ENL 6236 – Eighteenth-Century Novel and Theory                                        Dr. Runge


1/23                 McKeon, Part II (pp. 131-270)

                        Post #2

                        Review Essay – Nancy Fletcher


                        For this class we will finish reading the first half of McKeon's work – the theoretical and historical exploration of the origins of the English novel.  This work provides both a great deal of information about the early culture of England and the books it produced and read, and it also provides a complex dialectical theory of genre to account for the contradictory social and epistemological impulses incorporated in the various works we call "novels."  Our review essay should give you an indication of how such a monumental work of scholarship was received, where the problems lie and what are considered its successes.  Our goal will be to try to assimilate the information, the theory and the reception and to use this information to assess the early novels of England.




Michael McKeon,  Origins of the English Novel 1600-1740 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987).




Describe the characteristics of the following:


Aristocratic Ideology--


Progressive Ideology--


Conservative Ideology--


Chapter 4:  The Destabilization of Social Categories (131-175)


1.        Aristocratic Ideology


Terms of social distinction – rank, degree, estate, order – refer to a status based on possession or non-possession of honor, a quality which “through the crucial mediation of repute” points outward and inward (131).


What are the “signs” of outward honor?  What is inward “honor”?  What is the relationship between the two according to aristocratic ideology? 


How is the social order explained according to aristocratic ideology?


What are the implications for the demographic fact that “in a stationary population, forty percent of all families will fail to produce a male heir” (132)?  What forms of “patriline repair” operate in the aristocratic ideology?


What is the social corollary for the literary commonplace of “true nobility”? (132-3)


The explanation of the following chapter will detail how “the gradual discrediting of aristocratic honor, the resolution of its tacit unity into the problematic relation of rank and virtue, birth and worth, was accompanied by the accelerated mobilization of social, intellectual legal and institutional fictions whose increasingly ostentatious use signaled their incapacity to serve the ideological ends for which they were designed” (133).


How does this explain the emergence of the novel at that particular moment in early modern history?


2.        Precursor Revolutions:  The Greek Enlightenment (134-140)


McKeon’s summary of Levi-Strauss’s analysis of myth in non-literate culture comes to play a very important structural role in his own analysis of status inconsistency.  He looks to Levi-Strauss to illustrate how some cultures used the natural order of species (animals, plants, etc.) as an analogous but separate system of groups in their stories.  Mutability from one to another was conventional, and he concludes that the natural order was used to stabilize human culture which is variable.  Exogamy as a rule tends to promote social cohesion between different social groups, whereas endogamy promotes the unity of single groups at the cost of greater group solidarity.  Myth, and by extension narrative, come to play the same social role as exogamy (134).


How do these conventions of mutability and stability become manifest in later narratives?


Socrates’ fiction of genesis in The Republic does not rely on the natural order for stability, but instead on individual merit.  How does this “fiction” resolve status inconsistency (the outward signs and inward virtue)? What happens to lineage?  (137)


McKeon cites two love stories, by Longus and by Apuleius, where instead of transformations from nature to culture, the authors show how love transforms status inconsistency to consistency.  What is different about the transformations brought about by love?  What role does this come to play in McKeon’s broader argument about social categories? (139)


3.        Precursor Revolutions:  The Twelfth Century Renaissance (140-150)


How do the Greek romances compare with stories in Hebrew culture?  How do these in turn compare with Christian teachings of the twelfth century? (140).


McKeon details the many forms of status instability in Feudal Europe, where land could not be divided and a system of primogeniture – which could not be supported demographically – led to mobility downward for some nobility, while service and growth in wealth led to mobility upward of some ministeriales.  All of this instability needs to be understood within a context of the unstable feudal state, with its numerous conflicts (141).


How is the twelfth century romance related to the historical conditions of social mobility?


