Novel: Origin, Definition and Meaning

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      The term ‘novel’ is derived from the Italian word novella, means ‘short story of something new’. A novel is a long prose narrative in a considerable length including some fictional characters, events and certain complexity that deals imaginatively with human experience. Novels are normally composed in the form of a sequential story involving a group of persons in a specific setting. The novel is a genre of fiction, and fiction may be defined as the art or craft of contriving, through the written word, representations of human life that instruct or divert or both. When any piece of fiction is long enough to constitute a whole book, as opposed to a mere part of a book, then it may be said to have achieved novel hood. The genre has also been described as possessing “a continuous and comprehensive history of about two thousand years”.

      This view about the novel’s origins refers to the Classical Greece and Rome, medieval, early modern romance, and the tradition of the novella. The latter, an Italian word used to describe short stories, supplied the present generic English term in the 18th century. The origin of the noble concept of novel is as old as that of its nobler-born relative the epic poem. The germ of novel lay in the medieval romance, a fantastic tale of love and adventure. It derived from the ballads and fragments of epic poems sung by the wandering minstrel. In 1350 Boccaccio’s Decameron is good collection of love stories in prose, which are termed in Italian as ‘novella’. This term, in course of time, continued to be referred to as ‘romance’. When the prose becomes the universal literary medium, the term ‘romance’ than implied a story or series of stories of the legendary past, of which Morte d’Arthur of Thomas Malory is a famous instance. It is for this reason that Morte d’Arthur is often referred to as the first novel (historical) in English.

      The novel is fictional in nature as was the case in the early ancient Roman fiction as Petronius’ Satyricon of the 1st century AD and Lucius Apuleius’ Golden. As of the 2nd century, which contains many of the popular elements. In the fictional works, the medium is prose, the events described are non-heroic, the settings are streets and taverns, not battlefields and palaces. There is more low fornication than princely combat; the gods do not move the action; the dialogue is homely rather than aristocratic. In the period of Roman decline in Europe, there emerged a literary form that was an anti-epic genre both in substance and language. The most memorable character in Petronius is a nouveau riche vulgarian; the hero of Lucius Apuleius is turned into a donkey; nothing less epic can well be imagined. The medieval chivalric romance restored a kind of epic view of man - though now as heroic Christian, not heroic pagan. At the same time, it bequeathed its name to the later genre of continental literature, the novel, which is known in French as roman, in Italian as romanzo, etc. But that later genre achieved its first great flowering in Spain at the beginning of the 17th century in an anti-chivalric comic masterpiece. The Don Quixote, of Cervantes, which, on a larger scale than the Satyricon or The Golden Ass contains many of the elements that have been expected from prose fiction ever since. Novels have heroes, but not in any classical or medieval sense. The romance is a closely related long prose narrative. Sir Walter Scott defined it as “a fictitious narrative in prose or verse; the interest of which turns upon marvelous and uncommon incidents”, whereas in the novel “the events are accommodated to the ordinary train of human events and the modern state of society”.

      Elizabethan literature provides a starting point for identifying prototypes of the novel in England. Although not widespread, works of prose fiction were not uncommon during this period. Possibly the best known was Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, a romance published posthumously in 1590. The novel also owes a debt to Elizabethan drama, which was the leading form of popular entertainment in the age of Shakespeare. The first professional novelist — that is, the first person to earn a living from publishing novels — was probably the dramatist Aphra Behn. Her 1688 Oronooko, or The Royal Slave typified the early English novel: it features a sensationalistic plot that borrowed freely from continental literature, especially from the imported French romance. Concurrent with Behn’s career was that of another important early English novelist: John Bunyan. This religious author’s Pilgrim’s Progress, first published in 1678, became one of the books found in nearly every English household.

      Hence, whatever may be its historical resemblances to the concept of romance; it is commonly known that novel is actually a relatively young. form of imaginative writing. Only about 250 years old in England — and embattled from the start - its rise to preeminence has been striking. After sparse beginnings in 17th century England, novels grew exponentially in production by the 18th century and in the 19th century became the primary form of popular entertainment. Ian Watt, however, in The Rise of the Novel (1957) suggests that the novel first came into being in the early 18th century. Muguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, is frequently cited as the first significant European novelist of the modern era. The first part of Don Quixote was published in 1605, and originally it was published in 1615. Many romances, including the historical romances of Scott, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and Herman Melville’s Mody- Dick are also frequently called novels, and Scott describes romance as a ‘kindred term’. Romance, as defined here, should not be confused with the genre fiction love romance or romance novel. Other European languages do not distinguish between romance and novel: “a novel is le roman, der Roman, il romanzo”. Most European languages use the word ‘romance’ (as in French, Dutch, Russian, Slovene, Serbo-Croation, Romanian, Danish, Swedish and Norwegian ‘roman’; German ‘roman’; Portuguese ‘romance’ and Italian ‘romanzo’) for extended narratives.

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