Rise of the Novel: Exploring History's Greatest Early Works

Course No. 2417
Professor Leo Damrosch, Ph.D.
Harvard University
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Course No. 2417
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What Will You Learn?

  • Rediscover the novel as you trace its progress with an expert literary guide.
  • Dive into the earliest versions of the form to genre-defining masterworks.
  • Take a literary journey over the course of three centuries to see how the novel was born and the many ways it shaped Western literature.

Course Overview

Thousands of novels are published around the world every year. There are so many readily available, it would take multiple lifetimes for a single person to even read a fraction of them. But it hasn’t always been that way.

While humans have always been storytellers, the novel as we recognize it today is a relatively new art form in the timeline of human culture. Of all the ways we tell stories, why has the novel become such a perennial favorite? How did the novel go from a narrative experiment with a low-brow reputation to a cultural touchstone and focal point of modern literature?

In the 24 lectures of Rise of the Novel, you will take a journey from the birth of the novel to the height of the form in the mid-19th century—and better understand what this literary form can tell us about human nature and our unquenchable thirst for great stories. With Professor Emeritus Leo Damrosch of Harvard University as your guide, you will dive into some of the most notable works that helped create and shape the novel over the course of more than three centuries, looking at the social and historical influences that coincided with shifts in literary taste along the way.

Beginning with Don Quixote—held up by many scholars as the foundational text from which the novel form would spring—Professor Damrosch will lead you through works both tragic and comic, brief and diffuse, epic and domestic. From early works like La Princesse de Clèves and Robinson Crusoe to pinnacles of the form in the 19th century such as Emma and Middlemarch—along with a few novels that are less familiar today but well worth knowing—you will dive into works with different perspectives and intentions that have all impacted our culture in their own way.

Worlds Real and Imagined

The emergence of the novel as a popular form of entertainment reflects larger changes in Western society in the 16th and 17th centuries. Improved printing technology, increased literacy, the rise of the mass audience, and a greater focus on middle-class values—rather than the arcane, aristocratic codes of old—all contributed to the popularity and accessibility of literature written in vernacular prose, featuring ordinary people and their experiences. As time and tastes changed, the lofty subjects and polished verse of writers like Edmund Spenser and John Milton gave way to a larger, more diverse literature that could encapsulate many styles and perspectives.

Novels can present readers with new ideas and experimental forms, while also dealing in the eternal questions of what it means to be human. Throughout these lectures, you will engage with the works that tackle philosophical and personal dilemmas such as:

  • Mortality. Novels like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther look at life and death in different ways, but both ask important questions about what it means to be alive.
  • Ethics. Many novels grapple with ethical dilemmas, though stories like Les Liaisons Dangereuses present a unique lens to consider the moral dimensions of society and how (or if) people are held accountable for the harm they can cause.
  • Relationships. Whether through the “light, bright, and sparkling” comedy of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice or the darker tragedy of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, human relationships often lie at the heart of the novel.
  • Social issues. Fiction may be made first and foremost for entertainment, but authors like Henry Fielding, Voltaire, and Stendhal dug deep into the realities of their time to fuel both comedy and conflict in their stories as commentary on the issues of their day.

The novel also opened the door for writers to get published, who otherwise would have been shut out from the possibility of being successful authors, previously having been limited by not having the means to get an expensive education or to gain patronage from a wealthy supporter. Literature in the form of a novel could be written by just about anyone, allowing for writers from poor and working-class backgrounds as well as women and non-white writers to have a chance at success. As with any innovation that upsets the status quo, not everyone in society was thrilled about the egalitarian dimensions of this “novel” approach to literature. Much like television in the mid-20th century, many people held the novel in contempt as low-rent entertainment, with some people even going so far as to assert that novels were morally dangerous and would corrupt young readers—particularly, impressionable young ladies. Of course, not all novels have been masterpieces, with quite a bit of forgettable writing—and just plain bad writing—making its way into the world. But as Professor Damrosch demonstrates, the impact of the novel has been revolutionary and the world as we know it today would be very different without it.

The Art of the Novel

While novels have many features in common, each is also a unique experience that uses different tools to create a variety of sensations and reactions in readers. Throughout this course, you will see how authors must make choices to achieve their visions, comparing and contrasting such elements as:

  • Comic vs. Tragic. While novels can be classified in many genres and styles, broadly speaking they often fall into one of two categories of tone: the comic and the tragic. Authors often specialized in one or the other, though the line between tragedy and comedy is not always as clear-cut as it may seem, as the satirical work of writers like Jonathan Swift and Voltaire demonstrate.
  • First Person vs. Third Person. The perspective of a story can create different connections between readers and the story. And many options exist within this binary, including first-person singular novels, epistolary novels with multiple points of view, omniscient third-person narrators, free indirect discourse, and more. Understanding the effect of perspective can help you understand what the author hopes to convey and can enhance the imaginative impact of the story.
  • Verisimilitude vs. Realism. Both of these elements help readers suspend disbelief and lose themselves in a story. Verisimilitude is concerned with believability within the story itself—does it make sense in the world of the novel, even if it’s too coincidental for the real world? Realism, on the other hand, seeks to capture reality as we know it and imbues the story with a sense of grit and true experience.

