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Between Self and Society

Between Self and Society
Inner Worlds and Outer Limits in the British Psychological Novel

From Tobias Smollett’s The Adventures of Roderick Random (1748) to D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love (1920), here is a psycho-political approach to the societal constructs and narrative nuances of six provocative works of dynamic British prose fiction.

Series: Literary Modernism Series, Thomas F. Staley, series editor

January 2016
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247 pages | 6 x 9 | 30 b&w photos |

Between Self and Society explores the psychosocial dramas that galvanize six major British novels written between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries. The book challenges an influential misconception that has for too long hindered appreciation of the psychological novel. John Rodden argues that there should be no simplifying antithesis between psychological, “inner” conflicts (within the mind or “soul”) and institutional, “outer” conflicts (within family, class, community). Instead, it is the overarching, dramatic—yet often tortuous—relations between self and society that demand our attention. Rodden presents fresh interpretations of an eclectic group of prose fiction classics, including Tobias Smollett’s The Adventures of Roderick Random, William Godwin’s Caleb Williams, Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, Wyndham Lewis’s Tarr, and D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love.

Far from being merely admirable experiments, let alone daring though interesting failures, these fictions are shown to possess aesthetic unity, stylistic consistency, and psychic force. Between Self and Society thus impels our careful reconsideration of novels that represent major artistic achievements, yet have been either unjustly neglected or appreciated in limiting ways that do injustice to their psychological aspects. Rodden’s vibrant discussion invites an upward revaluation of these works and encourages the full recognition of their value and significance in British literary history.


Austin, Texas

Rodden has taught at the University of Virginia and the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author or editor of The Unexamined Orwell; Every Intellectual’s Big Brother: George Orwell’s Literary Siblings; The Politics of Literary Reputation: The Making and Claiming of St. George Orwell; Scenes from an Afterlife: The Legacy of George Orwell; Understanding Animal Farm in Historical Context; and George Orwell: Into the Twenty-First Century, among other books.



Between Self and Society: Inner Worlds and Outer Limits in the British Psychological Novel scrutinizes the rhythms of psyche and demos in six important works of British fiction since the mid-eighteenth century. As the main title suggests, these rhythms are complex, ramified, and multifaceted: the interrelations between “self ” and “society” are not either/or, but rather both/and—in fact, almost always “in between.”1 Indeed the emphasis in the book alternates between the individual and the community, the particular and the universal— self and society—but each chapter probes polarities of conflict that configure and generate character in these diverse worlds of prose fiction. Our psychological “case histories” ultimately thus serve as an index of the affective range of the British novel, illuminating its representation of personality and mental life, the textual features of emotional expression, and the reading experiences to which real readers have testified.

“Psychological novel” is a loose term, frequently applied to those first-person novels that reflect narrative techniques such as “stream of consciousness” or explore the individual psychologies and interior conflicts of fictional characters in detail and depth. Fictional prose works such as William Godwin’s Caleb Williams, Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, and D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love are seldom classified as “psychological novels,” yet their accent on larger public issues rather than intimate personal matters—Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft rather than consciousness and mentalité, exterior rather than interior conflicts—reflects a need to broaden our traditional conception of the psychological to include the societal, cultural, intellectual, and even spiritual if we want to embrace the full scope and dynamics of personality. It is important to resist reducing the terms “psychology” and “novel” to the exclusively mental or narrowly aesthetic, letting them instead retain all their suggestiveness and acculturated history of meanings. If we take this stance, we can more fully appreciate their variety and amplitude. Three of the chapters—those on Tobias Smollett’s Roderick Random, Godwin’s Caleb Williams, and Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier—chiefly address narratological questions, especially controversial issues connected with “untrustworthy” narrators, their modes of storytelling, and their dubious claims to truth. In fact, a subtitle for the book might be “Untrustworthy Tellers, Unverifiable Tales,” with a nod to Lawrence’s famous remark in Studies in Classic American Literature: “Trust the tale, not the teller.”2 And, as we shall see, our critical maxim for this trio of chapters will echo that Russian proverb much quoted during the Cold War by wary American leaders negotiating nuclear disarmament with the Soviets: doverey no proverey, “trust but verify.”

