Difference Between Epic and Novel

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      An epic is a long narrative poem, which is usually related to heroic deeds of a person of an unusual courage and unparalleled bravery. A novel, on the other hand, 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. An epic tells a story that aspires to convey the spirit and values of an entire community - sometimes an entire people. It is usually part of an earlier oral tradition — a story people repeated about their hardships, their heroes, their kings, etc. We get the sense that it is the formal retelling of a story that most people in its given community already know by heart. The epic contains tragedy and heroism, but there is not much mystery to it. The characters do not really change or evolve. The heroes stay heroes and the villains stay villains. There is an element of cosmic certainty to the story, as though the gods or the fates have already laid out the paths the main characters must follow. This is certainly the case of the title character Beowulf. He is an accomplished hero at the beginning of the poem, and he is an even more accomplished hero at the end of it. He grows older, but his basic character does not change.

      Many modern critics have said that the epic is a dead literary form — that it is no longer possible to recapture the epic sense of cosmic certainty in a modern world where the gods are dead. Instead, we have the novel, which is typically more about individuals than about a wider community. Whereas the epic projects a sense of cosmic certainty, the novel lives off of mystery and suspense. This makes sense, because the novel is a literary production designed for commercial purposes — a commodity to be sold. Its commercial success as a book depends on its ability to tell an interesting or new story and keep the reader guessing about the fate of its characters.

      Unlike the novel, the epic is totally about the celebration of heroic deeds. Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975), in his The Dialogic Imagination, writes “the novel is the sole genre that continues to develop, that is as yet uncompleted”. The epic, on the other hand, is a completed and antiquated genre. Bakhtin notes that “Of all the major genres only the novel is younger than writing and the book: it alone is organically receptive to new forms of mute perception, that is, to reading”. Bakhtin believes that “This ability of the novel to criticize itself is a remarkable feature of this ever-developing genre”. Furthermore, “In the process of becoming the dominant genre, the novel sparks the renovation of all other genres; it infects them with its spirit of process and inconclusiveness”. Bakhtin suggests four aspects of the general characteristics of the novel: “the novel should not be poetic, as the word ‘poetic’ is used in other genres of imaginative literature; the hero should not be heroic like in an epic; the hero should not be portrayed as unchanging or already completed but instead should be shown as in a state of becoming; “the novel should become for the contemporary world what the epic was for the ancient world”. He believes that the epic requires ‘a national epic past’ or the ‘absolute past’; a ‘national tradition’ as opposed to mere personal experience; and an “absolute epic distance” that separates it from the present. The ‘valorized emphasis’ on the epic, absolute past “does not serve the future,” but instead serves “the future memory of a past” and creates “a world that is always opposed in principle to any merely transitory past”. In this sense, the epic past is similar to Nietzsche’s conception of the will to power in that it attempts to erect a stable being where novels show the world in its contemporary stage, in its becoming. This is probably why Bakhtin calls the epic past the absolute past. In this connection Bakhtin writes in detail:

“It is precisely laughter that destroys the epic, and in general destroys any hierarchical (distancing and valorized) distance. As a distanced image a subject cannot be comical; to be made comical, it must be brought close. Everything that makes us laugh is close at
hand, all comical creativity works in a zone of maximal proximity. Laughter has the remarkable power of making an object come up close, of drawing it into a zone of crude contact where one can finger it familiarly on all sides, break open its external shell, look into its center, doubt it, take it apart, dismember it, lay it bare and expose it, examine it freely and experiment with it....Familiarization of the world through laughter and popular speech is an extremely important and indispensable step in making possible free, scientifically knowable and artistically realistic creativity in European civilization”.

      Through laughter, and “the shift of the temporal center of artistic orientation,” the author, his readers, and the world represented or narrated all exist on one plain: inevitably, the novel “permits the author, in all his various masks and faces, to move freely onto the field of his represented world, a field that in the epic had been absolutely inaccessible and closed.

      The novel is a “world where there is no first word (no ideal word), and the final word lifts not yet been spoken”. Hence, all characters, events, objects, etc. of the novel are unfinished and mutable. On the other hand, because the events in the absolute, epic past are finished and immutable, plot is arbitrary; in opposition to this, the novel “demands for an external and formal completeness and exhaustiveness, especially in regard to plotline. Therefore, “This specific ‘impulse to continue’...and the ‘impulse to end’...are characteristic only for the novel and are possible only in a zone where there is proximity and contact”. Brooks’s Reading for the Plot comes to mind here, as does the Freudian interpretation of the linear novel driven toward an ending. It is interesting to add that Bakhtin finds the epic structure ‘circular’, not necessarily needing a clear beginning or end (which explains in medias res?). Another important difference between epic and novel is that we can identify the characters in novels, but not heroes in epics. Another important facet of the epic is that the hero’s view of himself coincides with that of the author and reader, whereas in the novel, irony can cause us to see the silly vanity of the cuckold, etc.

      In his Theory of the Novel, the pre-Marxist Lukacs defines the epic (in terms of genre, enabling synthetic analysis and comparison with ‘the novel’ and ‘the drama’), following on Hegel and Schiller’s understanding of Homeric Greece as essentially “naive”, “childish,” etc., as the terrain of absolute empiricism, an ontologically and politically heterogeneous totality complete in itself, without need for a transcendent other. “In the epic, totality can only truly manifest itself in the contents of the object: it is meta subjective, transcendent, it is a revelation and grace. Living, empirical man is always the subject of the epic, but his creative, life-mastering arrogance is transformed in the great epics into humility, contemplation, speechless wonder at the luminous meaning which, so unexpectedly, so naturally, has become visible to him, an ordinary human being in the midst of ordinary life.” As he will say over and over, the sphere of the epic is the sphere of life, the consistency of subject-object relations, the balance between man and nature, guaranteed by the positing of humanlike gods, arbiters of destiny from whom the heroes derive meaning through endless struggle against their decrees.

      The novel by contrast, the ‘bourgeois epic’, operates in a different historical situation, one in which man has estranged himself from nature through the accumulated residue of his own subjective will. The world has been overtaken by the ‘second nature’ of reification, the “charnel-house of long-dead interiorities.” Against this alienation, the novelist opposes form: “The epic gives form to a totality of life that is rounded from within; the novel seeks, by giving form, to uncover and construct the concealed totality of life.” Or, more forcefully: “The abstract basis of the novel assumes form as a result of the abstraction seeing through itself; the immanence of meaning required by the form is attained precisely when the author goes all the way, ruthlessly, toward exposing its absence.”

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