The word “novella” comes from the Latin word novellus, a diminutive of the word novus, which means “new.” The term “novella” first became associated with the telling of stories in the thirteenth century with collections of newer versions of old saints’ tales, exempla, chivalric tales, and ribald stories. Eventually, the term became associated with tales that were fresh, strange, and unusual—stories, in short, that were worth the telling.
The most decisive historical event to establish the term “novella” as a designation for a new kind of fiction was Giovanni Boccaccio’s decision to give the name “novella” to the tales included in his Decameron: O, Prencipe Galetto (1349-1351; The Decameron, 1620). What made Boccaccio’s stories new was their marking a shift from the sacred world of Dante’s “divine” comedy to the profane world of Boccaccio’s “human” comedy. The resulting realism of The Decameron should not be confused, however, with the realism developed by the eighteenth century novel. The focus in Boccaccio’s tales is not on a character presented in a similitude of everyday life but on the traditional world of story, in which characters serve primarily as “functions” of the tale.
With Miguel de Cervantes in the sixteenth century, as with Boccaccio before him, something new also characterized the novella. First, Cervantes, in his Novelas ejemplares (1613; Exemplary Novels, 1846), did not present himself as a collector of traditional tales but as an inventor of original stories. As a result, he became an observer and recorder of concrete details in the external world and a student of the psychology of individual characters. Although plot was still important, character became more developed than it was in The Decameron, and thus psychological motivation rather than story motivation was emphasized. Characters existed not solely for the roles they played in the stories but also for their own sake, as if they were real.
It is not simply the gothic trappings and decorations that constitute the gothic novel, but rather the placing of characters into traditional romance tales and the resulting transformation of those characters into archetypes of the mythic story. The transformation of “real” people into parabolic figures by the latent thrust of the traditional romance story is characteristic of the novella form and can be seen in an explicit way in The Castle of Otranto, in which, even as characters act out their desires on the surface of the plot, desire becomes objectified and totally embodied in the latent and underlying plot.
In The Turn of the Screw, this basic combination is focused in a particularly explicit way, becoming the crux and central theme of the story. The issue of whether the ghosts in the story are real or are projections of the governess’s imagination is reflective of the basic problem of the novella form—that is, whether a given story features characters who are presented as if they are real or as embodiments of psychological archetypes. This ambiguity is so thorough in James’s novella that every detail can be read as evidence for both interpretations of reality at once.
Just as Walpole returned to the medieval romance for a model for his gothic tale, Flaubert returned to the medieval saint’s legend or folktale for the exemplar for “The Legend of St. Julian, Hospitaler.” Furthermore, just as Walpole’s romance differs from the medieval form by combining traditional story with psychologically real characters, so does Flaubert’s moral fable differ from its medieval source by self-consciously foregrounding the static and frozen nature of the medieval story itself. The subject matter of Flaubert’s story, although it has a moral issue at its center, is more particularly the generic means by which the medieval tale is moral and representative. The movement from the parable of Flaubert to the modern parables of O’Connor is a movement from a relatively simple story to a more complex and ironic form. Just as the narrative and symbolic aim of Flaubert’s story is the spiritual transformation of its central characters, so also is the central aim of O’Connor’s Wise Blood to lead its central character to a vision of his own fragmentation so he can be reborn.
Perhaps the two best-known modern parable forms of the novella are William Faulkner’s The Bear (1942) and Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (1952). These two stories differ from the parables of Flaubert and O’Connor in that they both seem to be less illustrations of moral issues than reenactments of primitive rituals that enforce the moral issue. Although they are quite different in their individual syntactical rhythms, both stories are characterized by a highly formal structure and style in which moral values evolve ritually from the hero’s encounter with the natural world. Of the two stories, The Old Man and the Sea seems closer to the parable form than does The Bear, primarily because of the conventional expectation that the parable is a relatively clean structural form, functional and bare in style and point of view.
One of the most common narrative devices of the novella is the convention of the Doppelgänger, or double. There are both historical and aesthetic reasons for the predominance of this motif in the form. Because the novella is a combination of the old romance form, in which characters are projections of psychic states, and the new realistic novel form, in which characters are presented as if they were real people with their own psychological lives, novellas often present both types of characters, especially in such works as Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” (1853) and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (serial 1899, book 1902), in which the narrators seem to be realistic characters with individual psyches, while the central characters Bartleby and Kurtz seem to be manifested as psychological archetypes.