English Literature
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The Early Novel

The Early Novel

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The Essential Elements of a Novel

A novel is a fictional work written in narrative prose, with a typical length of over 50,000 words. While its exact origins are debated, some scholars suggest that the novel can be traced back to the Ancient World, while others believe it emerged during the Middle Ages.

Key Components of a Novel

  • A well-structured plot or storyline
  • A vivid and believable setting
  • Complex and relatable characters
  • A convincing narrative style (such as first person, third person, or omniscient)

A typical novel follows a three-act structure: a beginning, a middle, and an end. The beginning introduces the reader to the where, who, and when of the story, while the middle develops the main plot and the end resolves it, tying up any loose ends. Even in a fantastical setting, the world must be constructed in a believable way, often through attention to detail. Similarly, authors add layers of detail to their characters' personalities to make them more believable and help readers engage with the story.

The Characteristics of Early Novels

In their early days, novels were primarily used to share personal experiences, satirize societal norms, or offer commentary on conventions. They often took the form of a memoir, allegory, or romance.

The First Novel in the World

Lady Murasaki's The Tale of Genji (1008) is widely considered the first novel ever written. At 750,000 words, it is also one of the longest. Set in the Imperial Court, it follows the life of Prince Genji and his descendants. The novel features vividly portrayed characters and descriptions of court life, exploring themes of human relationships and the fleeting nature of life. It remains an influential work in Japanese literature.

In English literature, the origins of the novel can be traced back to the 18th century, when it began to be viewed as a respectable art form.

The Evolution of the English Novel

The term "novel" comes from the Italian word for "new." Chaucer introduced the concept of serialized novellas in England with his Canterbury Tales (1387-1400), which were mostly written in verse.

By the mid-17th century, "novel" or "novella" had come to refer to romantic tales of forbidden love with elements of adventure or sensation. However, there were also exceptions, as some writers used the form to express their views on humanity, justice, and philosophy. Two such writers were Aphra Behn and Daniel Defoe, who are credited by critics like Ian Watts with writing the first English novels.

Aphra Behn and Her Novel Oroonoko

Aphra Behn, an English writer and playwright, was also a secret agent in the service of Charles II. In 1688, she published her final work, Oroonoko. This novel tells the story of an enslaved West African prince transported to Suriname. Narrated by a female character, it examines the injustices of slavery and colonialism. The novel became a popular work and has been adapted for the stage numerous times.

The Development of the Novel in the 18th and 19th Centuries

The novel has a rich history, dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries. This was a time of experimentation with new forms of storytelling and a challenge to traditional literary styles, leading to the emergence of the novel as a genre. Combining elements of allegory, memoir, and romance, the novel provided a more realistic portrayal of human experiences.

One of the earliest examples of the novel is Oroonoko, written by Aphra Behn in a documentary style. This novel, which tells the story of a "noble savage," played a significant role in the movement to abolish slavery. However, Behn's views on slavery were not entirely opposed, leading to controversy surrounding the novel. Despite its impact, Oroonoko is often seen as a novella rather than a full-length novel due to its relatively short length.

It was not until 1719 that the first English novel, Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe, was published. This novel is a first-person account of a man's survival on a deserted island for 28 years until he is rescued by pirates. Although criticized for its lack of pre-planning, Robinson Crusoe combines different literary styles to create a unique and compelling novel.

The term "novel" did not become commonly used until the late 18th century, with "novella" or "novellae" being the preferred terms. This shift towards the novel as a respected literary form continued throughout the 19th century, with novels becoming a staple in literature and popular culture.

The English novel has a rich history, dating back to the 18th century when it first emerged as a serious and popular form of literature. During this time, there was a shift in the understanding of what a novel was, causing the term 'novel' to be applied to longer and more complex works of fiction. This can be seen in the example of Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, which was initially published under different titles like 'the stories of' or 'the adventures of' Crusoe. It contained all the elements of a novel, but it wasn't until later that it was recognized as such.

