In this highly individual study, Avrom Fleishman explores a wide range of literary references to human culture—the culture of ideas, facts, and images. Each critical essay in Fiction and the Ways of Knowing takes up for sustained analysis a major British novel of the nineteenth or the twentieth century. The novels are analyzed in the light of social, historical, philosophical, and other perspectives that can be grouped under the human sciences.
The diversity of critical contexts in these thirteen essays is organized by Avrom Fleishman's governing belief in the interrelations of literature and other ways of interpreting the world. The underlying assumptions of this approach—as explained in his introductory essay—are that fiction is capable of encompassing even the most recondite facts and recalcitrant ideas; that fiction, though never a mirror of reality, is linked to realities and takes part in the real; and that a critical reading may be informed by scientific knowledge without reducing the literary work to a schematic formula.
Fleishman investigates the matters of fact and belief that make up the designated meanings, the intellectual contexts, and the speculative parallels in three types of novel. Some of the novels discussed make it clear that their authors are informed on matters beyond the nonspecialist's range; these essays help bridge this information gap. Other fictional works are only to be grasped in an awareness of the cultural lore tacitly distributed in their own time; a modern reader must make the effort to fathom their anachronisms. And other novels can be found to open passageways that their authors can only have glimpsed intuitively; these must be pursued with great caution but equal diligence.
The novels discussed include Little Dorrit, The Way We Live Now, Daniel Deronda, he Return of the Native, and The Magus. Also examined are Wuthering Heights, Vanity Fair, Northanger Abbey, To the Lighthouse, Under Western Eyes, Ulysses, and A Passage to India.