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What is the Novel?: The First Books

ENGL 537.401
crosslisted as: FREN 550, COML 549
instructor(s):
M 2-4:00

This course will be taught in English.  We will read works written in a number of languages.  Students have the option of reading these works in the original languages; class discussion will primarily be based on English translations. 

The novel is the iconic modern literary form.  One recent theorist has even described the novel as “the most important form in Western art” (Guido Mazzoni).  No other genre has been the object of an even remotely comparable amount of interest on the part of theorists.  Commentators seek to determine when and where the novel was invented; they try to fix limits and to decide which works can truly be considered novels.  For some, the story is clear-cut, and the novel’s “rise” can be easily charted (Ian Watt).  For others, “the true story” of the novel is complex and multi-cultural, a tale of multiple origins and broad geographic diversity (Margaret Doody). 

Perhaps the most amazing aspect of this theoretical pluralism is that the phenomenon has such a long history: already in the 1670s, the first commentators ever to turn their attention to a literary genre whose prominence was achieved in the modern world rather than in antiquity were arguing in print over just these questions.

We will read a variety of the most influential theories of the novel, from the 17th to the 21st centuries, including those of Bakhtin, Foucault, and Huet.  We will read a number of what I’ll call “first books,” candidates proposed as the “first” novel, from Cervantes’ Don Quixote to Lafayette’s Princess of Clèves.  We will discuss outlier works and ask, for example, if the original modern erotic/obscene fictions should be considered novels.

We will read some of the most influential novels of the first two centuries of the form’s modern history, mainly from the two countries where the form first took shape, France and England.  We’ll read novels in pairs in order to highlight features of these two national traditions: foundling narratives (Villedieu’s Henriette-Sylvie de Molière and Fielding’s Tom Jones), lives of female criminals (Defoe’s Moll Flanders and Prévost’s Manon Lescaut), epistolary novels (Richardson’s Pamela and Laclos’ Dangerous Liaisons).  In order to include more novels, we will also use the expression “first books” in a second way: we will read only the first parts of some immensely long works, the formats in which they were initially published. 

The questions at the center of our discussions will include:

Does the novel have to be in prose?

What are the limits between the novel and history – in other words, does the novel have to be fiction and recognized as such?

Above all, we will consider the importance of a phenomenon unique in genre formation: a genre that took shape without ever adapting a fixed form or a set of rules.