Craig White's Literature Courses

Terms / Themes

thanks to

The Novel (+ prose fiction)

Oxford English Dictionary. 4.b. A long fictional prose narrative, usually filling one or more volumes and typically representing character and action with some degree of realism and complexity; a book containing such a narrative.

Despite persistent predictions of its demise, the novel remains the single most popular genre of modern literature and the mainstay of most Literature courses. Today's readers still enjoy or at least can process Robinson Crusoe (the first English novel, 1719), join clubs devoted to reading novels by Jane Austen (Pride and Prejudice)  or Charles Dickens (Great Expectations), and buy (by the millions) novels in series like The Hunger Games (2008-2010), Harry Potter (1997-2007), and Twilight (2005-8), plus scads of fantasies, mysteries, thrillers, women's romances, and many other popular sub-genres—all novels!

One reason for the novel's continuing popularity is its adaptability. The novel originated in the 1700s by recombining genres such as the Medieval-Renaissance romance, the personal letter, and the journal. Novels have been serialized in magazines, sold in multi-volume sets, been reduced to novellas or extended to series, or transformed to graphic novels, video games and hyperfiction.

Appeals or attractions of the novel

Depiction of a whole social world (setting) < art as imitation of reality  (These depictions can be specialized or emphasized according to the novel's sub-genre; even science fiction or vampire fantasies set in Transylvania or the New York underground require a world that operates according to some rules of reality or integrity.)

Numerous recognizable voices, identities, or characters (characterization + viewpoint + dialogue as mimesis) — Despite its depth or internality, the novel is a highly social genre.

Journey, conflict, transformation > resolution (plot, narrative, story, esp. romance narrative)

escape from everyday limits

identification with protagonist or perspective (viewpoint + characterization)

depth or internality: psychological penetration of social surface into individual desires and conflicts (maybe the most singular quality of written fiction compared to dramatic or cinematic fiction)

      The novel anticipates and resembles film or video but remains superior to visual fiction by its ability to represent states of mind or feeling, i.e. internal conflicts, psychology, states of mind.

      Visual fiction like video or movies depends on words characters speak, or external gestures or expressions provided by actors, to signify internal states of mind. Therefore video and movies are more like drama, though the camera can sometimes act as a narrator.

Consequently, compared to electronic media, literary fiction enables readers to identify with different people and so learn compassion, empathy, other people's moral quandaries.

Annie Murphy Paul, “Reading Literature Makes Us Smarter and Nicer”

Dialogue of worlds and voices meeting in novel may transcend ethics or conventional good-evil morality; interest relocates to formal accomplishment and representation of a complete world. The better the fiction, the more complex and sophisticated the integrity of the represented world. For disposable popular fiction, the represented world is comparatively simple. (Terrorists are threatening your family! Mom and Dad show surprising heroism! Revenge is sweet. All is well.)

The word "novel" originally means "new," so that usage of the term to describe a long work of prose fiction shows how new such a concept was when the novel began to appear in the 1700s and 1800s.

Origins or proto-genres of the novel (or fiction)

  • Epic (Plato's description of the Epic as featuring the voices of characters and narrator anticipates the novel's plurality of voices)

  • the Romance

  • Spoken Tales (> short story)

  • Picaresque novels of Renaissance Spain < Maqama of Arab literature

    (Picaro = rogue, wanderer, trickster figure)


Early European novels or proto-novels:

Francois Rabelais (1494-1553), Gargantua et Pantagruel (series of 5 novels), revived by Bakhtin esp. as “carnival”

The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes and of His Fortunes and Adversities (La vida de Lazarillo de Tormes y de sus fortunas y adversidades) 1554 (This text is a popular critical example of a "picaresque romance" describing a rogue-hero's journeys, loves, and adventures through a recognizable modern social setting.

Cervantes, Don Quixote, 1605, 1615


John Bunyan (1628-1688), The Pilgrim's Progress 1678  (Bunyan was an English Puritan who wrote his masterpiece in the same time period as the great English Puritan poet John Milton wrote his epic Paradise Lost (1667, 1674)

  • Instead of realistic characters, allegorical symbols of types: Christian (protagonist), Evangelist (guide), Mr. Legality, Giant Despair (both antagonists).

  • Settings are allegorical or related directly to the Bible or Christian belief: King's Highway, village of Morality, Vanity Fair, Hill of Difficulty, Celestial City)

  • Extremely popular for centuries in English Christian homes (still frequently assigned to home schoolers)

  • Physical journey = spiritual journey, conversion experience, personal transformation (cf. Robinson Crusoe, Mary Rowlandson)

  • Plain language but extended sentences as in Crusoe

  • Both Puritan writers > therefore, middle-class voice that combines new learning with everyday speech.


