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Structure and Theme

“Don Quixote” to James Joyce

Margaret Church

Professor Church undertakes to examine the structural elements that underlie thirteen novels from various literatures and eras in order to show how each work results, not only in an art form, but also in a closely connected statement that is sociological, psychological, philosophical, or, sometimes, political in nature. The novels are Don Quixote, Joseph Andrews, The Sorrows of Young Werther, Madame Bovary, Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, The Trial, Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, The Magic Mountain, Jacob’s Room, and Mrs. Dalloway.

Form, Dr. Church finds, relates to subject in quite different ways in these novels. Sometimes it complements it, sometimes it contrasts with it, and sometimes it imitates it. The structures of the novels by Fielding, Flaubert, and Mann, for example, relate to matters largely exterior to the consciousnesses of the protagonists, while those of Dostoevsky and Joyce relate closely to the inner worlds of their leading figures. None of the structures is entirely exterior to context, character, or action, to which it gives shape; but in each novel, structure is more closely related to one of these than to the others.

In Don Quixote—which Dr. Church characterizes as “the ancestor, so to speak, of all fictions and of all metafictions” and which Erich Kahler has called “the first modern novel”—we have a statement about human behavior, about the relationship of the individual to his society and to himself, in which close and complex correlations among the structure of the book, the psychological development of the hero, and, as a consequence, both Renaissance and modern psychological theory, make it quite impossible to separate intrinsic from extrinsic matters—a circumstance that prompts Dr. Church to remark, in a deft aside on abrogation of time, that, in a sense, then, both Emma Bovary and Leopold Bloom can be said to have preceded and to have influenced the Quixote.

The structure of the novel since Cervantes has tended to turn inward when the emphasis is on the individual hero and psychological development, and to turn outward when the emphasis lies on exterior concerns like manners, society, or a philosophy. The eighteenth century turned its attention outward to ridicule the social animal. Romanticism turned inward to explore the feelings and emotions of that animal. Realism adapted itself to both the inner and outer modes depending on the intention, purpose, and interests of the author—on, that is, his definition of what was “real.” Impressionism (Virginia Woolf) and expressionism (Franz Kafka) turned inevitably inward in order to slowly integrate the psychology of the subject with the novelistic form. But though form has become a cohort of meaning in quite different ways in different literary periods, Dr. Church argues, structure, like literary technique, can be characterized as thematic. For the architecture of a novel, like that of a building, is informed by the total environment, and is a part of the subject matter, not something imposed from without.

The late Margaret Church was editor of the journal Modern Fiction Studies, professor of English and chairman of comparative literature at Purdue University, and author of Don Quixote: The Knight of La Mancha and Time and Reality: Studies in Contemporary Fiction.

1983 207 pp. This title is no longer available in a traditional print edition. Click here for free access to the book’s full text.