogeneity.”2 This is the essence of totality: man, world, thought, body, spirit, past, present, ideal, and reality were indistinguishable from one another in Lukács’s happy age of epic.

Tragedy developed in order to give moving, speaking life to the “essence” presented by epic. Tragic plays were essence suffused with the material and the specific; essence brought to clash with the level of existence it is supposed to embody. Thus, tragedy was not pure essence but a physical representation of it.3 “Mere life sinks into not-being in the face of the only true reality of the essence,”4 Lukács states. The totality and homogeneity of the world of epic did not yet vanish completely, in that true interiority was not yet present, but the first rift had appeared: that between life and its essence.

This rift became the impetus for philosophy, for thinking about life itself. Philosophy, discussing ideals and what should be, creates essence. Thus the world of philosophy has union and totality, but it is a created totality,5 built with consciousness; the mind that constructs it is very nearly separate from it. The ascendancy of the Christian church provided a hiatus between philosophy and true interiority;6 it unified the heavenly with the earthly in a final totality. But after the Renaissance ended this final totality, there was no going back, since any attempt to reunify man with his world is deliberate and conscious of interiority: “Once this unity disintegrated, there could be no more spontaneous totality of being.”7 Thus there arose an “antagonistic duality between soul and world” which resulted in interiority:8 art as self-expression developed as a result of having a self clearly and irreparably distinct from the rest of the world. The novel was the result. For Lukács, the wholeness and unity of spirit, world and culture that characterize a people capable of producing epic are the natural and necessary predecessors of the discrete individuality, consciousness, and self-expression that characterize the novel and its world:

Whereas the smallest disturbance of the transcendental correlations must cause the immanence of meaning in life to vanish beyond recovery, an essence that is divorced from life and alien to life can crown itself with its own existence in such a way that this consecration, even after a more violent upheaval, may pale but will never disappear altogether. That is why tragedy, although changed, has nevertheless survived in our time with its essential nature intact, whereas the epic had to disappear and yield its place to an entirely new form: the novel.9

Thus, although the novel is not and should not be an attempt to emulate epic totality (for this would ignore the fact that “the disintegration and inadequacy of the world is the precondition for art and its becoming conscious”, and would “carry the fragmentary nature of the world’s structure into the world of forms”), it remains the purest expression of essence of which this world is capable, and is therefore the artistic heir of epic. The novel is the product of a ceaseless struggle of the human soul, once invested with interiority, to fully express itself and its experience. That struggle is always doomed to fail, and yet always destined to result in art; it is the defining element of the literature of nearly every modern Western culture.

1 Lukàcs, Georg. The Theory of the Novel, p. 29. Trans. Anna Bostock. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1971.
2 Ibid., p. 32.
3 Ibid., p. 44.
4 Ibid., p. 35. .
5 Ibid., p. 37.
6 Ibid., p. 37.
7 Ibid., p. 38.
8 Ibid., p. 88.
9 Ibid., p. 41.
10 Ibid., p. 39

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