Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding," written by Ian Watt.
THE RISE OF THE NOVEL
The novel is in nothing so characteristic of our culture as in the way that it reflects this characteristic orientation of modern thought" (Watt 22). This is how Watt defines the novel that he discusses and picks apart in his book. Watt wrote this book in 1957, after studying the 18th century novel for many years. He feels the writing of the three authors he discusses, Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, and Henry Fielding, was influenced by broad changes in their society. To make his point, he says, "Defoe, Richardson and Fielding were no doubt affected by the changes in the reading public of their time; but their works are surely more profoundly conditioned by the new climate of social and moral experience which they and their eighteenth-century readers shared" (Watt 7).
This is an interesting thought, but it makes the reader wonder why later and even more significant "social and moral experiences" did not influence the novel even more. What about the period after the industrial revolution, which changed the world forever? Were later novels grittier and even more realistic than the novels of the 18th century? On the other hand, did we revert to romanticism during the Victorian era? Watt does not discuss these issues, but the book made me want to do more research, and discover what other writers thought about later influences in novel writing.
As one critic points out about Watt's rather rigid definition, "When he has finished, we know that there were no novels written in seventeenth-century France. By definition. If you look at the new definition in detail, you will discover that there were never any novels written in Russia, either, and that there have been very few written anywhere since the end of the Nineteenth Century" (Just).
He also believes that these three authors in effect created the novel as a "new literary form." He says the term "novel" did not come into use until the end of the eighteenth century, and that before these three authors wrote this new fiction form, most fiction was romantic in nature. These new novelists however, steeped their stories in realism, and were more representative of the current state of English society.
If the novel were realistic merely because it saw life from the seamy side, it would only be an inverted romance; but in fact it surely attempts to portray all the varieties of human experience, and not merely those suited to one particular literary perspective: the novel's realism does not reside in the kind of life it presents, but in the way it presents it" (Watt 11).
Therefore, Watt thinks one of the main tenants of the modern novel is realism, and how the authors portray it. Critics often call "Don Quixote" a romance, but I found it more of a comedy, with satire and tongue in cheek throughout. While the Don's tilting at windmills may not be realistic, the reality of Sancho Panza's devotion, and the scorn of the other villagers toward Don Quixote is certainly real, and representative of the true nature of man, both good and bad. What could be more real?
His madness is sometimes ridiculous, and in the end, his devotion to his cause, no matter how pathetic, wins over his critics. Of course, the novel ends happily, but it portrays people as they really are...slightly mad, critical, and some overly devoted to a cause.
Another critic writes, "Some of the earliest prose narratives that can be called novels, were picaresque novels, episodic tales like Cervantes "Don Quixote." Realistic in manner, episodic in structure and satiric in aim, it deflates the idea of chivalric romance through satire" (Johnson).
Another of Watt's arguments about the rise of the novel is that 18th century society had more time to read than ever before, and so the popularity of the novel grew. He says many women did not work in their homes, some were actually forbidden by their husbands to do manual labor, and so they had much more time to devote to reading. "The old household duties of spinning and weaving, making bread, beer, candles and soap, and many others, were no longer necessary, since most necessities were now manufactured and could be bought at shops and markets" (Watt 44).
He notes that Defoe was aware of these societal changes, and used them to his advantage in "Robinson Caruso." He says, "Defoe was certainly aware of how the increasing economic specialisation which was a feature of the life of his time had made most of the 'mechanic arts' alien to the experience of his readers" (Watt 72). Defoe goes on to describe the baking of a loaf of bread for seven pages, something that Watt feels would have been unnecessary just a few decades before, when most households would have been more than familiar with the process.
Clearly, he is referring now to the upper classes, and not the more uneducated lower classes, who were still working from sunup to sundown, and had little extra time for anything other than work and taking care of their families. He makes this distinction in the book, even going as far as to say that the lower classes did not have enough light to read, as their only "leisure" time was at night. He says poor light from candles was not enough to read by, even if they were educated enough to read, and most of the lower classes had little or no education.
He does cite one major exception to this class distinction, "There were, however, two large and important groups of relatively poor people who probably did have time and opportunity to read -- apprentices and household servants, especially the latter. They would normally have leisure and light to read by; there would often be books in the house; if there were not, since they did not have to pay for their food and lodging, their wages and vails could be devoted to buying them if they chose; and they were, as ever, peculiarly liable to be contaminated by the example of their betters" (Watt 47).
Therefore, Watt attributes some of the rise in popularity of the novel to a new way of life, where more people had money and leisure time to fill. He believes these people were reading for "pleasure and relaxation," and less to be informed, or for their religious beliefs. This can also account for a rising popularity of the novel, since novels have long been regarded as a type of escapist fiction, no matter when they were written.
Watt also finds a major difference in the way the writers handled love in this new genre. "The values of courtly love could not be combined with those of marriage until marriage was primarily the result of a free choice by the individuals concerned" (Watt 138). While he does not feel Defoe handles love at all, Richardson does, and this is one of the things that Watt feels makes "Pamela" a new genre. Richardson portrays love realistically, including the day-to-day problems real people in love face, rather than just as a romantic notion of "perfect" love.
Watt feels that while the production of novels increased during the 18th century, by the end of the century, their quality had not increased nearly as much as their numbers. "With only a few exceptions the fiction of the last half of the eighteenth century...had little intrinsic merit; and much of it reveals only too plainly the pressures towards literary degradation which were exerted by the booksellers and circulating library operators in their efforts to meet the reading public's uncritical demand for easy vicarious indulgence in sentiment and romance" (Watt 290).