A Brief History of the Novel – Part Two

“Writing fiction is the act of weaving a series of lies to arrive at a greater truth.” Khaled Hosseini

In Part One I defined the novel as a book-length narrative in prose that connects fictional events and characters who evolve. I traced the origins of the novel to 10th century Japan, and from there described the form’s evolution (primarily in Western Europe) into the Romantic period – from the late 1700s to 1850. To recap:

Early Nineteenth Century (1800-1850) – Emotion

Romantics emphasized feeling and moral values. Intuition and imagination served as the gateway to experiencing Truth. Instead of a foe to be conquered, nature became a source of inspiration, and the common (wo)man often served as an example of purity and lack of guile.

"Portrait of Goethe,"  Johann Friedrich August Tischbein

“Portrait of Goethe,”
Johann Friedrich August Tischbein

The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1774) provides an early example. In it, a passionate young artist (Werther) travels to an imaginary German village. There he is impressed by the simple lives of its peasant inhabitants. He falls in love with a young woman who is betrothed to someone else. Try though he might, Werther cannot seem to stay away. Thus, in order not to cause disruption he commits suicide and is buried under a linden tree. The book had a powerful impact (called The Werther Effect) on young men in Western Europe – both in terms of fashion preferences and rates of suicide. Researchers have documented nearly 2000 cases of self-inflicted death, all of which were styled like Werther’s.

House of the Seven Gables in Salem, Massachusetts

House of the Seven Gables
Salem, Massachusetts

Romantic writing could be very dark. America’s Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne added horror and the occult. Their Dark Romanticism stems from the same origins as that of Herman Melville: a Puritan belief that humans are fallible, prone to sin and given to self-destruction. In Hawthorne’s House of Seven Gables, for instance, supernatural voices urge one character to hurl himself through a window and into the street below (he doesn’t). Another character dies mysteriously while sitting in an antique chair. Yet two characters’ fates are redeemed through the love of a “pure” woman, and the story contains a moral (concerning greed).

Late Nineteenth Century (1850-1900) Realism

After the extremes of Romanticism, there seemed only one direction left: the here-and-now. Literary Realists are known for their depiction of daily life in simple prose. Their characters often lack moral fiber. Not intending harm, people misbehave out of cowardice and fear. Today we might call them anti-heroes.

Madame Bovary: L'hirondelle de Yonville (The Swallow of Yonville)

Madame Bovary: “L’hirondelle de Yonville”
(the rattletrap coach Emma takes to her assignations)

Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1856) portrays the concept well. In this French novel, the bored wife of a lowly bureaucrat yearns for something she cannot name. (Ironically, her hunger stems in part from reading Romantic novels.) To fill the void, Emma takes a lover from the noble class. Unable to get a divorce, she yearns to run away with him. Yet the more she approaches, the more he withdraws. In order to fill that void (and possibly impress him), she begins to acquire clothing and accessories. Before long, Emma has gone deeply into debt. That and her lover’s refusal to run away lead to her suicide. The suicide is graphically (and unforgettably) depicted by Flaubert.

Many writers of this genre began as journalists – Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Stephen Crane and William Dean Howells – who were deeply committed to reform. Their work was often published in installments. To keep readers interested, authors invented subplots with their own climaxes – a novel 19th century innovation (pun intended). In Western Europe and this country, the times were marked by sharp contrasts between the very rich (robber barons) and the very poor (working class, newly-freed slaves). Most Realists depicted the discomforts of poverty and their culture’s emphasis on material wealth.

Eliza Reading the Bible to Uncle Tom by H. Billings

Eliza Reading the Bible to Uncle Tom by H. Billings, 1852 ed.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) by Harriett Beecher Stowe was one of the most influential books of its time. The novel depicted slavery and its ills, introducing characters who have now entered the mainstream lexicon: Uncle Tom, a long-suffering black slave; Eliza, another slave whose child her master wants to sell; Little Eva, the white girl who inspires her father to set Tom free; and Simon Legree, the malevolent slave-owner who buys Tom when Eva’s father is killed. (Eliza and her child escape via the Underground Railroad.) Many credit this story as the single greatest tool in the Abolitionists’ fight against slavery. When Abraham Lincoln first met Stowe, he is alleged to have said, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great [Civil] war!”

Early Twentieth Century (1900-1950) Subjectivism

While the inequalities between black and white, rich and poor had hardly improved, by 1900 a new literary movement had begun to emerge. As Sigmund Freud and others shared their observations on the human psyche, writers in Western Europe and America began to acknowledge that everything we experience is filtered through our personal consciousness. In contrast to a previous emphasis on observing the external world, Modern authors began to look within.

In the next installment of this History, I will discuss 20th century Modernism, how it was affected by two World Wars and then detente. From there I will humbly offer a few observations about writing in the 21st century and draw some summary conclusions.

Meanwhile, a question: of the movements we have discussed, which is your favorite and why?

5 thoughts on “A Brief History of the Novel – Part Two

  1. This is such a clear, interesting account. I thought I knew this history pretty well, but I have learned new things from you at every step.

    • While doing the research for this blog, have enjoyed observing the patterns – thematic & sociological – which emerge from one movement to the next. Not sure I would have enjoyed life in the 19th century – apparently suicide was very fashionable. Thanks for your supportive comments.

  2. Amazing how well you carry such a long arc in such a neat, efficient essay. As with a great novel, it makes me want to dive deeply into each little bit.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s