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A NEW GENRE

The novel came into being in England at the beginning of the 18th century. The English term 'novel' is different from
other western European terms for the genre: romanzo, roman, romancio. The word 'novel', in fact, has a Latin origin
(novus); this points to a great innovation: novels told new, original and not traditional stories. Daniel Defoe, Samuel
Richardson and Henry Fielding were the first great writers not to draw their stories from classical and Christian
mythology, epics, history, and the Bible. The plots of their novels are taken instead from incidents at that time quite
common; for example, reports of how a ship-wrecked sailor had survived alone for a number of years on a desert island,
as in Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, were a regular feature in magazines at the beginning of the 18th century. Similarly, the
story of Richardson's Pamela is built around a familiar situation of that time: that of the young servant maid whom the
master of the house tries to seduce.

THE NEED FOR REALISM


The greatest difference between 18th-century novels and the fantastic world of the prose romances of the Middle Ages
and the Renaissance is the need for realism of the novel as a genre. The modern idea of realism is reflected in the fact
that, unlike previous fiction, novels deal with recognizably contemporary objects, language and situations, and not
with extraordinary, fantastic or magical events told in highly-refined language. The language of the novel also reflects
this realistic trend: it is plain, factual, quite similar to that of newspapers and magazines. Formally, the novel's main
features are:
■ a great stress on contemporary reality;
■ chronological sequences of events;
■ abundance of realistic details;
■ the novelty of the stories.

A REALISTIC RENDERING OF TIME


Detailed realism shows in the novel especially in two elements: time and place. Both underwent a radical change during
the 18th century. Time ceased to be an eternal and immutable power whose presence was mainly felt through death and
physical decay. With the novel a modern awareness of time enters literature. Defoe carefully records Robinson Crusoe's
experiences from year to year and often from day to day, and it is precisely because of this form of realism that we are
made to accept the improbability of the story. In the modern novel, the idea of time as a shaping influence on man's
personal development also becomes of the greatest importance. The main characters in Richardson's Pamela and
Fielding's Tom Jones go through a process of growing up, and their personal identity is greatly changed by experience.

A REALISTIC RENDERING OF PLACE


Defoe is the first of the great writers to be seriously concerned with space as a geographical entity. His sea voyages are
not situated in the realm of fantasy, as in Shakespeare's The Tempest. They are measured by latitude and longitude. They
are pinpointed by the names of real seas, ships, harbours. Space consciousness also enters the novel with the description
of interiors. Of these the first acknowledged master was Richardson, who describes the furniture, books and pictures in
a room, as well as the clothes that the people in it are wearing, with great precision. It is through such details that
Richardson creates his narrative tension and psychological analysis.

MIDDLE-CLASS VALUES
The realism of the novel did not reflect the life and manners of the aristocracy, but that of middle-class life. Defoe's
Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders are both middle-class characters, full of enterprise and commercial wisdom.
Richardson's novels, on the other hand, show us the respectable, pious side of the middle class. They are filled with
enthusiastic praise of virtues like temperance, economy, sobriety and modesty, all typically bourgeois. Faith in God's
favour is a distinctive feature of the Protestant, especially Puritan, middle class, and this too is reflected in contemporary
novels. It may be said that the novel came into being to satisfy the needs of the new middle class, which demanded orig-
inal stories relating ordinary experiences, told in a language similar to that of the average man. The novel's readers
mostly came from the ranks of the new commercial and mercantile middle class, whose outlook was mainly practical and
realistic.

THE PHILOSOPHICAL ORIGINS OF REALISM


Apart from historical and social reasons, such a radical change from previous forms of prose narratives also had a
philosophical background. The empirical philosophy of Rene Descartes in France and John Locke in Britain, which
rejected traditional ideas and abstractions in favour of the knowledge gained through personal experience, was partly
responsible for the change. Descartes affirms in his Discours sur la methode (1637) that he will not believe anything on
trust; and in his Meditations (1641) the pursuit of truth is seen as an individual problem, independent of traditional
theories.

