What is a Novel?
The novel is one of the many possible prose narrative forms. It shares with other narratives, like the epic and the romance, two basic characteristics: a story and a storyteller. The epic tells a traditional story and is a combination of myth, history, and fiction. Its heroes are gods and goddesses and extraordinary men and women. The romance also tells stories of larger-than-life characters. It stresses on an adventure and often involves a search for an ideal or the quest of an enemy. In symbolic form, the events seem to project the primitive wishes, hopes, and fear of the human mind and are, therefore, similar to the resources of dream, myth, and ritual. Although this is true to some novels as well, what differentiates the novel from the romance is its realistic treatment of life and manners. In broad terms, a novel can thus be defined as a piece of prose fiction which dramatizes life with the help of characters and situations. It also portrays some characteristics of human experience and generates real-life impressions.
Aspects of Novel
The central idea of a novel is the theme. It is a concern or a subject on which the story rotates. For a novelist the theme is like a design that comes to the mind, sprouts like a seed and a story with plot and characters are woven around it.
The framework of the story is the plot. It has an opening, a centre and a conclusion. It progresses with the help of characters, events and actions. There can be even sub-plot in a plot but they are linked to each other in the main theme. The plot is thus the structure of the actions which work together to accomplish an artistic outcome. And as these actions are performed by the characters, plot and character are interdependent on each other. It is the plot that arranges and re-arranges the story according to the mode of narrative.
The writer offers some ethical or dispositional qualities to the characters which they expose through their actions. How should the person act, react, learn and change all constitute the art of characterization. With the advancement of the story, a character grows slowly and has the power to make the reader so involved that he might feel very close to the character participating and sharing the emotional fluctuations as well. A character has the potentiality of moving the readers and forcing them to remember it forever and this indicates the accomplishment of the art of characterization.
Point of View
This indicates how a story is narrated. It is the perception through which the author depicts the characters, controls their actions and relates the events. The story can be in the first-person narration where the narrator reports the incidents with ‘I’ which represent that it is he who has been a spectator to the events of life.
Time and Place
A story originates and moves within a particular time and place and the author cannot detach himself from it. Use of place decides the location and the use of time assures the way the events are structured. It is not required for a novelist to mention the name of the place but through the setting and the background, the ambience is created. In some novels, the author uses place to give cultural support to the story and in some, the place is used as a source of significance and building the atmosphere around the story.
Each writer has his/her own style of writing. It is how the author narrates the story keeping in view the language and expression. The characters, situations and events are expressed maintaining a unique diction, choice of words, sentence structure etc. and it is this style that distinguishes one author from the other.
Characteristics Of a Novel
Today, one of the ways in which we define a novel is that it is a prose narrative. This is its first characteristic. A novel, however, may not adopt or rely on such frames to develop its subject. This brings us to the second characteristic of the novel: it is a modern development. The third characteristic of the novel is that it has a plot or a structure. Even those novels which seem to lack an apparent structure actually have one. Without a plot, the subject of the novel cannot be organised properly. The plot makes it possible for the novelist to arrange different points of the novel coherently. The plot is that which holds the various elements of the novel together. We must remember that all fictional prose narratives which tell stories are not novels. For example, in the essays of the nineteenth-century writer, Charles Lamb, we find him presenting fictional situations in narrative form. In Lamb’s essays, we have fictional episodes but they do not become a novel. This brings us to the fourth characteristic of the novel: it must be of a certain length. This feature is important because only when the story spans some length can the theme be expanded and developed. There is no definite rule about how long a novel should be. But if it is too short, then the different conditions of the story cannot be developed properly. Without characters, we cannot have a novel. This is the fifth characteristic of the novel: it must have characters and action. The action in a novel may be of different kinds. Sometimes we see a lot of developments in the plot. In some other cases, especially in the modernist novel the action is often internal and cannot be described in terms of external change or transformation. The novel tries to deal with and credibly present some form of reality. This is its sixth characteristic. Of course, we find that all novels cannot be placed with the category of realism. But in one way or the other, the representation of reality (ideas about the real may be different and even contradictory) is one of the important issues in a novel. There are various kinds of realistic representations in fiction: magic realism and social realism are two such examples. We also find novels that experiment with the question of reality in ways that make it the central issue in the novel. The novel of ideas is one such type where the ideas are more important than the situation of the characters. Some postmodern novels examine the issues of reality that are quite opposed to the way it is presented in the classic realist novels. In Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981), the reality cannot be taken for granted. The narrative of Saleem Sinai in the novel raises questions about the nature of the subject quite vehemently.
Types Of Novel
Various types of novels have taken form in English from its initiation in England to the recent ones developed in America and India.
Derived from the word ‘Goths’ used for a Germanic tribe, the Gothic novel has supernatural elements like ghosts, haunted houses, etc. which induces horror, apprehension and insecurity. Examples – Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto, a Gothic Story, Ann Radcliff’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, etc.
Derived from the Spanish word ‘Picaro’ which means ‘a rogue’, the Picaresque novels present the stories of adventure where the characters, in general, move from one place to the other. Examples – Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, etc.
The meaning of ‘Epistle’ is ‘a letter’. It is through the exchange of letters among the characters that the story proceeds forward. It became very popular in the eighteenth century with Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and Clarissa.
It is from history that the events and the characters are taken. This type was brought into prominence by Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe.
It is the innermost desires and motives of the characters that are projected in this type of novel. The feelings and reactions of the characters are given prominence more than the social setting. The stream of consciousness techniques suites this type very much. Examples – Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, James Joyce’s Ulysses, etc.
This type of novel is set in a particular geographical section and deals with the living and culture of that area. Example – Thomas Hardy’s Wessex, R.K.Narayan’s Malgudi, etc.
