The Rise of the Novel;

The Rise of Realism

Ian Watt is A literary critic, literary historian and professor of English at Stanford University; his book The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding (1957) traces the rise of the modern novel to philosophical, economic and social trends and conditions that became prominent in the early 18th century. Watt’s work is considered by many contemporary literary scholars as vital in discovering the origins of the novel, while also serving as an important study of literary realism. The work is most noted for famously connecting the rise of the novel as an important literary genre whose formation is conducive with the rise of a class (middle) and a technique – Realism.

    When criticizing the work through the various perspective lenses that comprise literary theory, scholars have taken issue with Watt’s theories regarding both the form and the supposed locations in which the novel rose. Literary critics like Lennard Davis posits that,  “[Watt] made some really big mistakes- he thought there was a novel, he thought it had a beginning; he assumed it was a narrative fiction and had a ‘rise’ located in Metropole, England.” Davis and fellow critics have challenged Watt’s theories since the publication of The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding, citing issues such as “marginalization of narrative forms, denigration of Defoe, [Watt’s] elevation of Richardson over Fielding, and his identification of the novel with realism.” (Seager 3). Yet, despite Watt’s apparent, and highly vocalized flaws it remains a popular truth amongst critics that “Watt’s is the single most important book written on the subject, and its relevance has not dissipated, despite claims to the contrary.” (Seager, 4) Watt’s perspective of the novel remains an essential tool in order to understand the socio-historical advancement of the literary genre. 

According to Watt, realism in the arts is the attempt to represent subject matter truthfully, without artificiality and avoiding artistic conventions, implausible, exotic and supernatural elements. The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding, focuses on that of literary realism, both the presentation and the assessment. Watt’s focus is aimed at Defoe, Richardson, Fielding and Austen, artists he believes created the earliest novels. In his opinion, Austen’s novels, “combine into a harmonious unity” the advantages of both Defoe’s ‘realism of presentation’ and Fielding’s ‘realism of assessment’ (Watt 296). After carefully, critically assessing these three works in order of publication, it is difficult to deny the validity of Ian Watt’s theory. Read this way, it becomes evident that the development of realism, and the construction of the novel begin with the works of Defoe and his use of realism to present events closer to the way they occurred, followed by the works of Fielding, who chooses not to focus on events, but rather use realism to assess the actions of the character, and finally Austen who elegantly combines the contributions of Defoe and Fielding to bring forth a new genre of literature.

Readers familiar with Daniel Defoe, know him as the author of Moll Flanders, and credit him as the creator of the earliest novel. Born in London in 1660; Defoe faced many hardships from coming of age in a war plagued country, to a stint of bankruptcy, and even a short tenure at Newgate prison. Defoe’s novels, both Moll Flanders and Robert Krusoe became opportunities for Defoe to voice opinions about the ‘new man’ –one out for economic gain, as well as an individual representative of middle class values. In 1722, Defoe published Moll Flanders, a coming of age story that was deeply concerned with the nature of capitalism and its impact on the individual. Watts sums up Defoe’s Moll Flanders as  “a characteristic product of modern individualization in assuming that she owes it to herself to achieve the highest economic, social rewards and in using every available method to carry out her resolve” (Watt’s 94). However, arguably, more important than the plot itself (as novel as it was to write about a criminal in 1660) is Defoe’s choice to avoid stylization when conveying events to his reader —a technique that Watt’s cites as the introduction to formal realism. The novel “is only made up of presentation and is therefore ethically neutral: All Defoe’s novels are also ethically neutral because they make formal realism and end rather than a means” (Watt 97). Watt’s sentiments are best exemplified in reference to Moll Flanders. In one chapter Defoe cleverly, presents Moll as she executes her criminal acts of pick pocketing, 

“The next thing of moment was an attempt at a gentlewoman’s good watch. It happened in a crowd, at a meeting-house, where I was in very great danger of being taken. I had full hold of her watch, but giving a great jostle, as if somebody had thrust me against her, and in the juncture giving the watch a fair pull, I found it would not come, so I let it go that moment, and cried out as if I had been killed, that somebody had trod upon my foot, and that there were certainly pickpockets there, for somebody or other had given a pull at my watch; for you are to observe that on these adventures we always went very well dressed, and I had very good clothes on, and a gold watch by my side, as like a lady as other fold.”(Defoe 311)

From the above excerpt, readers can note Defoe’s presentation of events–he does not endeavor to insert his personal opinions, nor does he offer any further explanation than what is wholly necessary to portray the scene with accuracy. By relaying stories in such a way Defoe presents readers with a full education on how to execute crimes the same way as Moll Flanders. However, in agreement with the work’s critics, Defoe fails to offer any true sentiment regarding the realities he so artfully conveys, his gaze remains firmly rested on the issues at the surface of the novel. In short, Defoe fails to offer readers a ‘realism of assessment’.

