Canonical or Not Canonical: That Is the Question

By Craig Wright | 10 Nov 2022 | Education

The status of a work as a classic differs from the position as a canonical text (da Silva and Vieira). In part, whether a work is canonical, or even if it’s read or used as a textbook, depends on fashion (Price 95). In addition, the different literary forms, including fiction and non-fiction prose, poetry, and drama, are in or out of vogue depending on the taste of the reading population (Martindale). At one stage, poetry was considered the highest form of literature, while the novel was considered vulgar. Yet, few today read poetry (Neville).

            Exploring whether literary form alters our perception of whether a book deserves classical literary status requires that we define the nature of classical status in literature and investigate the changes in canonical forms as the popular perception of literary form fluctuates. Hence, evaluating classically canonical works such as Great Expectations (Dickens) against more contemporary works such as The Bell Jar (Plath) necessitates an analysis of how such works address and interact with the audience.

            The mentioned works by Dickens and Plath are each prose fiction. Yet, the style and mood utilised by each author vary drastically and not merely through the passage of time. The distribution method as a serial novel and the perspective as a first-person narrative set Great Expectations apart from The Bell Jar. Moreover, the structural intricacy of Dickens’s work contrasts significantly with the cynical and tormented dark humour of Sylvia Plath. Scrutinising such works, and determining the value of each work’s canonical status, requires that each work be analysed and compared.

Great Expectations

Dickens places the protagonist Pip as the narrator and in the primary perspective and focus of the novel. Great Expectations is reflective with Pip reminiscing about his past. As such, the narration cannot be trusted in the same way a novel retold as events occur would be. Instead, Pip’s reconsideration of the past demonstrates a constructed emotional framework that captures the motivations for his behaviour that the character has introduced while reminiscing about the past.

            Dickens presents a sardonic form of typically British droll comedy within his novel. The caustic wit allows the protagonist to document tragic events that could be perceived as disturbing and in a light that makes Pip seem less pitiful and more derisively indignant at the struggle behind him. For instance, the novel opens with Pip noting that his five brothers were given five stone lozenges, for each of those siblings “who gave up trying to get a living exceeding early in the universal struggle” (Dickens, 19).

            Freud argued that the death drive is the opposite of the principle of life and pleasure (Freud). In creating scenarios that avoid the negative aspects of death, Pip exhibits a form of thanatophobia that sees the character avoiding the concept of himself dying without being remembered. Even when facing death, Pip reminisces that “the death close to me was terrible, but far more terrible than death was the dread of being misremembered after death” (Dickens, 462).

            Bloom (Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, 1–2) argues that Pip is Dickens’s most introspective character and one most affected by his own pathos. Pip’s dull and sardonic wit covers the excessive guilt that the character feels. Magwitch and Miss Havisham find a way into Pip’s psyche through this gaping hole of contemplative self-disdain. The intricate nature of how Pip has reconstructed his past demonstrates the deep level of introspection that the character has conducted in thinking about how his life and those he has affected could have been different.

            The repetition compulsion that causes Pip to remember is almost a traumatic experience, leaving the character constantly remembering and updating his past experiences in a form analogous to post-traumatic stress disorder and a Freudian (Chu) process of avoiding the death instinct. The depth of introspection displayed by the characters in this novel captures and unfolds the human psyche on pages before us, so Dickens can explain his morality tale and the lessons he seeks to teach.

            The tangle of enmeshed relationships can partially be accounted for by the nature of recollection exhibited by Pip. Having experienced everything, and looking back upon the past, allows the characters to seem integrated in a manner that is impeccably connected. After the event, Pip says that “the remembrance of our last parting has been ever mournful and painful” (Dickens 523), yet, the character dwells on this part of his life, constantly reliving it and refining his memories of the past.

            Dickens’s character develops and engages in a path of moral growth, yet equally, such are works that engage our expectations. At the extreme, aspects may even be seen as elements of the Gothic or grotesque, with desires of revenge and retribution written through the memories of Pip. Bloom sees the deep psychological ties we have to characters we can understand. In Dickens’s work, it is not just the great expectations of Pip, but the enduring and engaging expectations we all feel. The great expectations we have of our own lives allow us to bond and accept the character.

