A Brief History of European Novels

How early was the earliest novel? Critics attempt to establish a beginning for the form in order to make the analytical task manageable. Because the novel, as generally defined, holds many elements in common with drama, epic, folktale, fable, satire, biography, and autobiography, it is impossible to designate one work as the earliest novel. Furthermore, when critics do include certain early works as novels, they are making a distinction that did not exist before the eighteenth century. Thus, literary historians must include as novels many works for which the category did not exist at the time they were written, or that were not considered novels by either their authors or their first readers. For example, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded (1740-1741) itself was originally conceived of by its author, a printer by trade, as an illustrative guide to the art of letter writing, not as a work of fiction. Richardson’s predecessor, Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe (1719) and The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, Written from Her Own Memorandums (1722), called his own works histories and specifically wrote against novels, a class of writing that, he said, “invents characters that never were in Nature.”

Beginnings of the Novel in Europe

The canon of the novel, then, should probably include all important works, no matter how early, that are read as novels are read today and that have clearly influenced the shape of European fiction. In this light, it makes sense to trace the origins of the novel back to the origins of Western literature, perhaps to Homer’s Iliad (c. 750 b.c.e.; English translation, 1611) and Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1614). Certainly, two of the oldest traditions in fiction, the heroic and the picaresque, maintain these works as prototypes. Among other ancient works, the narratives of the Old Testament have also been of immeasurable influence in shaping the forms and themes of Western fiction. Genesis, for example, can be said to have shown the West how to use character to embody the history and spirit of a people; indeed, the Old Testament is rich in narratives of many kinds. Perhaps even more influential in Western literary history, however, have been the Gospels of the New Testament, which present the archetypal story of the individual versus society, or, more precisely, of the individual’s defining his or her personal relationship with the divine, irrespective of society’s definition. Because most critics see the growth of the novel in terms of a movement toward realizing unique individuals and away from reiterating stereotypes, one way to view the history of the novel is in terms of its lesser or greater success in achieving the iconoclastic ideal set by the Gospels. Given the Gospels’ pervasive influence on Western culture, it is only to be expected that critics will frequently see Christian parallels in the acts of well-known characters. Similarly, the most important novels have been considered radical, even dangerous, books, though perhaps none so radical and dangerous in its time as were the Gospels at the time of their writing.

Because of their importance in the school curricula of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and hence in the growth of some forms of the novel, such Roman writers as Virgil, Horace, Plautus, and Terence must also be mentioned. Plautus and Terence, the comic dramatists, gave to European literature a particular character type, the wily slave, versed in the ways of the street, the market, and the noble household and able to outwit anyone he meets—noble, tradesman, or fellow slave. Through the Italian popular drama, this figure made his way throughout the Western Mediterranean countries and into prose fiction of the sixteenth century in the rogue stories of Spain, France, and England. Horace and the other Roman satirists contributed to this same fictional strain by re-creating the milieu of contemporary Rome and peopling it with types of actual citizens. The realistic novel grew out of these satirists’ attention to the things and events of everyday life.

The poetry of Virgil was the most eminent model for the Middle Ages and the Renaissance of the idealization of life through literature. His Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.; English translation, 1553) carried forward the epic tradition from Homer and, in Aeneas, gave Europe a model of heroism in peace and in war. The Arthurian romances of the later Middle Ages take much of their inspiration from the Virgilian hero; the tales of Arthur inspired other chivalric romances (such as Amadis of Gaul, 1508) that brought the Virgilian ideal into the Renaissance, these romances remaining popular into the seventeenth century and even, albeit in different form, today. Virgil was also the primary model of the pastoral strand in fiction and poetry through the Renaissance. His Eclogues (c. 43-37 b.c.e.; also known as Bucolics; English translation, 1575) created Arcadia, an idealized landscape somewhat removed from the turmoil of the city and hospitable to the daylong singing of love songs. In Arcadia, shepherds vie without malice for the love of shepherdesses, regret the coldness of their lovers, and lament the foolish ambitions of city folk, who can never know Arcadian serenity. Based on the Greek myth of the Golden Age and the biblical idea of Eden, this pastoral ideal has exerted great continuing force on the literary imagination, producing among its manifestations the pastoral romances of late sixteenth century England and Spain, the aristocratic love intrigues of seventeenth century France, and the romances and high-society novels that fill the paperback racks in stores today.

