The Birth of the Novel

Swift and Defoe

It was in the early years of the 18th century that the novel as we know it began to be written. As Walter Allen writes in The English Novel, "Nothing that preceded it in the way of prose fiction can explain it. There were no classical models for it". Certainly Sidney and Cervantes’s Don Quixote (translated into English in 1612) were models of a sort, but what developed in the works of the great innovators of the novel form (Swift and Defoe) had more in common with histories, plays and moral tales. What prose fiction before 1670 lacked was what Hazlitt calls, "the close imitation of men and manners… the very texture of society as it really exists". The novel emerged when authors fused adventure and romance with verisimilitude and heroes that were not supermen but, frankly, insignificant nobodies.

It is no surprise, then, that Swift and Defoe’s seminal works of fiction, now seen as the progenitors of the novel form, were pseudo-histories. Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) was based on the actual desert island adventures of Alexander Selkirk. Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726), though a satire and spoof of the far-fetched travel literature of the Middle Ages, (where stories of twenty-foot tall dragon- headed women, disembodied heads on legs and so on abounded) was written as a narration by a traveller (like More’s Utopia). Coleridge claimed that Crusoe was "the universal representative, the person, for whom every reader could substitute himself". Therein lies the key to both the appeal of the novel and its imminent ubiquity: the real world. Of course, neither a happy desert island sojourn nor capture in a land full of one foot tall people can be termed ‘realistic’, but the narrators of these first novels spoke as if they were, and they themselves were ordinary representatives of humanity. In Moll Flanders (1719 and 1722) Defoe offered an ordinary setting and a familiar world but presented an extraordinary woman, strange in her actions and compelling in her adventures but ultimately not abnormal: more deserving of infamy than fame. It is significant that Defoe’s other major work was A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), a fictionalized account of an historical event. Truth and a degree of verisimilitude were essential to the early novel.

  By PanEris using Melati.

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