Origins and Development of the Novel, 1740-1890

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

From the Sumerian epic Gilgamesh (circa late second millennium BCE) to Le Morte D’ Arthur by Sir Thomas Mallory (1485) to J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, we can clearly trace one of the two chief strands of the novel’s DNA, the elements of which are narrative, unfolding journeys and change as a trigger to character growth. However, the other strand of the modern English novel’s makeup begins to crystallize only toward the end of the seventeenth century—indeed, around the time the term “novel” was coined. Unable to fit this new literary form in any of the existing categories—play, romance, ballad—the writers and thinkers of that age borrowed a defining term from continental Europe: “novel,” from the medieval Italian “novella,” used for a story in prose which had a beginning, middle, and end. Of course, “novel” also means “new,” which was a perfect way to describe an emergent literary form that would soon come to dominate literary expression, much as movies dominate the world of visual arts. Broadly speaking, we can discuss the development of this second strand of the novel in terms of three critical themes.

The Influence of Social and Economic Changes

The growth of the modern novel in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was closely linked with important social and economic changes, especially the rise of the middle class. Nobles, kings, and fools are often the heroes of Shakespeare’s high tragedies, but by the eighteenth century, even the English theatre was pushing for more ordinary, and often disreputable, protagonists. With its self-explanatory tile, John Gay’s “Beggar’s Opera” (1728), one of the most successful plays of the English theatre of the time, is one such example. This change was by no means an accident or a mere matter of changing public taste; the early eighteenth century was a period of rapid urbanization, with more and more people migrating from the British countryside to cities. Cities, especially London, became great sites for the exchange and spread of ideas, as well as urban squalor. Individual concerns, the rise of nuclear families, and the details of everyday life were what now preoccupied people, rather than the concerns of the aristocracy.

In the midst of these changes arose what many now regard as the first English novel, Daniel Defoe’s The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, Written from Her Own Memorandums (1722). The novel’s classic elements as they can be seen in Moll Flanders include an individual protagonist, the narrative unfolding in real time (as opposed to the “epic time” of romantic fiction), and realistic details included to recreate the character’s milieu for readers. This last point is a hallmark of both the novel’s development and the preoccupations of the middle class, which wanted to see itself reflected in the art and literature of the time. Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740) and Henry Fielding’s sprawling, seminal Tom Jones (1749) take this further, with the very ordinariness of the name “Tom Jones” establishing the everyday realness of the novel’s protagonist. Other important social changes that accompany the rise of the novel in the eighteenth century were the rise of journalism and monthly periodicals, the rise of literacy and the printing press, and the rise of the market economy.

The Rise of Individualism

Individualism is closely linked with the rise of the novel. Bildungsroman, German for “novel of formulation,” is an important genre in itself, referring to narratives in which we see the individual protagonist being “formed” through time, change, and interior growth. The growing interiority of characters is another critical development in the rise of the novel. We can contrast this with...

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narrative in the epic and romance traditions, where collective, cosmic, and predestined themes tend to predominate. The novel, however, was increasingly concerned with not just the actions and behavior but the motivations, thoughts, and feelings of the protagonist.

In The Rise of The Novel (1957), Ian Watt notes that individualized characters and detailed settings are crucial elements in the development of the modern novel. In parallel to this, the motives of modern protagonists also begin to inhabit gray areas rather than Manichean extremes of good and bad. In Lawrence Sterne’s experimental Tristram Shandy (1759–1767), we have an introspective first-person history of the protagonist’s life, which is as much about his own digressive psyche as it is about his family. Although the psychological novel in the eighteenth century was still some way away from its twentieth-century heyday, we can clearly see the inner life of characters begin to occupy an important place in the narrative. This development took place against the backdrop of larger social change. The focus of public life was shifting from country to town; the old ties of community were changing, with an increased focus on independence and finding one's own way. The final noteworthy development in this sphere was the rise of women novelists. As literacy grew and increased industrialization saw some of women’s traditional work easing, more and more women took to the novel and made the form their own, as we see in the powerful works of George Eliot and Jane Austen.

The Development of the American Novel

“It is not down on any map, true places never are.” This quote from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick: Or, the Whale (1851) is a succinct example of the way space is recreated in the American novel. This new spatial relationship, along with a powerful return to symbolism and allegory as stand-ins for the inner lives of characters, are two distinct features of the American novel from the late eighteenth century onward. However, the unique voice of the American novel followed its own course to maturity; indeed, the early American novel is close in spirit and preoccupations to its British counterpart. It is only as American political life and cultural life itself developed that the novel in America took off to whole new frontiers. Although the seeds for this flowering were laid in the decades following the American Revolution (1775–1783), the American novel didn’t realize its potential until the mid-nineteenth century.

Why did the American novel take so long to come into its own? Two crucial reasons were the legacy of colonialism and the burden of nation-building. At this crucial juncture of American history, a novel’s foremost job was to instruct and educate the masses. Any work that fell outside the scope of nation-building was frowned upon, which is why moralistic, didactic narratives flourished at this time. The aftermath of colonialism led to the belief that American literature and art were but mimicking British culture. This belief persisted during a period of extreme flux, as state boundaries were redefined and immigration increased. However, the moral imperative of early Puritan literature and the Romantic preoccupations of the American Gothic genre of the late eighteenth century were also uniquely American strands, which we see transform in the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Mark Twain. Epic elements such as the heroic journey returned in the American novel, but this time, they were bolstered by more modern elements such as characters’ psychological growth. Along with an increased sense of space and a deft use of metaphor, these themes came to define the novel in the United States.