The influence of the ancients on both the heroic and the pastoral modes was augmented in the sixteenth century by the rediscovery and translation of the Hellenistic romances (c. 200 b.c.e.) of Longus (Poimenika ta kata Daphin kai Chloen; Daphnis and Chloë, 1587), Heliodorus, and Achilles Tatius. Considered by some critics to be early novels, these long prose tales combined pastoral episodes with violent adventures: wars, shipwrecks, kidnappings by pirates. These books gave European writers an easily imitable format that has proven immensely successful in succeeding centuries.

The Middle Ages to the Renaissance

During the Middle Ages, verse and prose works in the heroic, realistic/satiric, and pastoral modes continued to be written, thus nourishing the soil that produced the long fictions of the Renaissance that modern critics most frequently call the first novels. The dominant heroic form of the early Middle Ages, the lives of Christian saints and martyrs, blended the influences of Vergil with those of the Gospels and the letters of Paul to create a Christian heroic type that would flourish in the later Middle Ages in the epics of Roland, the Cid, and Arthur. The saints’ lives also carried forward the Roman satiric mode, primarily in the form of tricks played by the saints on the always greedy, pompous, pagan soldiers and magistrates. In the later medieval period, such satire was most often directed at corrupt clerics and wealthy burghers, with pranks being pulled on them by such masterful imps as the German Tyll Eulenspiegel. The French fabliaux of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries contain many stories of this type, besides satires in which the trick is a sexual one played by a lusty youth with the wife of a rich, gout-ridden old merchant. Geoffrey Chaucer worked marvelous variations on these themes in The Canterbury Tales (1387-1400), and Giovanni Boccaccio worked the same vein in his Decameron: O, Prencipe Galetto (1349-1351; The Decameron, 1620), both collections providing continuing inspiration for later writers of fiction.

Of incalculable effect on the eventual rise of the intellectual novel, or novel of sensibility, was the introspective devotional literature of the Middle Ages, its greatest example being the Confessiones (397-400; Confessions, 1620) of Saint Augustine. Using autobiographical narrative in the service of ethical and religious speculation, the Confessions, like the greatest novels, grant high dignity and importance to the individual life. The Confessions also brought to Western literature that intimacy of tone and truthfulness of thought and feeling that are the essence of the modern intellectual novel.

The Invention of Movable Type and the Influence of the Humanists

Perhaps the single most important event in the development of the modern novel was Johann Gutenberg’s invention of movable type in 1450. Without the technology to produce thousands of copies, each several hundred pages in length, the novel as it is known today, sprawling in scope of time and place, dependent on a diverse reading public, is inconceivable. In terms of the historical development of the genre, this invention also occasioned the amazing speed with which the influence of major works moved from country to country after about 1500, as works written in one vernacular were translated and made available for other readers only a few years after their first printing. As a result, one sees continual enrichment by foreign sources of the distinctive national traditions.

The clearest example of this multicultural influence is that of the Dutch-born Desiderius Erasmus, whose Moriae encomium (1509; The Praise of Folly, 1941) and Colloquia familiaria (1518) affected satiric fiction throughout Western Europe from as early as the 1530’s. The Praise of Folly raises to the level of Christian type the anticlerical trickster of the Eulenspiegel tales and the fabliaux. Colloquia familiaria, originally intended as a speaking and writing manual for students of Latin, includes clever dialogues and realistic stories that continued to reappear in new garb throughout the century, in such works as those of William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes. The French Humanist François Rabelais was influenced by Erasmus in his writing of the monumental Gargantua et Pantagruel (1532-1564; Gargantua and Pantagruel, 1653-1694, 1929), which was in turn disseminated widely by mid-century. Through the scatological and gluttonous acts, never subtle and frequently grotesque, of his Gargantua, Rabelais attacked the abuses of church, court, and marketplace, his rambling narrative in some ways a precursor of the picaresque novels that would flourish in Spain for close to a century.