UTOPIAN FICTION
All these new tendencies were added to older narrative prose traditions: historical writing, diary writing, letter writing
and the tales of adventure. The last two in particular were very important: letter writing gave birth to the epistolary novel,
the tales of adventure to the so-called picaresque novel. Even a classical genre like Utopian fiction was deeply influenced
by the realistic trend inaugurated by the novel. A masterpiece like Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift continues the
Utopian tradition of showing imaginary worlds or nations which are presented as a counterpart to actual imperfect
societies. Swift's book, however, is given the form of a novel: Gulliver's fantastic travels include 'real' geography
(latitude, longitude, names of seas, oceans and countries); also, Gulliver recounts his adventures with the same precision
and objective details as Robinson Crusoe.

EPISTOLARY NOVELS
Epistolary novels included, in their first phase, letters written by one person, often a traveller in a real or imaginary
country. A second, more complex phase was inaugurated by Samuel Richardson, which presents an exchange of letters
between several correspondents; in this way, the points of view are multiplied. Richardson's other great innovation was
to use the letter as a means of psychological analysis. His female characters especially, Pamela or Clarissa, write when
they are still under the strong impressions and feelings which they describe in their letters. This kind of immediate and
emotional epistolary style was called by Richardson "writing to the moment".

PICARESQUE NOVELS
Picaresque novels were very popular in England in the 18th century. The best writer in this tradition was Henry
Fielding, who greatly admired Cervantes' Don Quixote and wrote his novels in imitation of him. His Joseph Andrews
starts as a parody of Richardson's Pamela but then develops into a picaresque story. With his second novel, Tom Jones,
Fielding greatly improves on the picaresque pattern. On the one hand, he gives it classical proportions by dividing the
story into three balanced parts: Tom's adventures take place in the countryside, on the road, and in London. On the other,
Tom's adventures are not casual - as in the typical picaresque novel - but part of a process of growing up: at the end of
the story, Tom has become a responsible and reliable young man. Under the comic style of the novel, in Tom Jones
Fielding celebrates aristocratic and Christian virtues: courage, generosity and benevolence

SENTIMENTAL NOVELS
The novel was also influenced by the 18th-century vogue of sentimentalism. Many novelists chose sentimental stories as
their themes and a type of writing that caused intense emotional reactions. The most popular sentimental novel of the
time was The Vicar of Wakefield (1766), by Oliver Goldsmith (1730-1774). It is a melodramatic work, full of calamity
for the virtuous characters of the story who patiently endure their misery. The masterpiece in this tradition, however, is
Sentimental Journey by Laurence Sterne, which is half a travel diary and half a sentimentalized autobiography. The
protagonist, Yorick, is moved not by the great sights of antiquity, as traditional travellers were, but by touching episodes
such as a French peasant crying for his dead ass. Today, Sterne is especially known for his masterpiece, Tristram Shandy. It
is a long, unusual novel, with practically no time scheme or plot. It is narrated by Tristram Shandy, who describes his
family's everyday life and eccentricities through an endless sequence of digressions, asides, long quotations, flashbacks.
For its absence of conventional plot and time scheme, Tristram Shandy looks ahead to the modernist novels of James
Joyce and Virginia Woolf in the early 20th century.

DANIEL DEFOE

ROBINSON CRUSOE
In Robinson Crusoe we have, for the first time, a fictitious narrative which the author tries to pass off as true, and where
realistic elements are of the greatest importance. The story is told by a first-person narrator, and is thus a fake
autobiography. To enhance its realism Defoe supplies many facts about Robinson Crusoe: his name and surname, what
part of England he comes from, who his parents and relatives are, where they come from, what they do, and so on. It
gives us, in short, a life-profile.
The places that Robinson Crusoe visits in England and far-away countries, are not generic but carefully described and
set in their geographical context. Time is accounted for in the most precise manner: at one point in the story, Robinson
even starts writing a diary in which he records everything that happens to him. It is because we are able to follow
Robinson's actions day by day that we are made to believe an otherwise incredible story.

