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Origins of the Novel

Hundreds of websites and companies, from The Harris Poll to the BBC to NPR, have conducted surveys on people’s favorite books. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of people immediately thought of novels. To Kill a Mockingbird and The Hobbit knocked philosophical essays, such as Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and history books, such as Oxford’s Concise History series, far off the list. One need only look at high school literature courses and book club selections to see that the novel can easily be called the most popular form of literature of our time.

Yet, the art of the novel surely didn’t drop out of the sky. It had to come from somewhere. In his Philosophy of the Novel, Barry Stocker expounds on major theories of how Ancient Greek literature came to influence the creation of the modern novel.

Stocker begins with the ideas of 17th century Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico, who identified tensions within the central character in both The Iliad and The Odyssey as predecessors for the novel’s fascination with the everyday struggle. For example, Odysseus depends on, not just physically superhuman prowess, but also mental strength and strategy in order to get back home. Odysseus does not merely encounter battles with mythological creatures like the cyclops; he also struggles with a duty to his family—an issue most people can relate to.

According to Vico, these stories, like The Odyssey, hold a “tension between the mythically-heroic and the mundanely-humane, which are at the centre of the [modern] novel.” Because humans and gods often engage in war as if they were equals in Homeric epics, Vico further argues that Homer serves as an “anti-priestly” origin for the secularism of the modern novel. Instead of purely praising the gods, Homer’s characters are in a constant back-and-forth between their own wishes and those of the gods, as well as those of their fellow characters; the gods mirror the characters in this sentiment and battle amongst themselves as well. This weakens the “all-powerful” view of the divine; this makes, even gods, inherently flawed (Barry). Stocker, as well as authors such as Milan Kundera, argue that an “anti-priestly” sentiment is essential to the novel because it concerns itself with the intricate dealings of everyday people, not of ideal worlds or didacticism.

However, romantic philosophers of the 18th century came to somewhat disagree with Vico. While they saw the importance of the epic tradition in the creation of the modern novel, they argued that the Platonic dialogue was even more important. While the epic was purely poetic in style, Platonic dialogues “[integrated both] poetry and philosophy,” creating an art that was pluralistic in form (Barry). Because the novel is distinct in its newness and playfulness, this plurality inherent in Platonic dialogues serves, to the Romantics, as an origin for the novel’s form.

The plurality of poetry and philosophy is also obvious in the fact that Plato’s dialogues portrayed differing points of views between two or more characters. This “Romantic irony” displayed the “limits of any one point of view” (Barry). If one’s ideas could be questioned by another, and vice-versa, then neither was entirely correct; they held a certain human frailty that was and still is important to the humaneness of the novel.

From the views of both Vico and the German Romanticists of the 18th century, the novel’s origins in form and content stretch back to the Ancient Greek tradition. Although epics concern themselves with suprahuman events, these superhumans still hold tensions within themselves that occur in everyday human life. The battles between humans and gods, as well as between gods themselves, highlight the frailty of even the divine, serving as an origin for the speculative and “anti-priestly” essence of the novel. Meanwhile, Platonic dialogues served as predecessors for the plural, dialectic essence of the novel, which puts voices of characters against each other and art forms such as poetry and philosophical treatise side-by-side. Ultimately, although Vico and the Romanticists could not agree on which had the stronger influence on the novel, it is evident that both served as its origins.


Works Cited

  1. Stocker, Barry. Philosophy of the Novel. Springer Nature, 2019.

Last Fact Checked on May 26th, 2021.


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