Most literary scholars define the novel as a coherent unified, fictitious prose narrative, with a beginning a middle and an end, and with the “… materials deployed in such a way as to give the image of coherence, continuity, and wholeness, and with certain tensions and anticipations regarding the central characters carried through the entire length of the work, to be resolved only at the end” (Barnet et al, 1987, 67). The English novel, just like the African novel has its roots in the oral tradition of storytelling. According to Wood et al., “…the term novel refers back to the production of short stories that remained part of a European oral culture of storytelling into the late 19th century”.
These include fairy tales, jokes, little funny stories designed to make a point in a conversation. In written form, some scholars argue that Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (1386–1400) is the forerunner of the English novel in spite of its presentation in verse form. However, others disagree because of its presentation of the stories in verse instead of in prose so the origin of the novel cannot be traced to the Canterbury Tales.
The origin of the novel is also traced to the early allegorical works and also to the Romantic period that produced the romance and the Gothic novel. These will be discussed in details in this article.
We are going to try to trace the origins of the English novel. We will also discuss briefly, some of the prose fiction narratives that preceded the English novel.
By now, you know that the novel is an imaginary or literary book presented in long narrative prose. Its origin is traced to the “medieval and early modern romance and in the tradition of the novella” (Wikipedia online Dictionary) so the term novel as we know it today derived from Novella. However, it is difficult to state the exact date of the origin of the English novel in its present form that is evaluated through the author’s presentation of the plot, theme, the use of language, characterisation and vivid description of events and environment. Most of these elements of the novel were introduced in the 16th and 17th centuries as they helped to distinguish the novel from history, personal memoir and the autobiography.
However some scholars trace the origin of the novel to the oral tradition of storytelling of the English people which were presented in the form of fairy tales, jokes and little funny stories used for illustration in a conversation. This is why they link the origin of the novel to Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (1386–1400) which is a collection of life- like stories with realist characters, with the narrators, representing different people with different backgrounds, professions, tastes and social statuses. Another important point in favour of the Canterbury Tales is its plot presentation, character sketches, vivid description of incidents and setting which imbues it with the element of verisimilitude so one could be justified to say that it the precursor of the English novel but the snag is that it is presented in verse and not prose.
The word romance is a term that is traced to the beginning of the 13th and 14th century to denote a form of story that was initially derived or adapted from Roman and Greek historians. The early form of this genre is known as Arthurian romance which focused on a single hero who is involved in “a double course of episodes” (Obstfeld, 2002, 56). The Arthurian romance generally, presents the exploits of a knight who strives to prove both his prowess as an independent knight and his readiness to function as a perfect courtier under King Arthur. The plot involves the quest or a mission the knight who fights to prove himself in a personal task and problem he accepted. The popular ones are presented in plots that involved the separation and reunification of lovers in the course of adventures that are designed to prove their love and value. A good example of romance is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (c. 1380). The problem here again is that like the Canterbury Tales these romances were presented in verse and not prose so the origin of the novel may not be traced to this early genre.
The English novel is said to have appeared in the Romantic period with the Romantic novel but it presents incidents that are not realistic and human characters that are manipulated by the supernatural forces thereby directing and controlling human fate. This genre of the novel appeared when Romantic poetry flourished so it is possible that the novelists may have been influenced by the Romantic poets’ passion for nature and rustic life. However, in the novel, the passion was directed towards romance and unrealistic incidents that tend towards the melodramatic and lacks the element of verisimilitude which is a vital aspect of the novel.
The Gothic novel presents a story that combines elements of horror and romance in the plot and was said to have originated with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764). Ann Radcliffe also wrote in the gothic style, his remarkable contribution is the introduction of the brooding figure of the Gothic villain which developed into the Byronic hero. Her most popular and influential work is The Mysteries of Udolpho, (1794), popularly referred to as the archetypal Gothic novel. Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein (1818) is another major contribution to the Gothic genre and in which she narrated a chilling tale that could be related to modern organ transplants and tissue regeneration. The novel is still relevant in contemporary times as it reminds the readers of the moral issues raised by modern medicine. These novels were usually
didactic and tried to provide examples of good conduct. Scholars are reluctant to trace the origin of the novel to this genre because of the excessive use of horror which departs from the element of verisimilitude though it is regarded as a genre of the novel
In allegory the story is presented through the manipulation of characters, actions and setting to convey a double meaning in a way that the literal meaning as well as an underlying or deeper meaning is communicated to the reader. The writer manipulates language in a way that animals/ideas/abstract nouns as characters could speak and act as humans while one subject is discussed under the guise of another. It is used mostly in satires and a good example is George Orwell’s Animal Farm which uses the animals’ revolt against their owner to present a satirical attack on the Russian communist system.
Orwell uses animals to portray the injustice and double standard which reflect the insincerity of the communist system of government. So in allegory, the writer employs and manipulates such characters/ideas to convey a double meaning of the subject matter at the literal level and a deeper level. Such a work “would normally operate at a primary level as well as the secondary level of significance. … narration offers the writer an opportunity to describe one subject under the guise of another and thus to be ambivalent in his or her themes” (Ezeigbo, 1998, 24). Fables also use animals as characters.
You will recall that we said that the novel presents human beings as characters and thrives on human relationships in a seemingly realistic manner. So allegory and fables are therefore not classified as novels hence Pilgrims Progress and Aesop Fables are not classified as novels. So we cannot trace the origin of English novel to these genres.
We have tried to trace the origin of the English novel. There are different views on this origin. What is clear is that the English novel is a product of various experimentations that included the romance, the allegory and the Gothic. It also has its roots in the story-telling tradition of the English people. The Modern English novel is therefore a combination of these earlier genres of prose fiction.
In this article, we have tried to trace the origin of the modern English novel to the earlier genres of prose fiction. We also saw the various prose fiction genres that preceded the novel as a genre of literature but it is difficult to trace the origin of the novel to a particular genre.