Recurrent Symbols in the Novels of Elizabeth Madox Roberts

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Author: Earl H. Rovit
Editor: Lawrence J. Trudeau
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 8,432 words

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[(essay date 1956) In the following essay, Rovit uses what he terms “the symbol-cluster” technique to elucidate Roberts’s works, characterizing her as “a non-typical American writer.”]

Throughout the unfortunately-sparse criticism of Miss Roberts’ works, one is struck by the repetition of such descriptive terms as “indirectness,” “obscurity,” “cloudiness,” and “metaphysical fog.” Even her sympathetic reviewers strike the same note by sighing platitudinously about her “mystically inclined mind,” her poetic infusion of “fact and vision,” and the like. To try to penetrate the confusion which Miss Roberts’ works are supposed to create, I have chosen as a critical tool of clarification in this paper the technique of what I call “the symbol-cluster.” This I define as the predominant synthesis of imagery which holds within itself implications of all the artist’s thought and intuition. It differs slightly from the technique of the “recurrent image” (used by Caroline Spurgeon) in that my technique is expansive and almost limitlessly implicational, rather than reflective of one particular aspect of the artist’s creative mind. In attempting to trace out Miss Roberts’ symbol-cluster as it is exhibited in her novels, I have chosen to treat its appearance in cumulative rather than analytical fashion, letting the symbol-cluster emerge organically out of Miss Roberts’ works.

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In his provocative book, Image and Idea, Philip Rahv makes the following extended comment on modern American writers:

Experience, in the sense of “felt life” rather than as life’s total practice, is the main but by no means the total substance of literature. The part experience plays in the aesthetic sphere might well be compared to the part that the materialist conception of history assigns to economy. Experience, in the sense of this analogy, is the substructure of values, ideas, and judgments—in a word, of the multiple forms of consciousness. But this base and summit are not stationary: they continually act and react upon each other. It is precisely this superstructural level which is seldom reached by the typical American writer of the modern era.1If we may accept Rahv’s analogy and conclusions for the purposes of illustration, we shall see, I think, that Elizabeth Madox Roberts is a non-typical American writer. She is wholeheartedly in accord with the thinking behind Lionel Trilling’s definition of the novel as a “perpetual quest for reality,”2 and knowing that “life is from within,” she is profoundly aware that it is only “felt” experience which is significant. Mark Van Doren, in a brief essay on Miss Roberts—which seems to me easily the best interpretation of her particular quality of mind—writes: “I should call her an epistemologist … , one who studies the source and method of knowledge. She is no less interested in what we know than in how we know it … , if we do.”3 This, then, is the basic problem for Miss Roberts—the problem of experience and the resultant values. All of her heroines, highly introspective and imaginative, are concerned, primarily and ultimately, with a search for knowledge,...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420123783