The novel has continued to be the most popular genre of literature and part of its popularity lies in the realistic presentation of events and characters in it. This is referred to as realism. Realism distinguishes the novel from the previous literary writings. The plot is not borrowed from myth or legend. It entails realistic characterisation whereby, the characters are given proper names which we encounter in everyday life instead of allegorical names or abstract names found in earlier fictions like Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress. This gives the impression that these characters are like real persons in real societies. The setting is equally realistic and there is usually a time process which is very important because it enables the characters to mature and gain more experience at the end of the novel. We will examine the concept of realism and try to relate it to the novel as literary genre and more specifically to the English novel. We will also examine some major characteristics that make the novel unique.
Realism as a literary theory or movement is associated with a realistic portrayal of life in a work of art. The novel has continued to arouse attention as a popular genre of literature. The author adopts a style of presenting an interesting story through the portrayal of life-like events and incidents in the story which is achieved through a proper manipulation of language to create a credible story. The success of a novel therefore depends on the ability of the author to induce the element of realism in the work.
Realism as a “literary concept has proved incapable of being reduced to some specific meanings, especially given the modern conceptualization of indeterminate truths and other interpretations in literature…” (Ezeigbo 1998, 118). However it is a defining characteristic which differentiates the work of early 18th Century novelists from the previous prose fictional works. The novel is realistic because it attempts to portray all varieties of human experience, not merely those suited to one literary perspective. Modern realism begins from the position whereby truth can be discovered by the individual through the senses.
For instance, Defoe in writing fiction, disregarded the traditional plot structure (of myths, legends etc.) and merely allowed his narrative to flow spontaneously from his sense of what his protagonists might do next. He thereby initiated an important tendency in fiction which is the total subordination of the plot to the pattern of the autobiographical memoir (Ghent 1953, 67).
Arnold Kettle opines that all novels which are successful works of art contain two elements – life and pattern. Every good novel therefore is a reflection of life and of human experience as the novelist manipulates words to present a representation of a realistic world peopled by realistic men and women engaged in realistic activity. In addition the novelist imposes some pattern on the life that he presents.
Pattern here means “…meaning, significance and moral design and not just the formal elements of plot, structure and coherence, although these might be part of it” (Abrams 1981, 157). The novelist is not expected to present a photographic copy of life, a reportorial account of it without implying what he/she thinks about it. Realism in the novel therefore does not mean a replication of life but the author’s perspective of life. In other words, he/she clarifies and evaluates the issues, situations and characters
presented in the work and in the end tries to impose an order in the chaos of experience in what may be called denouement. Realism in the novel enables the novelist to present an illuminative view of life. This is why certain prose fictional works on pornography and thriller are not regarded as novels because the authors of such works present great slices of life without any attempt to extract some significance.
Realism is therefore a very important component of the successful novel. Detailed and vivid descriptions are vital in the novel but there is no yardstick for measuring the extent of detailed description since it could be more in one good novel and less in another. For instance, James Joyce’s Portrait of a Lady does not contain as much minute description of places, objects and even individuals as in Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders yet all of them are classified as successful novels.
Different novelists present life in varying proportions but the important issue is that the world presented in the novel should be “…seen as a reflection of normal human activity, that the people should look like realistic men and women and the issues and modes of conduct presented should be applicable to the human race…” (Enright and De Chickera, 1953, 34). Although in some novels, the characters behave abnormally, it is for a purpose as long as the author convinces the reader of the authenticity of the world he/she has created because according to Ian Watt, “… a novel’s realism resides not just in the kind of life it presents, but also in the way it presents it” (Quoted in Barnet et al, 1936, 65).
The novelist’s obligation is to convince the reader that the world he/she has created is a world of ordinary human beings and ordinary human activity. Setting is a very important aspect of a successful novel that adds to its realism. The detailed presentation of all aspects of the characters’ environment is one of the things that give solidity to a novel. Setting helps to reflect the characters’ changing moods, fortunes or states of mind, and also to objectify the themes. Setting could also have a symbolic significance as in Great Expectations where the marshes and the rotting hulks symbolise the corruption prevalent in Victorian England. Plot and structure also aid realism in the novel. The arrangement and organisation of actions and incidents in the novel help to enhance the credibility of the actions because they are aspects of the shape of the novel.
What Makes a Novel?
Certainly, the novel is a very popular genre of written literature. We know that it is a type of book which we read for pleasure, as a form of diversion or as a literary text. There are many elements that distinguish the novel from other types of books. We will look at these elements.
The novel presents a fictitious story. It is a product of the writer’s imagination so it is an imaginative work of art which recreates the truth of human experience. This means that it recreates everyday life as it is lived in what is known as verisimilitude. This does not mean that novelists report life incidents in a verbatim form. What they do is to choose some incidents, experiences or personalities and compose their stories around such experiences or personalities. They may choose realistic towns or communities but the characters and greater part of the incidents are fictitious. However, some scholars consider biographies as forms of novel but in this study we will concern ourselves with the general definition of the novel as an imaginary art.
The novel is a genre of the prose narrative genre of literature. It presents its story in a narrative form. This means that when you are reading a novel, it is as if someone is narrating the story to you. Sometimes, minimal dialogues are interjected in the story but not like in drama where the entire story is told in dialogue. Narration therefore distinguishes the novel from other genres of literature. However, some types of poems are presented in narrative forms but other elements of the novel distinguish it from such poems.
The story in the novel is not usually presented in a chronological order of their occurrence. This artistic reorganisation of this story by the author to suit his purpose is what we call plot. This means that you may find a novel which does not begin at the chronological beginning of events but in the end or in the middle. The story then moves forwards or backwards in time and space depending on the writer’s purpose or style. The writer uses foreshadowing or flashbacks to plot the story to make it interesting and to create suspense. Plot therefore is the plan of action, the arrangement or order of events in a novel.
