novel: The Nineteenth Century

The novel became the dominant form of Western literature in the 19th cent., which produced many works that are considered milestones in the development of the form.

In Britain, Sir Walter Scott's Waverley (1814), about the 1745 Jacobite uprising in support of Charles Edward Stuart, inaugurated the historical novel. Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (1813) and Emma (1816), contemplating and satirizing life among a small group of country gentry in Regency England, initiated the highly structured and polished novel of manners. A variant with a wider scope is William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair (1847–48), which dissects and satirizes London society.

The serialization of novels in various periodicals brought the form an ever-expanding audience. Particularly popular were the works of Charles Dickens, including Oliver Twist (1839) and David Copperfield (1850). Readers were drawn by Dickens's sympathetic, melodramatic, and humorous delineation of a world peopled with characters of all social classes, and by his condemnation of various social abuses. Further portraits of English society appear in Anthony Trollope's Barsetshire novels, which scrutinize clerical life in a small, rural town, and George Eliot's Silas Marner (1861) and Middlemarch (1871–72), which treat the lives of ordinary people in provincial towns with humanity and a strong moral sense. George Meredith's Ordeal of Richard Feverel (1859) and The Egoist (1879) are analytical tragicomedies set in high social circles. The conflict between man and nature is stressed in Thomas Hardy's Return of the Native (1878) and Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1891).

Although the great English novels of the 19th cent. were predominantly realistic, novels of fantasy and romance formed a literary undercurrent. Early in the century Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) explores a tale of horror. Later, Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847) and Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights (1847) each present imaginative, passionate visions of human love. Robert Louis Stevenson revived the adventure tale and the horror story in Treasure Island (1883) and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886). At the beginning of the 20th cent., horror and adventure were combined in the novels of Joseph Conrad, notably Lord Jim (1900) and Heart of Darkness (1902), both works achieving high levels of stylistic and psychological sophistication.

Major 19th-century French writers also produced novels in the romantic and realistic traditions. Romance can be found in Alexandre Dumas's Three Musketeers (1844) and Victor Hugo's Les Misérables (1844), both of which are melodramatic and swashbuckling, terrifying and poignant. Honoré de Balzac's Human Comedy (1829–47), on the other hand, is a series of novels that offer a realistic, if cynical, panorama of life in Paris and the provinces.

Stendhal mixes realism with romance in The Red and the Black (1831) and The Charterhouse of Parma (1839). Both works are psychological studies in which characters confront reality by behaving melodramatically. Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary (1857) is perhaps the first novel in which the author was primarily concerned about his work as a literary form and consciously distances himself from his characters. The result is a carefully crafted study of a banal love tragedy in which the heroine, like Don Quixote, cannot reconcile her romantic dreams with ordinary reality.

In the 19th cent. Russian novelists quickly gained world reputations for their powerful statements of human and cosmic problems. If Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace (1865–69) is a God-centered novel, Feodor Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment (1866) can be considered a God-haunted one.

American novels in the 19th cent. were explicitly referred to as romances. James Fenimore Cooper's historical novel The Last of the Mohicans (1826), Nathaniel Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter (1850), and Herman Melville's Moby-Dick (1851)—the latter two heavily allegorical and containing supernatural elements—properly belong in this category. In the last decades of the century, however, a shift toward realism occurred. Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1883), a revival of the picaresque novel, is romantic in its Mississippi River setting but realistic in its satirical attack on religious hypocrisy and racial persecution.

By the end of the century Henry James had brought his moral vision and powers of psychological observation to the novel in numerous works, including The Portrait of a Lady (1881), The Spoils of Poynton (1897), and The Ambassadors (1903). These novels are not only masterpieces of realism but also—in their carefully crafted form, experimental point of view, and superb style—supreme examples of the novel as a literary genre. A lesser figure, William Dean Howells, realistically portrayed a marriage and divorce in A Modern Instance (1882) and the newly rich classes in The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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