Monday, December 27, 2010
Reasons for the Rise of the Novel in the Eighteenth Century Introduction:
The most important gifts of the eighteenth century to English literature are the periodical essay and the novel, neither of which had any classical precedent. Both of them were prose forms and eminently suited to the genius of eighteenth-century English men and women. The periodical essayist and the novelist were both exponents of the same sensibility and culture, and worked on the same intellectual, sentimental, and realistic plane, with the oft-avowed aim of instructing the readers and making them lead a more purposeful and virtuous life. Of these two new literary genres the periodical essay was a peculiar product of the environment prevailing at that time. It was born with the eighteenth century and died with it after enjoying a career of phenomenal popularity. The novel, on the other hand, survived valiantly the turn of the century and has since then been not only managing to live, but has been growing from strength to strength and adding to its popularity. Even today, when the current of poetry has unhappily run into the arid vistas of cold intellectualism and clever phrase-mongering and the real drama has become as defunct as the dodo, the novel, which originated in the eighteenth century, is holding up its head as a dominant literary genre. It was immediately after 1740 that the English novel suddenly arose from the lower forms and came to embody, as no other literary form did, the spirit of the age. The glorious work of Richardson and Fielding was followed by that of the two other major novelists of the eighteenth century, namely, Smollett and Sterne. Soon the whole English literary air was thick with a staggeringly vast number of novels produced by a host of writers. Let us consider the important reasons for the rise of the novel in the eighteenth century, as also, by implication, for its spectacular popularity. The Social Environment: The Rise of the Middle Classes:
According to David Daiches, the novel "was in a large measure the product of the middle class, appealing to middle-class ideals and sensibilities, a patterning of imagined events set against a clearly realized social background and taking its view of what was significant in human behaviour from agreed public attitudes." In the words of Oliver Elton, "it came to express, far better than the poetry could do, the temper of the age and race." The eighteenth century is known in the social history of England for the rise of the middle classes. With the unprecedented rise in trade and commerce the English masses were becoming increasingly wealthy and many hitherto poor people were finding themselves in the rank of respectable burgesses. These nouveaux riches were, naturally enough, desirous of giving themselves an aristocratic touch by appearing to be learned and sophisticated like their traditional social superiors-the landed gentry and nobility. This class of readers had hitherto been neglected by highbrow writers. The literary works previous to the eighteenth century were almost invariably meant to be the reading of the higher strata of society. Only "popular literature," such as the ballad, catered for the lower rungs. The up-and-coming middle classes ,of the eighteenth century demanded some new kind of literature which should be in conformity with their temper and be designed as well to voice their aspirations as to cater for their tastes. England was then becoming a country of small and big traders and shop-keepers. And who has more common sense than a trader or a shop-keeper? These people, according to a critic "took little interest in the exaggerated romances of impossible heroes and the picaresque stories of intrigue and villainy which had interested the upper classes. Some new type of literature was demanded, and this new type must express the new ideal of the eighteenth century, the value and the importance of the individual life...To tell men,...
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