By Linda R. Anderson
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Extra resources for Bennett, Wells and Conrad: Narrative in Transition
314) This comment is a challenge to the reader not to exclude the rather repellent character of Casaubon from their sympathy; as such it is also an attempt to make the fictional example real by surrounding it with real emotions. This authorial intervention also touches very closely upon the central theme of the novel, the need to escape from the 'small hungry shivering self', to be transformed through total immersion in the apprehension and experience of life. In this, form and content, the purpose and meaning of George Eliot's art unite, since the reader too, as well as the individual within George Eliot's novels, must learn to adjust and respond to otherness, the world of experience outside themselves.
The bleakness of the novel emerges from the uncompromising nature of the alternatives; Reardon's failure to match his private self with public necessity, even though success in this respect would have meant his artistic death, can only result in physical deprivation and actual death. Gissing's vision of contemporary literary life is intensified by the fact that it draws upon a deeply felt antagonism between physical and spiritual life. Reardon's evocation of ideal beauty as he recalls the splendours of a sunset in Greece is pastoral, an escape into dream, a retreat from the necessities of real existence.
Bennett took pride in belonging to an era in which he thought the general quality of fiction had improved: 'I am personally inclined to think that at no time has the average novel been so good as it is to-day'; he also argued that the availability of cheap books and the spread of book buying to a different group of people, the lower middle classes, could well increase the quality of the public as well as its size. 6 The market for cheaply reprinted classic literature provided proof for Bennett that the new audience was capable of sharing the highest literary taste.