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A Novel Way to Think About Literary Categories

Why do we categorize novels as we do? Fantasy, Chick Lit, Crime, Romance, Literary, Gothic, Feminist… I want to propose a different way of categorizing novels—something that came to me after reading Dickens and Chekhov in quick succession.
Anton Chekhov in Yalta, 1900; Charles Dickens at Antoine Francois Jean Claudet’s London studio, circa 1852

Why do we categorize novels? Fantasy, Chick Lit, Crime, Romance, Literary, Gothic, Feminist… Is it the better to find what we want, on the carefully labelled shelves of our bookshops? So that the reading experience won’t, after all, be too novel.

Or is it simply for the pleasure of putting the world in order? French Literature, German Literature, American, South American, Korean. Or again, Renaissance, Eighteenth-Century, Postwar. In line with the notion of a body of knowledge—such that the more you read from one area, the more you can claim to be an expert, or at least a buff. There is even World Literature, which is not quite the catch-all it seems; rather, those novels that have appealed to many nations over the centuries, or that do so today. One chooses them to be a citizen of the world, perhaps, suggesting that behind the category is the desire to categorize oneself, the pursuit of identity.

In any event, I want to propose a different way of categorizing novels, or at least arranging the ones you have read on your shelves: something that came to me after reading Dickens and Chekhov in quick succession.

At first glance, it might be hard to think of two writers who are more different. Dickens so expansive (I had read, reread, David Copperfield, Great Expectations, Little Dorrit); Chekhov so economical—story after story unfolding in a few pages, sometimes only a few paragraphs. Cut, cut, cut, he told friends who showed their unpublished work to him.

Yet reading Chekhov’s stories, right after Dickens, I was surprised to find myself sensing a deep affinity between the two authors. As if Londoner and Muscovite (though neither was born in those respective cities) came from the same family and moved in the same emotional atmosphere. The way some families are voluble, boisterous, others are secretive and resistant, still others all quiet practicality and good cheer.

What was it that I was noticing? Reading biographies of the writers, I was struck by this similarity: both set up households with numerous family members and both kept open house for friends. They loved to be the center of conversation and attention. At the same time, both had the habit of fleeing society in order to be alone, whether to work or simply to walk. And both finally reached the same curious compromise: each kept a large house but had a sort of annex or outhouse built nearby, where he could retreat and work. Their houses were filled with people waiting for them to appear and play master of ceremonies, then accepting their disappearance, rather as readers patiently wait for a favorite author’s next book.

Suddenly, the likeness was obvious. All Dickens’s stories, and all Chekhov’s, are about being in or out of groups. About belonging. The desire to belong. The fear of exclusion. The pleasure of inclusion. The fear of not being worthy of the group. The pleasure of being the most worthy. But also the fear of belonging to the wrong group, the wrong company. Or marrying the wrong person. Worst of all, of going to prison. The fear that others in the group are not worthy. Not as worthy as the character who directs our sympathy first thought, that is. They must be expelled. Or the protagonist must leave the group. David Copperfield is ashamed of his wife, Dora. He made a mistake to bring her into his family. “It is a most miserable thing to feel ashamed of home,” says Pip in Great Expectations.

In Chekhov’s much shorter narratives, the issue emerges as a question that haunts the protagonists. Do the lovers of “Lady With a Dog” belong with each other, or with their families, or with neither? Does the dying professor of “A Dreary Story” belong with his irritating family or not? Does the lazy doctor of “Ward 6” belong in provincial society, in the hospital, or in the ward for mental patients? There are frequent cases of people being embedded in groups to which they don’t belong, or once did, but no longer do so. Or perhaps they think they don’t, but they do.

In “The Peasants,” a sick man returns with wife and daughter to his home village to die, only to find he no longer feels comfortable there. The engineer in “The New Villa” tries to help the peasants and become part of their life, and cannot understand why he is rebuffed. In “The Robbers,” a young doctor, caught in a blizzard, is snowed in with some ruffians at an inn. He has studied, feels superior, but begins to wish he did belong among them; their peasant life is so much fun. In an effort to become part of the group, he grabs the innkeeper’s daughter and gets a punch in the face. Is that exclusion or intense belonging?

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Chekhov, we recall, was a doctor who gave a lot of time to helping the peasants—and described them as boorish, treacherous, and dangerous. Dickens gave a lot of time setting up a home for destitute women, prostitutes—and had them thrown out when they misbehaved.

