The Novel

The main features and the reasons of the rise of the novel in the 18th century 

- Etymology

- Definition

- First novelists

- Reason and source for the rise of the novel

- Individualistic trend

- Realism

Romanzo, Roman, Romancio

The fantastic world of the romances of the Middle Ages was replaced by a more realistic representation: that of the novel. Novels laid greater stress on contemporary reality, intended as a realistic chronological sequence of events, full of details.

The word novel comes from Latin (> novus) through the Italian word novella, a fashionable prose genre in the 16th century.


"A fictitious prose narrative or tale of considerable links in which characters and actions representative of the real life of past or present times are portrayed in a plot of more or less complexity ". (Oxford dictionary)

Why did the novel come into being?

To satisfy the need of the new middle class which demanded original stories, relating ordinary experiences told in the language spoken by the average man. The members of the middle-class were practical and realistic. They knew the value of personal, everyday experience.

Who were the first main novelists?

Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding were the first novelists not to take as their sources the stories from classical and Christian mythology, ethics, history and the Bible.

They took inspiration from incidents quite common at that time. For example: Robinson Crusoe, Pamela.

The novels involve recognizably contemporary objects, language and situations. This was a radical change from Dante's Divina Commedia or Shakespeare's plays.

Who determined this radical change?

René Descartes and John Locke rejected traditional ideas and abstractions in favour of the knowledge gained through personal experience.

René Descartes declares in his Discours de la Méthode: " I will not take anything on trust" and "the pursuit of truth is an individual problem, independent of traditional theories" in Méditations, starting thus an individualistic trend.

How can we trace the individualistic trend in the novel?

The individualistic trend can be seen especially in the use of proper names.

In classical literature, up to the Renaissance, names followed Aristotle's theory "nomen omen" (i.e. the name indicates a person's character were). They were either mythical or symbolical.

Defoe and Richardson's heroes chose English names and surnames. Fielding's protagonist's names (Joseph Andrews, Tom Jones) are so common as to make make them perfect for the reader's identification process.

In what other elements can we trace detailed realism?


In the 18th century time ceased to be an eternal and immutable power. In the past literary works its presence was mainly felt through death and physical decay.

In novels readers are made aware of time.

e.g. The readers can follow Robinson's experiences on the desert island year after year and even from day to day.

The idea of time becomes of the greatest importance because it shapes the characters' personal development.

e.g. Pamela reveals that experience changed her.

Time is measured by personal time and experience but the concept of time takes into account historical time as well. History is recorded on the page as the story proceeds, through reports of incidents, way of speaking, incidents, laws, fashions.


In Defoe's novels, place is concerned with the concept of space as a real geographical entity.

Robinson's sea voyages are not set in some fantastic island as in Shakespeare's The Tempest.

The geographical space is measured by latitude and longitude. It is defined through the names of real seas, ships, harbours.

The need for realism pushed the novelists to acknowledge home space too.

The interiors of houses are now described in detail (appearance, division, role).

e.g. In Pamela Richardson describes the furniture, the books, the pictures, and the clothes.

The novel is not only made of new tendencies. It includes older traditional narrative prose elements: historical writing, diaries, letter writing, travel and adventure books.

Letter writing gave birth to the epistolary novel.

From the travel and adventure books the picaresque novel was born.

Some great Augustans, like Johnson, reacted against the novel for some time. He hated Defoe, disliked Fielding but loved Richardson.

LnT suggests:

LnT Genre: the novel on Youtube

LnT The Augustan Novel (subgenres)