Tuesday, 3 April 2012

THE 18th CENTURY AND THE RISE OF THE NOVEL

Robinson Crusoe
Daniel Defoe,Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding  are generally regarded as the fathers of the English novel, though they did not constitute a literary school. Did they create a new genre completely different from the prose fiction of the past, from that of Greece or of the Middle Ages? If there are differences, is there any reason why these differences appeared in 18th century English literature?

These interesting questions are the ones we are going to try to give an answer reading several passages from Daniel Defoe's ROBINSON CRUSOE, Jonathan Swift's GULLIVER'S TRAVELS as well as working in small groups on projects about Tobias Smollet, Henry Fielding, Samuel Richardson and Laurence Sterne.
These are also the questions a celebrated scholar like Ian Watt tried to answer in his well-known essay "The Rise of the Novel". Here's an excerpt from the opening pages:


Gulliver
"Such large questions are never easy to approach, much less to answer, and they are particularly difficult in this case because Defoe, Richardson and Fielding do not in the usual sense con­stitute a literary school. Indeed their works show so little sign of mutual influence and are so different in nature that at first sightit appears that our curiosity about the rise of the novel is unlikely to find any satisfaction other than the meagre one afforded by the terms 'genius' and 'accident', the twin faces on the Janus of the dead ends of literary history. We cannot, of course, do  without them: on the other hand there is not much we can do

with them. The present inquiry therefore takes another direc­tion: assuming that the appearance of our first three novelists within a single generation was probably not sheer accident, and that their geniuses could not have created the new form unless the conditions of the time had also been favourable, it attempts

to discover what these favourable conditions in the literary and social situation were, and in what ways Defoe, Richardson and Fielding were its beneficiaries..."

The 18th century writer's primary aim was no longer to satisfy the standards of patrons and literary élite but to write in a simple way in order to be understood by the less educated new readers: middle class men and women. The new stories had to be particularly appealing to the practical - minded tradesman or manufacturer who was self-made and self-reliant. These were among the most influential factors in the "shaping" of the new genre. 

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