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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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This post forms part of my ‘aspects of the novel’ collection. Please do note that these entries, which may appear basic, are simply my own notes on the subject. They implicitly or explicitly describe a canon not of my own making or choosing and replicate this from various sources. The original encyclopaedia articles are far more comprehensive, nuanced and worth consulting.

Anthropology or ethnography is the study of human cultures. Its development has, unsurprisingly, had a substantial impact on the development of the novel. One such example is the way in which fieldwork and travelling overseas to see a distant culture is reflected in novelistic journeys to strange lands (e.g. Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko from 1688).

The bildungsroman, coming of age narratives, mirrors the rise of the evolutionary paradigm in anthropology. For example, Stendhal’s Le rouge et le noir (1830, Scarlet and Black), Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847), and Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield (1849-50). Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1890-1922) shows human thought as moving through distinct phases of magical, religious, and scientific, reflecting evolutionary concerns.

With the rise of psychoanalysis via Freud, the idea emerged that despite the rise of scientific rationality and evolutionary progress, there might remain a more primitive underside to human cultures. Several well-known novels explore this idea, such as Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1900) and D. H. Lawrencce’s Women in Love (1920).

Structuralist anthropology, as developed by Claude Lévi-Strauss finds itself bound up in the literary-critical school known as Russian Formalism and figures such as Vladimir Propp, who sought to uncover universal storytelling logic. This field eventually became “narratology” which had its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s.

James Buzard (p. 55) suggests that there might be parallels between the descriptive function of the novel and the field of anthropology (which describes human cultures).

Of course, anthropology has not been viewed as a neutral activity. Instead, it is a mode critiqued by Edward Saïd (in Orientalism, for instance) for providing inadequate and coercive portraits of non-Western peoples. Some types of novels of adaptation, such as Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, aim to re-work anthropological-esque novels from the opposing angle (in this case, Heart of Darkness).

Further reading:

  • Barthes, Roland, Mythologies, trans. by Annette Lavers (New York, NY: Hill & Wang Pub, 1973)
  • Buzard, James, ‘Anthropology’, in The Encyclopedia of the Novel, ed. by Peter Melville Logan, Olakunle George, Susan Hegeman, and Efraín Kristal (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), pp. 52–57
  • Propp, Vladimir, Morphology of the Folktale (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1968)
  • Saïd, Edward W, Orientalism (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978)