The novel in the 18th century

A Novel is a fictitious prose narrative or tale presenting a picture of real life.
The idea we have of the novel comes from the 18th century; before that time there were plenty of forms of prose fiction that did not present a picture of real life.
It was more than a century later that real life became the dominant topic of the novel helped by:
• The rise of philosophical rationalism (=the individual could discover the reality of the world around him through his senses and perceptions).
• The influence of Puritanism and later Methodism
• The expansion of the reading public. This was partly due to the increasing circulation of newspapers, which also brought with it the advent of fact – based journalistic writing on the events of the day. The increasingly affluent middle classes were beginning to buy more books, especially women. They wanted to read stories which reflected their own interests and problems with characters they could more or less identify with.
• The influence of books such as “Don Quixote” which was one of the books that provided a model for 18th century writers.

The father of the English novel is generally considered to be Daniel Defoe. His three great novels “Robinson Crusoe”, “Moll Flanders”, “Roxana” were all published before 1730.
Along with Defoe, other pioneers of the novel were Samuel Richardson (“Pamela”, “Clarissa”) and Henry Fielding (“Tom Jones”, “Joseph Andrews”, “Jonathan Wild”).
To these names we must add those of two Irish rebels, Jonathan Swift and Lawrence Sterne. Both these men composed works which only later would come to be regarded as novelistic masterpiece, such as “Gulliver’s travels” and “Tristram Shandy”.

The early years of the development of the novel can be described as a period of formal experimentation. There was no dominant form, writers were still influenced by the improbable tales of the past. The works of all these authors are very different from each other, in terms of both form and style. (They helped to outline the various possibilities of the novel form, and provided models for the novelists who followed).

Daniel Defoe

His works are written in the form of fictional autobiography or diaries to make them more realistic. There is no real plot, just a chronological series of connected episodes featuring a single protagonist. The protagonist must struggle to overcome a series of misfortunes, using only his or her physical and mental resources. Defoe’s self – supporting hero/heroine combines the virtues of Puritanism and merchant capitalism. In Defoe’s works there is no psychological development of the characters, only in their external condition. Defoe’s fictional autobiographies anticipate semi – autobiographical novels such as “Jane Eyre”.

Samuel Richardson
He wrote epistolary novels. His first work, “Pamela”, began as a collection of “model” letters. The letters were also intended as a model of correct moral conduct and included a special section dedicated to young women who were to become servant, teaching them how to avoid being seduced by their employers. This is exactly the situation in “Pamela”.
The situation is reversed in “Clarissa”.
Richardson’s importance lies in his rejection of adventure. His novels are the first in history to have a domestic setting ad characters who are ordinary middle – class people. He is the first novelist to write love stories, exploring the psychology of his characters and the world of passions and feelings. His novels represent the beginning of a debate about the roles of men and women in society which continues in the novels of Jane Austen, Gustave Flaubert, Henry James, etc.

Henry Fielding

He’s the father of the English comic novel. His first novel, “Shamela”, is a parody of Richardson’s “Pamela”, attacking its hypocritical morality. He continued to redicule Richardson in his second novel, “Joseph Andrews”. His novels use a playful and ironic omniscient narrator who comments on and criticises his characters and who controls their destinies. (In this sense Fielding’s novels evoke the form of the classic epics).
He was also innovative in several ways: in “Tom Jones” he invented an extremely complex plot involving many characters that went beyond the loose, episodic structure of previous novels. This enabled him to portray not just the lives of a few individuals but the life of society in all its variety. Fielding provides a model for social and comic novelists from Charles Dickens to contemporary figures such as Jonathan Coe.

Jonathan Swift
He’s known principally as a journalist and satirist. His great novel “Gulliver’s Travels” was conceived as a satire on the political situation in the England of his time. Indeed “Gulliver’s Travels” are travels through a surrealistic dream world. Swift uses the properties of his fantastic worlds to explore complex philosophical problems. The great problem is how we can reconcite the needs of our minds with those of our bodies.

Lawrence Sterne
Sterne’s novel was centuries ahead of his time, and has had a more lasting influence than any other book of the 18th century, particulary on modernist and post – modernist writers.
“Tristram Shandy” is often referred to as an anti – novel because it ignores or subvert the realist conventions that the novel was developing in the 18th century. Sterne is simply exploring other possibilities that were inherent in the novel. Sterne’s manipulation of time anticipates by almost two centuries the steam of consciousness experiments of modernist writers like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.
The book references to the process of its construction as well as its ludic use of encyclopaedic knowledge anticipates the sophicticated literary games of postmodern writers such as Italo Calvino.

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