The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014


Vincent P. Pecora

Received wisdom of the twentieth century tells us that the concepts “religion” and “novel” are mutually exclusive. That the novel is a powerful reflection and instrument of secularization is a truism. As Jack Goody writes, at the start of what may be the most ambitious anthology so far to circumscribe the novel transnationally, “The modern novel, after Daniel Defoe, was essentially a secular tale, a feature that is comprised within the meaning of ’realistic.’ The hand of God may appear, but it does so through ’natural’ sequences, not through miracles or mirabilia. Earlier narrative structures often displayed such intervention, which, in a world suffused by the supernatural, was present everywhere” (1:21). The division in European fiction for Goody—as for so many before him—is between, on the one side, mythic classical romances, such as Apuleius's The Golden Ass (ca. 100—200 ce), the saints' lives of the Middle Ages, and exemplary tales such as John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress (1678), and on the other side naturalistic fictions such as Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719—22), which often elaborated upon current events and assumed the characteristics of print reportage (see JOURNALISM). (In such accounts, it is important that the etymology of novel is “news,” the sort of diplomatic information that appeared in broadsheets in the late fifteenth century along with the printing press, but eventually included stories like the shipwreck of Alexander Selkirk and other castaways.)

The Secularization Thesis

Whether one looks at Goody's account or at those of Ian Watt, Michael McKeon, or Benedict Anderson, one finds a well-engrained family of ideas: the fifteenth-century advent of printing (see PAPER AND PRINT) coincided with the scientific revolution and the rationalized religion of the Protestant Reformation, which eventually enabled the invention of the nation-state, civil society, and capitalism during the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. The novel appears in the English-speaking world at the crossing of what Hans Blumenberg called an epochal threshold separating the religious worldview of medieval Catholicism and a secular, or least Protestant, worldview defined by an unknowable divinity, an inward spirituality, and a desire for worldly achievement, individual self-assertion, and instrumental morality. This is the story of Western secularization, and even in globally focused projects it determines how the novel is understood. Most of it could be traced to Max Weber, who also subtly inflects how we interpret historical changes within the novel. Franco Moretti calls “fillers” the expansion of mundane passages of conversation or description in the realistic novel in which nothing seems to happen; Honoré de Balzac's Illusions perdues (1837—43, Lost Illusions), George Eliot's Middlemarch (1871—72), and Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks (1901) are apparently full of them. “Fillers are an attempt at rationalizing the novelistic universe: turning it into a world of few surprises, fewer adventures, and no miracles at all” (1:381). By this measure, we could say that all of Henry James is one long filler. People still go to church in Henry Fielding; Laurence Sterne adapted his own sermons for Tristram Shandy. But the thesis of the secularizing novel pays little attention to such topical embellishments. Since the novel, in this view, is the aesthetic exemplification of the deists' universe of the deus absconditus, it is not surprising that scholars like Martha Nussbaum (who sees the novel as the elaboration of secular moral philosophy) and Lynn Hunt (who locates the invention of compassionate human empathy—surprisingly for those familiar with the great world religions—in eighteenth-century EPISTOLARY novels such as Samuel Richardson's Clarissa, 1747—48) describe the novel as the foundation of modern secular morality.

This last claim heaps much ethical, political, and metaphysical weight onto the shoulders of what is after all a mere literary convention, and might suggest that for many of its early readers, the novel was a secular substitute for diminishing religious feeling—or what Blumenberg calls a “formal reoccupation” of now “vacant” theological “answer positions” (69). In fact, the Weberian interpretation of the genre is to be found less in Weber himself than in his contemporary interlocutor, the Hegelian (and later marxist) philosopher Georg lukács. For the early Lukács, the novel was the supreme representation of nostalgia for the “immanence” of meaning once supplied by religion. Lukács's novel is a secularized epic, and he specifies what “answer position” the novel has come to reoccupy: “The novel is the epic of a world that has been abandoned by God” (88). The novelist's irony, “with intuitive double vision, can see where God is to be found in a world abandoned by God” (92). Lukács subtly reworks the perspective of G. W. F. Hegel, who elaborates the novel—most obviously the bildungsroman of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1795—96, Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship) and its sequel—as exemplifying the unfortunate way irony dominates modern culture (see MODERNIS). What was fatally missing in the novel, Hegel claimed, was earnestness, which means that the novel lacks all capacity for epic achievement or forms of understanding that transcend the quotidian pursuits of everyday life. Lukács turned Hegel's criticism of the novel's formal failing into a melancholy commentary on its spiritual homelessness. “The novel is the form of the epoch of absolute sinfulness,” Lukács wrote, and the novel's irony negatively illuminated culture's profound longing for a world redeemed from its sublunary bad faith and emptiness (152).

