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Themes of the novel.

The basic theme of the eighteenth-century novel was the central character's search for a rightful and comfortable place in society. Frequently the plot involved finding one's true parentage or making the right marriage--two great determiners of social class in eighteenth-century England.

Since the novel's early contention was that it contained a true account of actual events, the narration was frequently realized in authentic-seeming forms such as confessions, diaries or letters, again all reflections of the novel's roots in these forms. The early novelist Defoe used the personal confession, an account in the character's own voice of his or her own experiences. Richardson was able to achieve a more complex effect by creating letters supposedly written by several characters in which each tells his or her own version of events. Henry Fielding, more rooted in classical literature, made for himself a role as the all-wise narrator in imitation of epic narrations. Combinations of and variations on these techniques became widely used; each style had the advantage of intimacy with or distance from the psychological state of the individual character. The point of view from which the story was told helped determine its impact. That is, the character telling his or her own recent experience can plausibly give a much more minute and emotional account than a judicious but remote narrator who can only set out to narrate in his or her own terms the various circumstances of a range of other characters.

Daniel Defoe (1660-1731)

It is debatable who was the first English novelist, but most literary historians have settled on Defoe. Defoe came from a family of shopkeepers and religious Dissenters, and many critics see the commercial and moral values of that class reflected in his fiction. Defoe also worked as a political journalist and pamphleteer; he was an enterprising, though not always successful, businessman, and he described in his An Essay Upon Projects (1697) solutions for a number of practical social problems.

Defoe came to novel writing late in life. At fifty-nine he read a first-hand account by a seaman who had been stranded alone on a desert island. Defoe turned this true account into the captivating tale called Robinson Crusoe. After the popular and financial success of this book, Defoe wrote a sequel. He then proceeded, using the same pattern of first-person narration, to write the lives of a series of other interesting and typically low-life characters caught in practical difficulties. They all must use ingenuity and personal resourcefulness to work their ways out of their predicaments. The hallmark of a Defoe hero or heroine is adaptability to the necessities of a demanding world.


This almost mythic story of survival, written in 1719, is presented as the real words of an actual man, an entrepreneur who, alone on an island after a devastating shipwreck, set up a household and a form of economy, making himself master of his domain and managing to defend himself from attack. Crusoe also provides comforts and abundance by his own ingenuity and well-planned labor. His isolation is seen as punishment for both spiritual arrogance and restlessness. He is eventually rewarded by finding a companion and servant, Friday, and later by returning to civilization and prosperity. The how-to-survive practicality of the plot is balanced against the spiritual progress of Crusoe from despair and abandonment through the test of courage and ingenuity on the island to a final fulfillment and reward.


Written in 1722, this first-person narration presents itself as the confessional reminiscences of a female rake. Moll's test of survival takes place on the streets of London and other English cities. Born in Newgate prison but aspiring to be a gentlewoman, Moll is seduced by her first lover. She becomes disillusioned and manipulative and finds only temporary prosperity and respectability through a series of marriages, each one somehow flawed or cut short. At middle age, Moll resorts to thievery because she fears poverty; she becomes skilled at picking pockets and at talking her way out of tight spots. This part of the novel becomes a manual of advice on protecting oneself against theft. Eventually caught and put back in Newgate, Moll experiences a spiritual crisis, despair, and repentance to find faith, salvation, and joy. In her old age, comfortable and apparently reformed, Moll confesses her shady past to the reader in tones varying from abhorrence to smug satisfaction. The interpretative problem of this novel is how seriously to take Moll's claim to be reformed.


The title of this novel (1724) was meant ironically; it could not be considered "fortunate" to be a mistress. Wifehood was the only accepted role for a woman. The central character, however, speaks from the point of view of one who was married very young to a foolish husband. He dies within a few years, leaving her destitute and burdened with infant children. Forced by necessity, she abandons the children and drifts into the life of a courtesan, that is, the mistress of a series of increasingly rich and influential men. Early in the novel, Roxanne has a dialogue with one of her lovers, who wants to marry her. She discusses at length why she will never marry again, analyzing the many disadvantages to women in marriage. Wives become mere "passive creatures," she says, victims of the tyranny or weakness of the husband. Her career reaches its peak when she is patronized by a royal prince. But as she succeeds and becomes financially secure, her reputation is endangered. Fearing public exposure, Roxanne has her own daughter murdered. The final scenes show Roxanne suffering from guilt and fear, even as she has achieved worldly success and triumph.

