The Function of the Novel.
A leading influence in the literature of the age is the novel—or work of fiction. In circulation it reaches all classes, old and young. It is one of the most potent agencies now at work upon society. The leading minds of the age use it. The novels of the day penetrate into every household and drop their influences upon the inmates, for good or evil. They meet the opening capacities of the child, and modify the future development of his character by the ideal of life which they present to his view. Who can deny that the novels of Scott have exercised a vast moulding power upon the mental and moral characters of their readers—upon their tastes, thoughts, and feelings, and conceptions of life? or who can doubt the influence of 'Uncle Tom's Cabin,' and 'Dred,' upon the moral sentiment of this country? The novel is a great and legitimate power, and the measure of its instrumentality for evil is also the measure of the good that it can be made to accomplish. Its true function is not simply amusement, it may be a vehicle of instruction and of food for the higher aspirations of the soul. But fiction as hitherto developed and written, is an unsatisfactory affair. In its best aspects it presents no ideal of life that responds to the wants of the human heart. It is the reflex mainly of a false state of society and of conceptions of life resultant therefrom. Something better is wanted. A writer in Putnam's Monthly, speaking of this failure of modern fiction, says:
"Our novels are hot arguments upon questions no longer open in any sane mind. We concede, to the author of 'Uncle Tom's Cabin,' that slavery if not a bad, is at least an unfortunate relation.—Then that book falls to the ground. We are all democrats in principle; we despise castes and classes in society; we agree with Thackeray and Dickens, that common honesty and common decency are necessities of life. We dispose of several tons of fiction by simply declaring that a self-respect superior to snobbery, and a social system which affords equal opportunity to all, are decidedly desirable, and very few people doubt it. But who will tell me what to do with my day? I am haunted by a suspicion that it is as good as any day; that it would be no better if it were filled with 'moving accidents.' They would only, as we say, 'divert' me—that is, draw me off from the way of enduring happiness. i want a permanent and large activity, and there is surely work enough to be done in every village before society will be possible among men. If I could be taught to take hold on what is so near me, something great and beautiful might yet be done even here."
Who will give us a masterly work of fiction, that shall present to its readers the highest ideal of a true life and true society; which shall unfold the truths of the New Testament in their bearing upon inward and outward life, and shall lead men's minds forward to the great issues of the future—the Resurrection and the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven; which shall be a silent preacher of the Gospel that shone forth on the day of Pentecost; which shall teach people how to live and what to live for, by showing how and for what Paul lived; which shall shadow forth the workings of that heavenly love of which John writes such glorious things?—T. L. P.