The Novel A Brief History

The novel predates the short story as a literary form. The word novel, which is derived from the Italian novella, means new and also tidings. (It should be noted that the novella, a short novel, is also a literary form.) Boccaccio's Decameron is again often cited as the form's precursor, as is Cervantes' Don Quixote. But the novel can be traced as far back as ancient Rome with The Golden Ass or The Metamorphoses, written by Apuleius of Madauros in the second century a.d. and Petronius Arbiter's Satyricon, written in the first century a.d.

This brief summary does not discuss the novel's development outside of western literature, particularly English and American literature. Further exploration on your part will lead you to exciting literature from the rest of Europe and Russia, Africa, and South America.

The Eighteenth Century

Most scholars agree that the novel emerged as a form in western literature in the eighteenth century. An important figure from that point in the novel's history is Aphra Behn. The first English woman to make her living as a writer, Behn is credited as writing the first epistolary novel, Love Letters between a Nobleman and His Sister. Later, her novel, Oroonoko, employed a voice that introduced the narrator as a figure in the narrative. Behn used phrases such as, "I have already said..." to create a narrative that read like a conversation with the reader. Her strategy marked a transformation in literature, in the form of the novel, from stories about extraordinary heroes to narratives that emerged from ordinary people in the real world.

Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726) and Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719) are both considered progenitors of the novel. Both tales are fantastic—Swift satirized popular medieval travel writing with Gulliver's farcical adventures among the Houyhnhnms and the Yahoos; Defoe actually based his tale on the real-life adventures of Alexander Sekirk, who had been stranded on a desert island. The key element, however, of both works, is the infusion of a "real world" mentality. The two heroes of Swift and Defoe, while operating in fantastic worlds, are ordinary men. The poet Samuel Coleridge said that Defoe's Crusoe was "the universal representative, the person for whom every reader could substitute himself." Defoe's later Moll Flanders (1722) depicted a more ordinary setting for a woman of extraordinary proportions. Moll Flanders emerges, however, as a com-pellingly "real" woman.

Mimesis, or the imitative representation of nature and life in literature and art, became an important aspect of the eighteenth-century novel. Many credit Samuel Richardson's Pamela or Virtue Rewarded (1740) as the first fully realized novel. Like Defoe and Swift, the novel employs mimesis to "mirror" real life in the fictional world. Richardson introduced characters that were more than archetypes, who possessed interior consciousness. Pamela also is an epistolary novel and was intended to teach young women how to write a letter. Interestingly, Richardson's book further established a relationship between women and the novel that evolved in the next century with the Victorian novel.

The Victorian Novel

The crucial element of the eighteenth-century novel was a new realism, the story told through the observations of real, ordinary human beings. The Victorian novel elaborated that realism within the specific context of Victorian culture. Charles Dickens' novels are clear examples of mimetic fiction. His novels reflect the poverty and squalor of Victorian England and the hypocrisy of its class system. Victorian women found expression in the novel, both as characters and as writers. The period was marked by a more intense interest in the "common people" and daily life. Domesticity and romance were key elements of the Victorian novel. Writers such as Jane Austen, Charlotte, Anne, and Emily Brontë, and George Eliot are representative of the Victorian period, as are Dickens, Henry James, Honoré de Balzac, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Thomas Hardy. Below is an excerpt from Eliot's first novel, Scenes of Clerical Life. Notice the narrator's defense of her character as representative of "commonplace people" in Eliot's critique of romantic literary convention.

Scenes of a Clerical Life

The Rev. Amos Barton, whose sad fortunes I have undertaken to relate, was, you perceive, in no respect an ideal or exceptional character, and perhaps I am doing a bold thing to bespeak your sympathy on behalf of a man who was so very far from remarkable—a man whose virtues were not heroic, and who had no undetected crime within his breast; who had not the slightest mystery hanging about him, but was palpably and unmistakably commonplace; who was not even in love, but had that complaint favourably many years ago. "An utterly uninteresting character!" I think I hear a lady reader exclaim—Mrs. Farthingale, for example, who prefers the ideal in fiction; to whom tragedy means ermine tippets, adultery, and murder; and comedy, the adventures of some personage who is quite a "character."

But, my dear madam, it is so very large a majority of your fellow-countrymen that are of this insignificant stamp. At least eighty out of a hundred of your adult male fellow-Britons returned in the last census, are neither extraordinarily silly, nor extraordinarily wicked, nor extraordinarily wise; their eyes are neither deep and liquid with sentiment, nor sparkling with suppressed witticisms; they have probably had no hairbreadth escapes or thrilling adventures; their brains are certainly not pregnant with genius, and their passions have not manifested themselves at all after the fashion of a volcano. They are simply men of complexions more or less muddy, whose conversation is more or less bald and disjointed. Yet these commonplace people—many of them—bear a conscience, and have felt the sublime prompting to do the painful right; they have their unspoken sorrows, and their sacred joys; their hearts have perhaps gone out towards their first-born, and they have mourned over the irreclaimable dead. Nay, is there not a pathos in their very insignificance—in our comparison of their dim and narrow existence with the glorious possibilities of that human nature which they share?