How is “individualism” a factor in the twelfth century romance? (142)


What role does love play in the social transformations of these romances?  What are the opposing effects that love has as a force of transformation? (143-4)


In England, McKeon claims, the anti-romance impulse takes greater hold than on the Continent. What are some of the historical political reasons for this development?  How do these English fictions critique the transformative powers of love?  (145-7)


McKeon claims that in the fourteenth century, two developments greatly influenced social categories – the Peasants’ Revolt and the making of a hereditary Peerage.  However, he only details the implications of the latter. What are the short-term and long-term effects of this system of titles reserved for a single heir, regardless of service to the king? (147)


“The emphasis on constancy in these ballads intensifies the convention of true nobility, in effect underscoring its apparent presence in the man by forcefully attending to the conviction of the woman.”  It also intensifies anxiety over status inconsistency.  “But constancy is also conventionally a female virtue, related to chastity in having the genealogical significance of ensuring the continuity of the male line . . . .  So the preoccupation with female constancy may aim to reassure us, however illogically, that the absence of noble rank need not mean the absence of aristocratic honor” (149).


Examine the implications of the above.  What are his examples?  How do these stories resolve status inconsistency?  What role does gender play? Is McKeon’s explanation sufficient?  This formula gets altered throughout the course of the seventeenth century, but continues to play an important role in McKeon’s analysis of questions of virtue.


4.        Progressive ideology and the transvaluation of honor


The early modern period is characterized by a rupture between “internals and externals, of virtue, status, wealth and power” (150).


What are some of the historical indications of this rupture?


“We are often obliged to understand the very force with which traditional authority is asserted as one telling sign of its weakness” (151).


The history of the first half of the seventeenth century leading up the Civil wars and the Interregnum is essential to understanding much of McKeon’s argument.  Brush up on your kings and dates.


What is the “inflation of honors” and what role does it have in the deflation of aristocratic ideology? (151-3)


What is a “strict settlement” and how does this serve the interests of patrilineal principles as well as undermine them? (153-4)


What is the characteristic gesture of progressive ideology?  How is progressive ideology consistent with attacks on romance made by historical claims in naïve empiricism? (154-5).


What happens to the category of “true nobility” by the end of the seventeenth century?  What happens to the term “honor” (154-6)?


Explain the changing denotations of “chastity” in the seventeenth century.  What are the political grounds for female chastity?  What are the religious grounds for chastity?  What happens to male chastity and the chastity of lower class women?


“For as the progressive critique forces the detachment of ‘honor as virtue’ from male aristocratic honor, it simultaneously encourages its relocation within not only commoners but women, who increasingly come to be viewed not just as the conduit but as the repository of an honor that has been alienated from a corrupt male aristocracy” (158).


Although this insight has rich resonance in many of the texts McKeon explores – as well as the eighteenth-century novel – he does not amplify the point, even in his chapter on the gendering of ideology.  What are the implications of this transformation of honor?  How might this play into some of the narratives he explores? 


5.        The Rise of the Gentry (159-162)


After reviewing the debates regarding the “rise of the gentry” in early modern England, how are we to understand the term “gentry”?  What is the significance of the fact that it is a category into which and out of which different segments of society rose and fell, especially leading up to the revolution in the seventeenth century? (159-60)


Explain the absorption model of social change and the retention model of mobility.  What impact do these models have on our understanding of narratives of status inconsistency?


6.        From Status to Class (162-167)


What is the difference between “status” and “class”?  How does one come to replace the other?  What does it mean that “class” becomes a simple abstraction in the modern period (163)?


What are the terms of conflict between “land” and “trade”?  How are these different from the conflict between “landed interests” and “monied interests”? (166-167)


7.        The Persistence of the Aristocracy (167-169)


In contrast to the historical perspective that views the eighteenth century as a period of relative stability manifest in the alliance between landed and monied interests under a Whig oligarchy, McKeon stresses how “capitalist or ‘middle-class’ values have transformed the aristocracy:  how individualistic and class criteria are eating away, as it were, from within, at a social structure whose external shell still seems roughly assimable to the status model” (167).


How useful is his analogy between the emergence of a language of class in the social realm and the canonization of the novel in the literary realm (168)?


How does one explain the persistence of the aristocracy when, as some historians argue, the country gentry funded the capitalist enterprises of the seventeenth century?


“The idea of aristocracy is decisively conceptualized at this time over against the articulation of progressive ideology, and its paradoxical function is to mediate the persistence of a category whose impermanence is signaled by the very fact that only now need it be conceptualized as such” (169).