A third Humanist and a friend of Erasmus, Sir Thomas More, made his mark on European fiction with De Optimo Reipublicae Statu, deque Nova Insula Utopia (1516; Utopia, 1551). Intended as criticism of the unregulated capitalism of English landowners, Utopia became a fully detailed picture of an ideal monarchy, related as a travel narrative by one Raphael Hythloday. Though an extended work of fiction, Utopia explores ideas rather than characters or events, and it may therefore be regarded as a model of what the novel is not, rather than what it usually has been. Utopia may perhaps be called an example of the pastoral novel, since it presents an idealized society (much nineteenth and twentieth century science fiction fits into this category as well), but it diverges from most pastoral literature, which sees its Arcadia as an escape from worldly affairs rather than an improvement in terms of social planning. True novels in every mode, even the heroic, tend to take a jaded view of human character and interaction. Perhaps part of the definition of the novel is that in it, society is never harmonious.

The Novel in Spain: 1550-1630

Most historians see the Spain of the mid-sixteenth century as the birthplace of the novel, or at least of a form of fiction that they see leading clearly toward the eighteenth century novel of sensibility. The feature that sets these Spanish novels apart from their predecessors is their use of a first-person narrator who relates with unembarrassed candor the degradations of his life. Moreover, this character is a believably real Spaniard of the current time, who vividly depicts the sights, sounds, and, particularly, smells of the actual environment. One way to see this development of the novel is as a combining of the realistic/satiric mode with the confessional mode in Christian devotion, as exemplified by Augustine’s Confessions. However this form is defined, the anonymous author of Lazarillo de Tormes (1554; English translation, 1576), which began this trend, hit upon a formula that changed European fiction and set it on a road it has followed ever since.

Why this phenomenon first occurred in Spain rather than elsewhere in Europe has been much debated. One reason frequently cited involves Spain’s position in the sixteenth century as the most religiously and philosophically conservative nation in Europe, the country under the strongest domination by the Catholic Church and with the most rigid socioeconomic stratification. Whereas in England, for example, the satiric impulse produced visions of reform, such as Utopia and countless manuals for improvement in education and manners, in Spain the satiric eye looked inward and beneath the skins of other humans, to dwell on corruptions of the soul. In this climate, Renaissance Humanism merely deepened the cynicism, because it kept the observer focused on the imperfections of the here and now by denying the medieval choice of seeing this “vale of tears” as a mere steppingstone to eternal glory. Whereas Augustine’s Confessions become a prayer of hope and thanksgiving, Lazarillo de Tormes and the works to follow—including the greatest, Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, 1615)—end with the hero facing death or in a temporary lull before the next, and certain, disaster. What makes this literature comic and compelling is that the narrators are so resigned to the status quo that they can view the grotesque happenings they relate without anxiety; by contrast, the greedy and ambitious in these novels appear funny fools indeed, because they lack the hero’s peace of mind.

In design, Lazarillo de Tormes and its followers retain the episodic structure of the medieval satires and the travel motif—the movement from adventure to adventure— of the Pentateuch, the Odyssey, and the tales of knighthood, but Lazarillo de Tormes departs from this tradition in its exact descriptions of the contemporary milieu and in the confessional candor of the title character. The portraits of Lázaro’s masters, in particular the blind man, the squire, and the pardoner, are precisely drawn; one is convinced of the actuality of these men, even as one understands their function as representatives of several classes of Spanish society. Lázaro’s selfportrait is the most convincing. He describes his experiences so minutely and accepts his sufferings so humbly that there can be no doubt that the reader is being addressed by the same man who has lived these adventures. One does not question, while reading, how the illiterate son of illiterate parents can so casually allude to the classics during his discourse; one merely enjoys his erudition, his practiced blending of formal address with the minutiae of the streets. The allusions, it is assumed, are convenient phrases he has picked up during a lifetime of surviving by his wits and his tongue. Yet herein lies the romantic illusion of the story and perhaps the essence of its charm, both in the sixteenth century and now: Lazarillo de Tormes simultaneously allows the reader to rub elbows with the oppressed, persevering child of poverty and to be comforted that Lázaro’s life of pain does not lead to early death or to a career of villainy, but rather to mental serenity and the material reward of his clever tactics.