A good novel is made up of credibility and craft of the work. Credibility in the novel dictates that it should recreate incidents and events that are plausible and possible. The events created in the novel should be as close to reality as possible so the reader can identify with the characters and also empathise with them. Craft in the novel is the ability of the writer to balance the various elements that make up the story together in a coherent whole that makes it an interesting work.
Theme is the controlling idea behind the story which the reader gets consciously or unconsciously as he or she reads the novel. Usually, the story is built around the theme. The theme could be literal or symbolic.
Setting refers to the place and time the events of the story took place. The place could be fictitious or real. Setting could be symbolic or literal which means that there could be specific mention of known or unknown places or the setting may not be mentioned specifically. Setting is the general environment of the work. Time setting refers to the period, year or time the events took place. Setting helps to give an element of authenticity to the story.
Characterisation refers to the ability of the novelist to create human beings in plausible human relationships in the novel. These human beings are called characters. The characters include the protagonist, antagonist, dynamic, static, and archetypal. Usually, the story revolves around the protagonist who is the major character. The antagonist is the character or thing that works against the protagonist. It may come in the form of one of the characters, conflict, flaws in his character or other qualities.
These forces act against him and may eventually destroy him. A dynamic character is influenced by personal experience and grows from innocence to maturity by coming to terms with issues as realisation dawns on him/her. The static character does not grow in the course of the story but remains the same from the beginning to the end. The archetypal character conventionally overcomes all obstacles and still survives. It is however important to recall that in characterisation, the author takes a bit from different people in an art and technique that synthesises the various traits of living people, combines them in a single character whose existence is fictitious but whose traits are an agglomeration of various people. Generally, the growth of a character in a novel is usually from innocence to maturity, from egoism to experience, from ignorance to self knowledge.
In literature, volume refers to the size of the work and this is a very important element in the determination of a novel. This size is determined by the length of the work, the number of pages a particular literary work has. Generally, the novel is the longest genre of literature though some epic narratives, especially the Homeric epics, are equally very long but the hallmark of the novel is that it is voluminous. The difference between the ancient Homeric epic and the modern novel, according to Lukács, is that the novel in the perfect form reflects the modern individual’s experience of the world: “Equilibrium, coherence and unity” had been features of the ancient epic.
A “fragmentary nature of the world’s structure” according to Lubbock is by contrast the typical experience modern novels provide” (quoted in Iwuchukwu 2010, 76). The volume therefore is a major distinguishing factor between the novel and other genres of prose fiction like the novella and the short story. The volume of the novel is justified by the belief that the novel presents “epic length performances that try to cope with the totality of life” (Lubbock quoted in Iwuchukwu 2010, 30). For a work of prose fiction to be qualified as a novel, the length must be of at least 50,000 words and above, or 170 pages and above.
The subject matter in a novel is drawn from man and his environment, from life as it is lived by human beings. The novel does not present an aspect of man like in poetry but man in his entirety, his hopes, aspirations, ambitions, disappointments, successes and failures. The novelist treats man as “….a complete whole and talk of an aspect as the parson emphasises the soul and the philosopher the intellect” (Enright and De Chickera, 1962, 65). It is true that the novel presents life but it is still a fictional work, a product of the writer’s imagination but not concrete reality so the reality presented in the novel is seen as a slice of life which is called verisimilitude.
Slice of life means that the story in the novel is presented in such a way that the characters are true to life and the events realistic but not reality, that is, the incidents and events did not take place in real life the way they are presented in the novel. However, the reader gets the feeling that what is being read is real, credible or at least believable. That is why fantasy and romance which present fantastic and improbable and unrealistic incidents and actions are not classified as novels.
The element of verisimilitude enables the reader to appreciate the novel as a form of entertainment that is enjoyed in intimate reading situations and the fictional world created by the author. The novelist invites the reader to personally identify with the novel’s characters and this can only be achieved if the work presents a slice of life. This justifies the claim that the novel is an imaginative work of art in prose that captures the full essence and wholeness of man alive. Thus, D. H. Lawrence calls it the bright book of life (quoted in Enright and De Chickera, 1962, 52)
Function of the Novel
Generally, the novel is seen as a form of entertainment but it is pragmatic. It serves as a guide for man to see how to live wholly as a man. The novel teaches more than theories and sermons on the notion of right and wrong. The novel presents the truth of life which is not absolute. In life there is right and wrong, good and bad every time and everywhere. However, what is wrong or bad in a particular situation may be right or good in another situation. The novel therefore presents people who live normally, acting and reacting to issues as circumstances demand. All aspects of human beings are explored in the novel and from that the reader gains an insight into various aspects of life and learns from the experiences of the characters.
The novel is an original imaginative artistic creation of the author in prose form that presents realistic characters and incidents. The novelist is able to do this through the choice of theme; characters and characterisation; the plot, the presentation of possible and plausible actions in such a way that the work will be entertaining and the reader not only is able to identify with the characters but also learns from their experience. The novel is the most popular genre of literature as it can be assessed conveniently anytime, anywhere. You can conveniently pick a novel and read in the comfort of your room or in a bus for relaxation. It is not like drama which you need to go to the theatre to enjoy or poetry which is presented in verse with its meaning shrouded in imageries and symbolism. The novelist tells his/her story in an interesting manner that captures and holds the attention of the reader.
We have seen in this article that there are some basic characteristics that distinguish the novel from other forms of prose narratives. Realism in the novel “…involves not only a selection of subject matter but, a special literary mode whereby the subject is presented in such a way to give the reader the illusion of actual experience” (Abrams, 1981, p.153). It presents realistic characters, environment, incidents and actions and must have a certain length. We have seen also that realism is a very important element of the novel.