The 18th Century and the Rise of the Novel

The 18th century was a pivotal time for the novel, with influential writers like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Madame de Stael, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Samuel Richardson at the forefront. These authors helped establish the novel as a popular genre in Europe, with their works gaining recognition as serious literature.

As the century progressed, the novel continued to evolve and gain even more recognition. Some of the notable works from this period include Pamela (1740), Clarissa (1748), and Sir Charles Grandison (1754) by Samuel Richardson; Shamela (1740) and Tom Jones (1749) by Henry Fielding; and The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle (1751) and The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771) by Tobias Smollet. Laurence Sterne also contributed to the development of the novel with his work, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (1759-67).

Interestingly, many of these early novels were referred to as 'Histories' rather than 'novels,' with the term 'novel' only coming into common use towards the end of the 18th century.

In spite of their different writing styles, these early authors shared a common theme in their works - a realistic portrayal of life in all its complexity. They wrote about characters from all walks of life, exploring different experiences and exposing readers to a diverse range of perspectives.

The Importance of Characterization in the Novel

One of the key elements that set the early novel apart from other forms of literature was its focus on character development. Unlike traditional literary works that relied on generic character types, these writers delved into the inner lives of their characters, giving them detailed personalities and complex thoughts and opinions.

Richardson, in particular, was known for his realistic and moralistic approach to character development. His use of the first-person narrative in his epistolary novels, such as Pamela, allowed readers to enter the characters' world and experience their thoughts and emotions firsthand.

Upon its release, Pamela became an instant bestseller and was widely imitated. Fielding, however, chose to satirize the novel with his work, Shamela, which parodied the supposedly 'virtuous' Pamela as a cunning and manipulative woman who tricks her wealthy master into marriage. This further solidified Richardson's influence on the novel genre.

Richardson's other novels, Clarissa and Sir Charles Grandison, also feature similar storylines of kidnappings and attempted seductions. However, Clarissa introduces the element of parental control, which ultimately leads to the tragic demise of the virtuous Clarissa.

In conclusion, the 18th and 19th centuries were crucial in shaping the novel into a distinct and enduring literary genre. With its focus on realism, complex characters, and relatable human experiences, the novel continues to captivate readers and hold a special place in the literary world.

The Rise of the Novel: From Allegorical Tales to Realistic Narratives

In the 17th century, the concept of the novel shifted from being primarily allegorical or romantic to exploring themes of adventure and unconventional love.

  • Early Forms of the Novel

Before the modern novel as we know it today, there were earlier iterations of the genre that emerged in the 17th century. These often featured plots centered around romance or picaresque adventures, as well as satirical critiques of society and government.

  • The First English Novels

While there is some debate over the first novels in English literature, two that are commonly considered to be among the earliest are Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Aphra Behn's Oroonoko (1688). Other noteworthy early novelists include Samuel Richardson, Laurence Sterne, and Henry Fielding.

  • The Definition of an Early Novel

The first known novel in history is The Tale of Genji by Lady Murasaki, written in 1008 and boasting an impressive 750,000 words. However, in English literature, the beginning of the novel is often attributed to Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, as noted by literary scholar Ian Watts.

  • The Elements of the Early Novel

Although the early novel took on various forms and styles, there are some common elements that can be found throughout. These include a meticulously planned and structured plot, a realistic and detailed setting, complex and relatable characters, and a deeper message often conveyed through allegory or satire.

In addition to these defining elements, the English novel of the 18th century also drew influence from other cultures, such as Lady Murasaki's Tale of Genji (1008), considered to be the first novel ever written. The term "novel" itself comes from the Italian word for "new", initially used to describe novellas. However, with the emergence of longer works of fiction, the term took on its own meaning and the novel became a distinct form of literature.

Through the development of the English novel in the 18th century, the literary landscape of today was shaped into a diverse and rich tapestry. These early works challenged traditional forms, introduced new elements, and captured the essence of human experience through compelling narratives and relatable characters. From allegories to realistic plots, the evolution of the novel continues to captivate readers and inspire new generations of writers.

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