What are the implications of Leavis’s argument for a definition of literature? Case study based on the extract of F.R. Leavis ‘s The Great Tradition. As this essay is going to be a short one, I shall – as briefly as I can – try to demonstrate F.R. Leavis’s complex classification of literary works, which implicates his definition of literature. There are various aspects worth mentioning in order to answer the essay question, however I decided to focus on the factors that I consider the most important:
The Great Tradition in light of style and form, presentation of human issues, author’s individual approach to life and the ideas of ‘Englishness’. From early 19th century critics and academics have attempted to define the notion of literature and standardize its criteria. Frank Raymond Leavis belonged to the group of most influential thinkers who desired to analyse literary works in the light of the growing study of literary criticism.
Firstly, it is significant to notice that The Great Tradition, published in 1948, can be treated as a sort of guide with the purpose of showing why some novels deserve to be in literary canon and some do not. Leavis’s argument: which narratives are worth of recognition, might be considered as his implications of the definition of literature. In the first chapter of The Great Tradition, Leavis states that ‘it is in terms of major novelists, those significant in the way suggested, that tradition, in any serious sense, has its significance’1. As implied by Leavis ‘that tradition’ can be understood as a literature and as a consequence, great writers and their works define it. What is more, the critic focused his study and classification on a few selected examples.
According to Leavis; Jane Austin, George Eliot, Henry James and Joseph Conrad belong to the great tradition because their works posses’ features, which easily distinguish them form others, not so successful authors. One of these aspects is definitely form and style. Leavis suggestion is that some authors can learn form their literary precursors and later, in a skilful way use the gained knowledge in their own narratives.
For Leavis, Jane Austin is one of the greatest and adroit writers who fall within the great tradition of English novels. Jane Austin’s novels are full of significance, which can be grasped when it is analysed in the relation to the themes as well as form of each novel. Clearly, Austin in the eyes of the critic is an eighteen-century novelist who shows the traditions and ideas of the period. Moreover, Leavis admires her not only for displaying ‘ convicting picture of life’ 2 but as well for her interests in human nature. On the other hand, he draws one attention to Henry Fielding who is thought to be a ‘father’ of English novel.
However in critic opinion, Fielding’s novels are not as masterly organised as Austin’s. Leavis says that Fielding ‘attitudes and concerns with human nature, are simple, and not such as to produce an effect of anything but monotony’3. One can assume from the above quotation, that for Leavis form and style are as important as the content. Great tradition meaning literature can be classified by the method of presentation and the subject matter. Therefore, authors who cannot combine a good proportion of these two indicators fail to produce works, which would act in accordance with Leavis’s implied definition of literature.
Let us now look at another key market of literature for Leavis – it is the ability to present different human issues. The critic says how significant is ‘a kind of reverent openness before life, and marked moral intensity.’4 In the eyes of Leavis; authors like Jane Austin can present in depth analysis of individuals as well as importance of life. Austin is admired for her creation of character while Eliot for her depiction of psychological matters. Henry James and Joseph Conrad equally belong to the great tradition, as both of them paid lots of attention to various aspects of human personality in their own distinctive way.
All of these authors mentioned above deal with life and human problems, however one can see clearly that each of them is handling these themes in their own innovative way. Even though they learnt from their predecessors and each other, Austin, Eliot, James and Conrad posse strong individual approach to life. As a consequence, their dissimilarity can be treated as another feature of authors who are part of the great tradition. As said by Leavis, Henry James in comparison with others, posses a natural sense of humour and is able to communicate by ‘ the finest shades of inflection and implication’. 5 Joseph Conrad, in his works, brought up various aspects of human personality. His unique style lies in sophisticated form, techniques and background that are used for character’s scrutiny.
In many Conrad’s novels, as suggested by Leavis, one can find not only ‘consciousness of dependence’, which constitutes one of his major themes but also various juxtapositions of characters facing hostile natural elemental forces. Conrad’s interests in life and human morality, made him possible to be one of the greatest authors. What is more, Leavis highlights Conrad’s skilful usage of English language. Conrad, who was of Polish origin, decided to write in English not Polish or French, which he knew fluently. Thus, he is true ‘ master of English language (…), and who was concern with art (…) is the servant of a profoundly serious interest in life.’6 Conrad wrote in an innovative way and most importantly desired to show human destiny, loneliness, wickedness as well as weaknesses. One can say that such features can be treated as indicators of great tradition in English novel and carry some implication of Leavis’ definition of literature.