The First Novel in Literature

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      Don Quixote, fully titled The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, is a Spanish novel by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547-1616). Published in two volumes, in 1605 and 1615, Don Quixote is considered the most influential work of literature from the Spanish Golden Age and the entire Spanish literary canon. As a founding work of modern Western literature and one of the earliest canonical novels, it regularly appears high on lists of the greatest works of fiction ever published, such as the Bokklubben World Library collection that cites Don Quixote as authors’ choice for the “best literary work ever written”. This is an ever made question as to which is the first novel in English literature; and more than often the question is answered in a somewhat satisfactory way requiring more research and study about the origin and development of the genre. There are always differences of opinions about the matter among the literary critics. Many are the candidates which are now and then here and there claimed to be the first novel in English.

(i) Thomas Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur, (written 1470, published 1485)

(ii) William Baldwin, Beware the Cat, (written 1553; published. 1570, 1584)

(iii) John Lyly, Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit (1578)
Euphues and his England (1580)

(iv) Philip Sidney, The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia (1581)

(v) Margaret Cavendish, The Blazing World (1666)

(vi) John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678)

(vii) Aphra Behn, Oroonoko (1688)

(viii) Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe (1719)

(ix) Daniel Defoe, Moll Flanders (1722)

(x) Samuel Richardson, Pamela (1740)

(xi) William Caxton’s 1483 translation of Geoffrey de la Tour Landry, The Book of the Knight of the Tower (originally in French)

(xii) Thomas Nashe, The Unfortunate Traveller, or The Life of Jack Wilton (1594)

(xiii) Jonathan Swift, A Tale of a Tub (1704)

(xiv) Daniel Defoe, The Consolidator (1705)

(xv) Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels (1726)

(xvi) Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu

      However, there are multiple candidates for the first novel in English partly because of ignorance of earlier works and largely because the term novel can be defined so as to exclude earlier candidates. Some critics require a novel to be wholly original and so exclude retellings like Le Morte d’Arthur. Most critics distinguish between an anthology of stories with different protagonists, and a novel. So they exclude Le Morte d’Arthur as a novel. According to other critics, romance and novel are different: while the former has fantastic elements, the latter has wholly realistic elements. So they exclude Le Morte d’Arthur. Some distinguish between the allegory (in which characters and events have political, religious or other meanings) and the novel (in which characters and events stand only for themselves). Hence they exclude The Pilgrim’s Progress and A Tale of a Tub from the list of probable novels. Some others deny the status of novel to Oroonoko on account of the latter’s lack of desired length defining it instead as a novella. To others scholars, a novel is different from the picaresque: the latter has a loosely connected sequence of episodes, while the former has a unity of structure. They therefore rule out The Unfortunate Traveller. Due to the influence of Ian Watt’s seminal study in literary sociology The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding (1957), Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), gained wide acceptance as the first novel of English literature.

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