Lazarillo de Tormes spawned many imitations; what was fresh at the origins of the Spanish picaresque became, in a period of some seventy-five years, all too predictable. That one could work within the convention created by Lazarillo de Tormes and still produce a novel of stunning coherence and originality is shown, however, by the example of Miguel de Cervantes, whose Don Quixote de la Mancha was the popular rage of its time. To many modern critics, Don Quixote de la Mancha is the first work worthy of being called a true novel. This monumental book, published in two parts ten years apart, was intended by its aging author as a last attempt to gain popular success after a long, futile career as a playwright and pastoralist. He succeeded in fashioning a novel that realized an individual character more profoundly than had anyone since Augustine and that contained the best features of the heroic, pastoral, and realistic/satiric modes. Indeed, one explanation of the novel’s power is that in Don Quixote de la Mancha the heroic, satiric, and pastoral stereotypes collide, destroying the illusions and pretenses of each mode and leaving their essences. This collision occurs because Cervantes sets the aged landowner Quixote, a man who loves and devoutly believes in the heroes of the medieval tales of knighthood, right in the middle of the same Spain—dry, poor, vicious, and self-deluded—through which Lázaro had been swept. Cervantes endows the old man with a crazy dream of becoming a knight-errant, riding off in search of adventures, chances for triumphs won on behalf of his virtuous lady, a creature of his imagination named Dulcinea del Toboso. The mission is heroic, but as a nostalgic dream its form is pastoral, an attempt to escape the sensible, dull, humiliating final years facing this childless, wifeless owner of a few dusty acres and some scrawny livestock. When these diverse modes come together in this way, an amazing thing occurs: Through nine hundred pages, the old man’s dream proves so resilient that a kind of transformation begins to work in the hard-bitten, cynical minds of the other characters. It is not that they come to accept his heroically optimistic perspective on reality, but that they come to appreciate the beautiful alternative his faith and actions offer in an otherwise squalid world.

Indeed, it does not take Cervantes many pages to show the reader that each individual, no matter how he may scoff at the illusions of others, has his own comfortingly false views of the world. This is first demonstrated when the priest and the barber of La Mancha, in a parody of the Inquisition, ferret through Don Quixote’s library to find and burn those books that have warped his mind. Like the local board of motion-picture censors, the more they search, the more excuses they find to save certain chivalric books because of particularly exciting stories or characters. As the novel proceeds, particularly in part 2, Don Quixote becomes a legend in his own time; even the nobility seek him out, supposedly as entertainment but really because they want to verify his faith in order to find something worth believing in themselves.

The sad countercurrent in the novel is that the absurdly cruel lengths to which characters go to test Qui xote’s beliefs eventually wear them out of him. On his deathbed, the old “knight,” who now calls himself by his given name, Alonso Quixano, says that he “abominates” all the books of knight-errantry that once had guided him. Ironically, none of his hearers—who had so earnestly worked to “cure” him throughout the story— wants to hear this. They are all prepared to accompany him on a new adventure, going out to live like shepherds in idyllic pastoral fashion. They try to encourage him back into his delusion; his sudden sanity suggests that he is indeed about to die, and it is this that they cannot tolerate, for his death means the loss of an imaginative force that has dignified all of their lives.

Cervantes adhered to the framework, conventional in both the picaresque novels and the chivalric romances, of the hero’s traveling from place to place, adventure to adventure. He used each episode in this format to refine further the reader’s understanding of Quixote and his strange quest. Like the characters who surround the old man, these episodes test Quixote and define him for the reader. For example, the early episode with the windmills shows Quixote as a grave misinterpreter of reality, but later, when he rejects the attentions of a servant girl at an inn on the basis of his loyalty to Dulcinea, one sees the nobility of character that his new identity includes. Such use of the picaresque format is not primarily satiric, even though the contrast between gentle, fair-minded Quixote and the ignorant, equally self-deluded people he meets is clear enough. The satirist goes after more aggressive evils: thievery, seduction, malfeasance in office; Cervantes depicts primarily good-natured folk who sometimes hurt others unwittingly, or out of a sense of duty (as does Quixote himself), or out of fear, usually brought on by the narrowness of their views. Don Quixote de la Mancha continues to inspire readers because it is easy for them to see themselves in these people. Readers must admit that they would react to the old knight as do his niece, his housekeeper, the priest, and the barber.