8.        The Formation of Conservative Ideology (169-171)


Conservative ideology plays the third part in the tripartite drama of social crises, and as such it ensures the persistence of aristocratic ideology as it opposes it (169).


If progressive ideology represents the separation of status and virtue, conservative ideology reasserts the connection, but not as an essentialist notion. Rather in pragmatic terms the value for aristocracy – the opportunities afforded the nobility, the authority and adherence to investment in the law of the land – secure the aristocracy its vaunted place in society (169-170).


Who are the main proponents of conservative ideology?  What role do they play historically?  What influence do they have culturally?  How might we explain the difference? (171)


In this section McKeon draws together his two models of dialectic reversal to suggest their compound influence on the novel:  “as a method of organizing sheer fluidity into a schematic model whose function is not to resolve conflict but to render in intelligible.  Linked in their common opposition to aristocratic ideology, progressive and conservative ideology acquire an oppositional coherence as rival interpretations of the current crisis of status inconsistency – of its causes as well as its likely remedies.  Their rationalized conflict serves to mediate the profound gulf between status and class orientations until the incorporation of status by class criteria has advanced far enough to provide a new and relatively stable standard of group identity for the modern era.  In the accomplishment of this cultural revolution, the origins of the novel play a central role” (171).


Evaluate the claims in the above statement.  How effective is his schema?  What are the implications for the function of the novel in the accomplishment of cultural revolution?  How does this differ from Watt?


7.        Understanding Status Inconsistency  (171-175)


What is “relative deprivation” and what does it tell us about social categories in the seventeenth century?  What relationship does McKeon see between this phenomenon and the dialectical theory of literary genre? (172-3)


How is reference group theory a “crucial precondition for revolutionary behavior” (173)?  How does this match with McKeon’s claims in summary on pages 268-269?


“The social significance of the English novel at the time of its origins lies in its ability to mediate – to represent as well as contain – the revolutionary clash between status and class orientations and the attendant crises of status inconsistency.  The novel gives form to the fluidity of crisis by organizing it into a conflict of competing interpretations” (173).


How does the progressive ideology explain status inconsistency?  How does it resolve it?

How does the conservative ideology explain status inconsistency? How does it resolve it?


McKeon goes on to examine the revolutions of the seventeenth century to identify patterns of dialectic antithesis through which the novel emerges.  He identifies the massive reform movements as a singular and unprecedented development:  "Using the term in its widest sense, I will argue that the early modern reform movements mediated capitalist ideology before its maturity in a way that is becoming increasingly familiar in this study; that is, their tendency to destabilize social categories emerged over time and, often, out of a more obvious propensity to do just the opposite – to reinforce traditional lines of social stratification” (174).


What is the assimilationist strain of middle-class ideology?  What is the supersessionist strain?  Why are they important to understanding status inconsistency?


Chapter Five:  Absolutism and Capitalist Ideology:  The Volatility of Reform (176-212)


                What is absolutism?  How can we understand England to have undergone a period of absolutism between feudalism and capitalism if the country never had an absolute monarch?


“The dynamic tension that animates absolutism, and that is expressed in the tension between royal will and noble privilege, is the impulse to dissolve the limitations imposed by feudal social relations without also dissolving the implicit sanctions of feudal hierarchy.  The impulse is unfulfillable” (178).


How does the “flowering of absolutist doctrines of royal sovereignty” become a model for other reform efforts? 


1.                    The Absolute Prince Absolutized (178-182)


What is the fiction of the king’s two bodies?  How do Charles I’s absolutist doctrines ultimately serve to rationalize his own death? (179)


Explain how the fiction of uninterrupted succession is managed in the seventeenth century.  Why is the validation of genealogical inheritance important? (180-182)


2.                    The Sword and The Robe (182-189)


What is the nature of these two conflicting ideologies of aristocratic education?  What possibilities do they provide for resolving status inconsistency?  What role do they play in McKeon’s larger analysis?


3.                    Protestants and Capitalists (189-200)


In this section McKeon draws the connection between the Reformation in the Elizabethan court and the development of capitalism, a historical connection that plays a central role in the progressive model of narrative.  Evaluate his claim that the overthrow of papal authority and the subordination of the church to the state also offered “a view of absolutist reform as a dynamic and destabilizing internalization of authority” (189).