Erich Auerbach produced the great and still unparalleled summa of the novel's career as the genre of secularization. Auerbach's focus is narrative form broadly conceived, including drama and verse. But it is the novel that occupies most of his attention after Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra's Don Quixote (1605, 1615), and that most fully embodies Auerbach's primary thesis. Yet this thesis depends on a notion of secularization more evident in Lukács (and throughout Hegel's work) than in the later criticism of Watt, McKeon, Moretti, et al. Auerbach's sympathetic, nonsystematic perspective is the final product of the long development of Christian humanism in Europe, beginning in what Auerbach discerns as the mixture of styles and the imaginative sympathy granting tragic sublimity to the lowest social orders in the Gospel of Mark (a sympathy absent in Homer, Tacitus, and Petronius, and generally available only in stylistically appropriate comedy throughout Antiquity). Auerbach rooted this stylistic confusion in the story of Christ's human incarnation amid the humblest of circumstances and in the earlier Jewish idea of universal history in which the sublime and everyday could be united (as in the story of Abraham and Isaac). Auerbach regarded the nineteenth-century novel's “revolution against the classical doctrine of levels of style” (or “DECORUM,” for Horace”) as simply one revolt among many in the Western literary history (554). Auerbach made clear “when and how this first break with the classical theory had come about. It was the story of Christ, with its ruthless mixture of everyday reality and the highest and most sublime tragedy, which had conquered the classical rules of styles” (555). The demise of the stylistically hierarchic thus accompanies—or rather, generically records and compels—the demise of the spiritually hieratic. As has been the paradoxical case for numerous historians and sociologists of religion, the story of secularization that becomes the story of the novel actually begins for Auerbach with the story of Christ.

Religion, Romance, and Reformation

Alternatives to this history of the novel as secularization—implying either a break with the religious past (as in Goody) or a translation of religious into secular motifs (as in Auerbach)—have long been available. G. A. Starr and J. Paul Hunter emphasize the religious sources of Defoe's seminal novel—the first in broadly Christian terms, the second as Puritan (Bunyanesque) guide—in which spiritual quest, pilgrim allegory, and typological thinking predominate. For them, Robinson Crusoe (1719—22) is as much spiritual autobiography as proto-capitalist adventure—a conflation that would hardly have surprised Weber. Though neither Starr nor Hunter places “romance” at the novel's rise, they nevertheless highlight characteristics of Robinson Crusoe—the work often considered the model for the “realistic” novel—that reflect the techniques of romance writing. A genre with classical origins and the mythic motifs (see MYTHOLOGY) of quest, ritual, archetype, and symbolic (or allegorical) action, romance becomes for others the template that rivals Lukács's epic. Northrop Frye's use of romance illustrates elements in the modern (post-Defoe) novel that remain anchored in religious tradition. Margaret Anne Doody emphasizes not only the generic continuity of classical and medieval romance (from Heliodorus, Apuleius, and Petronius to Giovanni Boccaccio and François Rabelais) with the modern novel (especially that of Cervantes, Richardson, Balzac, Charles Dickens, and Thomas Mann), as well as the contributions of African and Asian sources to romances of the Roman Empire, but also the self-serving nature of the distinction itself within English novels and criticism.

It is not trivial that the English novel putatively spawned by worldly travel and the quotidian entertainment of the news would appear to diverge from the older European tradition of the roman (a word meaning romance, fiction, and novel, and not only in the Romance languages but in German as well). For whatever one thinks of Doody's debunking of the English claim to have invented the novel, the classical tradition of romance fed seamlessly into Roman Catholic (and often Platonic) traditions of romance in medieval and Renaissance literature. Even when he confronts the grotesque satire of Christian idealism in Rabelais, Auerbach is careful to point out that Rabelais's stylistic olio is an imitation of late medieval sermons, which were “at once popular in the crudest way, creaturely realistic, and learned and edifying in their figural Biblical interpretation,” as well as a product of Rabelais's experience with the earthy, mendicant life-world of the Franciscans (271). (Auerbach's point evokes that Rabelaisian modernist James Joyce, whose sermon in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), lifted with scrupulous meanness from an actual Catholic sermon manual, is a later version of what Auerbach means.)

By contrast, from the English Reformation emerged a sober anti-Platonism, a rejection of the vivid imagery of medieval Catholic cosmology (as found in Dante), and the tailoring of the spiritual-amorous quest (filigreed with colorful symbolism in a verse romance like Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meung's Roman de la Rose, mid- to late thirteenth century) to fit the far more pedantic and ham-handed allegory of Pilgrim's Progress. Despite Defoe's affinity with Bunyan, a national Protestantism bequeathed to the English novel a far less romance-oriented and religiously oriented sensibility. Even when bitterly satirized, religious feeling is elaborated by the French novel in striking, exotic, and intimate detail. Nothing in Jane Austen, Dickens, or George Eliot—despite the latter's Dorothea Brooke in whom, unlike her uncle, “the hereditary strain of Puritan energy...glowed alike through faults and virtues” (Eliot, 6)—remotely approaches the religion haunting Gustave Flaubert's Emma Bovary. And nothing in the English novel would allow a reader to understand what Flaubert does with religion in Trois contes (1877, Three Tales), Salammbô (1862), and most of all in his dramatic novel, La tentation de Saint Antoine (1874, The Temptation of St. Anthony), on which Flaubert labored throughout his life in the face of his friends' ridicule. By 1876, Richard Wagner's mythic opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen, and his retelling of the Grail legend, Parsifal, were being embraced on the Continent. Despite the undeniable Christianity of his sensibility, Dickens's characters no longer go to church, even on Sundays, and they almost never discuss religion.