The reader is particularly encouraged to identify with Sancho Panza, Quixote’s “squire,” an ever-present barometer of the typical reaction to Quixote of a person of good heart, some imagination, and little selfconfidence— in short, an average person. Critics have argued about who is the more masterful creation, the knight or the squire. Undertaking Quixote’s quest because he naïvely believes the old man’s promise that he will one day receive an island as his reward, Sancho stays with him out of an ever-stronger loyalty and compassion, virtues put to painful test at every encounter, with every blow he receives from angry tradesmen and travelers. When, ironically, he eventually is given governorship of an island—if only as part of a large practical joke—he carries off the tasks of ruling with a clarity of judgment that does not surprise the reader but that could not have been predicted at the outset of the quest. Sancho consistently lets the reader judge how he himself has developed as an interpreter of Don Quixote; Sancho Panza’s presence is a principal reason for the novel’s remarkable coherence and momentum through its many diverse episodes.


The Novel in France: 1600-1740

That the early histories of the novel in Spain, France, and England are largely independent phenomena is exemplified by the failure of Don Quixote de la Mancha to attract a wide readership in England and France for many decades. In England, Don Quixote de la Mancha was “discovered” in the eighteenth century and became an influential work. The most successful French writers of the period from 1600 to 1740, working in a very different fictional tradition in a very different social and philosophical climate, were not at all influenced by this book, though Cervantes and the other picaresque writers did have disciples among the few French satirists and realists of the age.

Aspects of the chivalric romances, particularly their aristocratic heroes and exotic settings, held the French imagination during much of this period. French writers of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries modified the tradition in two important ways, however. First, the violence of the books of knight-errantry was subdued, replaced by greater emphasis on verbal combats conducted under strict rules of manners and decorum; second, the heroic ideal became more and more modified by the pastoral, with its focus on coy debates between lovers. Writers seized on the heroic/pastoral models provided by the rediscovered Greek romances and on more recent pastorals, such as those of the Spanish Jorge de Montemayor (Los siete libros de la Diana, 1559; Diana, 1598) and the Italians Jacopo Sannazaro and Giovanni Guarini. This literary movement in France was led by a powerful coterie of women within the court of Henry IV, its influence partly explained by a general desire throughout France for a literature of escape from the religious and political upheaval of the preceding half century.

One of the most popular works of this period, indeed throughout the seventeenth century, was Honoré d’Urfé’s L’Astrée (1607-1628; Astrea, 1657-1658), its five volumes exploring countless varieties of love conflict and presenting for each a series of Platonic speeches by the impeccably mannered lovers. Set in the fifth century in a society of shepherds and nymphs, the novel is a thinly veiled portrait of an idealized seventeenth century French aristocracy. So popular was d’Urfé’s work that members of the court, and many other aristocratic and bourgeois readers as well, strove to emulate the language and sentiments of Celadon, Astrea, and the many other characters. The course of the novel in France for the next fifty years was set by Astrea, as the Marquise de Rambouillet and the other members of literary high society cultivated imitators of d’Urfé.

If the French novel can be said to have developed in this period, it did so by gradually abandoning the pastoral idyll and returning to the more martial heroism of the chivalric tradition. The best-known exemplar of this shift is Madeleine de Scudéry, herself the leader of a literary salon and the author of Artamène: Ou, Le Grand Cyrus (1649-1653; Artamenes: Or, The Grand Cyrus, 1653-1655) and Clélie (1654-1660; Clelia, 1656-1661). Critics of the time applauded Artamenes for the greater verisimilitude of its pseudohistorical setting in ancient Greece and Persia, though her work was at an idealistic extreme from the earthy realism of the Spanish picaresque. The main concern of Scudéry’s fiction is still the verbal intrigues of courtship, no longer of shepherds but of warlike heroes and elegant heroines. Within the episodic design of these novels, each encounter is an occasion for speeches and letters on the vagaries of passion. Another attraction of these novels for their readers was the similarity in description between the characters and actual members of the French court, with readers vying to unmask the “real” identities of Scudéry’s figures.