With Professor Damrosch’s guidance, you will better understand how these and other tools help authors tell their stories in ways that engage readers’ sympathies, guide their judgments, and help us become immersed in the events as they unfold, all in ways that are fundamentally different from other forms of fiction writing.

Novels as a Pastime and a Pleasure

The novel allowed many writers to use their work to explore the human condition, advocate for change, and even reshape society. But the entertainment value of the novel—the joy and companionship it can bring to readers—can’t be undersold. It is the novel, after all, that transformed reading into a pastime and a pleasure, not just a tool for learning or a sign of class status.

Jane Austen, now recognized as one of the greatest authors of the English language, once felt the need to defend novels from the moral judgments of authors and critics who felt they were too light, too trashy, and too popular to be “real” literature. In an impassioned defense of the form in her own satirical novel Northanger Abbey, Austen takes the naysayers to task with her trademark wit:

“From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers and while the abilities of the nine hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogized by a thousand pens—there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour [sic] of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them.“

Austen’s sharp words are a refutation of a fashionable disdain many held toward novels that we may find strange now, when entire fields of study are devoted to the literary merits and intellectual impact of the novel. Had she been able to see into the future, she would surely be delighted to know that novels, her own included, have earned the respect they deserve. And she would be glad that they continue to entertain and enrich the lives of the millions of readers who engage with them every day, across the world.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    Rediscovering the Novel
    Dive into the study of the novel with a look at what defines this particular form and how it emerged from earlier types of storytelling. Novels seek to make sense of human behavior in ways that can be more comprehensible—and more enjoyable—than those we can find in real life. Get an overview of the essential nature of novels versus other literary forms. x
  • 2
    Roman Novels: Satyricon and The Golden Ass
    Travel back to ancient Rome and look at two works of prose fiction that would influence later writers: The Satyricon and The Golden Ass. Though their structures and tropes are fundamentally different from most modern novels, their impact can be traced through some of the works that later came to define the novel. x
  • 3
    Don Quixote and the Picaresque Novel
    Turn now to the work considered to be the foundational novel in the Western tradition, Don Quixote. Beginning with a look at the picaresque storytelling that prefigures Quixote, you'll see how the novel fits into a larger literary tradition while it also presented something new that would eventually become the preeminent mode of modern fiction. x
  • 4
    Don Quixote: A Deeper Look
    Don Quixote is actually two novels in one—with the first part published in 1605 and the second part in 1615, later combined into the single work we recognize today. Examine the ways the second part shows the evolution of the novel through Cervantes’s movement away from the picaresque and into a smoother, more cohesive narrative with deeper themes than the first part. x
  • 5
    La Princesse de Clèves and the French Novel
    La Princesse de Clèves is the first great novel in French and precedes English novels by about 40 years. Here, you will take a look at how a novel written by an aristocratic woman created a benchmark for the novel form. Also, you will examine why its style and psychological assumptions differ dramatically from the later novels that would be inspired by a middle-class reading public and its values. x
  • 6
    The Realistic Novel: Robinson Crusoe
    Published in 1719, Robinson Crusoe is a fantasy masquerading as realism. Look at the ways Defoe uses first-person perspective and the trappings of autobiography to craft a character that has achieved an almost mythical status in Western culture. Take a closer look at the structure and style of this influential story and why it became so popular. x
  • 7
    The Satiric Novel: Gulliver's Travels
    Dive into the satirical journey of Gulliver’s Travels, a work that brilliantly combines novelistic realism and fantasy, to powerful effect. Gulliver also reflects the growing influence of novels, with Jonathan Swift borrowing—and parodying—elements from Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. How did a story involving giants and anthropomorphic horses help shape the novel as we know it? x
  • 8
    Manon Lescaut: A Tale of Passion
    Originally appended to a much larger work, the tragic French novel Manon Lescaut presents two ways of looking at passion: as self-destructive obsession or as a heroic assertion of transcendent love. Explore how Prevost’s novel looks at the tension between different sets of values in a rapidly changing world and why interpretations of the story—including major operatic adaptations—have shifted over time. x
  • 9
    Joseph Andrews: An Epic Parody
    Shift from the tragic to the comic with a look at Joseph Andrews. Originally conceived as a parody of Samuel Richardson's popular epistolary novel Pamela, Henry Fielding's humorous epic took on a creative life of its own through a witty narrator, optimistic viewpoint, and palpable affection for his characters. x
  • 10
    The Psychological Novel: Clarissa
    In his immense novel Clarissa, Samuel Richardson offers a unique window into the inner experience of individuals as told in their own words. See how this tragic novel, conveyed in a series of letters, allows a deep look into personal psychology while also commenting on the wider society's changing perspectives on love, marriage, and personal choice. x
  • 11
    The Great Comic Novel: Tom Jones
