Monday, December 27, 2010
The Rise of the Novel in the Eighteenth Century
In the eighteenth century the years after the forties witnessed a wonderful efflorescence of a new literary genre which was soon to establish itself for all times to come as the dominant literary form. Of course, we are referring here to the English novel which was born with Richardson's Pamela and has been thriving since then.
When Matthew Arnold used the epithets "excellent" and "indispensable" for the eighteenth century which had little of good poetry or drama to boast of, he was probably paying it due homage for its gift of the novel. The eighteenth century was the age in which the novel was established as the most outstanding and enduring form of literature. The periodical essay, which was another gift of this century to English literature, was born and died in the century, but the novel was to enjoy an enduring career. It is to the credit of the major eighteenth-century novelists that they freed the novel from the influence and elements of high flown romance and fantasy, and used it to interpret the everyday social and psychological problems of the common man. Thus they introduced realism, democratic spirit, and psychological interest into the novel— the qualities which have since then been recognized as the essential prerequisites of-every good novel and which distinguish it from the romance and other impossible stories. Reasons for the Rise and Popularity:
Various reasons can be adduced for the rise and popularity of the novel in the eighteenth century. The most important of them is that this new literary form suited the genius and temper of the times. The eighteenth century is known in English social history for the rise of the middle classes consequent upon an unprecedented increase in the volume of trade and commerce. Many people emerged from the limbo of society to occupy a respectable status as wealthy burgesses. The novel, with its realism, its democratic spirit, and its concern with the everyday psychological problems of the common people especially appealed to these nouveaia riches and provided them with respectable reading material. The novel thus appears to have been specially designed both to voice the aspirations of the middle and low classes and to meet their taste. Moreover, it gave the writer much scope for what Cazamian calls "morality and sentiment"-the two elements which make literature "popular." The decline of drama in the eighteenth century was also partly responsible for the rise and -ascendency of the novel. After the Licensing Act of 1737, the drama lay moribund. The poetry of the age too-except for the brilliant example of Pope's work—was in a stage of decadence. It was then natural that from the ashes of the drama (and, to some extent, of poetry, too) should rise the phoenix-like shape of a new literary genre. This new genre was, of course, the novel. Before the Masters:
Before Richardson and Fielding gave shape to the new form some work had already been done by numerous other writers, which helped the pioneers to some extent. Mention must here be made of Swift, Defoe, Addison, and Steele. Swift inGulliver's Travels gave an interesting narrative, and, in spite of the obvious impossibility of the "action" and incidents, created an effect of verisimilitude which was to be an important characteristic of the novel. The Coverley papers of Addison and Steele were in themselves a kind of rudimentary novel, and some of them actually read like so many pages from a social and domestic novel. Their good-humoured social satire, their eye for the oddities of individuals, their basic human sympathy, their lucid style, and their sense of episode-all were to be aspired after by the future novelists. Defoe with his numerous stories like Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders, and Roxanashowed his uncanny gift of the circumstantial detail and racy, gripping narrative combined with an unflinching realism generally...
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