With this patterning comes a peculiar hierarchy of values. Good and evil are not absolutes, but in relation to the community. No one in Dickens’s or Chekhov’s oeuvres is randomly evil for evil’s sake. Both authors have nasty characters who infiltrate a happy group and destroy it from within, or who abandon their wives and send away their children. And other unworthy characters whose gambling and debts and promiscuity bring down those around them.

There are also good characters who form a happy group, a family, a club, and protect it. The Pickwick Club. Chekhov’s circus master in “Kashtanka.” Cheerful practicality is more highly regarded than purity. Or romance, for that matter. Intense, exclusive love is often more destructive of the group than fostering. Courage is the courage to face exclusion, or expel an unworthy member. Freedom is the freedom to be with those one loves, the worthy, and to be free of those who are unworthy. Winning is not being rich and powerful, as Scrooge discovers, but being warmly accepted in a family or peer group. Losing is banishment, or the depression of feeling that those whose lives you share are not the right people.

And so on. Both Dickens and Chekhov were fascinated by prisons. Both faced traumatic periods of exclusion as children due to their fathers’ problems with debts: Dickens sent off to live away from the family and work in a factory, Chekhov left alone to complete his schooling in Taganrog, on the Sea of Azov, when the rest of the family fled to Moscow. Both were depressives.

Yet with all this similarity, the work remains strikingly different. Dickens is all welcoming inclusion. At least, in his opening chapters. His characters are his family, he tells us. His readers are his extended family: come in, the water’s fine! But at a certain point in his novels, we sense that he wearies of it all; he is tired of his characters and of us. Perhaps we’re not worth the effort. He wants it to be over. The quality falls off (quite dramatically in a work like Dombey & Son). He wraps it up in a hurry. As he wrapped up his marriage in indecent haste. And wearied of his children. Sent them away. Said he couldn’t believe they were his. Such unworthy creatures.

Chekhov didn’t marry until he knew he had only a short while to live. Rather, he became the center of the family of origin, replacing his father in the lives of his mother, sister, and brothers. His style is cooler, never sticky. He repeatedly tried to write a novel, but feared he would bore people. It would be too long. Too involving for them, too demanding for him. As if he foresaw what Dickens often experienced. So he preferred to dive straight in, immediately engage with the reader, and get out fast. Like the writing master in “A Blunder,” who flirted with his pretty pupil, but when her parents clumsily tried to force him into marriage, “took advantage of the general confusion and slipped away.”

Interestingly, Chekhov was convinced his works could never be successfully translated. They would make no sense, he thought, outside the family that was Russia. Dickens, who wished to extend his family everywhere, was happy with translations. His work was hugely successful in Naples, where family reigns supreme, and was held up as a positive example by the government of the newly united Italy in its drive to promote domestic values and national cohesion.

Were there other writers, I wondered, for whom this hierarchy of values held, novelists whose plots, one way or another, hinged around belonging and its attendant emotions, however differently they might come at it—just as Dickens and Chekhov come at it differently, and position themselves differently, though obviously obsessed by the same questions and construing life in the same way?

Over time, reading and rereading carefully, I found these authors who fit the description: Virginia Woolf, Natalia Ginzburg, Elsa Morante, George Eliot, Haruki Murakami, Graham Swift, François-René Chateaubriand. Many other lesser names, too, in genre fiction as well as literary. Many Italians, perhaps because I read a lot of Italian literature, or perhaps because the values of belonging are so powerful in Italian society. Dante, writing in exile, is obsessed with belonging; the deepest circle of hell is reserved for the treacherous, those who betrayed family and community.

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On the other hand, I haven’t found a single American whose work I can place in this category. Does this tell me something about America? Or the limitations of my idea?

Should I, then, be putting these authors on a shelf together? The Belongers. Separate from the others?

A category only exists in relation to other categories, similarly constituted. You would need to establish a number of other clearly defined hierarchies of value, or centers of interest, generating distinct, or at least recognizable, types of plot and character interaction. For example, stories in which good and evil are absolute, not subordinated to the community, which in this case would matter only in so far as it fosters goodness, not vice versa. Or those in which freedom and independence are the supreme values, hence where evil is everything that hampers and constricts the individual, moral codes included. And there might be writers for whom what matters is success or power, pure and simple, whose plots essentially hinge around winning and losing as ends in themselves, and in which everything else—goodness, belonging, freedom—are subordinate.

In three following articles, I will explore these other possible categories and the writers who might fall into them. And ask if there are writers who straddle categories: Could Dickens ever have written a novel that was not structured around issues of belonging? I’ll examine what is achieved if I so manage to arrange all the novels I have read in this way. And what damage is done.


For the full series on literary categories, click here.

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