These are the common types of novels. Apart from these, there are many more varieties that excel in creating the literature of the time and making the essence of the novel more dedicated and authentic in the present scenario.
History of Novel
It is very difficult to say when the novel proper made its appearance in the world’s literary history. One thing is clear; there are many features of the novel, which we find in many non-novelistic literary types as well. For example, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle considered the epic to be a form of narrative. Novels are usually written in prose. Of course, we must remember that people have written novels in verse too. We can take the example of the Indian writer Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate as one such case. In this novel, which is in verse, Seth tried to present the situation of life and culture in the context of the Golden Gate Bridge at San Francisco, USA. The great Russian writer Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin is often seen as the pioneering text in the novel in the verse category. Thus, although we find numerous prose narratives existing prior to the emergence of the novel, these cannot be seen as novels for one basic reason: they were not fictional in character. This again is not very easy to separate from the writings that make up the world’s mythology. The different mythological narratives of the world exhibit some of the features of the novel. They are characterised by the presence of a strong sense of morality. These mythological tales are usually associated with some religious or spiritual framework. One of the striking features of the novel, as it traversed through the various stages of its evolution, is its modernity. When we trace the growth and emergence of the novel as a literary form, this is an aspect we must keep in mind: it is a modern phenomenon. There were narratives in the ancient world, but the novel is a product of the modern period. The Czech novelist, Milan Kundera considers the novel’s modernity to be its most important feature. So, we may arrive at the following conclusion based on the above discussion: the novel is a fictional prose narrative and a modern literary development.
When we say that the novel is a modern phenomenon we must see it in terms of its place in culture. The Print revolution (in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries) was a major condition that contributed to the growth of the modern reader. Earlier, knowledge was closely bound up with religion and spiritual experience. With books being available to the general reader, the nature of education and readership also changed. That is why we find many prose romances emerging during the sixteenth century. Some literary historians consider these narratives to be part of the novel’s prehistory, while others believe that such writings are actually similar to the novel itself. It is interesting to note that many of these romances were extremely popular and well-received. The great English playwright William Shakespeare (1564- 1616) based some of his plays on the romances of his contemporaries such as Robert Greene. In tracing the history of the novel we must also note that it was confined to just one or two locations. It spread across different centres of Europe and developed with varying degrees of complexity. It is, however, clear the novel first made its appearance in Europe. Two remarkable examples from the early history of the novel are Francois Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel (France) and Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quijote (Spain). Both these novels are very different from one another. This was because the form of the novel was yet to develop fully. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, many people in Europe began to experiment in prose. In England, we can see that it emerged properly only in the eighteenth century. Similar writings appeared at the same time in Italy, Spain, France and Germany. By the nineteenth century, we have many accomplished novelists who are revered very highly even today. It can be said that the growth of the novel was to some extent influenced by the changing current of ideas in the fields of science and general knowledge. People’s perceptions were changing and such transformations were mirrored in the growth of an eager and curious readership in the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries. The stories became more and more complicated and exciting as the novel reached the modern period. In this connection, we must also take note of the role played by the publishing industry (represented to a great extent by periodicals and journals) and the libraries.
The novel’s emergence in the modern world can be traced to certain cultural and social developments in Europe. With the revival of learning during the Renaissance, the growth of readership because of print culture and the formation of libraries and the availability of leisure, the novel consolidated in the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries in Europe. In the eighteenth century, we find the novelists experimenting in a variety of ways. In England, for instance, we find that the writers tried to present things in quite dissimilar ways. Daniel Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe in the adventure tale format; Samuel Richardson wrote the narrative of letters (Pamela and Clarissa) and Henry Fielding tried out the picaresque novel in Tom Jones. By the nineteenth century, the novel was considerably consolidated as a literary form. Novelists like Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, W. M. Thackeray, Anthony Trollope and Thomas Hardy dealt with different aspects of contemporary social life. The novel in this period was primarily realistic in orientation.
If we look at the developments of the genre outside England we see great variation and experimentation. Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quijote is a landmark in Spanish literature. Following its publication in the early seventeenth century, it paved the way for the genre to develop and consolidate in other European languages. Towards the end of the seventeenth century, we find in Countess de Lafayette’s La Princesse de Clèves (1678) the arrival of the woman novelist in Europe. Of course, Aphra Behn had also written Oroonoko in English in the seventeenth century. By the nineteenth century, the novel was a major literary form in Europe. The French naturalists and realists such as Emile Zola and Gustave Flaubert had created a new space for the novel through their fictional narratives. The nineteenth century was perhaps the most significant year for the novel in terms of its spread and practice across the world. In Russia Ivan Turgenev, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy explored aspects of human life and character in new invigorating ways. The writings of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville and Mark Twain announced the emergence of the American novel. In India too, we see various novelistic experiments being carried out in the vernacular languages. O. Chandu Menon’s Indulekha (1889, Malayalam), Veeresalingam’s Rajasekhara Charitra (1878, Telegu) Lakshminath Bezbaroa’s Podum Kunwori (1890, Assamese) and Mirza Hadi Ruswa’s Umrao Jan Ada (1899, Urdu) are some noteworthy examples of the novel in Indian vernacular languages. In the early twentieth century, the novel flourished in various Indian languages.
In the modern period, the journey of the novel takes a new turn. Some of the modern novelists felt that the question of form cannot be taken for granted. They have experimented with both form and language. There have other challenges as well. There have been major technological developments in the twentieth and the early years of the twenty-first century. These developments have greatly affected the character of the contemporary novel in terms of theme, technique and reception. As an aspiring novel writer, you must be familiar with the historical movement of the genre.