Dan Sandman

16: The Rise of the Novel by Ian Watt

In Books, Literature, Non-Fiction on 17/04/2015 at 12:00 pm

The Rise of the Novel by Ian WattDaniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding contributed significantly to the evolution of novel, the most popular form of prose writing. According to Professor Ian Watt, the rise of the novel is related to many significant social and religious changes that occurred during the eighteenth century; namely, the increase in literacy and the move towards individualism. In this brilliant and convincing book, Professor Watt uses eighteenth century sources, refers to sociological and philosophical thinkers such as Plato and Durkheim, and draws on his extensive knowledge of European literature. The result is an academic and entertaining study, which has engaged readers ever since its publication in 1957.

When Daniel Defoe was writing Robinson Crusoe (1719), the industrial revolution and the protestant work ethic helped to create a more individualist society where a man’s relationships could be seen as a series of financial transactions. As Watt makes very clear, the rise of capitalism, with its emphasis on individualism, is connected to the rise of the novel. In both Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders (1722), Defoe focused on the ways in which his characters related to a developing capitalist society. In order to portray the relationship between people and money, Defoe evolved a realistic storytelling form which stressed his characters’ actions within merchant (Robinson Crusoe) and urban (Moll Flanders) environments, a method which immediately struck a chord with an increasingly less courtly readership.

Later in the development of the novel, Samuel Richardson started to explore the inner worlds of his characters, most famously in his seminal work Pamela; or Virtue Renewed (1740). As the subtitle to this love story suggests, Richardson developed the novel form whilst exploring his own puritan religious beliefs; moralizing, to a largely female audience, about the dangers of having sex outside of the marital bed. But what might have begun as a preachy book designed to help woman with their letter writing skills, ended up becoming the first essentially realistic portrayal of a fictionally created world. The epistolary technique (composing a series of letters to tell a story), that Richardson developed alongside his skills as a printer, was expanded upon eight years later, when he published perhaps the longest book in English literature Clarissa (1748).

One million words, of which I will probably never finish.


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