Honoring this maxim—and resisting the lures of reductionism that bestow conceptual tidiness and analytical rigor at the expense of widened apprehension, nuanced understanding, and even occasionally revelatory surprise—is a chief aim of the readings in this book. The prevailing verdict about much of the prose fiction under study here, whether pronounced by formalist or social critics, is too often that novels such as Caleb Williams, The Good Soldier, and Wyndham Lewis’s Tarr represent admirable and valuable, indeed even fascinating or pioneering, literary experiments—yet ultimately prove to be artistic failures. These and other novels discussed in the study are often considered crude, schematic, loaded with structural improbabilities (such as clumsily handled coincidences or ungrounded motivations or fuzzy treatments of time). When looked at either from an aesthetic/formal viewpoint that would illuminate a Henry James novel, or from a social/political stance pertinent to the work of George Eliot, they are typically judged inferior fictions.3 But if we look at these novels from the standpoint of depth psychology—which attends variously to eros, inner identity, and concealed conflicts in the protagonist and other characters—we can perceive an artistic unity and stylistic consistency often missed by surface readings.

On this view, the book is a critical study in the psychology of character. Or, to phrase it more precisely, a study in character analysis through psychology, especially as it is revealed by a character’s unconscious drives or by a narrator’s distorted memory and consequently problematic mode of narration. I have sought to take full account of the extant scholarship while expanding it into directions that offer new readings of novels that have been misunderstood, read too restrictively, and therefore devalued. The readings of the novels under discussion draw on psychological approaches and psychoanalytic concepts, which represent the distinctive contribution of the chapters. Some of these novels (e.g., Caleb Williams, The Good Soldier, Tarr) are typically denigrated as political treatises, as almost tract-like analyses of social and economic forces. Supposedly heedless of aesthetic form, they suffer from awkward plot development and flat characterization, rendering them little more than sketchbooks illustrating this or that social evil.

By contrast, my own critical premise has been that these ambitious, frequently trailblazing novels are, however flawed, fictional masterpieces which have been unjustly neglected or undervalued, largely because they have violated or defied reigning fictional norms and conventions—and which repay fresh critical reappraisal from sympathetic readers. For instance, I approach several of these fictions via depth psychology to show how a plot that looks random or forced is actually a projection of the narrator’s anxieties. Given that approach, the novels under consideration in the first five chapters emerge as complex, challenging works of art when we understand that form and structure correlate with or model the inner life of the characters. This way of reading opens up the novels to possibilities not addressed in the secondary literature so far. In the closing chapter, I shift from a psychoanalytic interpretation to a Lawrentian reading of Lawrence’s Women in Love, which owes to Lawrence’s famous hostility to Freudianism manifested in much of his fiction and made explicit in his anti-Freudian polemics, Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious (1921) and Fantasia of the Unconscious (1922). From this angle, Women in Love presents Loerke and Minette Darrington as exemplars of “mental consciousness,” a pathology indicted by Lawrence as the disease of the Northern European mind, allegedly epitomized by Freud, Jung, and their followers.4 Such Nordic intellectualism, claims Lawrence, heightens and intensifies mental consciousness and thus contributes to neurosis. It reflects an antipathy toward the body and spiritual health that stands opposed to his vitalistic philosophy of “blood consciousness,” the cornerstone of Lawrence’s racial theory that critics have derided as both misogynistic and anti-Semitic.

Regardless of our judgment of Lawrence’s philosophy, however, it undeniably undergirds the Weltanshauung of much of his fiction, especially Women in Love. Furthermore, it is not just a philosophical viewpoint, but rather represents his own serious, passionately argued attempt to plumb the dynamics of eros and psyche. As such, “Lawrentian psychology” functions as an experience-based metaphysics of the psyche, formulated by a literary artist resolutely antagonistic to Freudian social science and “depth” psychology, indeed to the purportedly “Jewish” psychoanalysis of Freud and his immediate circle.