The d’Urfé-Scudéry convention in France was not without its antagonists. Parallel to this trend, but beyond the pale, was a realistic/satiric school based on the medieval fabliaux, the gross satires of Rabelais, translations of the picaresques, and translations of violent tales of love intrigue written by the Italian Matteo Bandello in the sixteenth century. Actually, d’Urfé himself had contributed to this school by including within Astrea a cynical shepherd, Hylas, purportedly based on the author’s view of himself. The first seventeenth century novelist to build a work around such a character was Prudent Gautier, whose Mort d’Amour (1616) mocked Astrea by making this same Hylas a seducer/hero; his love affair with Jeanneton, a real shepherdess, is grossly and realistically portrayed. Following Gautier in this satiric mode was Charles Sorel, an important critic as well as a boldly experimental novelist. His Histoire comique de Francion (1623, 1632; The Comical History of Francion, 1655) and Le Berger extravagant: Ou, L’Antiroman (1627; The Extravagant Shepherd, 1653) undercut the pretenses of the pastoral and no doubt hastened its downfall. The Comical History of Francion replaces the usual idealized setting with an actual countryside and also leads the reader, in picaresque fashion, through the French counterparts of the criminal districts described by Alemán. Instead of idealized aristocrats, Sorel peoples the book with accurately drawn bourgeois characters, petty nobility, and criminals. The Extravagant Shepherd attacks the pastoral by creating a Quixote-like figure, Lysis, a real shepherd, who fills his head with pastoral literature and wants his environment to conform to that of the books. The satire works by showing the impossibility of Lysis’s task: Real life is simply not a pastoral. The flaw of Sorel’s novel is that the contrivances of satire defeat the sympathetic intent, so the novel appears even more artificial than the convention Sorel is attacking. Ironically, this is the very flaw with which Sorel had charged Cervantes.

The most successful of the attacks on the mainstream French novel of this time was Le Roman comique (1651, 1657; English translation, 1651, 1657; also known as The Comical Romance, 1665), by the novelist and playwright Paul Scarron. His satire was more technical than thematic, directed against the ponderous descriptions of scenery and clothing in the pastorals and heroics, as well as their seemingly endless rhetorical displays. He practiced what he preached, for The Comical Romance is re markably economical, but effective, in its descriptions and conversations. The book also succeeds as realistic fiction because, in the spirit of Cervantes, Scarron is not making fun of the provincial townspeople he presents but is merely trying to recount as accurately as possible their interactions, often ludicrous, with the troupe of actors who are the focus of the story. The book is so authentic, its comedy so natural, that historians have found it a trustworthy guide to the organization and ambience of actual troupes of the time of Molière. Scarron could achieve this because he was writing out of his experience, rather than out of his fantasies or to emulate a fashion. His dramatic background, particularly the demands of playwriting, also contributed to his ability to economize in prose, to suggest much about personality through salient rather than profuse description.

Where Scarron described people and places in the region surrounding Le Mans, another novelist, Antoine Furetière, contributed to the realistic movement by describing the manners and mores of Paris in his Roman bourgeois (1666; City Romance, 1671). A Parisian by birth, Furetière depicted a small segment of the capital’s middle class, his plot centered on the love affairs of a young coquette, Lucrece, infatuated with the nobility, and of an ingenue, Javotte. Furetière’s satire of the Scudéry school is implied in the contrast between Lucrece’s expectations of noble behavior and what actually befalls her; nevertheless, as with Scarron, Furetière’s intent is not really to attack mainstream fiction but to tell his story as accurately as he can. What keeps City Romance from reaching its novelistic potential is a somewhat disjointed second part, a series of Parisian anecdotes in which the unity of the Lucrece story is lost.

The pressure on the heroic novel exerted by Sorel and the realists produced a critical desire in the 1660’s for a new kind of novel. The new form would abandon the exotic foreign settings and the rigidly Platonic love stories of the Scudéry novels, while staying clear of the merely entertaining, but morally uninstructive (it was thought), stories of the realists. French settings, recognizably French characters, and plots that would encourage the reader’s respect for sound moral judgment were required. Such a novel appeared in 1678—Madame de La Fayette’s La Princesse de Clèves (1678; The Princess of Clèves, 1679), which some critics see as not only the ideal novel for its time but also the first novel of sensibility— some sixty years before Richardson’s. Its plot is extremely simple, especially in comparison to the involved tapestries of the heroics; its events are roughly based on French history, while its characters, particularly the heroine and her husband, exhibit believable psychologies, although some critics have been hard put to swallow their almost superhuman ability to reason and act logically.

