According to Julien D. Bonn in A Comprehensive Dictionary of Literature, a novel is a ‘long fictional narrative in prose, which developed from the novella and other early forms of narrative.’ Additionally, E.M. Forster in attempting to the define the term ‘novel’ in Aspects of the Novel cites the definition of a Frenchman named Abel Chevally; ‘a fiction in prose of a certain extent’ and adds that he defines ‘extent’ as over 50,000 words. The novel tends to depict imaginary characters and situations but may include references to real places, people and events. Even though its characters and actions are imaginary, they are in some sense representative of real life. The emergence of the novel in its recognizably modern form, unlike the emergence of drama and poetry, can be traced back to Europe in the 18th century.
The various factors that gave rise to the novel in English, which are more or less interrelated, include the rise of literacy, the explosion of the printing culture as well as the rise of individualism. One factor that gave rise to the novel in English was the rise of literacy. The novel emerged as a fully evolved literary form in the mid-eighteenth century in Samuel Richardson’s ‘Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded. A novel is usually organized under a plot of theme with a focus on character development and action. The novel is a young genre, a tiny infant indeed in comparison to poetry and drama, both of which seems to be as old as humanity. The educational system was not influenced significantly by the scientific revolution prior to the Enlightenment.
Through the scientific revolution a great deal of traditional views at that time such as superstition and religion were broken down. Scientific facts and reasoning were now held at high esteem and great focus was placed on these two concepts. Philosophers such as John Locke went on to postulate that knowledge is obtained through sensation and reflection. This postulation was the basis of Locke’s theory that everyone has the same capacity of sensation, and education should not be restricted to a certain class or gender. Prior to the 17th and 18th century, literacy was generally restricted to males who belonged to the categories of nobles, mercantile, and professional classes but with the development of the education system, education was now provided to all classes.
The literacy rate in Europe from the 17th century to the 18th century grew significantly. With the rise in literacy there was now a public demand for the novel. There were changes in the public cultural institutions, such as libraries and museums. The public libraries were now funded by the state and were accessible to everyone for free. Prior to the Enlightenment, libraries in Europe were restricted mostly to academies, aristocratic and private owners. During the 18th century, the price of books were too high for the average person, especially the most popular works such as an encyclopedias. Therefore, the public libraries offered commoners a chance of reading literates that could only be afforded by the wealthier classes. Thus the average, run of the mill individual who felt that need to put their thoughts to paper did exactly that and could do so effectively because of their educational exposure.
Another factor that gave rise to the novel in English was the explosion of the printing culture. The modern novel is said to be the child of the printing press which is strongly connected to the rise in literacy. The number of books being published in the period of Enlightenment increased dramatically due to the increase in literacy rate and the increase in demand for books. Now that more people were literate, more people wished to write. Yet, prior to the inception of the printing press, writers would have to literally write their texts by hand. This proved to be very monotonous and discouraged many writers from penning books. However, the explosion of the print culture in the 18th century was both the result and cause of the increase in literacy.
The number of books being published in the period of Enlightenment increased dramatically due to the increase in literacy rate and the increase in demand for books. There was a shift in interest in the categories of books, in the 17th century, religious books had comprised around half of all books published. However, throughout the century, the percentage of traditional genres such as religion has dropped to one-tenth by 1790 and there was an increase in popularity for the almanacs.
Yet another factor that gave rise to the novel in English was the rise in individualism. Individualism is one of the cornerstones of the Enlightenment. It is a philosophy stressing the recognition of every person as a valuable individual with inalienable, inborn rights. Individualism highlighted man’s ability to reason, to look past the traditions and conventions that had dominated Europe in the past, and to make decisions for himself.
Moreover, these ideas represented the separation and autonomy of man’s intellect from God—a development that opened the door to new discoveries and ideas and threatened the most powerful of Europe’s long-standing institutions. People were now writing about other people who were just like them.