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George Meredith's The Egoist: A Literary and Critical History
George Meredith was an English author, critic, poet, and war correspondent. He was considered to be a successful writer. He published several works of fiction and poetry. These works included: The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, The Tragic Comedians, Modern Love Poems of the English Roadside, and Poems and Lyrics of the Joy of Earth among many others. Toward the end of his career, after the tragic deaths of his wife and son, Meredith received the Order of Merit. He was born in 1828 and died in 1909 (Casal).
The Egoist is arguably his greatest work of fiction and "is celebrated as a major in the history of the British novel. It presents Meredith's learned insight into psychology, sociology and Social Darwinism in a highly refined and stylized prose"(DiMauro 250). The novel is about Sir Willoughby Patterene, a highly narcissistic gentleman, in his quest to find a socially acceptable wife. In Willoughby's youth his two aunts nurtured his narcissism. He was the self-proclaimed "son of the house." Which is a reference to Louix XIV, who believed that he was the center of the entire universe (DiMauro 250)
Throughout the narrative Sir Willoughby has little luck with women. "His first fiancée, Constantia Durham, abandons him three weeks before the wedding; the second, Clara Middleton, grows to abhor the cynosure, leaving Willoughby to court Laetitia Dale, the daughter of a cottager on the Patterne estate, whom Willoughby had once renounced as being below his station" (DiMauro 250).
The Egoist is a fictionalized work rooting from a lecture Meredith gave at the London Institute called, On The Idea of Comedy The Uses of the Comic Spirit. This lecture later became book titled An Essay on Comedy (Casal). French dramatist, Jean Baptiste Molirére, primarily influenced Meredith's comic views, particularly the novel Tartuffe. Being that the novel was born out of Meredith's comic findings, the full title of the work is called The Egoist: A Comedy in Narrative. The story of The Egoist is:
Based upon drama rather than fiction and reflects Meredith's understanding of comedy as a means of criticizing society and analyzing the individual. Meredith was the first to replace an elaborate plot structure with careful psychological analysis of characters, an innovation that would greatly influence the modern novel. (DiMauro 250)
Meredith was fifty years old when he began work on The Egoist. In 1879 he gave the manuscript to his publisher, Charles Kegan Paul.
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Meredith's The Egoist was, for the most part, well received. It was hailed as a literary masterpiece both in England and the United States. Major criticisms of the novel usually revolve around the theoretical outline presented in An Essay on Comedy and the Uses of the Comic Spirit. Early reviews were mostly favorable, however some nineteenth-century critics disliked Meredith's elaborate prose style (DiMauro 251).
Oscar Wilde wrote in "The Decay of Lying," about Meredith. He commented, "As a writer Meredith has mastered everything except language: as a novelist he can do everything except tell a story: as an artist he is everything except articulate" (DiMauro 251).
W.E. Henley, an English critic and poet, who was an important figure in the counter-decadent movement. He wrote a review in The Athenaeum, No. 2714, November 1, 1879. In the article, "he weighs the comic and imaginative merits of The Egoist against what he calls Meredith's "foppery of style" a reference to his arcane and often verbose narrative style"(DiMauro 251). Henley says:
His book is so strikingly original, so astonishingly able, that it is a hard matter to keep to ourselves from condoning what seem to us its vices in favor of its virtues. Its minor personages are one and all of rare significance and value; its dialogue is surprisingly sustained and apt; there are pages in it of analysis and deduction that open up new views and fresh vistas on human character and the human mind; there are chapters of imaginative truth so vivid and intense as to be discomforting. Mr. Meredith has not succeeded in doing exactly what he wished to do; perhaps it would be fairer to say that he has succeeded in his intent, and succeeded for himself alone. But all this to the contrary, there is no question but The Egoist is a piece of imaginative work as solid and rich as any that the century has seen, and that is, with Richard Feverel, not only the one of its authors masterpieces, but one of the strongest and most individual productions of modern literature. (DiMauro 252)
Henley also adds later, that "Meredith is one of the wittiest men of his generation and an original humorist to boot; he has a poet's imagination and he is a quick observer, he has studied human nature and human life, and he is master of his native tongue" (DiMauro 251).
Margaret Oliphant was a famous nineteenth-century Scottish novelist, critic, biographer and historian. She published nearly one hundred novels and was a regular contributor to Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine. In Blackwood's Vol. CXXVIII, No. DCCLXXIX, September 1880, she discussed what she thought were the general stylistic and thematic faults of The Egoist (DiMauro 252-253). She concludes her article by saying:
Had the author of The Egoist been superior, as he ought to be, to that tradition, his book would have been infinitely better. Had he confined it to one volume, it might have been a remarkable work. As it is, it will do no more than to hang in that limbo to which the praise of coterie, unsupported by the world, consigns the ablest writer when he chooses to put forth such a windy and pretentious assertion of superiority to nature and exclusive knowledge of art. Weakness may be yond all pity. Mr. Meredith's fault, however, is perhaps less weakness than perversity and self-opinion. He likes matter, most of us do. If "the water were roasted out of him," according to the formula of the great humorist whom he quotes in his prelude, there might be found to exist a certain solid germ of life and genius; but so long as he chooses to deluge this in a weak, washy, everlasting flood of talk, which it is evident he supposes to be brilliant, and quaint, and full of expression, but which, in reality, is only cranky obscure, and hieroglyphical, he will do that genius nothing but injustice. (DiMauro 254)
Probably the most welcoming review of The Egoist came from none other than Robert Louis Stevenson, famous novelist and good friend of Meredith's. Stevenson presumed that the Sir Willoughby Patterene was fashioned from himself, "Willoughby was taken from all of us but, principally from myself" (DiMauro 254).
Stevenson cited The Egoist in Books Which Have Influenced Me in his Essays in the Art of Writing, 1905. Stevenson writes:
The Egoist is art, if you like, but belongs purely to a didactic art, and from all the novels I have read (and I have read thousands) stands in a place by itself. Here is a Nathan for the modern David; here is a book to send blood into men's faces. Satire, the angry picture of human bour; what we want is to be shown not his defects, of which we are too conscious, but his merits, to which we are too blind. (DiMauro 255)
Later critics have praised Meredith's awareness of language, citing his influence on both James Joyce and Paul Valery (DiMauro 251). Virginia Woolf believed that "Meridth's combination of strength and weakness makes him one of the great eccentrics of English literature. Whose works will be alternately forgotten and discovered as long as English fiction is read" (Poupard 272).
Casal, Elvira. Ph.D.The Victorian Web. http://184.108.40.206/index.html
DiMauro, Laurie. Ed. Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Penobscot Publishing. Detroit MI. Vol 43. 250-255.
Poupard, Dennis. Person, James E. Jr. Ed. Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Penobscot Publishing. Detroit MI. Vol 17. 272.