Seizing the Shining Reality: the Novel in the Classroom

  • Norman Page


‘We should not discuss any art,’ wrote John Crowe Ransom in 1950, ‘except in the presence of its shining reality, for fear that theory, which in this case is of spreading habit, will take us too far from our object and cause us to betray it.’ To which we may respond: all well and good; but also, all too often, easier said than done. To seize the ‘shining reality’ of a Shakespeare sonnet, a Chopin prelude, a Cezanne still life may not baffle us; but what are we to do when confronted with a Dickens novel, a Wagner opera, a Gothic cathedral? The first and the biggest problem in teaching the novel arises from its scale and amplitude. I suppose it takes most of us just about as long to read Middlemarch or Bleak House as to sit through the Ring cycle; and the question inevitably arises, wherein does the ‘shining reality’ of these great works of art reside? Is it something of which the reader or listener is continuously, or intermittently, aware during the process of reading or performance? or something that comes into existence only after the experience is concluded? Is the reality of Bleak House, for instance, something that inheres in every page and every phrase of that novel, or something related to a mental construction made by the reader and completed only after the last sentence of the book has been read? Or is it perhaps both? And, if so, is the totality simply the sum of all the local impressions? ‘Have you read Bleak House?’ we say; and also, ‘Do you know Bleak House?’ For most practical purposes the two questions may amount to much the same thing; but they draw attention to different activities. The first reminds us that reading is process, involving eye-movements and the licking of fingertips to turn over pages as well as the creation of mental images, the ‘hearing’ of unspoken dialogue, and other complex forms of behaviour. The second refers to possession, to something we carry with us like a snapshot (though like a snapshot it can in time grow faint and become frayed around the edges, or even become completely lost).


Literary Text Opening Sentence Practical Criticism Great Writer Gothic Cathedral 
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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 1986

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  • Norman Page

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