Provide an analysis of “Realism and the Novel Form” by Ian Watt.
“Realism and the Novel Form” is the title of the first chapter in Ian Watt’s book, The Rise of the Novel. Watt credits eighteenth-century authors like Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding with redefining realism in their writings. The result is the formation of the “novel” as a literary genre that focuses on individualism and the perspectives of fictional characters to create reality rather than traditional conventions and historical facts accepted as truth.
The term “novel” has been traditionally applied to extended prose fiction writings. Historically, the concept of the novel comes in a variety of forms with origins stemming from the long narratives written in verse by authors like Chaucer and Milton. However, it was in the eighteenth century that the prose narrative began to dominate narrative genres in literature.
In The Rise of the Novel by Ian Watt, the author devotes chapter 1, entitled “Realism and the Novel Form,” to the study of the realistic novel as a fictional attempt to give the reader the effect of realism by introducing complex characters with mixed motivations for their actions depending on their social status. Watt focuses on the literary works of Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding in the age of individualism and how these authors may be differentiated from their predecessors by their attempts at realism.
To Watt, realism should not be defined by style. Rather than adherence to some formula or criteria for traditional novel writing, the author looks at Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding as creators of reality based on their own experiences. Watt equates truth with “individual experience.” This approach is a drastic change from earlier literary novel forms based on or inspired by legend or history. Instead, the emphasis is placed on human individuality and the conscious experiences of the fictional characters. This is the methodology favored by Watt and employed by Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding, who the author credits as the founders of the realistic novel form.
Watt recognizes the “problem of the nature of the correspondence between words and reality.” He argues that the novel is the literary form that most accurately reflects the individual’s perspective on experiences, not traditional “formal conventions.” Novels should be akin to transcripts of “real life.” Watt indicates:
This literary change was analogous to the rejection of universals and the emphasis on particulars which characterises philosophic realism.
The author’s point in his discussion of “Realism and the Novel Form” is that prior to the eighteenth century and particularly before the contributions of Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding, universal ideas were thought to be reality. However, consistent with reality as visualized by philosophers like Descartes, reality is perceived by individuals. It is not necessarily connected to prior ideas about the nature of reality. Authors need not prescribe to traditional literary conventions or genres, nor must they construct their plots based on historical facts. This new or “novel” idea frees writers to formulate more original plots. Characters could be unique and visualize life through their own experiences. This is realism as applied to the literary novel form.
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