On the Origins of the Novel

Sherri asks a really cool question in the comments of the Franzenfreude entry:

Just out of curiosity, what do you consider the genre’s birth? I’m a bit uneducated about the whole history of the genre: novel, but I thought the first novel was written in the 1000’s in Japan (The Tale of Genji)- by a woman! Maybe you mean the western/european history?

I think this is a really interesting topic, so I’d like to answer it in a blog post rather than in the comments.

There’s not much agreement on the origin of the novel. As Sherri points out, The Tale of Genji (1021) has been mentioned as the first novel. So has Boccaccio’s The Decameron (1353). Arguments have also been made in favor of Don Quixote (1605/1615) and The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes and of His Fortunes and Adversities (1554). However, none of these works fit neatly into the most commonly accepted definition of a novel: an extended prose narrative with incidents arranged in a causal chain centering around a psychologically distinguished main character. Don Quixote, for instance, is a parody of the romance, a pre-novelistic form with medieval European roots.

Personally, I think it’s best to think of the novel as having several origins. However, I would argue there is a definite origin of the novel as a genre, i.e., a literary form with a number of practitioners self-consciously working for a sustained period of time. I would point to Britain of the 1740s and 1750s as the start of the genre.

Mid-eighteenth-century Britain was the first country with a large, literature audience affluent enough to spend money on books as entertainment. Beyond these conditions I think it’s important to point out that this was a time in which the definition of a person had changed. Middle class Britons lived novelistic lives. They were individuals who made free choices in realistic circumstances. In this way they achieved an autonomy of self that would have been unimaginable to, say, a medieval Englishman.

Samuel Richardson is the first creator of complex novelistic characters. His Pamela (1740/41) is generally regarded as the first fully realized English novel. Significantly, it’s a marriage plot in which a young woman struggles for the right to freely choose her husband.

Henry Fielding is perhaps the first self-conscious novelist. Both Joseph Andrews (1742) and Tom Jones (1749) contain essayistic passages describing the novel as a genre. (By the way, heteroglossia, or the mixing of writing types, has also been advanced as a distinguishing characteristic of the novel.)

Finally, Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (first volume 1759) is important because Sterne is explicitly playing with the genre’s rules just as they are becoming codified. By the late 1750s the novel had coalesced to the point at which it could produce an anti-novel.

This account may be too Anglo-centric. It’s derived from Ian Watt and Michael McKeon, two historians of British literature. On the other hand, some people–some Arabs, for example–have cited this history as ground for dismissing the novel as a purely European genre and therefore irredeemably foreign to non-Western literary traditions.

In any event, I think it’s important to remember that the novel as a genre was born at the same time the middle class individual was born. I believe that the novel, more than any other narrative form, most closely resembles how middle class people actually live. That was the case in mid-eighteenth-century Britain, and it remains true now.

And thanks, Sherri, for asking such a great question.




  1. Thanks for such an informative response, I didn’t imagine I would get such a treat when I asked that question.
    This makes me think about the ultra individualistic quality that people (my self included) criticize American culture for perpetuating and instilling into its people. It also makes me think a lot about the English colonists that came to North America 400 years ago- though that predates the time period you mention by about 100 years, it seems that the increase of individual autonomy must have had something to do with the will toward freedom of religion that drove many people here. hmmmm.


  2. Dear Richard, below is just a notion I have, so I’d be grateful if you could further edify me by sharing your thoughts on it.
    One contribution may have been made by newspapers, in the sense that they provided grounds for ‘continuity’ and ‘development’. I believe that at least one novel by Charles Dickens, namely The Pickwick Papers, in fact began as a series of separate stories with a critical slant that were published in an English newspaper on a regular basis.
    It was necessary, first, though, to have, as you rightly say, a main character with a propensity for exhibiting him or herself.
    Characters had to display a readiness to jump into situations and to honestly confess their intentions, false pretenses, and subsequent failures or successes in the course of a life that took good or bad turns depending on what providence or human judgment deemed appropriate. The character was often just eccentric enough to have adventures but could at the same time be identified with. It played the role of some sort of a medium between reality and ideals, was larger than life sometimes and quite ordinary on other occasions.
    What’s more, though this was not known until the readership proved it could be so by treating the persona as someone with an existence, there was a potential in the persona(e) to develop.
    Assigning a role to papers in the transformation of tales into novels sounds plausible enough to me, but actually I know nothing about the history of the development of newspapers into household necessities and suspect that the novel was born well before newspapers were. So I am not at all sure how true all of what I said is.
    Incidentally, is the novel a genre or a form?


  3. Hi Mano:
    Yes, newspapers, and periodicals in general, definitely had a major impact on the novel. During the 1830s, when large-circulation dailies and weeklies became common, literature became much more observational. Compare Dickens’ Pickwick Papers to Jane Austen, for instance. Austen provides very few physical descriptions, while Dickens was very concerned with the details of urban life. Novelists became stars who could attract and hold an audience from issue to issue, thus ensuring steady circulation. In addition to the serials of Dickens, George Eliot and Alexandre Dumas, shorter, stand-alone fictional pieces were published, giving birth to the short story as a genre. Mark Twain and other American writers would publish tales from the frontier or the South, for urban readers, especially immigrants, not very familiar with the varieties of American life.
    I hope this clarifies this complex and fascinating period in literary history.


  4. Sorry to come late to the dance. I commend a good book pertaining to this topic: “The True Story of the Novel” by Margaret Anne Doody. It seeks out the ancient origins and background of the official 18th Century “novel” in ancient Greece and Rome. It looks to Xenophon, Apuleius, the Satyricon of Petronius, etc. Many of these texts are available online at places like Gutenberg Project, etc.
    Jim H.


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