    Tom Jones is widely considered Henry Fielding's masterpiece. Both richly imagined and endlessly entertaining, the novel is a comic journey that is rooted in Fielding's optimistic view of human nature. In the first of two lectures on this work, get an introduction to the themes of the novel and how it compares to other works from the same period. x
  • 12
    Plot and Structure in Tom Jones
    In this second lecture on Tom Jones, continue your examination of Fielding's techniques and intentions as Tom hits the road on a series of picaresque-inspired adventures. Explore how the many secondary storylines are integrated into the fabric of the larger story, with a surprise ending that encourages us to ponder how we interpret the events of our own lives. x
  • 13
    Philosophical Satire in France: Candide
    Together with Gulliver's Travels, Candide ranks among the greatest satires ever written. This witty, overtly artificial novel takes jabs at both political and religious authority through a series of deliberately implausible events. Reveal the philosophy that underpins Voltaire's work as you look at episodes from this influential story. x
  • 14
    Comic Travel Letters: Humphry Clinker
    Turn now to The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, which combines different elements—travel narrative, family drama, epistolary character study—to create a narrative that gives multiple perspectives on shared experiences. See how this comic novel uses satire to examine relationships, morality, religion, and more with surprising depth and candor. x
  • 15
    English Metafiction: Tristram Shandy
    How does a plotless, metafictional narrative full of digressions become a cult hit and a precursor to modernist fiction? Look at the ways Lawrence Sterne plays with language and the structure of the novel itself to create an exuberant work full of double entendres, bizarre circumstances, and heartfelt emotion to create the indelible Tristram Shandy. x
  • 16
    French Metafiction: Jacques the Fatalist and His Master
    Inspired by Tristram Shandy, Denis Diderot set out to create a deeper and more challenging metafiction in Jacques the Fatalist and His Master. Discover why this ambitious novel was not published in the author's lifetime, as you explore the ways it critiques the social and philosophical issues of his day and blurs the boundaries between author and reader. x
  • 17
    The French Romantic Novel: Julie
    Begin your exploration of Jean Jacques Rousseau's novel Julie, or the New Eloisa by relating it to his brilliant social and political theories. Then, explore the searching examination of love and friendship that made this the most popular novel of the entire 18th century. x
  • 18
    The Amoral Novel: Les Liaisons dangereuses
    Les Liaisons dangereuses is an amoral book with a moral message—namely, to offer a critique of the selfish cruelty of the French aristocracy in the 18th century. Professor Damrosch shows how Laclos uses the epistolary form to create uncertainty rather than reveal truth as he constructs a story of sociopathic manipulation and cruelty. x
  • 19
    Pride and Prejudice: The Best English Novel?
    One of the most beloved novels of all time, Pride and Prejudice shows a master novelist at work. See how Jane Austen revolutionized third-person perspective by ingeniously merging it with the consciousness of individual characters. Then, dive into the social and economic context of the novel and what it has to say about women's inner lives and struggles. x
  • 20
    Emma: Better Than the Best English Novel?
    Take another look at the work of Jane Austen, this time with her comedic coming-of-age novel Emma. Ostensibly the story of a rich girl who spends her time meddling in other people's lives, Emma masterfully uses setting, character, and free indirect discourse to show an intelligent heroine learning how to truly know herself and better understand the people around her. x
  • 21
    The German Romantic Novel: The Sorrows of Young Werther
    Turn now to 18th-century Germany for a look at a novel that would become an international sensation: The Sorrows of Young Werther. Through this work, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe would capture the disaffection of a generation of young people and create a new movement in literature, a genre of rebellion against conformity that would become Romanticism. x
  • 22
    The Horror Novel: Frankenstein
    Few could have guessed that a horror story written by a teenage girl would become a powerful myth with global impact, but that is exactly what Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein did. Travel back to 1816, the “year without a summer,” to trace the origins and influence of this iconic novel as an exploration of philosophy, science, and the eternal human battle with mortality. x
  • 23
    A French Masterpiece: The Red and the Black
    Stendhal, a former military administrator and diplomat, published The Red and the Black in 1830. The novel is a challenging, many-layered narrative that was too new and too experimental to be popular in its own time. Look at the ways Stendhal interrogates French society after the fall of Napoleon and uses irony to confront the conformity and ambitions he saw as detrimental to personal happiness. x
  • 24
    An English Masterpiece: Middlemarch
    George Eliot’s Middlemarch is regarded by many as the greatest novel in the English language. A story about choices and human relationships, it explores the limitations that can shape a human life in unexpected—and sometimes tragic—ways. Bring your study of the novel to an end with a look at why this sprawling, emotionally rich story is so often considered the height of the novel form. x

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Leo Damrosch

About Your Professor

Leo Damrosch, Ph.D.
Harvard University
Dr. Leo Damrosch is the Ernest Bernbaum Professor of Literature Emeritus at Harvard University, where he has been teaching since 1989. He earned a B.A. from Yale University, an M.A. from Cambridge University, where he was a Marshall Scholar, and a Ph.D. from Princeton University. At Harvard, Professor Damrosch was named a Harvard College Professor in recognition of distinguished teaching. He has held National Endowment for...
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