Fragmentation in the Realist Novels of Stowe and Crane

April 9, 2019 by Essay Writer

As Albert Camus once said, ‘You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.’[1] If ‘order’ within life means a structure that can bring meaning, ‘fragmentation’ deems life’s occurrences, whether fortunate or unfortunate, as arbitrary and therefore meaningless. Through being constructs of language, events within novels are nearly always significant. This element distinguishes the realist novel from reality, as loss and suffering without greater meaning are unavoidable in true life experiences, implying an inevitable fragmentation within society. Camus’ reality exists around the notion that in looking for order, you miss the very meaning in random events. From this premise, the novel exists as a ‘myth’ of happiness that ‘holds together’ a fragmented society through the possibility that random events can be sequenced, consequently revealing the meaningful within the meaningless. Yet as a reflection of the actual, the fragments of society can only be held together within the framework of the novel, and not in actuality. Life, either in reality or represented in a novel, can only be ordered completely through following a pre-ordained path. Throughout Stowe and Crane’s novels, order is not controlled by inexplicable forces but by expectations of society that, through being established, are deemed the ‘order’.

Within the war zone depicted by Crane, idealistic expectations center on two options: victory or an honorable death. Henry the youth rejects both of these options through initially retreating, a decision made based on extreme emotions: “There was a revelation. He, too, threw down his gun and fled […] He ran like a rabbit.”[1] It can be argued that the pre-ordained structure that defines ‘order’ assumes a society without feeling and the emotional ‘revelation’ inspires a different course of action. At this moment the youth not only refuses to fulfill social expectations, but also the expectations of the genre; as a war narrative, the traditional subject would be a patriotic heroism, not realism that allows a truthful cowardice to be shown. Yet this cowardice is accepted through the adverb ‘too’ that accuses others of the same behavior, suggesting that the fragmentation of society can begin with only one person recognizing they can choose another path. An accumulating fragmentation is emphasized through structure; as the individual actively makes the decision to flee, the sentences consequently become more concise, as if fragmenting also. Through both protagonist and syntax refusing to remain in a pre-ordained order, it suggests social expectations of valor are unrealistic, in novels or in life. Henry is therefore truthful in outwardly acting upon his internal emotions, yet is seen as untrue to certain expectations of becoming a ‘quiet, manly, self-respecting [man]’[2] in a battle. Nevertheless, through these attributes being expectations, it can be assumed they have been formed before the battle. Therefore on a larger scale, the action of war is technically fragmentation in the order of human life; the previous ordered expectations become irrelevant.

While Henry’s rejection of socially ordered behavior is viewed as shameful, Eliza’s break of traditional slave behavior in Stowe’s narrative has ultimately positive consequences. Slave-owners build a path for slaves, which leads only to servitude and death. This structured ‘order’ gives economical meaning to slave-traders, yet it is arbitrary, chance events that offer a meaningful freedom to the enslaved. Eliza’s actions cause fragmentation through assuming she has a right to freedom in a society that is structured with none available to her: ‘with one wild cry and flying leap, she vaulted sheer […] on to the raft of ice beyond.’[3] The boundaries between genders are also pushed. Desperation forces Eliza from a female sphere of domesticity to a primal male wilderness, the action of moving from one sphere to another actualized in her ‘flying leap’. As in Crane’s scenarios, Eliza’s actions are insignificant when considered by themselves. However, the ability to physically escape presents an idealistic reality where it is possible to escape from bottom of an ordered social hierarchy. Through the genre of protest fiction, this fragmentation of a corrupt order is presented positively by Stowe. Yet Eliza’s escape can be seen as encouraging damaging fragmentation through Social Darwinism, as it supports the idea that society is fundamentally structured as a hierarchy that favors whites. The order may cause suffering but it is natural and this can only change through being challenged, proposing that this structure is in fact, not natural. Focusing on the individual can arguably be a lack of Realism, as in a large structure such as the slave market, people are seen as mass products. However, it is this very focus that allows for a humanization of each character so they are emotionally developed beyond their stereotypes of ‘rebellious slave woman’ and ‘coward soldier’. This consequently deems their actions of fragmentation as acceptable, and challenges how established it is if one evolves by stepping outside of society rather than gradually changing with it.

