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Outlines of English and American Literature
The Early English Novel
by Long, William J.


An important literary event of the eighteenth century was the appearance of the modern novel. This invention, generally credited to the English, differs radically from the old romance, which was known to all civilized peoples. Walter Scott made the following distinction between the two types of fiction: the romance is a story in which our interest centers in marvelous incidents, brought to pass by extraordinary or superhuman characters; the novel is a story which is more natural, more in harmony with our experience of life. Such a definition, though faulty, is valuable in that it points to the element of imagination as the distinguishing mark between the romance and the true novel.

The Romance

Take, for example, the romances of Arthur or Sindbad or the Green Knight. Here are heroes of more than human endurance, ladies of surpassing loveliness, giants, dragons, enchanters, marvelous adventures in the land of imagination. Such fanciful stories, valuable as a reflection of the ideals of different races, reached their highest point in the Middle Ages, when they were used to convey the ideals of chivalry and knightly duty. They grew more fantastic as they ran to seed, till in the Elizabethan age they had degenerated into picaresque stories (from picaro, "a rogue") which recounted the adventures not of a noble knight but of some scoundrel or outcast. They were finally laughed out of literature in numerous burlesques, of which the most famous is Don Quixote (1605). In the humor of this story, in the hero's fighting windmills and meeting so many adventures that he had no time to breathe, we have an excellent criticism not of chivalry, as is sometimes alleged, but of extravagant popular romances on the subject. [Footnote: Don Quixote is commonly named as a type of extravagant humor, but from another viewpoint it is a sad book, intensely sad. For it recounts the experience of a man who had a knightly heart and who believed the world to be governed by knightly ideals, but who went forth to find a world filled with vulgarity and villainy.]

The Novel

Compare now these old romances with Ivanhoe or Robinson Crusoe or Lorna Doone or A Tale of Two Cities. In each of the last-named novels one may find three elements: a story, a study, and an exercise of the creative imagination. A modern work of fiction must still have a good story, if anybody is to read it; must contain also a study or observation of humanity, not of superhuman heroes but of men and women who work or play or worship in close relationship to their fellows. Finally, the story and the study must be fused by the imagination, which selects or creates various scenes, characters, incidents, and which orders or arranges its materials so as to make a harmonious work that appeals to our sense of truth and beauty; in other words, a work of art.

Such is the real novel, a well-told story in tune with human experience, holding true to life, exercising fancy but keeping it under control, arousing thought as well as feeling, and appealing to our intellect as well as to our imagination. [Footnote: This convenient division of prose fiction into romances and novels is open to challenge. Some critics use the name "novel" for any work of prose fiction. They divide novels into two classes, stories (or short stories) and romances. The story relates simple or detached incidents; the romance deals with life in complex relations, dominated by strong emotions, especially by the emotion of love.

Other critics arrange prose fiction in the following classes: novels of adventure (Robinson Crusoe, The Last of the Mohicans), historical novels (Ivanhoe, The Spy), romantic novels (Lorna Doone, The Heart of Midlothian), novels of manners (Cranford, Pride and Prejudice), novels of personality (Silas Marner, The Scarlet Letter), novels of purpose (Oliver Twist, Uncle Tom's Cabin).

Still another classification arranges fiction under two heads, romance and realism. In the romance, which portrays unusual incidents or characters, we see the ideal, the poetic side of humanity; in the realistic novel, dealing with ordinary men and women, the prosaic element of life is emphasized.]

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