Marina MacKay. The Cambridge Introduction to the Novel. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. 217 pp.

Posted on February 5, 2013



In the eighteenth century, the novel was regarded as entertainment and a medium of escapism for a majority of readers. Today, this form of literature is also one of the primary sources of study in the academic field of Literary Studies. Many contemporary authors shape genres, play around with imagination, and try to test the limits of the novel. To study this popular and precious literary form, students of literature require a scholarly introduction

The Cambridge Introduction to the Novel provides the reader with a broad introduction to the history of the novel and the field of literary studies. Marina MacKay, an Associate Professor of English at Washington University in St. Louis discusses the history, formal aspects, types of the novel and contemporary literary phenomenon or trends. Published by Cambridge University Press, this Cambridge introduction series is written to introduce students to the main topics concerning the novel and provide concrete examples

            This book is divided into eleven chapters with nine ‘interchapters’ (as MacKay calls them) between the main chapters. These ‘interchapters’ consist of further readings and “how the generalizations of summary chapters might be put to specific uses” (ix). ‘Interchapters’ analyze  some well-known literary works arranged chronologically by date of publication, such as Don Quixote, Tristram Shandy, The Scarlett Letter, Madame Bovary, To The Lighthouse, The Ministry of Fear,  Midnight’s Children. As an example, in the ‘interchapter’ about The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, MacKay discusses Tristram Shandy’s features: Sterne’s “unorthodox story telling, plot dissolve into digression” (34), non-linear plot, anecdotes, Tristram’s fatalism and how Tristram sometimes communicates with the reader. Meanwhile, in the ‘interchapter’ about The Scarlet Letter, MacKay argues that The Scarlet Letter “is a novel about a character” (79). Not only is the character of Hester Prynne strong and memorable within the novel, for the student of literary MacKay argues that The Scarlet Letter reveals what character means.

In chapter one, MacKay begins by discussing the importance of the novel, the difficulties in defining it, anxieties about its danger and influence, and the history of women as readers. In chapter two, she continues with a discussion of various attempts to define the novel, followed by a history of the novel as literary form and its rise to popularity. The following chapters focus on aspects and features of the novel, such as narration in chapter three, character in chapter four, plot in chapter five, setting in chapter six, and time and history in chapter seven. The chapter about narration talks about some narrative techniques: omniscient narration, free indirect discourse, stream of consciousness, the idea of the unreliable narrator and embedded narratives. She goes on to talk about characters in the next chapter, by beginning with how characters are constructed. Further discussions concerning characters are the categorization of flat and round characters, textuality of characters, and characters as persons. Chapter five discusses plot as organizing principle of narrative as well as conspiracy, and discusses how plot can create suspense (“to be suspended, literally is to be left hanging” (84)), interruption and delay. Moreover, concerning consequentiality and meaning, MacKay points out that through the design of plot, meaning is made. She also discusses how plot can be “made to enact a model of social coherence, a social ecology” (90). The next chapter discusses varieties of setting. MacKay mentions typical estate novels like Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, and location of gothic novels such as in the castles. Taking examples from the settings of canonized novels, MacKay points out that land, the sea and factories, are typical settings for novel. Cityscapes are also often chosen as novel’s setting by both Victorian and modern novelists. Novel can also be set in ‘nowhere’, such as in Sir Thomas More’s Utopia which is set on a fictional New World island, or ‘everywhere’, such as in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. The subject of the next chapter seven is the novel’s relationship with reality of life in time and history. In this chapter, MacKay takes a look into some historical novels, novel sequence, and discusses the transformation of narrative time by the modern writers. MacKay also introduces terms concerning time, history and literary works, such as anachronism and chronotope. Chapter eight discusses about genre and subgenre in novels, the categorization of novel into genre fiction and literary fiction. Chapter nine discusses the styles and techniques of novels like magic realism, metafiction, intertextuality, postmodernism and historiographic metafiction. Chapter ten explains the relationship between novels with nation or community; how novels can represent and make a nation or community. In this case, MacKay takes Toni Morrison’s Beloved as an example. Beloved is a “form of narrative redress, the inclusion of the voices of those who have historically been subordinate, voiceless and disempowered” (163). MacKay concludes the book in chapter eleven and discusses the varieties of endings, such as ongoingness, open endings and anti-closure.

Though rather short, this book is a very good introductory textbook. Since the book is aimed at and recommended for beginner students and as a reference book for introductory classes studying the novel or literature in general, The Cambridge Introduction to the Novel offers a general level of discussion on many well-known novels rather than specific or complex theoretical analysis. This book includes a glossary of literary terms, notes, index and suggestion for further reading for each chapter. The language and writing style of this book is accessible. Unfamiliar or specific literary terms are printed in bold and explained in the glossary. The glossary itself, though rather short, provides clear explanations of the literary terms. This book is also recommended for those who want to study particular literary techniques or phenomena, such as stream of consciousness, metafiction, intertextuality and historiographic metafiction, since the basic ideas are explained clearly with examples in this book. Moreover, for advanced students of literature, this book provides accessible discussions on various topics on many interesting novels. The division of chapters in this book is very appropriate and structured in way that makes it easier for the student to read either selectively or as a whole: MacKay begins with discussing the history, various attempts to define the novel, the importance of the novel, and then discussing the aspects of the novel, like narration, character, plot, and setting. Chapter seven to eleven deal with the novel’s features, techniques, influences, and the book closes with a conclusion and discussion on the varieties of novel endings. MacKay often includes epigraphs at the beginning of chapters or ‘interchapters’, which are interesting as prefaces, and at the same time appropriate as examples, such as in the ‘interchapter’ about The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, MacKay inserts an epigraph from J.D Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. This epigraph is a quote from Holden Caulfield’s narration about his reluctance to talk about his ‘lousy’ childhood in the beginning of the novel. Later in the text, MacKay uses Holden’s phrase “all that David Copperfield kind of crap” as a comparison to Tristram’s explanation of his cursed birth and childhood. MacKay states that “the novels and novelists discussed here were chosen primarily for the familiarity attendant on their cultural stature, in some case positively monumental,” (x) therefore, although the literary works that she takes as examples in this book come from various times and genres (Jonathan Swift, Laurence Sterne, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, to Hanif Kureishi, Zadie Smith and Dan Brown), they are well-known, well-acclaimed and key text in literary studies, and also important and worth knowing for those who have just started to study literature.


Stefani Hid

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