Robinson lives for twenty-eight years alone on a desert island, but he does not seem to be much changed by his adventure. His
psychology is rather simple: after his shipwreck he does not despair but sets about doing practical things to make his life as
comfortable as possible. His comments when he is rescued by a British ship and goes back to England are equally
unemotional. The only development in his personality stressed by Defoe is that of his religious conversion: it is only by
living and suffering alone on the island that Robinson comes to understand that man is not alone in this world, that there is
an order in the universe, and that the word 'providence' has a very concrete meaning. It is significant that Robinson
eventually finds another man to keep him company (Friday), and that he returns to live in society only after his
'conversion': he has acquired a new and heightened sense of man's social role. Defoe built his novel around the clearly
defined pattern of development in Robinson's personality. He pointed this out when he called his novel" a parable, or an
allusive allegory".

Robinson Crusoe is in many ways the celebration of the English mercantile spirit. Today Robinson appears to us as the
representative of the Englishman who in those years was beginning to colonize the world, turning deserted spots into
civilized places and lucrative trading posts. Robinson is the archetype pioneer: he is armed only with his own strength
and intelligence, and has a Puritan's firm convinction that he has God on his side. Robinson Crusoe is also the archetype
colonist. This becomes clear especially in the last part of the novel, after he has met Friday. Their relation perfectly
describes the pattern of the relation between colonist and native, or master and slave, that will characterize British and
European colonialism in the next two centuries. Though he says he likes and trusts Friday yet he uses him as a slave, or at
least as a servant, and never teaches him how to use a gun, for fear that he might use it against him. The natives, or
colonized people, are taught the language and religion of their masters and are made to embrace them. Robinson doesn't
learn Friday's language and hasn't any interest in it. Instead, he teaches Friday only enough English to understand and
answer him, but the Indian's proficiency in the language will always be vastly inferior to Robinson's. In short, Robinson
(the colonist) has over Friday (the colonized) three great advantages: a technical advantage (Robinson has weapons and
more sophisticated utensils); a linguistic advantage (they only communicate in Robinson's own language); a cultural
advantage (Friday is made to admit that his nation's god is inferior to the Christian God).

MOLL FLANDERS
Defoe’s heroines are representative of a new, independent type of woman. In 1697, when writing his Essay Upon Projects,
Defoe had spoken openly in favour of the creation of a college for the education of women. His typical heroine, however,
Moll Flanders, doesn’t have the advantages of a good education or a protective family: she has been abandoned by her
criminal mother and is brought up as an orphan; so she has to look after herself in a hostile world. From her infancy, Moll is set
on becoming a gentlewoman, by which she means an economically independent woman. Just as Robinson Crusoe is the
prototype of the commercial hero, so Moll Flanders is the personification of the modern woman. She doesn’t rely on men to
ensure her social position, and though she occasionally says she is in love, she has a very cool attitude towards marriage. She
mainly sees it as a contract. She is ready to sacrifice everything to her economic independence. By setting Moll’s adven-
tures in the streets of London, Defoe manages to give us some vivid sketches of city life: crowded markets, inns, boarding
houses, police stations, prisons, courtrooms. There are no beautiful sights or monuments but rather private houses, estates,
goods and, above all, money. Money is the real driving force behind Defoe’s universe.
The story is told by Moll herself in her old age, when she has repented of her former criminal ways. Here, as with
Robinson Crusoe, the problem is whether to believe the first-person narrator: is Moll’s final repentance true or is this
just a moralizing happy ending that Defoe thought would make his novels more popular? It was common for writers at
that time to show a didactic and moral concern, yet it is also obvious that Moll Flanders, as he describes her, initially
only aims at success and has little moral awareness. The same goes for Robinson Crusoe: as a first-person narrator, he
always tries to justify his actions and errors as due to inexperience or ill luck; yet, as a character in the story, he is visibly only
intent on achieving commercial success.