Day 81: The History of the Novel

Today we discussed the definition of the novel and its history.

1. The novel as genre. As a class, we discussed what a novel is and is not, attempting to come up with an accurate definition together. We agreed that a novel is fictional, at least about 150 pages, sometimes has a protagonist, usually has a conflict, and always has themes. Novel means “new” and its history is connected to newness and invention. Today novels are defined by the following traits:

  • psychologically real characters
  • about growing up, coming together, or coming apart
  • clear resolution, which is emotionally satisfying for the reader after a long time commitment to reading

One other term we covered: bildungsroman, which is a German word for novel of education or “coming of age novel” as we call it in English. To Kill a Mockingbird is a bildungsroman.

2. Timeline of the novel. Students copied down some important dates regarding the development of the novel and then filled in major historical events. We discussed how the historical events impacted the development of the novel. What to know:

  • Johannes Gutenberg invented moveable type in 1439.
  • The Renaissance, a time of rebirth in the arts and sciences, lasted from 1400s-1600s.
  • Don Quixote, the first western novel, was written in 1605.
  • Early novels in the 1700s were often travel stories or epistolary novels (written in letters).
  • The Industrial Revolution occurred between the mid-late-1700s to the mid-early-1800s. At this time, industry became more mechanized and life began to move at a faster pace. Publishing newspapers became easier with the invention of steam-powered printing presses in the 1810s.
  • England’s Victorian Age (1837-1901) is when novels started to become closer to what we know them as today. Charles Dickens is the most well-known author from this time period. He published his novels a few chapters at a time in weekly or monthly magazines and newspapers. Because they got to know characters over a longer period of time, readers felt very committed to the novel. After the entire series was published, readers could buy them in book form, just like the way you can buy a season of a TV show on DVD once the series is over.
  • Starting in around 1900 Sigmund Freud published his work on psychoanalysis. Freud’s ideas about the mind changed the way novels are written. Freud tells us that the unconscious is a central part of our identity. This comes out in dreams and free association (think– What’s the first word that comes to your head when I say MOTHER?). Novels after this had more psychologically real characters with complex motives.

3. A novel will teach you how to read it. As a class, we read the first 2 paragraphs of To Kill a Mockingbird to showcase how the first page would tell us what to look for in the rest of the novel. I will post our annotations at a later date.

HW: Optional – Get a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird.