The New Student's Reference Work/Novel, The
Novel, The. The novel is the most flexible and inclusive of modern literary forms. It may be said to have begun in Spain with Cervantes’ Don Quixote (1604), which replaced the unreal and misleading romances of chivalry with a fidelity to history, scenery, life and manners and with a hurmor, pathos and wisdom which make it one of the great books of the world. Le Sage inaugurated the same tradition in France, directing it in his Gil Blas (1715), especially to circumstances and manners.
The English novel began with Richardson’s Pamela (1740), a minute analysis of middle-class circumstances; with Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749), a sympathetic and candid history of the experiences of an ordinary man; with Sterne’s brilliant, witty and sentimental Tristram Shandy (1760); and with Smollett’s lively and humorous adventures of Humphrey Clinker (1771). In the early 19th century Jane Austen perfected Richardson’s fidelity to the truth of daily life; and Scott inaugurated the counter-tendency of the historical romance. In this he was followed by Dumas and Hugo in France, where Balzac and others followed Smollett. Tolstoy in Russia and contemporary Spanish and Italian novelists have developed the method of Richardson. In the later 19th century in England Dickens revived the manner of Smollett, treating peculiarities and extravagances with extraordinary liveliness and humor and with a humanitarian intension to show the interest and worth of the common man. Thackeray followed Fielding in fidelity and sincerity, adding the element of benevolent social satire. George Eliot added a new depth of emotion to the observation and sympathy of Richardson.
In the United States Cooper, under the influence of Scott, recorded the life of the Indian and the frontiersman, and in The Pilot inaugurated the sea-novel; while Hawthorne in three great romances pictured the inner life of the Puritan past in New England. Present tendencies are well-illustrated by the elaboration of national and social traits by Henry James and the study of sectional and economic differences by Mr. Howells. James aims to produce an illusion of reality by the artistic presentation of personal impressions of “the human spectacle.” Howells seeks to present the actual and the commonplace as a source of social knowledge and moral obligation. Many contemporary novels follow the latter “realistic” theory; being devoted to business, labor and social conditions, problems and remedies. Perhaps the larger number follow the theory and practice of Marion Crawford, who considers the novel an intellectual, artistic luxury; its prime object being to provide interesting or amusing relaxation and recreation; although incidentally it may cultivate right feeling or exhibit characters and actions worthy to be desired or imitated.
The short-story, as it prevails to-day, is a development of the 19th century. Brief tales, of course, have existed from the earlier times. But it remained for Poe to show that a story short enough to be read at a sitting would be more successful if it had the completeness of impression resulting from unity of theme, harmony of parts, selection of detail and compression in expression. This strict conception of the form developed in France at almost the same time. Robert Louis Stevenson made it popular in England considerably later. Since Irving, Poe and Hawthorne the short-story has flourished in the United States as nowhere else, partly because of the prevalence of magazines as suitable media for publication and partly because of the unequalled opportunity for studies of sectional and local manners to which the form especially lends itself. In this way it has employed literary material too slight for extended treatment, and has become a pervasive and powerful influence toward a national breadth of knowledge and sympathy.
From this rapid survey it will be seen that the structure of prose fiction may be as varied as its content and that its content is limited only by the author’s knowledge and imagination. Plots have often been complete, unified, varied and probable; but some, if not all, of these desirable characteristics have often been lacking. The action must be consistent in itself and with the characters; but it may be simple or complex, logical or surprising, slow or rapid. There usually is some sort of complication and unravelling; but the problem may be internal or external, of religion, patriotism, society, love, grief, ambition, art or what not. The good or the evil triumph or suffer, and the narrative requires or is independent of description, according to the author’s view of life and of his art. The movement may be like that of the epic, the lyric or the drama; or like that of the essay, of travel-literature, of history, biography or autobiography; and it usually combines some characteristics from each of these. The characters may be many or few, independent or related, simple or developed, lively or profound, receptive or influential. They may be based upon the author’s observation or evolved from his own nature. They may be reproductions of actual persons, embodiments of types or pure creations. They may represent their author’s interests, his sympathies, his solution of life. They may be directly described or analysed, or they may be portrayed indirectly through an account of their appearance, words and deeds or through those of related characters. The setting and the accessories may be historical or contemporary; political, social or personal; intimately or slightly connected with the characters and action; occupying little or much attention. Humor, pathos and satire may be inherent or incidental. Literary structure and style may be used as a transparent vehicle for the story, or they may in themselves be a source of pleasure or discomfort. No novel is great in all of these aspects, and these by no means exhaust the field. But greatness consists in an approach toward the ideal in all; and one could scarcely find a better method of studying any particular piece of fiction than by inquiring how it measures up to such a list of possibilities.
Whether one prefers fiction which provides moral stimulus, intellectual culture, increase of knowledge and sympathy or merely the pleasure of forgetfulness depends upon each reader’s mental habit and moral tone. Some fiction undoubtedly does harm by plausibly presenting unveracious views of life and its laws. But the appreciative reading of any of the notable fiction which has been here mentioned will open such a storehouse of profitable pleasure, that no thoughtful reader can ever again find satisfaction in anything less excellent. For, in the words of the Dean of Westminster Abbey at the funeral of Charles Dickens, when properly used, “the work of the successful novelist, if pure in style, elevating in thought, and true in sentiment, is the best of blessings.”