The Return of the Repressed

Unsurprisingly, the two-volume, 2,000-page English version of Moretti's The Novel devotes only trivial, passing remarks to the greatest religious novel yet written—Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Brat'ya Karamazovy (1880, The Brothers Karamazov), of which the “Grand Inquisitor” chapter is the single most important literary reflection on religion in modernity, a text equal to (and perhaps influencing) the late writings of Friedrich Nietzsche. Dostoyevsky's engagement with Russian Orthodoxy is very different from Flaubert's with Roman Catholicism, but one cannot discount the roles of these two writers in creating the formal and thematic foundations of the twentieth-century novel. Lukács pointed beyond the bitter disillusionment of Leo Tolstoy's realism toward the future impact of Dostoyevsky, who he claimed “did not write novels,” and who promised an escape from the “age of absolute sinfulness” (152—53; see DEFINITIONS). Apart from vexed questions about the persistence of romance, the European novel after (or despite) the flowering of naturalism in the nineteenth century, and the concomitant rise of symbolism in poetry, recovered much that was central to religious sentiment and its mythic, archetypal, symbolic, and allegorical machinery: Joris-Karl Huysmans's À rebours (1884, Against Nature; stimulated by Flaubert's religious exoticism, and called fatal to naturalism by Émile Zola), Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1891) and Jude the Obscure (1896), André Gide's L'Immoraliste (1902, The Immoralist; which Gide traced to Dostoyevsky, about whom he wrote at length) and La Symphonie pastorale (1919, The Pastoral Symphony), Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses (1922), and Finnegans Wake (1939) (in all three of which there is not one “filler”), Mann's Der Tod in Venedig (1913, Death in Venice), Der Zauberberg (1924, The Magic Mountain), and Doktor Faustus (1948), Albert Camus's L'Étranger (1942, The Stranger), La Peste (1948, The Plague), and La Chute (1957, The Fall), and most perplexingly yet deeply religious of all, the entire corpus of Franz Kafka (1883—1924). In praising Das Schloss (1926, The Castle), Mann called Kafka “a religious humorist”; the phrase may be applied broadly to the novelists of Kafka's era (x). (That much of this modernist work reveals powerful homosexual impulses may be one interesting consequence of the novel's rejection of the earlier Protestant, everyday sobriety that Moretti emphasizes.) This may be the revenge—or better, the Heideggerian Verwindung, the spiritually distorted return—of religious romance (see Vattimo, 172, 179; Pecora, 20—23). Its effects can be felt to the end of the century, in the magical realism of Gabriel García Márquez, whose deeply Marxist Cien años de soledad (1967, One Hundred Years of Solitude) is simultaneously profoundly shaped by the syncretistic peasant Catholicism of fictional Sulaco, and of Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses (1988), a novel (perhaps a romance?) in which Islam is given a formal and thematic centrality—always the Achilles' heel of satire—never before seen in English novels. It may yet turn out that the quotidian, rationalized, often Protestant, and apparently secular novel that began with Defoe came to a halt with Zola, and that “the novel” as so many continue to see it will soon be understood as no more than a two-century aberration in literary history.

SEE ALSO: Comedy/Tragedy, Gothic Novel, History of the Novel, Novel Theory (20th Century), Realism.


1. Anderson, B. (1983), Imagined Communities.

2. Auerbach, E. (1974), Mimesis, trans. W. Trask.

3. Blumenberg, H. (1985), Legitimacy of the Modern Age, trans. R. Wallace.

4. Doody, M.A. (1997), True Story of the Novel.

5. Eliot, G. (1968), Middlemarch.

6. Frye, N. (1976), Secular Scripture.

7. Goody, J. (2006), “From Oral to Written,” in Novel, ed. F. Moretti, 2 vols.

8. Hunt, L. (2008), Inventing Human Rights.

9. Hunter, J.P. (1966), Reluctant Pilgrim.

10. Lukács, G. (1971), Theory of the Novel, trans. A. Bostock.

11. Mann, T. (1974), “Homage,” in F. Kafka, Castle, trans. W. and E. Muir.

12. McKeon, M. (1987), Origins of the English Novel, 1600—1740.

13. Moretti, F. (2006), “Serious Century,” in Novel, ed. F. Moretti, 2 vols.

14. Nussbaum, M. (1992), Love's Knowledge.

15. Pecora, V.P. (2006), Secularization and Cultural Criticism.

16. Starr, G.A. (1965), Defoe and Spiritual Autobiography.

17. Vattimo, G. (1988), End of Modernity, trans. J. R. Snyder.

18. Watt, I. (1957), Rise of the Novel.

19. Weber, M. (1992), Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. T. Parsons.