Michael McKeon. The Origins of the English Novel: 1600 - 1740
McKeon’s Dialectical theory of genres: (Jérémy)
New literary genres do not appear out of nowhere. They emerge in dialectical relation with preceding genres.
The author uses the example of Marx’s method of political economy. Marx describes in this example the
complex and dialectical relations that exist between the four economic factors: production, consumption,
distribution and exchange.
McKeon concludes from this example “that the problem of pursuing a dialectical method must always be a
historical problem”. By that he means that if we are to look at the emergence of the novel (which he also links
with the rise of the middle-class) we have to look back in the past. And that is look back at “romance” and “the
McKeon explains from there that the origins of the English novel occur at the end point of a long history of
“novelistic usages” that allows the definition of a new category.
The dialectical theory of genre then permits to solve the problematic persistence of “romance” and “the
aristocracy” in the novel. This it does by arguing that new genre, when they appear, adopts some characteristics
of the ancient genre it is supposed to replace.
For the “novel” aspect, one good example in Tom Jones is found on page 31, chapter 1, book I, lines 7 to 12. In
this passage, Fielding shows he is interested in writing something that can be believed to be true, something
reflecting some reality, which one characteristic of the novel.
In support to McKeon’s point that when new genre emerge they take some of the characteristics of the genre
they are supposed to replace, a good example is the series of coincidences that appear throughout the book.
When Tom Jones is on his way to the war in book 8, he meets successively, Mr Partridge, who is then thought to
be his father. Then he meets the lawyer and the counsellor that were at Mr Allworthy’s house. Such coincidences
are reminiscent of the romance genre.
Chapter 4: “The Destabilization of Social Categories”. (Angélique and Kathrin)
Aristocratic ideology: a concept used to make social distinctions between people. Main idea: if you are well
born, you will be a virtuous individual. correlation between the notions of birth and worth. Examples in Tom
1) Blifil. Well born, but no inner worth. dislocation between his birth and his virtues.
2) Tom Jones. Is a bastard, but a gentleman at the same time. absence of equilibrium between his birth and his
3) Mrs Honour. Low social rank, but honourable on certain occasions. She is in between, a typically mixed
character that we can find in the book.
In the early modern period: assumptions underlying aristocratic ideology are questioned and criticized
Progressive ideology: expression used by McKeon to describe a newly emerging ideology that responds to and
criticizes aristocratic ideology
- The notion of honour: undergoes a process of transvaluation; progressive ideology splits it up into virtue on the
one hand and aristocratic rank on the other (idea of personal virtue vs. inherited nobility) predominant
meaning of “honour” shifts from “title of rank” to “goodness of character” (p. 156)
- Status vs. class orientations: problem of how to class social groups, either by status or by income; both criteria
are used, yet class criteria gradually replace status criteria
- Conservative ideology: term used by McKeon to refer to another body of belief that constitutes another
response to aristocratic ideology. Like progressive ideology, it separates worth from birth, but it defends opinion
that “elevated birth affords opportunities for education, travel, and companionship which are otherwise not
available” (p. 170); noble and base born people are not different in nature but the different circumstances
make different persons of them.
To conclude this chapter 4, we can say that the 18th century is a period of social instability (categorisation
becomes difficult) and we can see that the different ideologies coexist. Literature is a good way to represent,
criticize and parody the inconsistency of the status and the questions of virtues. Tom Jones is a very good
example of that.
Chapter 5: “Absolutism and Capitalist ideology: the volatility of Reform”. (Guillaume)
Mc Keon explains the long transition from feudalism to capitalism that took place in England ( and in Europe as
well ) between the 13th and the 18th centuries.
Absolutist period :
fill the gap between feudalism and capitalism.
Construction of the modern state that will support capitalism.
A lot of social changes :
- change in the role of the nobility (military functions decreased)
- no more baronial constraints for the king (the barons lost their influence)
- progressive ideology slowly increased ( merit becomes more important than birth)
Few royal Acts ( in 1646, the abolition of the feudal tenures for instance) as well as the movement of the
enclosures promoted the capitalisation of society : one could now work for his own’s sake and try to make
benefits out of his estate. Warning : non-uniformity of the transition, feudal system persisted longer in the
country than in the cities. We have a good example in the book with Squire Western, who is living more or less
like the feudal barons.
Links between Protestantism and Capitalism :
According to protestant faith, salvation is predestinate.
no link with social rank or status.
doesn’t depend on good works; good works are proofs that one has attained salvation.
salvation is a matter of inner worth (important theme in the book).
Protstants believe in values like labour and success. By promoting the labour for one’s own sake, the protestants
encouraged the capitalisation of society. Labour, merit and success became signs of moral qualities.
Fielding is opposed :
- to capitalist ideology : in Tom Jones, the pursuit of personal wealth is always accompanied by bad actions
(Black George, Mrs Honour, Molly, Capt. Blifil…). The characters that follow self-interest (like Blifil) are
presented by Fielding as morally very low characters.
- to the idea that merit should bring rewards (progressive ideology). We can see that with Thwackum on page
214. Fielding shows that the capitalisation of society has gone too far, since even Church is corrupted.
Parts 4 and 5: « Evaluating Human Appetite » and « Progressive and Conservative Ideology » (Grégory)
We are going to do a more precise comparison between progressive and conservative ideologies, especially
concerning some economical aspects.
Progressive Ideology :
Social origin: middle-class people (merchants, tradesmen).
Economic ideology: capitalism, mercantilism.
Basic value of this ideology: individualism to serve community (private vice for public virtue).
Examples in « Tom Jones »: Mr. Blifil (p.267-268) or Square and Thwackum (p.185-186).
By individualism progressive ideology's supporters understand « human appetite ».
Honour based on God's choice (Calvin's thought) and merit (« commercial » acts, works).
Monied-interest (apparition of credit and trust with commercial exchanges: the traditional note versus a chosen
quantity of money noted on a « common » piece of paper).
Examples in « Tom Jones »: Molly, Mrs. Western and Mrs. Honour (p.307).
main values of progressive ideology: monied-interest and human appetite.
Social origin: aristocracy, nobility.
Religion: catholicism, especially (but protestantism's part in English aristocracy at the 18 th century mustn't be
Economic ideology: economic state policy, protectionism.
Basic value of this ideology: economic system « equal for all » (chances' equality).
Concerning « Tom Jones » Henry Fielding opposes progressive ideology's individualism to agency, love and
passion (p.233 ff.). Honour based on birth.
Conservative ideology's point of view on money: it's an « imaginery » element which has no legal origin (with
this thought they especially think to credit) and furthermore, money as major virtue has one great danger,
corruption (an illegal way of climbing in social hierarchy). The main example of this fact in « Tom Jones » is
Main values of conservative ideology: birth, landed estate (propriety) and personal relations.