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The novel in 18th century

The novel became very popular because it was easy to read, told a story, and presented the interaction between individuals and their relationships to the society. The readers were mainly from the middle classes, which had steadily been rising in importance since the middle Ages. More and more people were educated, and were eager to read about manners and behaviour, and about the world in which they lived. They were about lievers in the Christian religion and as such ready to welcome passages of explicit moralising that the novelists introduced. This explains why the novelist had to educate and to stimulate moral reflections. Women made up a large part of the readership. Now they were not only better educated but they had more leisure time on their hands and novels soon proved very appealing to them.

The most important novelists of the 18th century were Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift, Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, and Laurence Sterne. Each of them developed different type of novel. Defoe wrote what is considered the first English novel, Robinson Crusoe (1719). It describes the adventures of a man who is shipwrecked on an island where he lives for about thirty years. The story is told by Crusoe himself, with great realism and meticulouc attention to detail, and the choice of the first person narration (the book reads like a fictional autobiography) makes the events more credible. Robinson Crusoe owes much of its success to the fact that its hero embodies the pratical spirit, the gift of self-help, the moral strength and the streadfastness in which the middle class recognised themselves. Swift’s novel Gulliver’s Travels (1726) was conceived as satirical fiction, but it can be read as an imaginary travel story, with Gulliver visiting strange lands where he observes exotic cultures and finally changes his own outlook on life. It consists of several stories within the larger story of Gulliver’s evolution from unsuspecting innocence to his view that civilisation is corrupt. The fantastic in Gulliver’s Travel could be considered a forerunner of the modern trend known as “fantasy”. Samuel Richardson wrote all his novels in the epistolary form. His most famous work, Pamela (1740), is the tale of a young and beautiful servant girl who has to defend her virtue from the immoral advances of the son of her late mistress, and sees her virtue rewarded because in the end the two get married. Fielding’s name is associated with the Picaresque novel. Tom Jones (1749), his masterpiece, is the history of a foundling who is brought up by a generous gentleman and becomes the protagonist of a long series of adventures. In this novel Fielding paints an extraordinary picture of 18th century England; his writing is warm, realistic, and lively, and his characters are an extraordinary gallery of great vividness and humanity uses a third person omniscient narrator, who not only tells the story and describes the characters, but often intervenes with his own opinions and helps the reader interpret things.
Sterne is known for a very original novel, Tristam Shandy (1759-1757), in which the plot ceases to have any importance. The narrative consists of episodes, conversations, disgressions, dialogues and various oddities, like blank pages, unfinished sentences, dashes, lines which curl and twist and so on. But the oddities are not an end to themselves. This chaotic novel, full of digression, formless and sometimes exasperating, suggests the essential mingling of chaos and logic in the mind of man, and has the apparent incoherence of the stream of consciousness novels of the 20th century. The last decades of the century saw the birth of “gothic” fiction with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Oltranto (1764), followed by the novels written by Ann Radcliffe and a few others. This trend was destined to continue and evolve over the course of the following centuries.

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