English Novel || Origin and Growth and Definition

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      Of all the various literary forms - epic, lyric, drama, novel and essay, etc. The novel is the latest arrival in the literary today. It is the most popular form. The novel updates in its finished form, appeared in the eighteenth century in English literature. But its roots lie far back in literary history. It has been said that Plato's dialogues contain the germs of the novel. "He is in truth far more of the forerunner of the novelist than of the philosopher. He made a background of life, he peopled his scenes with bright boys and amiable elders and he discussed the ethical and speculative problems of life and character with a vital rather than with a philosophical interest" (Benson). A collection of Greek tales known as Greek romances which appeared from the third to the sixth century A.D. may be said to be earliest precursor of the novels.

A collection of Greek tales known as Greek romances which appeared from the third to the sixth century A.D. may be said to be earliest precursor of the novels.
English Novel

      Coming to England, there is little doubt that the modern novel updates has its roots in the mediaeval romances. The Arthurian romances especially foreshadow the English novel. The most outstanding of these romances in prose is Sir Thomas Malory's Morte de Arthur, a work of the greatest influence upon the novel. In these romances, we find attempt at vivid and realistic presentation of life in a more natural setting, though the element of marvel is no less conspicuous. Another source or the novel was the collection of ballads telling of the adventures of popular heroes of the type of Robin Hood. Though the characters and situations are stock, pictures of life and nature are fresh. But perhaps the greatest landmark in the evolution of the English novel is Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, which may be justly called 'novels in verse'. All the elements of the novel - the story interest, characterization, humour, narrative powers are wonderfully displayed in these tales, which faithfully and minutely reflect contemporary life in England. It was Chaucer who created a distaste for the high-flown mediaeval romances and turned attention to actual life as it was lived by the people. There is a curious air of modernity about the Tales. The novel was almost in a ready-made form in these works.

      In the Elizabethan age we find the English novel assuming a more or less definite form. Boccaccio's Decameron gave a fresh impetus to the novelists. The chief writers of fiction in this period are Lyly, Greene, Lodge, Nash and Sidney. Their writings are mostly prose romances, written in fantastic style and informed with a moral purpose. Nevertheless their interest in plotting and characterization represents a definite advance towards the growth of the English novel. As Albert has noted, these writings are interesting from another stand-point. They show that authors were shy of being novelists, for novel was regarded as immoral. Hence they had to "conceal the narrative with some moral or allegorical dressing".

      A greater approach to the formal updates of novel we find in the Puritan age. Bunyan wrote two fictional stories - Pilgrim's Progress and The Life and Death of Mr. Badman. The former is over-ridden by a moralising ardour. It is the first allegory in prose and the characters are personified vices and virtues. Nevertheless a concrete vitality and narrative power pervade the whole book. The second, a picture of low life is almost a realistic novel, very close to the novel proper. Some authorities go so far as to call Bunyan the founder of the modern novel. But this is mere exaggeration, yet an exaggeration of a vital truth. Says one critic, - "It would be overstating the matter to call him the founder of the modern novel; that distinction must be shared by Daniel Defoe. But it is quite true to call him the pioneer of the modern novel. Bunyan had the qualities of the great story-teller; he had insight into character, humour, pathos and the visualising imagination of the dramatic artist" (Compton-Rickett).

      In the seventeenth century a new type of embryo-novel (i.e., the novel in its germ), known as picaresque novel began to appear in England and remained very popular till the days of Fielding and Smollett, who were much influenced by this tradition Picaro is a Spanish word, meaning a wandering rogue. This type of novel is of Spanish origin. "For hero it takes a rascal who leads a vagabond life and has many adventures, most of them of a scandalous kind. The hero is the sole link between the different incidents and there is much digression and the interposing of other short narratives" (Albert). The Unfortunate Traveller, or The Life of Jacke Wilton (1754) by Nash was the first picaresque novel. It had considerably influenced Daniel Defoe.

      In the beginning of the eighteenth century we see another stage in the development, in the periodicals Tatler and Spectator of Addison and Steele. The periodicals Haved the path of the novel. In their essays the raw-materials of the novel are abundant. The Coverley Papers, with a little systematisation and retouching might very well be converted into an excellent domestic novel. Of course there is little plot in this essay-series. But there is much interesting character-sketching and the spice of delicate humour. The creation of Sir Roger de Coverley, the typical eighteenth century country gentleman, is a happy stroke of art. The allegorical fabric and moralising vein are gone and the papers deal with ordinary people and incidents. The genuine novel is very near indeed in the works of Daniel Defoe, the author of the famous Robinson Crusoe, among other works. His realistic imagination, command of details and charming style which give an air of reality to his inventions, are worthy of a great novelist and by many historians he has been called the true founder of the English novel.

      In the middle of eighteenth century "came the swift and abundant blossoming of the novel, raising the type to the rank of one of the major species of literature. The time was ripe for it. The drama which had helped to satisfy the natural human desire for a story was moribund and something had to take its place." The novel arose in the eighteenth century - a period whose intellectual orientation was most decisively separated from its classical and mediaeval heritage by its rejection of universals. 'Follow Nature' was the creed of eighteenth century philosophy and literature. The external world is real and the description of the external world with minute particulars is the aim of realistic literature. It encourages the study of the particulars of experience. This is eminently suitable for the novel. Besides, the appearance of journals and magazines had created a new reading public and literature was brought down from the chambers of the princes to the homes of ordinary men and women. Novels thus rivalled the drama. The first English novel, Pamela came out in 1740. It was the golden age of the English novel and a whole host of English novelists Richardson, Fielding, Smollet, Sterne, Goldsmith, Aphra Behn appeared and enriched the fictional literature in English.

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