The past and present exist as separate tenses, yet the former constantly influences the latter. Using past influences presents difficulties for the Realist writer to hold together a society that is not based on the difficulties- the fragmentations- of the present but pre-occupied with the historic values of the past. Before any combat, the army’s sole experience of war is through myths: Tales of great movements [that] shook the land. They might not be distinctly Homeric, but there seemed to be much glory in them. (Crane, p.4) In viewing nobility through the context of ‘tales’ and not present life, it shows a yearning to reach this status within stories also. As realist writers attempt to represent events as they are , a difficulty lies in that Crane’s army are not even present in their own reality and search to fulfill heroic fantasies of past wars. To further this, the account is retrospective and the army treat the retrospective as legendary. Therefore, it becomes complicated in attempting to label Crane’s novel as legendary or realistic. Crane attempts holds together the present set of fear-stricken soldiers with past ideals of ‘glory’, unsustainable within itself as it leaves the soldiers unprepared when reacting to modern day issues. Additionally, the act of looking back can change perception; it ‘seemed’ glorious, yet time can work in forgetting pain and leaving only honor. A further consequence of past influences is the use of clichés. In realism, it can be argued that original language must be used to highlight a new, current sense of reality. If clichéd phrases are used and ‘great movements’ aspired to, it foregrounds the repetition of past language and highlights its format as a novel. This challenge is complicated through the genre of war fiction; just because the experience and perhaps the words are not original, the emotions imbued in the words are. The horrors of war must are thus so jarring through the reality of them bringing the army out of past ideals and in to a very real possibility of death. Whilst Crane proposes realism as imperfect in his novel, Stowe goes further in rejecting realism almost completely through the past source of the Bible. Realism works in a material, earthly sphere; through introducing religion, the narrative responds to a spiritual culture that transcends realism. Eva and Tom spiritually exist where the fragmentation their human sin causes is held together and even healed with the power of God and his word, only residing in the earthly, fragmented society when slavery physically drags them back. Eva’s ascension to heaven complicates realism as it transcends the physical, where it must be to work as a concept, to the metaphysical that cannot be as specifically described: Earth was past, and earthly pain; but so solemn, so mysterious, was the triumphant brightness of that face… (Stowe, p.428) A feature of realism is over-detailed description; in omitting pain from a death scene, it also omits any emotion that a reader could sympathize with and imagine in their reality. From this, the experience can be seen only as realistic to those specifically religious, those who can believe the spiritual exists among the actual. Stowe also omits an emotional range. If the order of society is based upon a set range of emotions, fragmentation is caused through feeling being replaced with something ‘mysterious’, an unrecognizable state. Even the experience of death itself can be argued as taking away from realism, as only those who have experienced it could describe it truly. Thereby, life can be seen as ordered through what is certain. Death, as a certainty, can then be viewed as instilling an order after a lifetime of fragmentation of human choices. However, Eva’s death is also a result of these Christian choices made, and her ascension mirrors the Bible when ‘he left them and was taken up unto Heaven’ (Luke, 24:50). This similarity presents limitations with the realist novel, as the act is not only based upon the past but a spiritual experience that struggles to be described with language previously used for the material. Each story therefore constructs its characters as partially within the past, in order to transcend the fragmented, present society to a higher ideal of either religion or heroism.