In outline, the heroine, wife of a nobleman, confesses to her husband that she is in love with another man. Admirably, he sympathizes and thanks her for her candor, though his sympathy is greatly tested when the lover clearly shows himself to be a seducer, totally unworthy of the heroine’s love. The tension of the novel lies in the struggle of the husband to overcome jealousy and of the wife to withstand her reckless passion. The ending is tragically ironic: The Prince of Clèves is dying, convinced that his wife has yielded to the seducer; gratefully, he hears the truth just before his death. The tragedy convinces the wife of her grave error and steels her to reject the lover.

Though this novel turned out to be exactly what the critical temper demanded, The Princess of Clèves was revolutionary in a number of ways. Unlike the heroic, pastoral, or satiric novels, it was not organized episodically on the resilient model of the chivalric romances. Instead, its focus on a single issue harked back to the short Italian novelle of Bandello and even further back to the fabliaux. The fabliaux also provided the stereotype of the adulterous wife, against which The Princess of Clèves works. This is actually the book’s greatest coup; it asserted two unorthodox hypotheses: one, that a husband could realize that his wife did not love him yet could keep his reason and his dignity, and two, that a wife would dare confide her adulterous desires to her husband. These hypotheses were a strain under which no earlier French writer had dared place his or her characters; La Fayette both dared and succeeded, the spiritual and mental strength of her characters allowing them to perform these highly unorthodox moral feats.

The Princess of Clèves produced numerous imitators over the next few decades. Aby-product of La Fayette’s success was heightened interest in French history; native settings became the vogue. Imitators of La Fayette did not, however, satisfy the public’s undying interest in the grand deeds and noble sentiments of heroes; thus, a new hybrid emerged, the autobiographical novel, which combined history (and quasi history), valorous deeds, a dose of satire from the realist school, and exciting heroes, blends of the Spanish picaro and the psychologically more interesting figures popularized by La Fayette. Noteworthy among these novels are Les Mémoires de M. d’Artagnan (1700), by Gatien de Courtilz de Sandras; Les Mémoires du Comte de Grammont (1713), by Anthony Hamilton; and the greatest of this type, Histoire de Gil Blas de Santillane (1715-1735; The History of Gil Blas of Santillane, 1716, 1735; better known as Gil Blas, 1749, 1962), by Alain-René Lesage.

Gil Blas, the work of a deliberate satirist and a fine novelist, accomplished what none of the picaresques or the works of the seventeenth century French realists had: a consistently comic novel of manners in every level of society, as well as a moving study of an individual. Though at times Lesage the satirist strives for comic effects at the expense of Gil’s development, not since Don Quixote de la Mancha had a novel balanced so many characters and intercalated stories without losing sight of their purpose—to illuminate the central figure. That figure, Gil Blas, is the consummate rogue, and the succeeding stories, set in Spain, show how he learns from his mistakes to grow ever more adept at disguises and verbal ploys. Still, he is not a mere time waster; time and again he puts the interests of others before his own, sometimes leading to disasters for himself. Aware of this tendency in his character, Gil is puzzled because he judges himself a thoroughly worthless fellow. This paradox is one of the book’s brightest attractions; frequently victimized, misunderstood, and punished for the evils of smoother hypocrites, Gil is a most sympathetic character.

