What are the main characteristics of 18th-century English novels?

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The main characteristics of the eighteenth-century English novel include realistic characters of different social classes, real-world settings, plots that center on real-life conflicts, individualism, and satire.

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Novels were a new literary form in the eighteenth century, and in many ways, they were a reaction against earlier tales called romances that featured grand adventures, noble characters, and supernatural elements.

The English novel of the eighteenth century, on the other hand, developed out of the Enlightenment's devotion to reason and the rise of the middle class. Therefore, it gears its style and subject matter toward those considerations. The novel's characters, then, are no longer noble aristocrats like kings, queens, and knights; rather, they are normal people of many different social ranks. Readers could identify with these realistically drawn characters who had normal human strengths and weaknesses.

The setting and plot of novels also reflect this new focus of realism. The setting is usually the contemporary real world rather than an idealized kingdom or a supernatural realm. Readers could recognize their own times and places in novels as well as situations in which they might actually find themselves. A novel's plot centers around real-world conflicts and difficulties rather than grand adventures. Characters face challenges that many people face in real life.

This focus on the real people of the real world who have real-life problems leads the novel to zoom in on the individual and his or her own consciousness. Novels of this era deal with actual individuals and dig deeply into their thoughts and ideas. Characters are not mere generalizations or representations of a type of people. Rather, individuals are central to the stories' plots.

Eighteenth-century novels also have a tendency to be rather cynical and satirical. Authors who write about real people with real problems in real settings cannot help but notice the corruption and foolishness of the real world. They noticed, and they commented, often turning their stories into revelations about human evil or at least human absurdity.

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Although there are exceptions to this generalization among novels of the 18th century in Britain, one of the most important, if not the most important, characteristics of this type of novel is its depiction of individual character, society, culture, and politics as realistically as possible; in other words, the novelist attempts to paint a picture of life as it is rather than as we might wish it to be. For example, Daniel Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year (1922), which was originally thought to be an eye-witness account of the devastating effects of the bubonic plague in London, is now considered to be an imaginative recreation of London's suffering through the eyes of a middle-class tradesman named "H. F."

Another characteristic centers on the inventive structures employed. When Samuel Richardson constructed Pamela (1740), a novel about a poor but educated servant girl's struggles to resist her employer's advances, the novel progresses through a series of Pamela's letters, and these letters provide the only source of the reader's knowledge of events. Henry Fielding, author of Tom Jones, was so appalled by what he perceived as Richardson's false sentimentality (and lack of realism) that he wrote the novel Shamela (1741), in which he turned Pamela into a scheming, calculating adventuress. Richardson turned again to letters in his very long novel Clarissa, in which he depicts the heroine, Clarissa, like Pamela, fighting a wealthy libertine to preserve her chastity. The plot moves by a series of letters between Clarissa and a friend, Anna Howe, and letters between the villain, a rake named Lovelace, and his friend Belford.

Richardson's novels also point to a new characteristic of the reading public, which influenced the novel's development. The rise of the middle-class in England and the development of the novel go hand-in-hand. As the middle-class grew in influence, both in politics and culture, its typical members had increasing free time to read, and these readers did not want to read about knights and damsels in distress—rather, they wanted to read about characters with whom they could identify. Fielding's Tom Jones, the "mock-epic in prose," which features a rogue and his adventures, brought readers into contact with a wide variety of English society, from upper-class to middle- to lower-class. Tobias Smollett, who wrote The Adventures of Roderick Random (1748) and The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker (1771), presents his readers with a wide spectrum of English society that includes the wealthy and genteel—the professional class, the military class, and the servant class. The middle-class readership thus created an important characteristic of the English novel—a wide net cast to capture not one group within society but all groups.

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Some scholars say that the 18th century is the era during which the English novel came to be, in terms of an official literary genre. The novels from this time period generally depict, in realistic prose, the lives and personalities of individuals as they might appear in real life (rather than as imagined, romantic characters living extraordinary existences). Simply put, the characters who appeared in the novels were very similar to the people reading about such characters. Individualism and highly detailed settings are also defining characteristics of the 18th century English novel.

Further, the English novel was remarkably accessible to a large readership, unlike the theatre, where attendance was limited to those who could afford such entertainment. Women and men alike were more educated and interested in reading, and new inventions like traveling libraries enabled them to access novels. This availability is key to the popularity of the English novel during the 18th century.

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The seventeenth century in Europe had seen great scientific revolutions as well as religious ones, and the eighteenth century, the age of Enlightenment, saw social, moral, and political revolutions as well. The changes in the novel form in the eighteenth century reflect all this novelty.

Historians of the novel have typically seen realism as a distinguishing feature of novels in the eighteenth century. The term was first used in the early nineteenth century to describe the paintings of Rembrandt as opposed to the highly idealized neo-classical paintings of the time. It soon became associated with the literature of the eighteenth century.

The novel form also reflected Cartesian insights in its shift into a much more individualistic voice.

The novels of the eighteenth century, unlike Renaissance literature for example, do not take their plots from ancient literature and tradition but, rather, from everyday life and experiences. Many of these works are also abstract, even while they tell stories, and in this they reflect some of the central philosophical concerns of the time: nature versus nurture, the role of scientific progress in moral progress and the ultimate question of human nature.

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