So I undertake a psychological approach to all six novels in the study. Moreover, all of them are addressed not only from the vantage point of the institutional, “outer” conflicts (family, class, society, status) that they overtly treat, but also from the perspective of the often overlooked psychological, “inner” conflicts that sometimes elevate these works to tragic stature. This dual emphasis is indispensable to a full appreciation of these complex fictions, as the opening phrase of my subtitle, “Inner Worlds and Outer Limits,” suggests. While the psychological issues are more crucial than the social analyses to the novels’ latent meanings and submerged structures, it is the lawless “black box” space of their reciprocal interaction—the “between”—that above all enjoins our critical vigilance. The unruly passions seething in the inner worlds of many characters inexorably impel them to act out, in unpredictable and frequently destructive ways, in society. Transgressing the furthest boundaries or “outer limits” of the rational and the conventional, the characters find themselves driven to commit antisocial acts that they cannot comprehend, let alone control.

The chaos of this social realm beyond the limits of the rational confronts us readers too as we attempt to understand what the characters do not, which is why I have preferred to draw on depth psychology (Tiefenpsychologie) to analyze their social behavior and negotiate their inner worlds. My reading experience has led me to conclude that these worlds within are dominated by forces associated with the psychopathic and the sociopathic. These mercurial, violent drives enmesh, intermesh, and mutually reinforce each other as the narratives churn and swirl along their choppy courses. Hence an exploration of the psyche which addresses these shrouded, often obscure human motives—explored not only through conscious but also unconscious and semi-conscious processes— is advisable. As a result, I have made extensive use of psychological theory in the work of Sigmund Freud, Melanie Klein, Otto Rank, Ernest Becker, René Girard, and other thinkers in the psychoanalytical tradition, rather than turn to more recent, ego-based or behavior-oriented psychologies, such as the rationalemotive behavioral psychotherapy of Albert Ellis, the cognitive psychology of Aaron Beck, or the behaviorism of B. F. Skinner. Despite an often illuminating focus on the social by these approaches, their exclusive focus on surface material, reflecting a disinclination to uncover hidden or repressed motives in the deeper layers of the psyche underlying cognitive and behavioral processes, proves inadequate to a full engagement with the stormy inner and outer realms of the novels under study.

The “between” self and society in these novels knows depths that reason cannot plumb and convention cannot fathom. For that “between” in their narratives is typically a subterranean zone lodged in the near-“unfathomable” inner recesses of the psyche, where the psychodynamics at work are far more complex and contradictory than mere engagement with the surfaces can possibly elucidate. If the danger of depth psychology is reductionism, the peril of rational and behavioral modalities is superficiality.


In my investigation of the fictive representations of personality in these selected British novels, I have concerned myself not only with the perplexities of the reading experience, but also with the semiotics of narrative exposition. The psychological novel often seems not just to invite attention to the kinetics of psyche, eros, and demos, but to organize affect into a linguistic construct that stages dramas of the passions. In this regard, theorists of personality development and character structure from Freud through Girard offer valuable insight into the texture of experience prevailing within narrative designs.

Freud and his successors concurred that a basic characteristic of human experience is the limited nature of our freedom. They all agreed that the realm of conscious choice is confined within severe limits. Novelists from Smollett to Lawrence have voiced greater skepticism about these matters, refusing to portray the deeds of human beings as largely the product of material or psychological conditioning—which is to say that modern literary artists strongly resisted becoming social scientists. They acknowledged with Freud that the presumably conscious aspects of human experience might be mere “rationalization” or “repressed desire” or puzzling instances of displacement, projection, and introjection. And yet, in their conception of the inevitable role of “vast impersonal forces” in the conduct of human affairs, novelists have also always insisted on depicting individual choice and conscious mental activity. In a metaphysical and ethical sense, that is, if not in a collective or statistical sense, they have believed that choice-making is personal and that individual choice is free. This is not to say that they deny the significance of the repetitive, irrational, and instinctual in human life, only that they hold that such subterranean drives have their limits—and that the art of the novel consists in exploring the interacting and overlapping relationship between self-determined acts and conditioning forces.