A more somber, deterministic philosophy pervades the work of the next notable autobiographical writer to follow Lesage. Abbé Prévost, whose eminence spanned three decades beginning in 1730, brought to the French novel the dark foreboding of Jean Racine’s tragic style and his own Calvinist theology. In his early The English Philosopher: Or, History of Monsieur Cleveland (1742), Prévost’s hero seems fated to be betrayed and well-nigh destroyed by his violent passions and those of others. The only hedge against passion in this system is reason, which means for Prévost a disciplined detachment and a universal acceptance of Calvinist social principles. The effect of this program on the novel is inevitable: Characterization and plot are manipulated to prove Prévost’s thesis, and the pace of the story is painfully slowed by lengthy moralizing discourses. For the sake of his point, Prévost even transports Cleveland to America, so that his hero can make a rationalistic society out of a recalcitrant, but finally malleable, tribe of savages. Nevertheless, Prévost is a worthy successor to La Fayette and Lesage; his Cleveland is a forthcoming, personable narrator, intellectually interesting if not a man of real sensibility. In his post-1740 works, especially the novellalength Manon Lescaut (1786), his masterpiece, Prévost develops his compelling characters according to the logic of their interactions rather than according to his philosophy; thus, they are characters of sensibility, not mere intellectuals.

In two regrettably unfinished novels of Prévost’s contemporary Marivaux, the reader encounters an author’s commitment to his character’s integrity that equals that of Cervantes. The first, La Vie de Marianne (1731- 1741), its initial part published nine years before Richardson’s Pamela, is a collection of letters purportedly by an aging gentlewoman reflectively describing her adventurous life. The second novel The Fortunate Peasant (1735), presents Jacob, a sharpwitted peasant, who rises to economic and social success not by roguish ruses but by the marvelous understanding of the desires and temperaments of others, especially women.

One of the ironies of the history of the novel is that The Life of Marianne, although it has influenced many novelists in France and England for two centuries, was not popular in its time.Amajor reason for this fact is that the qualities that make this novel great were not popularly or critically acceptable in the 1730’s. Still tied to the status quo, the French would not accept the rise of an orphan girl (though an orphan, as it turns out, of noble birth) through her intelligence and self-assertion. Indeed, some critics have attributed Marivaux’s failure to complete this voluminous novel to his fear of drawing it to its logical conclusion: Marianne’s achievement of a secure place in the upper rank of society without having relied on her family connections. Another reason for Marivaux’s unpopularity with both critics and the reader may have been that he was as experimental in style as he was in theme; he strained the patience of readers by having his characters exhaustively analyze events from every angle and by having them play with words, coining new ones and giving old ones unaccustomed shades of meaning. As a consequence of this practice, the somewhat pejorative term marivaudage entered the literary vocabulary.

Aside from the revolutionary conception of Marianne’s character, what makes this book a landmark in the history of fiction is Marivaux’s philosophy of the novel, as expressed in his preface.

Marianne has no form of a work present in her thoughts. This is not an author, it is a woman who thinks. . . . It is neither, if you wish, the tone of the novel, nor that of history, but it is her own.

Marivaux warns the reader not to expect the typical chain of events, as if the novel were embodied in plot, but to be prepared to enter into the wonderful complex of Marianne’s feelings, her analysis of those feelings, and her subsequent actions.

This emphasis on thought does not make the book a philosophical treatise, like Prévost’s The Life and Entertaining Adventures of Mr. Cleveland; rather, it makes The Life of Marianne precisely what it says it is, the intimate letters of a thoughtful, sensitive woman trying to understand who she has been, who she is now, and how she relates to the worlds through which she has moved. This focus on thought, however, does not keep the novel from also being vividly precise in its descriptions of people and situations. It is a superb novel of manners, neither caricatured nor idealized. Marivaux thus became an important model for Honoré de Balzac and the other realists of the nineteenth century.

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Curtius, Ernst Robert. European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages. Translated by Willard R. Trask. New York: Pantheon Books, 1953.
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Gutiérrez, Helen Turner. The Reception of the Picaresque in the French, English, and German Traditions. New York: Peter Lang, 1995.
Jensen, Katherine Ann. Writing Love: Letters, Women, and the Novel in France, 1605-1776. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1995.
Kay, Sarah, Terence Cave, and Malcolm Bowie. A Short History of French Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Mander, Jenny, ed. Remapping the Rise of the European Novel. Oxford, England: Voltaire Foundation, 2007.
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Williams, Ioan. The Idea of the Novel in Europe, 1600- 1800. New York: New York University Press, 1979.


Categories: European Literature, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Novel Analysis

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  1. Thank you dear . I was searching for such article and you share this. It’s very useful 👌

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