Compare the Lutheran sense of reform to the Calvinist.  How do they differ with respect to social change?  What role does economic behavior play in each?  (189-90).


Summarize McKeon’s evaluation of Max Weber’s celebrated thesis assigning a causal relationship between the “Protestant ethic” and the “spirit of capitalism.”  What role does the Catholic doctrine of justification by works play?  What role does predestination play?  What is the life of discipline prescribed for the Calvinist? (190-192)


What is the Lutheran idea of the “doctrine of proof”? (192)  How does this risk becoming absolutist?


How is Calvinist validation by community dangerously close to Catholic “good works”?  What countercritique does this generate? (194-5)


How does one limit personal acquisitiveness within this marriage of Protestantism and capitalism? (196)


Evaluate the two critiques of  Protestant ethic and its complicity with progressive ideology” (197):  Marvell and Winstanley.


What happens after the Restoration between Anglicanism and Puritanism where capitalist arguments are concerned? (199)


Explain:  “That the piety and fervor of Protestant Reformation should have aided in the development of an ideology in which human self-sufficiency renders God strictly superfluous is only the most strikingly paradoxical instance of the general truth that once set in motion, absolutist reform reforms absolutely” (200).


4.                    Evaluating Human Appetites (200-205)


McKeon views the historical move from a mercantilist economy – state protected private ventures – to free market capitalism as a stage in absolutist reform.


“Capitalist ideology entails, most fundamentally, the attribution of value to capitalist activity: minimally, as valuable to ends greater than itself and as significant of virtue; perhaps as valuable in its own right; finally, even as value-creating.”  Both the religious rationalists and the secular economists needed to posit “an absolute power, beyond human scope, whose extraordinary and paradoxical capacity it was to turn individual human limitations to good ends” (201). 


“But the individual capitalist activity also came to be validated in its own right, and for this to occur it was necessary that absolute authority be humanly internalized, that not just the capitalist system, but the capitalist motive be naturalized” (202).


How does the projection of an endless human appetite serve capitalist/Protestant ends?


How does this endless human appetite become naturalized? (203)


5.                    Progressive Ideology and Conservative Ideology


What is the progressive ideology attitude toward the free market? (205)

What is the basis of the critique launched by conservative ideology?  How does it characterize absolute capitalist activity?  How does it compare with aristocratic absolutism? (206)


McKeon identifies a weakness in conservative ideology:  “It may be most accurate to see the conservative ideology of the early eighteenth century not as a negation of capitalist ideology but as an expression of a wish to halt the implacable juggernaut of capitalist reform at a stage that preserved, at least for property owners of a certain political and social persuasion, the best of both worlds” (209).  What does this suggest about the “program” of conservative ideology?  How does it resolve this indeterminacy? (210)


Comment on the summation of the chapter:  “The rule of the absolute prince was gradually being usurped by the rule of the private individual and his absolute right to choose his leaders and dispose of his property according to the dictates of his natural appetites” (211).


Chapter Six:  Stories of Virtue (212-270)


His model:  “The progressive critique of aristocratic ideology demystifies prescribed honor as an imaginary value, explaining virtue as a quality that is not prescribed by status but demonstrated by achievement.  Sparked by the vitality of this critique, a conservative counter critique shares the anti-aristocratic animus against prescription, but rejects also the argument from achievement as nothing other than the modern version of imaginary value, distinguished only by the frank crudity of its corruption.  For the foundations of real value and virtue, this counter critique looks back to the tacit authority of aristocratic cultures, to the authoritative aura somehow dissociated from the skeptical and damning estimate of its justification” (212).


This chapter attempts to answer the question of how narrative should be suitable for the representation of these conflicting ideologies.


He identifies questions of virtue with lineal succession, thereby making these questions inherently narrative.  Evaluate.  (212)


What does it mean to speak of the novel’s “embodiment of the impulse to explain the mutability of human affairs in social and historical rather than metaphysical terms” (214)?  What examples does he give us?


“Among the epochal events of recent past, contemporaries learned to recur to certain critical ones that seemed to have altered the nature of social relations in a decisive fashion, and by this means they organized historical experience into competing accounts of how, why and even when status, wealth, and power came to be divided from one another” (215).


