Reflexive novel: Definition, Meaning and Examples

The reflexive novel is a novel in which the author calls the reader’s attention to the fact that he or she is writing (or has written) a novel. Thus, what Roland Barthes would call a ‘writerly’ novel.

A classic and early example of such a work is Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy(1760–67), an attempt at autobiography in which virtually no progress is made. Sterne uses many devices to show that there is a discrepancy between reality/life and art and that it is not possible to provide a coherent and rational picture of anything so complex as life and reality.

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Other reflexive novels of that period are Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews (1742) and Tom Jones (1749). In the 19th c., most novelists tried to give form, shape and rationality to their versions of reality, though this often tended to falsify reality in the cause of artistic and aesthetic coherence. Periodically, one can see that novelists were well aware of the inherent shortcomings of the endeavour to impose form on the disorderly or chaotic.

In the 20th c. numerous novelists have developed various forms of reflexive novel. James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) is an outstanding example. So is Andre Gide’s Les Faux-monnayeurs (1926). Since the 1950s we should also mention the work of Vladimir Nabokov, Flann O’Brien, William Burroughs, Christine Brooke-Rose, Samuel Beckett, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Thomas Pynchon, and John Fowles. This kind of fiction is also sometimes called ‘self-conscious’ or ‘self-referential’.

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