Samuel Richardson (1689-1761)

Richardson rose from apprentice printer to owner of his own business, having prudently married his employer's daughter. As a youth, Richardson was precociously involved with young women and their affairs of the heart. He lent his services to help them write love letters and gave them advice about how to conduct themselves with suitors. As an adult, he was a copious writer of letters, as are all his main characters. Richardson did not plan to become a novelist. He was engaged in a project to compile a handbook of model letters for use by inexperienced and unpolished folk who wanted to correspond with dignity. As he wrote, Richardson began to weave in a narrative connection. Setting aside his original project, he followed his narrative impulse to create in 1740 the epistolary novel Pamela.


The heroine is an upper servant in the household of a wealthy country family. Her mistress has trained her in some of the feminine accomplishments, such as writing, singing, dancing, and the way of dressing that characterizes upper-class girls. After the death of her mistress, Pamela finds herself the object of the attention of her mistress's son (Mr. B.), who finds her all the more attractive because she persistently and cleverly resists his sexual advances. Pamela writes an intimate and sensational account of her fears and escapades to her poor parents. Frustrated, Mr. B. has Pamela abducted and confined in one of his other houses, where Pamela makes several unsuccessful attempts to get away. Finally, Mr. B. realizes that he is hopelessly in love with Pamela. He decides, in spite of her lower-class origins, to marry her and to make a lady of her by finishing the social training his mother had begun. The suspense and titillation of the novel made it vastly popular with all classes of readers, but most especially with women. Some critics, however, saw more opportunism than virtue in Pamela's strategy of preserving her virginity until she was safely married.


Richardson's best and most influential novel was published in several volumes (1747 to 1748). It also concerns a virtuous girl besieged by an abductor. Raised in a newly wealthy and upwardly mobile family, Clarissa struggles against an odious arranged marriage. Desperate, she is tricked into an elopement by her antagonist, Lovelace, an aristocratic rake. (Richardson, who deplored the morals of the aristocracy, used the novel to expose the problem.) Clarissa is witty and refined, more than a match for Lovelace, except in his deceptions. He loves tricks and disguises, forgeries and the use of secret agents. Ultimately, finding that Clarissa cannot be seduced, he rapes her, but even that outrage does not subdue her sense of self and her devotion to divine law. Clarissa wins a moral victory and social vindication as she dies, the victim of a broken heart. The letters through which this long story is developed come from a variety of correspondents, each one expressing a different and partial view of the central situation. Although the novel's moral message is clear, readers are enmeshed in a fabric of cross-currents and nuances, of sympathy and suspense. It was an immensely popular work. Readers of the early volumes (there were seven in all) wrote to Richardson discussing what should happen to Clarissa and pleading with him to save her life.

Henry Fielding (1707-1754)

Unlike his predecessors in the novel, Fielding came from the gentry and had a gentleman's education at Eton in classical literature. Because he did not inherit wealth, he studied law and later became a London magistrate. As a young man, Fielding sought a career as a playwright, producing a series of farces and political satires for the stage between 1728 and 1737. His last play attacked political corruption and satirized Prime Minister Walpole so effectively that it provoked the passage of the Licensing Act, a censorship law. Forced then to turn to other literary forms, Fielding produced a parody of Richardson's Pamela called Shamela, in which the heroine is pictured as a lewd and manipulative fake. Still reacting to Richardson's novel, Fielding again parodied Pamela in the opening chapter of Joseph Andrews. But this time he went on to develop a full-length fiction with its own theme of charity. It has an episodic structure rather loosely derived from the classical epic. Fielding called this fiction a "comic epic in prose." Concentrating now on the novel as a legitimate form, Fielding produced his masterpiece, Tom Jones, in 1749. But by then his health was failing, and his work at the magistrate's court was taking its toll. Fielding died on a trip to Lisbon in search of better health.


