A novel is an extended work of written, narrative, prose fiction, usually in story form; the writer of a novel is a novelist. The English word "novel" derives from the Italian word novella, meaning "a tale, a piece of news." The novel is longer (at least 40,000 words) and more complex than either the short story or the novella, and is not bound by the structural and metrical restrictions of plays or poetry. In most cases a novel is about characters and their actions in everyday life, with emphasis on the "novelty" of the narrative.


Qualities of the novel

Most novels have the following qualities:

  • The intent is entertainment, at least partly.
  • The subject is presented as fiction, though it may be partly factual.
  • The subject is familiar, credible and plausible, i.e. readers believe in the places and characters.
  • The subject is people, although the characters themselves may or may not be humans.
  • The story chiefly concerns the actions and relationships of the different characters.
  • There are a small number of central characters.
  • A single plot, however fragmented or tangential, eventually unites the events and characters
  • The protagonist(s) evolve(s) and grow(s) in the course of the novel; characters are more "rounded" — fleshed-out — than are the "flat," one-dimensional characters of earlier literary genres.
  • The story occurs in an identifiable time and place (setting).

There are exceptions to each of these traits, and a text need not meet all criteria to be a novel. For example, Animal Farm (1945), by George Orwell (1903–1950), tells its story using farm animals representing human archetypes and human concerns. Another example is the science fiction, or fantasy, novel, which follows its own set of rules. They are believable only when internally consistent, meaning the rules of the fictional universe presented make sense within the novel itself and are not subject to our reality. Examples include Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series and Dennis McKiernan’s Mithgar series.

The novel genre sometimes is contrasted with the Romance genre—the original concept is similar, hence, the French and German word for "novel" is "roman". The first "Romantic fiction" usually was fantastic—set in a mythical, ancient time, and had shallow, two-dimensional characters. Don Quixote (1605, 1615) by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547–1616), for example, may be read as parody of popular chivalric romance. Contemporarily, the word "romance" refers to popular fiction with a sentimental love story at center stage, often at the expense of characterization and plot.

History of, and general influences on, the novel

Classical period

Most scholars agree that the novel emerged during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Europe; a few argue that the novel dates from antiquity. These scholars argue that “personality"—evolution of the protagonist's character is the center of the novel; rather the work requires only a set of characters to be considered a novel. Moreover, they heavily emphasise the role of “eros” in defining the novel—in this theory, most often novels are about “sentiment and erotic passion”.

From Western antiquity—Greece and Rome—these are the earliest, extant novels:

Asian works

Early important Asian novels include:

Medieval and Renaissance

Early medieval novels include:

These were successors to the Byzantine novel of the twelfth century, itself an imitation and modification of the ancient Greek form.

In the Renaissance, the important European trend was towards fantastic fiction :

The picaresque novel and Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605) generally are considered the originators of the modern European novel, characterized by realism. For example:

See also: Romance (genre)

18th century

, one of the best-known early British novelists
Daniel Defoe, one of the best-known early British novelists

The 18th century is considered, by most scholars of the English novel, to have been the century of the novel's invention or rise, a phrase popularised in Ian Watt's pioneer study in literary sociology, The Rise of the Novel (1957). It is generally agreed that, at the end of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth centuries, the novel arose from a host of genres in France and England.

Novelists drew upon the new "journalistic" tradition (less reliable than contemporary journalism)—criminal biographies and autobiographies (sensational stories of high-profile criminal exploits, often ending with the criminal's contrived repentance), spiritual autobiographies, conduct books (contemporaneous etiquette books ranging from proper titles for the nobility to appropriate topics of conversation for women), travel narratives (often fantastic and rarely accurate accounts of distant places written by explorers, and others, retelling tales told them), religious allegories, and histories—to construct their novels. For example, in Robinson Crusoe (1719), Daniel Defoe fuses news (reports of the castaway Alexander Selkirk), the Puritan spiritual autobiography, the religious allegory, and the travelogue into a tale now considered a representative early novel.

There is much debate about the role of the French romance in the development of the English novel. On the one hand, Ros Ballaster argues that the French romance and scandal chronique (popular in France and England), laid the groundwork for the early English novels, especially the novels written by women such as Eliza Haywood. Her Love in Excess (1719), has the markings of a scandal novel, rich with intrigue and sex. Oftentimes these novels were thinly veiled political attacks on ruling parties; these works now are labeled "amatory fiction."

On the other hand, Lennard Davis, argues that the French romance is not the root of the novel, but that the novel is more closely tied to the English “news” traditions outlined above; the novel has multiple “beginnings”. Ballaster’s argument works well with one set of texts, and Davis’s argument with another, therefore, one could conclude that the novel had not yet solidified into the form recognized today, and most important; women writers were drawing upon different literary traditions, in fashioning the new genre, than were men writers.