The Bell Jar

Plath’s writing is, at best, a darkly esthetical dive into the heart of twisted, grotesque, and shattered eschatological literature. In contrast, this fragmented and disjointed scrutiny of the disintegrating minds of both the protagonist and the author in a roman à clef sees Esther Greenwood’s life run in parallel with that of Plath. Equally, the author’s suicide propelled the work into the mainstream.

            While the writing is at times disjointed and the autobiographical nature of the work is not whole, there remains a continuity of the growing psychosis suffered by the protagonist. Plath’s characters do not take two steps forward and one step back, despite the, at times, chaotic approach to the writing. Rather, each paragraph is a continuous descent into a deeper level of neurosis. As new themes of phobia and obsession enter the character’s life, each stage builds upon the prior levels of personal idiosyncrasy.

            As Tim Kendall contends, there is no definitive way where the reader can be assured that Esther has been successfully treated. Instead, “Esther sounds like an omniscient narrator, until it becomes clear that she remains implicated in the breakdown of a younger self, and is still not free” (Kendall and Plath 58). The fear said to be removed was likely only placated in hiding, within her psyche, because of the shock treatment. Such transitory reprieve only opens a path towards a deeper level of insanity, and eventually suicide.

            The perspective of the novel as an investigation into the mind of an individual experiencing a break from reality and entering a bipolar episode and delusional rewriting of reality has literary value. It is a work that spoke at a time and place. For women seeking enfranchisement and equality in a shifting transition from the focused gender roles of the past into the liquid technocratic modernity and the active stance of the ‘60s, such a work held meaning and value. Yet, the role of the Western liberated woman has become the norm, and the writing of Plath no longer captures this aspect of literary criticism other than as historical fiction.

            The bell jar symbolises madness for Esther. In the throes of insanity, the protagonist feels as if she is within an airless jar that warps reality, twisting existence into a grotesque simulacrum of the world while isolating her from the people around her. The electric shock treatment allows her to feel that she is free from the containment of the jar, yet twists life into death and despair, and hope and suicide into regeneration, in a grotesque replacement for existence. There is no liberating transformation that occurs through suicide. Rather, there is an end to existence and the relinquishment of life.

            As a result, the work encapsulates a mood of address that focuses on psychosis and the mental states of individuals outside the norm. Whilst normality is not the focus of many novels, Plath creates a shattered and fragmented character whose descent into madness lies outside the realm of understanding for most people today. Whilst most people can understand the concept of a patched and formally broken individual going back into the world to face the hammer that shattered the porcelain structure of their psyche in the past, Plath’s character is and remains “the person in the Bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby” (Plath, 227).

            The metaphors and analogies used within the novel create an atmosphere that, for most readers, depicts a perspective where for Plath and her characters, “the world itself is a bad dream” (Plath, 227). Yet, awkwardly, few today seek such a perspective.

The Western Literary Canon

Bloom referred to many on the left seeking to redefine the canon as “the School of Resentment” (Schneidau). In part, the attitude of those individuals seeking to replace earlier works captures “the dread of being misremembered after death” (Dickens 462). But, more importantly, resentment expressed by those who seek to recreate the canon captures the Freudian thanatophobia derived from not being recollected. While it can be argued that aesthetic values are not in competition (Lopes et al.), the ability to read and understand works of literature requires that we make choices.

            Even the most avid reader who finishes reading and adjusting thousands of books within their life must choose between other thousands of great works and put them in the context of one another, and for each book chosen, another is dismissed. Such a fact, like many other truths, is ignored. Instead, the entire concept of truth is in disrepute (Allinson). The value of a canonical text is determined through the readership. In part, this is selected not by the ruling literary orthodoxy, which in many cases declares them groundless (Allinson), but by the reader who chooses the work for its literary merit and form.

