The rise of the novel as a literary form, at least in England, is often associated with the following phenomena:
- The rise of the economic and social power of the middle class and the slow loss of such power by the aristocracy. Novels increasingly came to depict, in realistic terms, the behavior of people who were neither fabulously wealthy and immensely powerful nor exceptionally poor and powerless.
- As more and more middle-class people became literate and had money to spend on works of fiction, more and more novels were written to satisfy their tastes for reading about people who often resembled themselves.
- The rise of increasingly large cities meant that social interactions with large numbers of other people were increasingly common. The novel helped explore the place of individuals in a complex social world.
- The rise of individualism, in which people increasingly had to make choices for themselves rather than having their lifestyles dictated to them by longstanding traditions, meant that more and more people were interested in reading about individuals and the choices those persons had to make.
- The rise of individualism also helped encourage an interest in the complexities of individual personalities and characters. To the extent that the novel has a strong psychological dimension, it was responding in part to the increasing emphasis on the idea that each human being is unique and has a mind of his or her own.
Many of the traits just described are visible in the opening paragraph of Daniel Defoe’s book Robinson Crusoe, often considered one of the first novels in English;
I was born in the year 1632, in the city of York, of a good family, though not of that country, my father being a foreigner of Bremen, who settled first at Hull. He got a good estate by merchandise, and leaving off his trade, lived afterwards at York, from whence he had married my mother, whose relations were named Robinson, a very good family in that country, and from whom I was called Robinson Kreutznaer; but, by the usual corruption of words in England, we are now called—nay we call ourselves and write our name—Crusoe; and so my companions always called me.