This voluminous novel, written in 1749, contains eighteen books and presents forty-four distinct characters in an extended, complex plot. "Tom Jones" was Fielding's greatest work in both scope and artistic achievement. The hero, a foundling, is given an ordinary name, Tom, to suggest that he represents every young man's attempt to achieve an identity and social role. The narrator, who points out Tom's faults as well as his good points, holds him up as typical rather than ideal. Fielding puts Tom through a series of skirmishes, misadventures, and near-disasters to test his mettle. Tom makes mistakes, but most of these result from his generosity and high spirits. During the novel he has to learn prudence and to suffer apparent defeat before he can be made deserving of his beloved, the beautiful Sophia. She is an example of female courage and perception. Sophia is loyal to Tom through all his errors because she responds to his basic good nature. The narrator, always in control of this story, makes a game of concealing and revealing to the reader just as much as we ought to know to enjoy the fun of suspense and the pleasure of surprise. The panoramic and intricately complex plot foreshadows the large structure of the Victorian novel in the next century.

Lawrence Sterne (1713-1768)

The great eccentric author of the eighteenth-century novel was a provincial clergyman who began as a satiric pamphleteer involved in local church politics. Heavily influenced by the psychology of Locke, Sterne emerged from the obscurity of Yorkshire to become a celebrity of literary London and to play the role in real life that he had laid out as narrator of his books.


Published in multiple volumes between 1759-1767, "Tristram Shandy" pretends to be an attempt at autobiography by the central figure, Tristram. But the narrator finds himself caught in a web of digressions, tangential explorations, and incidental anecdotes, all held together by their chance association in his mind. Thus he never progresses beyond his childhood, having required two volumes to proceed from the moment of his conception to his birth. The novel implies that, as isolated human beings, it is never possible for us completely to explain or to understand each other. The major characters, called My Father, My Mother, and My Uncle Toby, are each caught up in individual mental preoccupations and habits, so that while affection may exist between them, true communication is continually thwarted. My Father, in particular, is a man of theory and a planner of projects. His grand schemes are never understood by others and always come to nothing. Sterne continued to publish additional volumes of "Tristram Shandy" as long as he lived, and it is a debatable question whether or not the novel concludes with Volume Nine.

Horace Walpole (1717-1797)

Son of the great Whig prime minister Sir Robert Walpole, Horace was less involved in politics than in literature and criticism. He was a friend of the poet Thomas Gray. The two men toured Europe together, and later Walpole published Gray's Odes at his private press at Strawberry Hill, his country seat. Walpole wrote a great deal of criticism and commentary on the arts, and he was a voluminous letter writer. His best-known work, however, is his contribution to the development of the gothic novel, a reaction against what he found to be the dull and boorish qualities of the novels of Richardson, Fielding and Sterne.


This mysterious romance written in 1764 centers around the frightening fulfillment of an ancient prophecy. Walpole established the atmosphere when, at the beginning of the novel, a huge helmet drops out of nowhere into the courtyard of the castle, killing the son of the usurper of the castle and leading to the eventual restoration of the true heir. Supernatural and nightmarish phenomena abound; the intent is to produce a pleasurable terror in the reader. The novel is very brief by eighteenth-century standards, hardly more than a tale. But Walpole introduced a new stream in the development of prose fiction. His followers included Anne Radcliffe, whose Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) epitomizes the form.

The drama and the novel were both popular middle-class forms that aimed at improving the tastes and sensibilities of large audiences. The novel grew to be the most widely read literary genre and held that position throughout the following century. Its wide scope, including both pathos and humor, and its identifiable characters in suspenseful plots made novel reading a pasttime of choice, a primary recreation of the English public.
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Author:McCoy, Kathleen; Harlan, Judith A.V.
Publication:English Literature to 1785
Article Type:Reference Source
Date:Jan 1, 1992
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