What aspects of the novel can be perceived as it evolves into a major Literary form?

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

[Posted in two parts.]

The aspects of the novel that are recognizable from the beginning of the novel (attributed to the 1700s)--the English novel is usually stated as beginning with Defoe--and developing through various manifestations over time leading it to become a major literary form include the following list of aspects: an imagined idea (or a fictionalized true event); a plot in which a story develops through stages beginning with an incident that triggers a problem to the resolution of that problem; chronologically related arrangement of events, either in straightforward sequence or in various manners of a fragmented sequence; setting, which affects to mood; characters; point of view, which relates to whom or what is the focalized aspect and who is the focalizing individual (whether internal character or external narrator); narrator, which affects tone; narratorial distance, which is a product of point of view as it pertains to focalization; theme or main idea; and realism, an aspect that has grown more and ever more toward absolute realism to the point of conveying isolated instances of realism instead of universal realism, giving the ironic twist to realism that it is no longer realistic for the vast majority, which stems from the existential belief that all reality is relative and, therefore, not universal.

We'll use the English novel as a starting point, with the understanding that European novels, Russian novels, Soviet novels, post colonial novels etc., each have their own particulars of development (without touching on the separate question of development of genres). Beginning with Defoe, the primary aspect was the thematic concern. Defoe's plot (storyline with inciting event, conflict, resolution, etc.) was fictionalized from a true story. It covered a straight chronological time period. It progressed from introduction and inciting action, through catastrophes to an ultimate climactic moment when the course of the resolution was established to the resolution. This all happened in a setting, with focalization through a first person narrator providing an intimate point of view while striving to provide realistic setting, events, personal reactions (physical, emotional, cognitive) and general experience, which were all aimed at pointedly imparting Defoe's theme, his message. Robinson Crusoe can be viewed as a very "romantic" (as in adventuresome) sermon conveying a strong message of how to live rightly.

[Part II below.]

Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

[Part II of above post.]

As time progressed, the theme, though always important as was plot, began to be overshadowed by characters and character development so that by the time of Jane Austen--having passed through the Gothic style in which horrific events and settings were prominent--she could devoted entire novels to characters with very little description of or dependence on setting, romantic adventure or heart-pounding action and conflict, qualities Fanny Burney even still relied on. Other 19th century novelists, along with continuing to increase the reliance on realism incorporating common people and commonplace events (as opposed to the kings and princes seen in Shakespeare and such), emphasized a shift to social moral values as opposed to an individuals' choices of a moral code. As the novel moved through the World Wars, psychological (affective and cognitive combined and effecting each other), personality and chronological aspects underwent radical changes--as did the whole world from planet to people (see T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land, "Burial of the Dead")--so that individual character identities and time and reality were presented as fragmented and no longer comprehensible. This began with the modernists, who lamented the fragmentation and meaninglessness, and was amplified by the postmodernists, who chose to celebrate and play with the fragmentation and meaninglessness since it couldn't be escaped. These trends toward realism and fragmentation have been dominant in general terms in the novel (in general considerations, avoiding genre specifics) ever since.

epollock | Student


Love in Excess; or The Fatal Enquiry was a work written by Eliza Haywood and published in three parts from 1719 to 1720. It was among the most popular books of the early 18th century. Love in Excess offers a perfect occasion for reflection on the meaning of the term novel. For one thing, it meets the definition given in textbooks: It’s a work of fiction, in prose, about 230 pages long. What’s more, it’s identified on the title page as a novel: Love in Excess; or The Fatal Enquiry: A Novel.

No modern critic or scholar would ever call it a novel. The main reason is that  the qualities associated with the form of the novel—specificity, particularity, and concreteness, especially in the portrayal of major characters—just aren’t present in Love in Excess.

To get a sense of what’s missing from Love in Excess, and what’s typically present in a good novel, we turn our attention to set of passages from Daniel Deronda, George Eliot’s last novel, a work originally published in 1876. We see from the passages that in this work, the setting is detailed and specific. Daniel Deronda, then, is a novel—a form that usually means to show us a particular place at a particular time, maybe even a particular moment in history. To be sure, the comparison of our two examples is more than a little unfair. George Eliot is one of the most important novelists in the entire tradition, and Daniel Deronda has one of the best openings of all time. In spite of that, the comparison is instructive.

Most authors and critics agree that a novel should look more like Daniel Deronda than like Love in Excess. For an increasing number of current scholars, works like Love in Excess are best identified as amatory tales or amatory fictions. The term amatory tale (which Haywood never would have heard or used) helps to distinguish works like Love in Excess from works written 20 to 50 years later, such as Pamela by Samuel Richardson or Evelina by Frances Burney. Despite their occasional failings, Pamela and Evelina clearly count as novels by current standards. More often than not, these works are trying to particularize and specify.

The term amatory tale is nevertheless useful because it points to the most interesting feature of Haywood’s story, the theme of love and sexual passion, and makes that a defining feature. Scholars have also been able to show that many amatory tales were published in the period from, 1680 to 1740. Equally important to our understanding of the novel form are its differences from the traditional form of the romance. The romance may date back to antiquity, though the most familiar examples are probably the medieval stories of King Arthur and his knights.

Romances vary widely, but they do have some common features. The setting of a romance is usually remote and, perhaps, exotic, like that of a fairy tale. The characters in a romance are also sketched broadly—handsome prince, beautiful princess—and may include larger-than-life figures, such as giants and wizards. Finally, there’s often some sort of magic in a romance.

It’s clear that the romance was stripped down and streamlined into the amatory tale, and it’s also clear that the tales were then developed into the first novels. The Harry Potter books draw on the long tradition of the romance, as do the works in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.