Around 1740, England's taste for scandal decreased, and the desire to reform morals and manners took hold. Samuel Richardson's Pamela (1740) often is seen as the first novel embodying this new social trend. In it, he claimed he would "instruct" and "entertain"; it became one of the first "bestsellers". It is the story of maid, who, through chastity, wins the heart of her master and becomes his wife. Richardson's contemporary readers were treated to what they identified as a new level of literary "realism" in Pamela; Ian Watt argues that this novel inaugurated the psychological novel genre, because it focused on the psyche of one character, though many argue that this distinction should be awarded to William Godwin’s Caleb Williams (1795). Richardson achieved this feat through “epistolarity,” i.e. the novel is a series of Pamela's letters to her parents. This style became popular after Pamela, and writers such as Frances Burney adopted it.

In 1749, Henry Fielding published Tom Jones—his major, novelistic response to Pamela, decrying what he saw as "vulgar" or "low" language in Pamela, and its leveling theme. The hero of Tom Jones, a seeming orphan, begins as a rake, reforms, and discovers he is an aristocrat, thus gaining his fortune. Fielding saw himself as reinstating the proper social hierarchy that Richardson challenged. He also was trying to lay the foundations for the new genre, denouncing Richardson’s popular style, and describing his own novel as a “comic epic in prose,” hearkening to the Classical tradition. Fielding tried to legitimize his novel with classical allusions, but he still appealed to the popular audience with raucous and bawdy jokes.

During that time, the genre of the novel became "fixed", i.e. readers knew what to expect. Typically, the novel was the story of the education, in the broadest sense, of a protagonist. The more experimental, "messy", novels, those whose plots were convoluted or non-existent, from earlier in the century, such as the scandal novels of Eliza Haywood, fell by the wayside.

At mid-century, these two novels, and others, spawned the novel of sensibility. In it, the protagonist, most often a young woman, naively encounters the world and learns to refine her natural goodness. Sensibility was a character trait important in the mid- to late-eighteenth century. A person with sensibility was attuned with nature and was easily, and rightly, affected by the feelings of others; the "sensible" person noticed the hurt of others and was a barometer of social morality. An excellent example of this type of novel is Frances Burney's Evelina (1778), wherein the heroine, while naturally good, in part for being country-raised, hones her politeness when visiting London—she is educated into propriety. This novel also is the beginning of "romantic comedy".

At the end of the eighteenth century, sensibility's value was questioned, as it made its bearers, particularly women, too overwrought and too prone to imagining worlds beyond their appointed ones. These anxieties are in the rise of the Gothic novel, at century's end. The Gothic novel's story occurs in a distant time and place, often Renaissance Italy, and involved the fantastic exploits of an imperiled heroine. The classic Gothic novel is Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). As in other Gothic novels, the notion of the sublime is central. Eighteenth-century aesthetic theory held that the sublime and the beautiful were juxtaposed. The sublime was awful (awe-inspiring) and terrifying while the beautiful was calm and reassuring. The characters and landscapes of the Gothic rest almost entirely within the sublime, with the heroine the great exception. The “beautiful” heroine’s susceptibility to supernatural elements, integral to these novels, both celebrates and problematizes what came to be seen as hyper-sensibility.

Finally, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the overwrought emotions of sensibility, as expressed through the Gothic sublime, had run their course. Jane Austen wrote a Gothic novel parody titled Northanger Abbey (1803), reflecting the death of the Gothic novel. Moreover, while sensibility did not disappear, it was less valued. Austen introduced a different style of writing—the comedy of manners, but her novels often are not funny, bur are scathing critiques of the restrictive, rural culture of the early nineteenth century. Her best known novel, Pride and Prejudice (1811), is her happiest, and has been a blueprint for much subsequent romantic fiction; her other novels feature heroines for whom the modern reader has little sympathy, and may dislike.

19th century

The 19th century was the great century of the novel; its major practitioners included French, English, Russian, American, Polish and German authors:

20th century

The first decades of the 20th Century saw the emergence of modernism:

The 20th century also saw the emergence of many notable novelists of non-European and non-U.S. backgrounds. The years 19601967, in particular, witnessed the Latin America novel boom:

The most notable African American novelists have included:

Modernism continued into the late 20th century, sometimes becoming postmodernism; Toni Morrison (above) is part of that tradition:

Other novelists ignored or reacted against modernism:

Genre novels

From the late Victorian period to the present, several types of "genre" novels and romances have been popular. While often slighted by critics and academics, these have been as popular as the more critically and academically acclaimed novels; in recent times, the best of them have been recognized as serious literature. Some categories of genre fiction are:


  • Armstrong, Nancy. Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
  • Ballaster, Ros. Seductive Forms: Women's Amatory Fiction from 1684–1740. Oxford: Clarendson Press, 1992.
  • Davis, Lennard. Factual Fictions: the Origins of the English Novel. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983.
  • Doody, Margaret Anne. The True Story of the Novel. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1996.
  • Hunter, J.P. Before Novels: The Cultural Contexts of Eighteenth-Century English Fiction. New York: Norton and Co., 1990.
  • McKeon, Michael. The Origins of the English Novel: 1600–1740. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.
  • Watt, Ian. The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957.

See also

Novel is also the name of a commune of the Haute-Savoie département in France.

External links

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