—George Eliot, Scenes of Clerical Life

While Eliot exalts the common hero, her Rev. Amos Barton is reduced to an iconic significance. Through his defense, he becomes the noble "every man." In some ways this passage represents the ethos of the Victorian novel. Victorian novelists, although they criticized social convention and order, did so within a particularly ordered worldview. Eventually, a réévaluation of that worldview marked the shift from Victorianism to modernity.

The Modern Novel

After World War I, Modernism emerged as a cultural and aesthetic movement. Modernists broke with the "bourgeois" values of the nineteenth century as the reality of postwar "contemporary history," according to T. S. Eliot, seemed more of an "immense panorama of futility and anarchy" than the well-ordered aesthetic prescribed by the Victorian era.

The modernists, in their disavowal of Victorian values, introduced a transmogrified literary form, the "modern novel." The modern novel posited a radically different worldview than the Victorian novel. Modernism is more interested in language as form than language as the vehicle for meaning. Modern writers and poets such as Eliot, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, W. B. Yeats, Gertrude Stein, Franz Kafka, and Ezra Pound introduced literary techniques that disrupted convention and shifted our modern understanding of and approach to literature.

Virginia Woolfs brilliant Mrs. Dalloway (inspiration for Michael Cunningham's The Hours, which was adapted into an award-winning movie) exemplifies the modern novel. The book spans one day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway as she prepares for a dinner party. As Woolf carefully details Mrs. Dalloway's day, a richly integrated contemplation of social life, class, and death emerge. The novel uses various narrative strategies to negotiate memory, fully rendering Mrs. Dalloway's consciousness, and easily moving in and out of other characters' perspectives.

Mrs. Dalloway

Elizabeth said she had forgotten her gloves. That was because Miss Kilman and her mother hated each other. She could not bear to see them together. She ran upstairs to find her gloves.

But Miss Kilman did not hate Mrs. Dalloway. Turning her large gooseberry-coloured eyes upon Clarissa, observing her small pink face, her delicate body, her air of freshness and fashion, Miss Kilman felt, Fool! Simpleton! You who have known neither sorrow nor pleasure; who have trifled your life away! And there rose in her an overmastering desire to overcome her; to unmask her. If she could have felled her it would have eased her. But it was not the body; it was the soul and its mockery that she wished to subdue; make feel her mastery. If only she could make her weep; could ruin her; humiliate her; bring her to her knees crying, You are right! But this was God's will, not Miss Kilman's. It was to be a religious victory. So she glared; so she glowered.

Clarissa was really shocked. This a Christian—this woman! This woman had taken her daughter from her! She in touch with invisible presences! Heavy, ugly, commonplace, without kindness or grace, she know the meaning of life!

"You are taking Elizabeth to the Stores?" Mrs. Dalloway said.

—Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway


Postmodernism refers generally to the period in history post-World War II. The term specifically refers to "non-realist and non-traditional literature and art of that period." Postmodernism is marked, according to Jean-François Lyotard, by the end of the myths or "meta-narratives" of western culture, such as Christianity, Science, Democracy, Communism, and Progress. That is, people have ceased to believe in these ideals. Like modernism, postmodernism's worldview is a radical shift. Postmodernism recognizes truth and meaning as being socially constructed. Part of postmodernism's project is to expose the way in which socially constructed truths become naturalized as absolute truth. Briefly, postmodernism, like modernism,

• uses self-referential language "play" to disrupt literary conventions and form.

• rejects the idea of orginality in art in the age of mass production.

• rejects plot and character as "meaningful artistic conventions."

• rejects mimetic representation.

• considers meaning "delusory."

John Barth identifies postmodern art as taking these modernist "characteristics to an extreme stage." Modernists also saw western culture in a state of decay but believed it could be saved. Postmodernists, on the other hand, have welcomed its downfall. Postmodernism's heyday was the 1970s and 1980s. Postmodern artists such as Andy Warhol were at the forefront of popular culture. Writers such as John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, Donald Barthelme, Kathy Acker, Jorge Luis Borges, and Italo Calvino are typically considered postmodern writers. Below is an excerpt from Calvino's Invisible Cities.

Cities and Eyes

It is the mood of the beholder which gives the city of Zemrude its form. If you go by whistling, your nose a-tilt behind the whistle, you will know it from below: window sills, flapping curtains, fountains. If you walk along hanging your head, your nails dug into the palms of your hands, your gaze will be held on the ground, in the gutters, the manhole covers, the fish scales, wastepaper. You cannot say that one aspect of the city is truer than the other, but you hear of the upper Zemrude chiefly from those who remember it, as they sink into the lower Zemrude, following every day the same stretches of street and finding again each morning the ill humor of the day before, encrusted at the foot of the walls. For everyone, sooner or later, the day comes when we bring our gaze down along the drainpipes and we can no longer detach it from the cobblestones. The reverse is not impossible, but it is more rare: and so we continue walking through Zemrude's streets with eyes now digging into the cellars, the foundations, the wells.

—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment