John Lyly’s ‘Anatomy of Wit’ as an Example of Early Modern Psychological Fiction


Adele Kudish relates her first encounter with John Lyly’s Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit in a blog post accompanying her new article in Ceræ: Volume 3.

I first discovered John Lyly while writing my dissertation on what I call “proto-psychological fiction” or “analytical fiction” in Early Modern European prose. Proto-psychological fiction is a sub-genre in which analysis—self-questioning, questioning the motivations of others, the narrator questioning and distrusting the motivations of characters—subsumes all other sense of plot. In other words, analysis itself comes to comprise the plot. Authors of proto-psychological fiction depict a damning view of human nature through scenes of dissimulation, duplicitous language, and, most of all, the strategies of characters who think they know what they want, but who discover that they no longer desire their love objects as soon as their love is reciprocated.

While doing research on how the term “psychological” had been applied by critics to fiction, I came across some references from the nineteenth century that described Lyly’s prose romances, Euphues: Anatomy of Wit and Euphues and His England, as forerunners of the psychological novel in England. While I had already been researching proto-psychological fiction in Early Modern Italy and France, in Boccaccio’s Elegy of Madonna Fiammetta, Marguerite de Navarre’s Heptameron, and Madame de Lafayette’s La Princesse de Clèves, the English part of my thesis was going to begin with Samuel Richardson. I was obviously intrigued by an Elizabethan author who could potentially provide an earlier link to the development of proto-psychological fiction.

One problem in attempting to delineate a strain of psychological fiction before Freud is that critics tend to claim that many different works—as varied as Murasaki Shikibu’s Japanese romance The Tale of Genji (written circa 1021) to Choderlos de Laclos’s Dangerous Liaisons (1782)—constitute the first “psychological novel,” simply because they are concerned with interiority. There have been a few studies that define “psychological fiction,” like Russian critic Lydia Ginzburg’s On Psychological Prose, which focuses on character and the development of personality in literature, and Leon Edel’s The Modern Psychological Novel, which focuses on Modern literature and thus uses the term “psychological” without anachronism. Although these studies are very interesting on their own, they describe something totally different from what I had in mind about proto-psychological fiction. In addition, I realized that most studies of psychological fiction tend to associate “psychological” fiction with nineteenth-century realism (as Ian Watt does in The Rise of the Novel), or with the development of modern subjectivity and characterization. Yet, even the two early nineteenth century novels that I was writing about for my dissertation (by Austen and Stendhal) deal with “psychology” or consciousness in a very different way than nineteenth century realism does. Their sense of “psychology” is actually more in line with sixteenth and seventeenth-century conceptions of self-governance, that is, the debate about whether it is the passions or reason that control us.

Proto-psychological fiction is ultimately about a disabused reading of humanity; it is written by authors who profoundly doubt our ability—and even our willingness—to know ourselves. Euphuistic rhetoric is a device that creates both inroads and barriers between characters, drawing characters close together and then separating them physically. Like so many other conduct manuals of this era (even the ones Lyly himself mocked), Euphues can be read as a veiled political text that warns of the perils of revealing one’s true feelings. Also interesting to me is the figure adynaton, which is “a confession that words fail us,” as well as the themes of cyclicality, dilation, and deferral, as well as dissimulation, doubt, silence, and incomplete or misrepresented knowledge. The works I write about share a tendency on the part of the narration to keep characters apart, to trap them in a closed, confusing society, and to defer, for as long as possible, any chance of intimacy, finality, or resolution.

Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit is certainly such a text. Euphuism is paradoxical, self-doubting, contradictory, and self-correcting language. Narrators and characters in Euphues attempt to read each other, but they are constantly faced with deception, misprision, doubt, and confusion, leading to self-deception, jealousy, and crises of love. On the level of vocabulary, certain verbs (such as to think, to believe, and to dare, as well as verbs of seeing and seeming), as well as the adverb almost, illustrate that one character is attempting to read—that is, produce knowledge about—another, to read herself, or to do both. Characters who attempt to look within themselves are usually wrong in some way. They are mistaken about their own knowledge, about a belief, or about someone else, so that characters engage in infinite reciprocities, moving to and fro, never capable of alighting on any stable certainty. For this reason, jealousies come to the surface and love is always thwarted.

Proto-psychological fiction is neither romantic nor realist, it is not baroque for Baroque’s sake, nor didactic. Narrators in analytical fiction are not omniscient: they are sometimes even one step behind the characters in their journey—not toward, but, perhaps, around knowledge. This is because characters are simply not “knowable” in these works. Even when their stories end with a marriage (as I discuss in another article on Austen’s last novel, Persuasion), characters in analytical fiction do not really change, they do not grow into knowledge in the same way as characters in novels labeled “Realist” do. Their hearts and minds are fickle, suspicious, and dissimulating, so that striving to know falls by the wayside of analysis. This particular sub-genre of narrative is found in fiction across the centuries and from all over the world, written by authors who share a pessimistic view of human nature as incapable of—or else unwilling to strive towards—self-knowledge.

Read Adele’s article, ‘John Lyly’s ‘Anatomy of Wit‘ as an Example of Early Modern Psychological Fiction’, for free by clicking here!


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