Ian Watt: The Rise of the Novel

[Readings] (08.08.08, 10:15 pm)


Ian Watt looks at novels around the period of time that the novel began to emerge as a literary form. He discusses several exemplary works by some of the original novel writers, and uses those to make various arguments about the qualities of the new medium. The most unusual characteristic of the novel in comparison to other literary forms was the quality of realism in the sense of social realism, as well as in the depth of description that novels contain.


Watt opens the book with a peculiar question: Is the novel a new literary form? This is very relevant from the perspective of new media. Watt specifically examines Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding. (p. 9) The new feature of the novel is realism, which stems from French realists (Flaubert). Realism is the antonym of idealism. “The novel’s realism does not reside in the kind of life it presents, but in the way it presents it.” Correspondence of work with world it imitates, this is an epistemological problem. (p. 11) The novel rejects universals, and focuses on the particular. This is especially of use in distinguishing it from epic or mythic works (NOTE: many games and genre novels do rely on universals, there is a point of conflict here.) The novel is also unusual in fidelity of representing human experience. (p. 12) During the time of the novel’s rise, there is was a growing tendency for individual experience to trump collective tradition. (p. 14) Identity exists through time and contains past thought and action. Past experience cages present action. (p. 22) Time is seen in novels as a variable, flexible, interruptible unit. (p. 26) This collection of changes stems from a great deal of social and philosophical changes, and the rise of the novel could be seen as merely a reflection of these changes. (Much like new media relates to social and technological changes)

Novels, leisure time, and sex. Reading was seen primarily as a feminine pursuit, but this was generally restricted to upper classes. Gradually, the working class became more able to afford books (in terms of literacy, leisure time, and available income). Women generally had more leisure time, even among lower classes and incomes, so they tended to be major purchasers of books. (p. 43) The changing base of readers changed the desires of general readership. Reading seems to begin as a religious activity, and then passes to secular interests. (p. 50) There was some looking down on novels and their writers as having no talent (or genius) that the writers were only out to get money. New novels grew while unaware of literary tradition. (p. 58)

Watt discusses Robinson Crusoe, and how it relates to individualism and capitalism, which were contemporary trends. This is manifest in the novel’s setting, rendering a world with the value system of the new order. (p. 65) Defoe’s world is set back chronologically, but deals with contemporary theory. (p. 72)

Discussing Moll Flanders, subjects of writing are anti-heroes, presenting lower class citizens as ordinary people. The subject matter of the novel changes to the lower class. (p. 94) This novel is an adventure story, focuses on action, but the subject is the protagonist’s character (in sense of Goffman). Action is seen to evidence character, but is not the end goal, as is the case in dramatic narratives. (p. 109)

On ‘Pamela’, Early narrative focuses on idealization of love, so story is about knight’s adventure rather than actual relationship. With realism and mass interest, a broader spectrum emerges, shifting focus to human relationships themselves. (p. 136) There is a complex interplay between individualism and capitalism and marriage. Social conditions deny women individualism and economic power. Marriage becomes expensive as it turns women into trade goods. Marriage was seen as a ‘market’ and its expensive nature led to many extra-marital relationships. (p. 143) Emphasis in narrative changes to domestic setting, variation in extended roles and relationships between social classes. (p. 154) Pamela concludes with traditional marriage and middle class sexual ethics. The puritan ritual bridges the ideal and real, sine the relationship is idealized within the realistic setting. Pamela does not wholly embrace the real, but presents a confused struggle between the ideal and real. (p. 167)

Sentimentalism arises in novel form: Novels do make people cry. This is not because of realness of character, but because of private experience (p. 175) Around the rise of the novel, private space became more commonplace (whereas life used to be much less private in previous eras). Spaces and means of interaction changed. Privacy afforded by suburbia (in terms of areas outside of the city) and letter writing. Privacy, especially a room of one’s own (Woolf) was requirement for women’s emancipation. (p. 188) The novel enables the representation of private affairs that were impossible to discuss openly. Provides an intimate account with characters, and brings the reader into the deepest private concerns. (p. 199) The paradox of private life and the novel: the process of urbanization lead to a way of life more secluded and less social than before, but enables a literary form that was more concerned with private life than ever possible. What are paradoxes of other media and social experience? (p. 206)

According to Watt, Clarissa reflects the maturity of the medium of the Novel. Why? Complication of simple matter and expansion of characters. The implausible and didactic aspects of plot are brought into larger dramatic pattern and form of complexity. “It is this capacity for a continuous enrichment and complication of a simple situation which makes Richardson the great novelist that he is; and it shows, too, that the novel had at last attained literary maturity, with formal resources capable not only of supporting the tremendous imaginative expansion which Richardson gave his theme, but also leading him away from the flat didacticism of his critical preconceptions into so profound a penetration of his characters that their experience partakes of the terrifying ambiguity of human life itself.” (p. 238)

Fielding borrows from epic form. References, but does not actually employ it. Does not use form, but evokes it, alludes to high standards. Part of evoking nostalgia from other great works. (Maybe ref Jane Austen Book Club?) (p. 259)

In later tradition of novels: Psychological distance and authenticity. Austen uses this and juxtaposition. Austen is the successful solution to Richardson and Fielding. “Jane Austen’s novels, in short, must be seen as the most successful solutions of the two general narrative problems for which Richardson and Fielding had provided only partial answers. She was able to combine into a harmonious unity the advantages of both realism of presentation and realism of assessment, of the internal and the external approaches to character; her novels have authenticity without diffuseness or trickery, wisdom of social comment without a garrulous essayist, and a sense of the social order which is not achieved at the expense of the individuality and autonomy of the characters.” (p. 297)

Reading Info:
Author/EditorWatt, Ian
TitleThe Rise of the Novel
ContextRelevant to understanding the historical context of the novel, and comparing that with the use of adaptation
Tagsspecials, media theory, narrative
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

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