            The underlying core of society consists of a balance between those living today, the memory and reverence of those who have lived in the past, and the planning and saving for those who will come in the future. Works by Dickens, including Great Expectations, continue to capture the imagination of the common person. It is a work that resounds with concepts that all people feel. Conceivably, the Freudian death instinct resounds in all people (Brown), resting under the surface, bubbling in our subconscious, waiting to be freed. Through such inner turmoil that we all experience, the works of Dickens have become classic, because they provide a mode of address that everybody can understand.

            Conversely, a work such as Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar examines a topic unfamiliar to most people. The topic is arguably important, yet remains out of reach and comprehension to the majority of people who may read it. In exploring the descent into madness, Plath documented many own experiences and captured the depths of despair and angst that exhibit themselves within many forms of psychosis. Yet, despite the work being a profoundly deep investigation into the world of an individual with neuro-disorders, it remained outside common comprehension.

            Plath has characters that speak to us, but the messages are not ones that many of us want to hear. Like Great Expectations, The Bell Jar forms a reflective perspective of life from a character looking back. Yet, whereas Pip recollects memories of the past and constructs a mental façade analogous to how most people reconstruct their own lives, Esther Greenwood brings the reader into a psychologically depressive dive into the depths of mental illness.

            The Bell Jar is a virtually flawless aesthetic construction that encapsulates the concept of literary art. Yet, the mode of address disengages many people. The work is disturbing, and while this makes it suitable as a canonical work and forms the basis of a classic, it also removes the ability of the author to speak to the common person in the manner that Dickens did. It is a work that even Bloom struggled to read as he “recalled being unable to get very far with it” (Bloom, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, 7).

            While Pip attempts to downplay and avoid sympathy, and ironically gains empathy from the reader in the process, “Esther is cut off from the instinct for sympathy right from the beginning – for itself, as well as for others” (Moss). Instead, the aesthetic is one presented through a dark mirror. We all exhibit a dark side to our psyche. Yet, this aspect that Freudian literature convinces us of is one we are afraid to face. The dark side to all our psychological inspirations is one we seek to bury and rarely discuss. Consequently, it is one that we don’t seek to explore. It is a side of ourselves we find repulsive and objectionable, yet it is a side we all secretly present.

            George Eliot would contend that sympathy lies at the heart of a moral life (Ermarth 23). A deep empathy forms the distinction between the characters Dickens portrays and those from Plath. While Dickens draws us into the novel, Plath creates characters that push us away and isolate the reader. Whereas such is the purpose of how Plath expresses the deep depressive emotions of the characters, and while it captures an underlying artistic and aesthetic splendour, it is a dark beauty that can only be truly appreciated by those who can see the end of life.

Conclusion

Modern life is confusing, challenging, and at times seemingly devoid of meaning. Yet, despite the relativistic concepts pushed by many in literary society, there is an underlying truth. The majority of people reading literature seek characters that they can comprehend (Vipond and Hunt; Bloom, The Western Canon). Such a protagonist may convey an introspective and reflective personality, as with Pip, recreating their own past. Yet, such a character embodies the inner soul and feeling that most people experience. As we rebuild our own psychological foundations and construct memories (Haque and Conway), we all create an autobiographical story that encapsulates an abstracted view of our existence.

            Such a reconstruction and revival are generated through iterative processes and memory reconstructions that involve creating a tangled web of mapping our interactions with other people (Haque and Conway). Because of this, reflective novels such as Great Expectations capture the reader’s imagination, allowing them to understand characters such as Pip, who acts as most of us do. It is a mode of address that draws the reader inexplicitly into the novel.

            Conversely, Plath’s characters push the reader away. As with the depressive individual or the clinically bipolar patient, the characters in The Bell Jar dampen positive emotions (Edge et al.). As Plath pushes away her readers with the creation of unsympathetic characters, we simultaneously see the capture of an aspect of life that many of us seek to sweep under the carpet. And as we push issues of mental illness into the background, we also push authors who speak through the voice of a depressive and deranged character out of our thoughts.

            The choices of what we read conclude as economic decisions. As a result, those works that challenge us most and leave us feeling uneasy, tense, and nervous are selected less often. And while valuable and such authors have a message to portray—in many cases, even an important one—they are messages we try to choose to ignore. And the works we ignore rarely become classics; what we ignore cannot be canonical.

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