Fielding, an author known for his use of “realism of assessment”, was born during the Enlightenment or Neo-classical era of Europe. Having previously entertained careers in law, play writing, and a short tenure as a magistrate, Henry Fielding created a lasting reputation in the literary world after publishing works Tom Jones, Shamela and later Joseph Andrews. Inspired by Samuel Richardson’s work Pamela, which he criticized for being comical and devoid of any real human action or feeling, Fielding’s novels offer readers a postulation of characters who comprise both the best and worst qualities of mankind. In forming his career forming novels, Fielding succeeded in being one of the first authors to embrace fiction by writing in the third person. Fielding also successfully employs the realism of assessment or a narrator voicing opinions of events the missing element of narrative that Defoe is criticized for failing to exercise. Yet, Henry Fielding offers the tool to his audience so liberally the novel suffers from it, many readers and critics find the story rambling and denigrate it for its haphazard plot, and dissatisfying ending. 

 Nevertheless, Fielding does offer much to the formation of the novel as a literary genre. The narrating voice presented in Joseph Andrews serves to keep readers conscious that the novel is a fiction “whose truth lies in the accuracy with which human nature is depicted”(Fielding) The employment of such literary devices before they were popular is adventurous, and Fielding is wholly aware of the challenge he has volunteered to venture into, evidenced in the preface of 

 Joseph Andrews. Fielding openly declares his desire to present a work both new and modern. Fielding describes the novel as an adoption of Homer’s style, in hopes of creating the comic-epic poem, the novel was hoped to be complimentary to popular paintings, like Hogarth’s “The Rakes progress”. In order to do this Fielding focused on creating a novel that depicts both characters and a way of life. 

Fielding adopts Defoe’s realism, but focuses its frame within the assessment. Best noted in Fielding’s use of authorial voice, in which he will disrupt the novel in order to present views about life, urging people to be good. Though intrusive in the novel, with his presence as narrator overshadowing and minimizing the action of the plot, the work successfully captures the missing piece to novel writing, but fails to include any realism of presentation. Though Fielding’s work does come closer to the structure and design of contemporary novels, the genre is still very much in the formative stages during Joseph Andrews original publication. Defoe’s realism of presentation paired with Fielding’s presentation of Assessment, must meet in harmony to create the eloquent and relatable novel writing we know today.

 The full maturity of the genre, according to Watts, arrived after Jane Austen made her debut in literature. An English novelist known for her six major novels, which interpret, critique and comment upon the British society at the end of the 18th century. Austen’s use of biting irony, along with her realism and social commentary have earned her great and historical importance to critics and scholars. Watt’s praises her in his own work, stating “She was able to combine into harmonious unity the advantages of both realism of presentation and realism of assessment, of the internal and external approaches to characters.”(297). Sense and Sensibility, along with other Austen novels shows a happy balance of narration without intrusiveness of the authorial voice. Adopting the same third person narration as Fielding, Austen allows herself the freedom of commentary on her fictional characters, such as this description of Marianne: “Marianne, who had the knack of finding her way in every house to the library, however it might be avoided by the family in general, soon procured herself a book.” (Austen). This statement is the voice of author, Jane Austen, who simultaneously and economically presented the reality of the event and assessed how the action was viewed by the entire family. From this one sentence the reader can infer that Marianne has a passion for knowledge, and that this is not a quality that the family is fond of. Austen, unlike Fielding, is able to enter and exit the novel without calling much attention to herself, by economizing her words and keeping with the natural language of the novel she is able to present a wholly enjoyable text that most closely identifies with the novel readers know today. In doing so, she avoids the label of a ‘garrulous essayist’ (Watt) within the novel the way Fielding does and avoids the trap of being misinterpreted as neutral the way Defoe does. (Watt)

All in all, despite the challenges brought forth by literacy critics one cannot dismiss the validity of Watt’s argument. After a critical assessment of Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews and Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility it is plainly obvious to readers that despite the criticism of Ian Watt’s work The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding, there is indeed a correlated connection between the rise of the novel and the use of realism as a literary tool. Perhaps, Watt’s views need refining and his argument expanded to include other significant variables, such as the impact of the war, the maritime industry, the conditions of influences and so on, but the work does trace significantly important socio-historic events that have contributed to the rise of the novel especially that of literary realism.

Work Cited

Austen, Jane. Sense and sensibility. London: Routledge, 1994. Print.

Davis, Lennard J. Factual fictions: the origins of the English novel. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania Press, 1997. Print.

Defoe, Daniel. Moll Flanders. Tustin: Xist Publishing, 2015. Print.

Seager, Nicholas. The rise of the novel. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. Print.

Watt, Ian P. The rise of the novel: studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding. Harmondsworth, Eng.: Penguin, 1957. Print.

Please follow and like us:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *