|Canada, Mark. 2002. Introduction to the Novel. October 15, 2003. .
Unlike poetry and drama, which go back thousands of years to works such as the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 2000 B.C.) and the Greek play Oresteia (458 B.C.), the novel is a somewhat recent literary creation. Lengthy fictional narratives written in prose had appeared sporadically before 1700; examples include the stories in Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron (1351-1353), the English romancer Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (c. 1469), and Don Quixote (1605, 1615), by Miguel de Cervantes of Spain. These early precursors aside, some scholars date the birth of the modern novel to the eighteenth century, specifically the publication of the English printer Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740-1742), a long story recounting the trials of an English girl in a battle against a man trying to seduce her. As Richard Freeman explains in The Novel, Richardson’s book came at an opportune time in English history, as the presence of a literate middle-class, the appearance of London’s first circulating library, printing innovations, and other factors helped prepare the soil for the new genre to grow (12). Over the next century, English readers saw the publication of many other long fictional narratives, including Richardson’s own Clarissa (1748), Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews (1742) and Tom Jones (1749), Tobias Smollett’s RoderickRandom (1748) and Humphry Clinker (1771), Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1760-1767), and Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1811) and Pride and Prejudice (1813). In general, these books were longer than Boccaccio’s narratives and more unified than Don Quixote. Furthermore, rather than recount the far-fetched adventures of knights and other idealized heroes and heroines, as Malory’s book does, this new breed of narrative tended to recreate the worlds and everyday lives of ordinary people. Thus we have the strict definition of a modern novel: a lengthy fictional narrative, written in prose, presenting a realistic picture of believable characters and events.
From these origins, the novel quickly became a popular form in England and elsewhere. Between 1840, when publishers often offered them to readers in installments, and 1900, virtually all of the most important works of English literature are novels, including Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847), Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (1847), Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield (1849-1850) and Great Expectations (1860-1861), George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871-1872), and William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1848), and Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891). In the next century, Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, and others kept the form alive and well in England. The novel has flourished elsewhere, as well. Indeed, over the past three centuries, a number of the major writers in many European countries have been novelists, including James Joyce in Ireland, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Thomas Mann in Germany, Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevski in Russia, and Victor Hugo, Gustave Flaubert, and Marcel Proust in France.
In the United States, Benjamin Franklin printed Richardson’s Pamela in 1742, but American writers did not begin producing their own novels for another half-century or so. In 1789, William Hill Brown published The Power of Sympathy, thought by some scholars to be the first novel written in the United States. It was followed in the next decade or so by other books, notably the gothic novels Wieland (1798) and Edgar Huntly (1799) by Charles Brockden Brown. America’s first great novelist is James Fenimore Cooper, who from 1821 to 1850 published more than 30 novels, including five featuring the character of Natty Bumppo in an influential series called The Leather-Stocking Tales. The American novel might be said to have come of age in the early 1850s, when Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville produced their masterpieces, Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850) Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851), each concerned with human psychology and colored by fantastic elements. In the explosion of realistic novels following the Civil War, writers such as Mark Twain, William Dean Howells, and Henry James tried to capture the psychological conflicts, manners, and even speech of characters from various parts of the country. The high points of this period includeTwain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) and James’s Portrait of a Lady (1881). On the heels of these realists came several naturalistic novels, including Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893) and Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900), which both depict human beings in conflict with social forces. A lull of some 25 years then ensued before the beginning of what might be considered the great age of the American novel. From 1925 to 1955, some of America’s greatest novelists flourished, producing a host of novels exploring materialism, family, race, the Depression, and other rich subjects. Masterpieces from this Modernist period include F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926), Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel (1929), William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (1929), John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939), Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), and James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953). In the era sometimes known as “postmodernist,” the novel has continued to thrive, taking some interesting turns. Since the 1960s, writers have challenged some conventions of the novel, including even the notion that it should be fiction. Truman Capote used the term “nonfiction novel” in reference to his masterpiece, In Cold Blood (1966), and writers such as Vladimir Nabokov and Thomas Pynchon have experimented with the form in other ways. Today the novel is the most popular form of literature in the United States among both writers and readers. Indeed, virtually all of the most famous writers currently working in the United States—Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Amy Tan, John Updike, Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, Stephen King, John Grisham, and others—are known primarily for their novels.
