Introduction To The Novel: The Problem Of Definition - United African Reporter's

Introduction To The Novel: The Problem Of Definition


It has become clichéd to simply describe many concepts in arts and humanity as lacking a specific definition. However, this notion is proven in that concepts such as poetry and language cannot be restricted to a particular definition. As regards poetry, EDGAR LEE MASTERS said that “No (single) definition of poetry has ever been made which would not exclude poems of confessed greatness; and many of the definitions include compositions which would not make the poetic appeal.” This assertion simply proves that getting a specific definition for certain concepts is difficult.

For example, Percy Byshe Shelley defines poetry as “the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds. If we are to subscribe to this definition, that will mean that elegies cannot be classified under poetry because they deal with sad minds and sad situations — death.

This same logic can be applied to the novel; that is, we cannot offer a definition of the novel that will not be subject to exceptions. To illustrate, the definition that brands the novel as a work of fiction that is written in prose is debunked by Terry Eagleton who affirms that there are novels written in verse. One of such is Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, a novel written in verse. It has 389 fourteen-line stanzas. Despite having all the features of a poem, this text is still regarded as a novel due to its narrative style, plot structure and character development.
Eugene Onegin reveals the story of a dandy who gets bored with partying and flirting with ladies. Eugene inherits a fortune from his uncle, and decides to leave a less ostentatious life. In the process, a lady, Tatiana, confesses her love to him. Eugene rejects her advances, so she marries someone else. A couple of years pass by and Eugene tries to woo Tatiana. However, she rejects his advance. Despite this story being told in verse form, the character development alongside the logical plot makes it a novel and not just a poem.

Furthermore, the definition which describes the novel as a long narrative with wide range of characters has shown to be quite problematic because the definition is also applicable to the romance. To perspicuously put it, the novel shares features with the romance with regard to length and characterisation. That is, both genres are not only of considerable length but also possess a plethora of characters.
Note: The novel and romance share the following similarities:

They are both fictitious.
They have a lot of characters.
They are of considerable length.

In addition, it will be a hasty generalisation to use length as the ultimate yardstick for deciphering what is and what is not a novel. Aside the romance, another lengthy piece of literary work is the epic. The Indian epic, Mahābhārata, has about 1.8million words, and this is even longer than so many novels. Still on length, some novels may not be distinguished from a short story — some novels are quite short will some short stories appear a bit long. For example, Andre Gide’s Immoralist is regarded as a novel, but Anton Chekhov’s “The Duel” is branded as a short story. What these two texts have in common is that they share the same length.

Considering all that have been said, it is quite justifiable to point that the novel does not have any regular definition. Apart from having a particular definition, what is also imperative to mention is that the novel genre constantly undermines any definition provided. Terry Eagleton offers some explanation by claiming the novel is difficult to define because it is a commingling of different subgenres or literary forms. He said: “It cannibalises other literary modes and mixes the bits and pieces promiscuously together. You can find poetry and dramatic dialogue in the novel, along with the epic, pastoral, satire, history, elegy, tragedy and any number of other literary modes.”
(Epic) Game of Thrones by George R Martins
(Pastoral) Ida Early Comes Over the Mountains by Robert Burch
(Satirical) Animal Farm by George Orwell.
(Historical) Heroes by Festus Iyayi.
(Tragedy) Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe.

The fact that the novel is a commingling of different genres justifies why Virginia Woolf described it as the most pliable of all forms.

Nevertheless, the novel is a distinctive literary form; hence, it is crucial to differentiate it from other genres, especially the romance. On this note, several scholarly definitions will be provided with a view to revealing the distinctive features of the novel.
1. Eustace Palmer: The novel is a coherent and unified fictitious prose with a beginning, middle and an end.
2. Britannica: It is an invented prose narrative of considerable length and a certain complexity that deals imaginatively with human experience, usually through a connected sequence of events involving a group of persons in a specific setting.
3. It is a fictitious prose narrative that deals with either imaginative characters or real historical characters.
4. Philip Stevicks: The novel is a narrative of mixed genre. (Note: Compare with Virginia Woolf’s definition.)

From the definitions given above, it suffices to mention that the novel is a genre whereby every action is unified towards a common goal. The characterisation in a novel is also more complex than that of a romance: that is, while the novel has dynamic and complex characters, the romance possesses characters that are stereotyped; and as such, they are already known to the audience.

Differences Between the Novel and the Romance

  1. The novel is realistic while romance is idealistic.
  2. The novel uses the common man as its hero while romance often subscribes to nobility and superhumans.
  3. The novel is written in down-to-earth language while romance often makes use of flowery phrases.
  4. The novel is relatively new compared to the romance. That is, the novel is a seventeen century phenomenon while the romance can be traced to the Greco-Roman civilization.
  5. The novel has complex and dynamic characters while the romance has stereotypic characters.

Distinctive Features of a Novel

  1. Verisimilitude/Credibility/Plausibility: The characters and events are created in such a way that they mirror life. They must be believable. It is this believability that makes it possible for us to establish if a work is realistic or not. For instance, Bayo Adebowale’s Lonely Days is about the plight of widows in the traditional African society. To many readers from this society, the treatment meted out to Yaremi and the other widows will not be out of place. Consequently, it can easily be established that the novel is one that realistically evince a typical African society.
  2. Subjects: The novel is seen as a middle-class art form (Read up on the Rise of the Novel). Therefore, the novel draws its subject matter from issues that concern the common man. We have topics such as marriage, poverty, sex and religion, etc. This is in contrast with the romance whereby the aforementioned topics are usually reserved for the nobility and gods.
  3. Hero: The novel employs the common man as its hero. In Festus Iyayi’s Heroes, the author affirms that the generals and high-ranking military personnel are not the true heroes of the war; rather, it is the rank-and-file who are.
  4. Realistic Setting: The setting is usually drawn from real life. The setting of the realistic work imitates the historical setting as much as possible. Watt says that the realist is under an obligation to put his characters in a social context reflective of normal socio-historical context.
  5. Traditional Free Language: The novel, according to J. Paul Hunter, is not impeded by the floweriness found in verse. It is written in every-day language, which is usually colloquial.
  6. Logical Plot: The events should be interconnected.

Outline on How to Attempt an Examination Question on Defining the Novel

Paragraph One: Establish that the novel is difficult to define.
State your thesis: E.g. This essay will attempt to define the novel with a view showing its distinctive features

Paragraph Two: One or two definitions plus the features that can be deciphered from the definitions

Paragraphs Three to Five (at least) should be modelled after paragraph two.

Concluding Paragraph: Conclude your essay.

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