Origins and Development of the Novel, 1740-1890 Introduction


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

No primary genre of literature has been so often defined and redefined as the novel, and still, no consensus has been reached. Several scholars have suggested that the only valid definition of the novel is the history of the genre itself. The origins of the modern novel, however—the novel as it appears in the early years of the twenty-first century, encompassing both serious fiction and best sellers—are more easily traced. The modern novel in the eighteenth century and its rise in the nineteenth coincided with the rise of the middle class. In consequence, as Ian Watt observes in The Rise of the Novel (1957), one of the paramount features of the novel has been its focus on a detailed re-creation of the bourgeois interior: the clothes, the furnishings, the belongings of the middle class. The novel is also distinguished, Watt points out, by its emphasis on individual characterization, an emphasis that can be related to the social and political movements of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These movements recognized the dignity of the individual and the equality of all people. Despite all its transmutations and variations, the novel today performs the same function it has served since the eighteenth century: It offers reports on (to borrow a title from Anthony Trollope) “the way we live now.”

Since American literature was, in its early stages, merely an outgrowth of English literature, this survey will treat the development of the English novel before turning to the history of the form in America. It is well to note at the outset, however, that there are several notable differences between the English novel and the American novel. While generalizations about “the novel” in a given nation must always be hedged, it is true that, as Richard Chase observes in The American Novel and Its Tradition (1957), “the American novel tends to rest in contradictions and among extreme ranges of experience,” while “the English novel has followed the middle...

(The entire section is 816 words.)