The novels under study both reflect the modern mind and have shaped it. In addition to the thematics of choice-making and psychic freedom, a leitmotif of this study is the unfolding, intensifying perception of psychological malaise as the modern novel evolves: a sense of an impending doom, whereby old practices and institutions no longer undergird social reality, a climate of radical uncertainty that pervades novels ranging from Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge through the modernist fictions of Ford, Lewis, and Lawrence. This sense of the demise of the ancien régime, coupled with agonizing doubt as to the forms the brave new worlds might manifest, represents a thematic undercurrent of this book. Our emphasis in these chapters is not only on modes of consciousness, but also on the increasing fact in modern society of “divided” consciousness.

As such, Between Self and Society may also be seen as a counterpart, or even an extension, of Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding (1957). Whereas Watt’s pioneering book addressed the origins of the novel in historical and formalist terms, the present work traces the rise of the novel chiefly in psychological terms, showing how a movement exists from the “narcissistic” fictions of the eighteenth century, exemplified by Smollett’s Roderick Random and Godwin’s Caleb Williams, to the psychodynamics of character in the novels of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, ranging from Hardy to Lawrence and beyond. Watt’s conviction about literary interpretation, most fully developed in The Rise of the Novel, was that “the whole question of the historical, institutional, and social context of literature is very widely ignored, to the great detriment not only of much scholarly and critical writing, but of the general understanding of literature at every educational level.” 5 That was certainly true in the 1950s, given the ascendency of New Criticism and its insistence that texts exist “independently of each other,” in Watt’s words.6 But one can also say today that the psychological aspect of the British novel is too widely ignored, to the detriment of scholarship, criticism, and education. This deficiency reflects a deep-seated, long-standing bias in British studies to favor the empirical, including an almost reflexive antipathy toward psychological inquiry,7 partly in reaction to what was often referred to as the “psycho-autopsies” of sensationalist British biographers and literary critics in the wake of the success of Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians (1918). Like Watt, who maintains that selective use of biographical, historical, and formalist criticism is indispensable for understanding the rise of the novel, my contention is that psychological interpretation is also invaluable, especially for the novels in this book that deal in complex ways with narratology and the psychology of character.


The theorists featured in the present study—Freud, Klein, Rank, Becker, and Girard—were builders of ambitious interdisciplinary systems. We of the postmodernist age have learned to cast a skeptical eye on such grand theorizing and monumental system-building. Yet however limiting the patterns and procedures it imposes, such system-building contrasts fruitfully with the fictional texts on which such theories are often tested or applied. The novels in the present study are loamy, organic particulars that generate fertile insight as they complicate the generalizations and universals of social science. Our primary concern is with the fictions themselves, for these novels represent something far more valuable than opportunities for literary exegesis: they suggest— indeed they imagine—the possibility of new perceptions of character structure and personality development.

Freud and later psychologists came to see the study of society as an immensely more complicated matter than merely fitting observed data into presumably universal constructs of human thought. This growing methodological awareness reflected a heightening of intellectual self-consciousness among social scientists that is a characteristic of twentieth-century psychology, and the narrative issues in the novels under study here portray this new awareness of the problematic character of social observation. But this new self-consciousness slipped all too readily into a radical skepticism: it was a short step from the awareness of the subjective nature of social thought to a denial of the validity of all such thought—or into a form of Lawrentian “think with the blood” or other species of anti-intellectualism.

Imaginative literature—most particularly the novel—has played a serious role in the expression of social values. A major novel manifests and concretizes the often abstract insights of social scientists. It depicts society with a richness and depth that eludes social science categorizations.9 So my goal in these pages is not simply to see how prose fiction has borrowed from social science, but also to see how it has contributed to social theory: that is, my dual aim is to appreciate the dense interplay of mutual influence between these genres. For a student of human society has much to learn from the literary craftsman, and vice versa: the sensibilities and subject matters of both domains illuminate the art of living.