Through a self-conscious style, and specifically irony, Crane mocks the youth’s development from boyhood to question whether a single bout of combat is sufficient to induce change. Michael Bell recognizes the ‘dreadful power of established styles to determine consciousness’[1], suggesting that realism as an established, recognizable technique is limiting as it presents every reader with the same effect. Crane instead manipulates the concept and transcends the ‘established’ effect through a character development that suggests a dubious, new ‘consciousness’ on the influence of war. Growth can be seen throughout, yet irony mocks the realistic pre-occupation with internal progress: ‘He felt a quiet manhood, unassertive but of sturdy and strong blood […] he was a man’ (Crane, p.109). A lack of stereotypical language questions expectations of masculinity. His proclamation of manhood as ‘quiet’, residing as anything but a proclamation; this perhaps suggests a man need not proclaim his masculinity outwardly for it to be true, and having ‘strong blood’ and strength of heart enough. Yet even this claim is ironic, as emotional durability plays but a small part in physical combat. Furthermore, in any society, boy must become man to fill pre-ordained positions in an established structure. So in the development being emotional instead of physical, the youth claims a false manhood and breaks down this established transition. It is therefore through this self-conscious technique of irony that mocks Henry as a ‘man’ that realism is rejected. In using language to suggest a further meaning than initial face value, it presents an ambiguous, changeable reality.

Although Stowe is conscious of the effect of her language, she focuses less on subtle technique and instead reacts to her characters through an obvious narrative perspective. Jane P. Tomkins comments that ‘Rhetoric makes history by shaping reality to the dictates of its political design’[2], of which Stowe’s commentary achieves through ‘The Concluding Remarks’ that suggests the correct reaction to the current politics previously presented through fiction. In the genre of protest fiction, Stowe attempts to ‘shape’ reality through extending the issues of slavery from paper to reality: ‘And now, men and women of America, is this a thing to be trifled with, apologized for, and passed over in silence?’ (Stowe, p.623). The nation as a whole is specifically addressed, suggesting a hope for a united national identity that can be achieved through abolishing slavery. It also works to highlight the emotional ideals the American constitution is based on: freedom from European powers, highlighting their fortune in having what slaves do not. Stowe must therefore employ realism, however imperfect, to raise awareness specifically to the upper classes of ‘the life of the lowly’, to shame them to action beyond apologizing. Stowe thereby holds together the fragmented society within the novel through allowing Eliza and George to escape and the reformation of characters such as Master George, presenting a brighter future without slavery in fiction. But, she also extends this to reality in acknowledging that whilst the horrors of slavery in this novel are a construct of language, it occurs in reality also. This does pose the problem of protest fiction; through using fiction as a tool of awareness, it makes questions how far Stowe has self-consciously ‘shaped’ the language to evoke emotion. Yet, this becomes irrelevant when considered in the larger system of slavery, as specific hardships do not matter, only that people are still being enslaved. Thus, in using self-conscious techniques, both Stowe and Crane take the established effect of realistic fiction and distort it to suggest that reality is not always as it seems, even in books that in part represent it. Therefore, what others deem as established systems and therefore order –slavery and war – can be fragmentation to others who deem it fundamentally the wrong established order.

The connotations of ‘order’ and ‘fragmentation’ are respectively, positive and negative. Yet, both Crane and Stowe invert this conception. Through presenting a society that encourages violence, war, and enslavement that encompass an ‘order’, the action of breaking down these immoral structures through ‘fragmentation’ becomes a positive action. The order of society which is ‘falling apart’ is initially ‘[held] together’ through maintaining expectations of the relationship between master and slave in Stowe’s novel and an outward display of bravado in Crane’s. These are subsequently broken down through challenging conventions: the youth succumbs to fear and there remains a chance for black slaves to live as free whites did. Therefore, instead of attempting to hold society together, each author almost recognizes that it would be better to wholly accept society as falling apart. Society and all its ordered expectations must be fragmented completely to the point of being torn down. Only then will ‘a golden ray of sun [come] through the hosts of leaden rain clouds’ (Crane, p.88) and the human race will be able to re-ordered in a better moral order.

Bibliography Beecher Stowe, H., Uncle Tom’s Cabin Or, Life Among the Lowly (London: Penguin Classics, 1986)

Camus, A., Youthful Writings, ed. by Paul Viallenaneix (New York: Random House Publishing, 1976)

Crane, S., The Red Badge of Courage, ed. by Donald Pizer (New York & London: Norton, 1994)

Davitt Bell, M., The Problems of American Realism (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1993)

Tompkins, J. in Domestic Individualism: Imagining Self in Nineteenth-Century America, by Gillian Brown (Oxford: University of California Press, 1992)

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