Origins of the first modern novels

As with today's graphic novels and hyperfiiction, the first modern novels combined pre-existing genres:

  • The medieval / Renaissance romance of a hero's or saint's journeys and adventures

  • The private letter in which friends or relatives revealed personal information to each other

  • The journal or memoir in which individuals recorded their trials and examined their inner selves

The letter and journal mean that the novel imitates private or personal forms of literature.

Thus, in contrast to the Enlightenment and the Founding documents of the American nation, where Literature concerns real people, real activities, and actual laws by which we live, . . .

the novel and the Romantic era increasingly concern fictional people's private or personal lives and how these unreal people attempt to live by their own moral laws or inner sense of honor.


Early English novels 

Daniel Defoe (1659-1731), Robinson Crusoe (1719), Captain Singleton (1720), Moll Flanders (1722), A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), Roxana: The Fortunate Mistress (1724)

Samuel Richardson 1689-1761, Pamela (1740); Clarissa 1748 (both epistolary novels: epistolary = composed of letters, as in "epistles of St. Paul.")

Charles Brockden Brown, Edgar Huntly (1799): also an epistolary novel, in this case one enormous letter with three postscripts.

Later example: Bram Stoker, Dracula (1897)

Henry Fielding, 1707-54. Tom Jones, 1749


First American novels late 1780s-90s

William Hill Brown, The Power of Sympathy (1789)—first English novel published in America by an American writer

Susanna Rowson, Charlotte Temple (published 1791 England, 1794 USA)

Hannah Webster Foster, The Coquette or, The History of Eliza Wharton (1797): fictionalized account of actual story of death of socially elite Connecticut woman


19th century: novel as national expression

England: Austen, Thackeray, Dickens, the Brontes, Trollope, Hardy

Russia: Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov

France: Hugo, Balzac, Stendhal, Dumas

USA: Cooper, Hawthorne, Stowe, Twain, Henry James, Edith Wharton

Louisa May Alcott, Little Women (1868-69)


20th century: novel as international Modernism + many other developments (psychological depth & complexity, stream-of-conscious experimentation)

England / Great Britain: Joseph Conrad, D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Evelyn Waugh, E.M. Forster, Graham Greene

Russia: Vladimir Nabokov, Alexander Solzhenitsyn

France: Proust, Gide, Celine, Sartre, Camus, Malraux, de Beauvoir

USA: James, Wharton, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Mailer; Canada: Margaret Atwood

Bakhtin on the novel

Classical theory on voices in the novel

M. M. Bakhtin promotes the novel as the essential genre of modernity. The novel as a genre developed concurrently with Western Civilization's turn toward modernity in the Renaissance and gained its full expression following the Enlightenment into Romanticism:

39 . . . a genre that structures itself in a zone of direct contact with developing reality.

40 Such a reorientation [the concept of a future] occurred for the first time during the Renaissance. In that era, the present (that is, a reality that was contemporaneous) for the first time began to sense itself not only as an incomplete continuation of the past but as something like a new and heroic beginning. To reinterpret reality on the level of the contemporary present now meant not only to degrade, but to raise reality into a new and heroic sphere. It was in the Renaissance that the present first began to feel with great clarity and awareness an incomparably closer proximity and kinship to the future than to the past.

Formally, Bakhtin characterizes the novel as a meeting of many voices or worldviews (through characters). These voices include that of the narrator, who even in third-person perspectives operates as a voice associated with a cultural worldview.

This theory of voices, combined with the novel's combination of narration and dialogue (in contrast to the lyric or monologue [single narrator] or the drama or film [multiple characters speaking to each other]), provides the novel with more "voices" than any other genre and thus a more complete representation of social reality.

For colonial and postcolonial literature . . . .

Colonial and postcolonial literature often appear in diverse genres such as lyric poetry and drama, but the novel has been the primary genre for both phases of history, perhaps because of the genre's ability to represent contending voices meeting in a modern world that conflicts and exchanges with tradition.


Timothy Brennan, “The National Longing for Form” Post-Colonial Studies Reader 170-175

170 nation as discursive formation

171 One of the most durable myths has certainly been the “nation”

172 The rise of the modern nation-state in Europe in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries is inseparable from the forms and subjects of imaginative literature. . . .  literature participated in the formation of nations through the creation of “national print media”—the newspaper and the novel.

172 Race, geography, tradition, language, size, or some combination of these seem finally insufficient for determining national essence, and yet people die for nations . . . .  Others have emphasized the creative side of nation-forming . . . .

173 the genre that accompanied the rise of the European vernaculars, their institution as languages of state after 1820, and the separation of literature into various “national” literatures by the German Romantics at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries. . . .  It was the novel that historically accompanied the rise of nations by objectifying the “one, yet many” of national life, and by mimicking the structures of the nation, a clearly bordered jumble of languages and styles.