The philosophical novel is a well-established genre. Comp. Lit. 102: readings in Dostoevsky, Kafka, Mann, Gide, Sartre (and Martin Amis if time permits); little or no philosophical sophistication required. In the paradigmatic instances, the form is used to show how things look when viewed from the perspective of some or other philosophical assumptions, the philosophy itself being exemplified rather than propounded. What's hard to imagine is a novel (as opposed to, say, a myth, fable or allegory) that is the exposition of a philosophical theory. No successful examples come to mind. If there were one, it would seem a sort of trick, like novels that encode chess games, or leave out the letter e. It would fill, as they say, a much needed gap. This isn't surprising. For one thing, practically by definition, theories traffic in abstractions; they purport to see where the eye does not. Novels, by contrast, tend to be concerned with the surfaces of things; in particular, with how the surface of behaviour can reflect, exhibit, shape, express or stand for an underlying geography of emotions and motivations. So, in one of Henry James's novels, much is revealed when the heroine, out of character, overfills a cup of tea.
LRB 4 March 2004 | PDF Download