Over the course of this history, the novel has undergone a dramatic development so that now the term “novel” is often broadly defined and applied to such diverse books as bildungsromans by Goethe and Mark Twain, gothic novels by Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker, novels of manners by Edith Wharton, protest novels by Harriet Beecher Stowe and Upton Sinclair, adventure tales by Robert Louis Stevenson and Jack London, historical novels by Sir Walter Scott and Margaret Mitchell, mysteries by Agatha Christie, horror novels by Stephen King, legal thrillers by John Grisham, science fiction by Isaac Asimov, romance novels by Barbara Cartland, and Westerns by Louis L’Amour. Perhaps the most notable development to take place in these three centuries has been a movement away from verisimilitude. Despite the early associations of the novel with realism, some of the world’s greatest novels contain sketchy descriptions, far-fetched plots, unrealistic dialogue, and idealized characters. Indeed, Richard Chase suggests in The American Novel and Its Tradition that some of America’s greatest novels might properly called romances. In distinguishing between these two forms, Chase writes:
Doubtless the main difference between the novel and the romance is the way in which they view reality. The novel renders reality closely and in comprehensive detail. It takes a group of people and sets them going about the business of life. We come to see these people in their real complexity of temperament and motive. They are in explicable relation to nature, to each other, to their social class, to their own past. Character is more important than action and plot, and probably the tragic or comic actions of the narrative will have the primary purpose of enhancing our knowledge of and feeling for an important character, a group of characters, or a way of life. The events that occur will usually be plausible, given the circumstances, and if the novelist includes a violent or sensational occurrence in his plot, he will introduce it only into such scenes as have been (in the words of Percy Lubbock) ‘already prepared to vouch for it.’ Historically, as it has often been said, the novel has served the interests and aspirations of an insurgent middle class.
By contrast the romance, following distantly the medieval example, feels free to render reality in less volume and detail. It tends to prefer action to character, and action will be freer in a romance than in a novel, encountering, as it were, less resistance from reality. . . . The romance can flourish without providing much intricacy of relation. The characters, probably rather two-dimensional types, will not be complexly related to each other or to society or to thepast. Human beings will on the whole be shown in ideal relation—that is, they will share emotions only after these have become profoundly involved in some way, as in Hawthorne or Melville, but it will be a deep and narrow, an obsessive, involvement. In American romance, it will not matter much what class people come from, and where the novelist would arouse our interest in a character by exploring his origin, the romancer will probably do so by enveloping it in mystery. Character itself becomes, then, somewhat abstract and ideal, so much so in some romances that it seems to be merely a function of plot. The plot we may expect to be highly colored. Astonishing events may occur, and these are likely to have a symbolic or ideological, rather than a realist, plausibility. Being less committed to the immediate rendition of reality than the novel, the romance will more freely veer toward mythic, allegorical, and symbolistic forms. (13)
Hawthorne himself makes a similar distinction in his preface to The House of the Seven Gables (1851), where he explains:
When a writer calls his work a Romance, it need hardly be observed that he wishes to claim a certain latitude, both as to its fashion and material, which he would not have felt himself entitled to assume, had he professed to be writing a Novel. The latter form of composition is presumed to aim at a very minute fidelity, not merely to the possible, but to the probable and ordinary course of man’s experience. The former—while, as a work of art, it must rigidly subject itself to laws, and while it sins unpardonably, so far as it may swerve aside from the truth of the human heart—has fairly a right to present that truth under circumstances, to a great extent, of the writer’s own choosing or creation. (351)
Novels such as The Scarlet Letter and Moby-Dick, then, may seem fanciful, even dreamy, but they nevertheless explore various aspects of something we might call “truth.”
Chase, Richard. The American Novel and Its Tradition. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1957.
Faulkner, William. Speech of Acceptance for the Nobel Prize for Literature. Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. Ed. X.J. Kennedy and DanaGioia. Sixth Edition. New York: HarperCollins, 1995.
Freeman, Richard. The Novel. New York: Newsweek Books, 1975.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Preface. The House of the Seven Gables. Nathaniel Hawthorne: Collected Novels. New York: Library of America, 1965. 351-353.
James, Henry. “The Art of Fiction.” The Critical Muse: Selected Literary Criticism. New York: Penguin, 1987.
Radway, Janice. Reading the Romance. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984.