Why is the Protestant Reformation the historical event of choice for progressive narratives?  Why are the events of the second half of the seventeenth century (the Restoration, the Glorious Revolution, the establishment of the Bank of England and a National Debt) events of choice for the conservative narrative?


2.        Historical Models for Progressive Narratives


Why does the younger son play such an important role in both progressive and conservative narratives?


Why is the linear narrative sequence more powerful for the progressive narrative than a circular narrative?  (220)  What does McKeon mean by these formal terms?


The bald outline:  “By specifying mutability to the concrete realm of social stratification and mobility, progressive plots explain it in terms of the status inconsistency and social injustice that are inherent features of aristocratic culture.  And by representing the downward mobility of unworthy nobility and gentry and the upward mobility of industrious and deserving commoners, progressive plots simultaneously overcome that inconsistency” (223).


How helpful is this outline in the explanation of narratives that follow?  How useful will this be for analyzing eighteenth-century novels?


He identifies the narrative tension between the will to engage this problem and the will to naturalize the problem (223-6).  What are the implications of these two tendencies? 


Examples: Deloney’s narratives of Jack  (226)


3.        Historical Models for conservative narratives


Why are the stories of failed younger sons more appropriate for the conservative narrative?  (228)


Why does the circular narrative accommodate the needs of the conservative narrative? (230-32).


Examples:  Davenant’s Mr. Double, Manley’s Queen Zarah, New Atalantis, Deloney’s Thomas of Reading


4.        Ideological Implications of Generic Models


Evaluate the claim:  “My central concern thus far has been to show that in the formation of novelistic narrative, the most important narrativemodel was not another ‘literary’ genre at all, but historical process itself” (238).


What are the ideological implications of the picaresque narratives – Guzman vs. Lazarillo (239)?


What are the ideological implications of the romance as instrumentality in narrative? (240-1)


What are the gendered implications of McKeon’s evaluation of Mary Carleton’s narratives:  “The progressive dilemma of how to obtain the worldly reward of virtue without noble status is overlaid, for Mary, by the analogous but far more insuperable problem of female empowerment in an overwhelmingly patrilineal and patriarchal culture” (243).


Example: Francis Kirkman’s autobiography (244-248).


What are the ideological implications of imaginary travel narratives? (249)


Examples:  Behn’s Oroonoko, Henry Pines, Isle of Pines, voyages of Edward Coxere.


5.        Gendering of Ideology


The main contention of this part is the translation of the earlier narratives of mutability to the progressive ideology:  “And soon virtue in the guise of female chastity becomes powerfully normative in progressive narrative, emblematic of the honor that has been alienated from, and is yet pursued by, a corrupt male aristocracy” (255-6).


What are some of the characteristics of this model in the examples McKeon analyzes (Robert Greene, Aphra Behn)?  (256-259).


How does the conservative critique challenge the model?  What becomes more explicit and therefore subject to scrutiny?  (Ex.  Eliza Haywood, Mary Delariviere Manley, Swift, Bolingbroke).


How is the last example, William Congreve’s Incognita, distinguished?  What are the implications of his “parodic” form?  What evidence do we have that it is “parodic”?  (263-265).


6.        The Conflation of Truth and Virtue


This section offers a succinct and suggestive summary of McKeon’s argument as well as an important statement of its significance, of what is new and what ought to be pursued.


Why does he separate his analysis of questions of truth and questions of virtue?


In what ways are the two actually conflated?


What is the relationship between questions of truth and virtue and narrative form and content? (266)


Evaluate his ultimate claim when he ties the questions of signification to the dialectic reversals of the two sets of questions:  “it is in these double reversals, and in their conflation, that the novel is constituted as a dialectical unity of opposed parts, an achievement that is tacitly acknowledged by the gradual stabilization of ‘the novel’ as a terminological and conceptual category in eighteenth-century usage” (267).


To what extent does McKeon rely on the persistence of romance in his explanation of  new” literary genres? (268)


The two new things that he wants to stress are the status of literary revolutions and the function of literature as reform.  What role do these two things play in his explanation of the origins of the novel?  How significant are they?  To what extent is this information “new” to novel theory?


And they lived happily ever after….