The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Novella: As commonly used today, a fictional prose narrative, typically tightly structured and focusing on a single serious issue or event, that ranges from about fifty to one hundred pages in length, falling between the short story and the novel. In this sense, novella is synonymous with novelette, a term rarely used today, except disparagingly, due to its dime-store connotations.

As traditionally understood, however, novella had a different meaning. Used strictly, it referred to realistic, often ribald or satiric, Italian and French tales written between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, some of which were as short as two pages. Noted examples include the prose narratives found in Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron (1348—53) and Marguerite de Navarre’s Heptaméron (1548), which contains stories ranging from approximately three hundred words to fifty pages. Used more generally, novella referred to later works written in other languages, provided they exhibited specific characteristics found in early Italian and French examples of the genre.

The traditional novella focused on a narrowly circumscribed occurrence, situation, or conflict. In representing the protagonist’s reaction to a particular development in the plot or in working out the resolution of a particular conflict, many practitioners placed a premium on suspense and surprise. Traditional novellas, like those comprising the Heptaméron, were also often encompassed by a frame story explaining why the various “interior” stories were being recounted. Most frame stories linked novellas and their narrators through shared journey, disaster, refuge, or condition of exile; the story framing the Decameron, for instance, tells of ten young people who escape from plague-ridden Florence to a country villa, where they pass the time telling tales. Not all practitioners of the form used frame stories, however; Miguel de Cervantes, known as “the Spanish Boccaccio,” dispensed with the device in Novelas ejemplares (Exemplary Novellas) (1613).

The traditional novella had a powerful influence on a variety of genres, especially the novel. Indeed, both the terms novel and novella come from the Italian word novella, which itself derives from the Latin novella narrātiō, meaning “new kind of story.” Several characters (e.g., the betrayed husband, the corrupt clergyman) and plots (e.g., adulterous plans foiled, wit’s triumph over force) of the traditional novella recur in novels by writers ranging from Henry Fielding, an eighteenth-century Englishman, to William Faulkner, a twentieth-century American, and beyond. Moreover, and more significantly, the novella’s use of the frame story showed that disparate but related stories could be unified into a larger structure, paving the way not only for the novel but also for the picaresque narrative, itself an important influence on the development of the novel. Use of the frame story also showed that narrators could be characters and vice versa, which contributed to the development of many features of the modern novel, including the first-person narrator and the unreliable narrator. The traditional novella also influenced narrative poetry (Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales [c. 1387] has been viewed as a series of novellas organized by a frame story about pilgrims on a pilgrimage) and drama (the plot of William Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well [1602—03], like that of other Renaissance plays, is derived from a tale in the Decameron).

Since the nineteenth century, the novella has thrived particularly in German literature, where its current form developed. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, borrowing from the Italian, introduced the term Novelle in 1795, the year he wrote the first collection of German Novellen, Unterhaltungen deutscher Ausgewanderten (The Recreations of the German Immigrants). The collection includes seven stories linked by a frame story about a group of German refugees awaiting news of French army movements; typical of the traditional novella are the two stories told by a priest, one involving a man who is unexpectedly pursued by a married woman, and the other involving a man who unintentionally discovers how to open a secret compartment in his father’s desk. After Goethe, nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century writers working in German adapted the form to incorporate background information, descriptions of nature, and character development, elements largely absent from the traditional novella. These modifications gave rise to the modern understanding of novella as applicable to lengthy, descriptive, psychologically nuanced stories such as Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (1912) and Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (1915).

The novella, however, has by no means been an exclusively German form since the advent of the nineteenth century. Examples from other literary traditions include French writer George Sand’s (Amandine Aurore Lucie Dupin) Marianne (1876); Notes from the Underground (1866) and The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886), Russian novellas written by Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Leo Tolstoi, respectively; Crónica de una muerte anunciada (Chronicle of a Death Foretold) (1981) and Amirbar (1990), by Colombian authors Gabriel García Márquez and Álvaro Mutis, respectively; and Japanese writer Yoko Ogawa’s The Diving Pool: Three Novellas (1990—91). English-language examples, some of which contain elements of the traditional novella, include Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898) and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899), which make use of a frame story; Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome (1911), which addresses the theme of illicit temptation; Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929); and Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (1952), which involves resolution of a single and simple plot conflict. More recent examples of the novella in English include Mark Helprin’s Ellis Island (1981), A. S. Byatt’s Angels and Insects: Two Novellas (1992), David Leavitt’s Arkansas: Three Novellas (1998), Claire Messud’s The Hunters: Two Novellas (2001), Neil Gaiman’s Coraline (2003), Carissa Halston’s The Mere Weight of Words (2008), and Paul Torday’s Breakfast at the Hotel Déjà vu (2011).