The novel, a popular form of literature nowadays, did go through a long trek before it reached its summit. During its evolution from the embryo to the peak, the novel’s relationship with other literary forms such as epics, romances, fictions and dramas has never ended. The novel borrowed ideas from them more or less. Nonetheless, it finally became an independent branch of literature. For instance, Fielding’s interpretation of the novel as the “comic epic in prose” revealed the importance and innovation of the novel. Likewise, the origin of the word “novel”, meaning “new” in Italian, vividly displays its innovative essence. In order to analyze the process that the novel rose to its popularity, I use the English novel as an example. The novel’s independence from other literary forms can be seen in the renovation of its writing materials, its construction of words and plots, and its theme, which are attributed to the rapid and radical changes of society.
The change of writing materials marks the rise of the novel. As opposed to the epic, which tells stories about ancient and mythological heroes, and fictions, which relates story of apparently created characters, the novel impresses readers by its strong sense of reality. Typically, novelists tended to concentrate on individual experience of people, especially of those middle class people. For instance, the novel Robinson Crusoe is a vivid and authentic reflection of the spirit of adventure and business-setting-up in the primitive accumulation of capital period, and it has created an ideological hero of the bourgeois. Similarly, its writer Daniel Defoe himself drew inspiration from his practical experience as merchant, factory owner, spy, pamphleteer, journalist and so on. The alteration of stories’ contents is attributed to the alteration of readers. According to Ian Watt, the growing group of bourgeois readers was the major driving force to the rise of the novel. The 18h century witnessed many radical changes in England including the Industrial Revolution, the enclosure laws, and the bourgeois revolution; all of them contributed to the mushrooming of the middle class in the society. In fact, the boom of middle class and the rise of the novel are complementary. With the convenience and low price of printing novels, in addition to the massive collection of novels in libraries, readers of middle or low class were easily accessed to such literary forms. On the contrary, considering the intellectual level of those beneficiaries of the universal education and their recreational expectation on books, writers were dedicated to cater to their taste. That’s one of the reasons for the rise of the literary form with fresh sources.
The innovative essence of the novel could also be revealed by the new construction of languages, settings and plots. Firstly, unlike poetry, most of which were written in elevated and heightened language, novelists often used much cruder words and phrases. It can be easily understood by using the former “cater-to-readers” theory. Since readers included people like apprentices and maidservants, the language needed to be much easier for a smooth reading. Moreover, the dedication to simpler language was deeply rooted in philosophy at that time; the overuse of flowery language and complicated dictions were condemned in the work An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, written by John Locke, who was an influential philosopher in the 18th century. Apart from the language, the settings of the novel, namely, the time, the place and the character in the novel are different from former literary forms. When we read The Odyssey, we count such an epic as a proof of the hero we’ve already known. When we read The Pilgrim’s Progress, we’ve already known what those characters with abstract name represented for. However, when we read a novel, it’s a process for us to gradually discover things happened to the specific character in different time and space. Unlike those predecessors that used timeless stories to “mirror unchanging moral truths”, the dynamic fashioning of characters is a typical characteristic of the novel, which can be attributed to the rising consciousness of history in the 18th century, while writers in the Elizabethan Age didn’t counted time as “something that changed men and made one generation of men unlike another”. Thirdly, it’s a remarkable change that plots of stories altered from being scattered to neatly constructed. In former works, some plots are completed confusing because they weren’t relevant to the story. It’s even possible that some characters in the story suddenly disappeared without any explanation. However, plots in the novel are organized in order. Such traits can be easily found in Fielding’s works, where every detail contributes to a round off story, reflecting a basic eighteenth-century faith in the order of the world. In the Age of Reason, everything, including artistic creation, should be consciously controlled. Therefore, it was these changes in society made elements in writing change, contributing to the distinction of the novel.
Finally, there comes the new theme of the novel. In the past, The Pilgrim’s Process, an allegory, was one of the bestsellers, next to the Holy Bible. Although Bunyan used some attractive techniques such as relating the whole story to dreams and it was a vivid depiction of Christ’s journey to salvation, it was after all a work on the purpose of preaching. While a century later, the novel focus on the mortal world and novel works are appropriately mirroring human being’s lives. No matter the character are Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders, Pamela or Shamela, they are human beings rather than religious images. The social background contributed to such an alteration again. Not to mention the focus on Humanism in the past Renaissance Period, ideas of philosophers such as Descartes and Locke left great influence on novel writing. They believed that reality could be discovered by the individual through the senses; it was such emphases on individual experience that inspired novelists to concentrate more on human lives. Meanwhile, the rising bourgeois government and the thriving science also contributed to the weakening of religious impact on the society. Influenced by double factors, the theme of literatures naturally converted from religion to reality.
The novel has gone through twists and turns; its final formation actually lay after several centuries’ evolution. In the end, as a serious branch of literature, the novel excels former literary forms in its fresh writing materials, its unique organization of language and plots, and its distinctive theme. Thanks to the particular social background, the novel thrived and reached its apotheosis and I believe it will still be in a good place of literature in the future.