Beginnings of the novel in Europe
The canon of the novel, then, should probably include all important works, no matter how early, that are read as novels are read today and that have clearly influenced the shape of European fiction. In this light, it makes sense to trace the origins of the novel back to the origins of Western literature, perhaps to Homer’s Iliad (c. 750 b.c.e.; English translation, 1611) and Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1614). Certainly, two of the oldest traditions in fiction, the heroic and the picaresque, maintain these works as prototypes. Among other ancient works, the narratives of the Old Testament have also been of immeasurable influence in shaping the forms and themes of Western fiction. Genesis, for example, can be said to have shown the West how to use character to embody the history and spirit of a people; indeed, the Old Testament is rich in narratives of many kinds. Perhaps even more influential in Western literary history, however, have been the Gospels of the New Testament, which present the archetypal story of the individual versus society, or, more precisely, of the individual’s defining his or her personal relationship with the divine, irrespective of society’s definition. Because most critics see the growth of the novel in terms of a movement toward realizing unique individuals and away from reiterating stereotypes, one way to view the history of the novel is in terms of its lesser or greater success in achieving the iconoclastic ideal set by the Gospels. Given the Gospels’ pervasive influence on Western culture, it is only to be expected that critics will frequently see Christian parallels in the acts of well-known characters. Similarly, the most important novels have been considered radical, even dangerous, books, though perhaps none so radical and dangerous in its time as were the Gospels at the time of their writing.
Because of their importance in...
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