English Fiction in the Seventeenth Century

English Fiction in the Seventeenth Century: Reflection on Daniel Defoe and Samuel Richardson

English Fiction in the Seventeenth Century

English Fiction in the Seventeenth Century : In the seventeenth century the English readers of fiction were chiefly supplied with material for reading by France where there had arisen a school of writers who told at great length the stories of several half-historical heroes. But a notable contribution to the development of the modern English novel was John Bunyan’s book, The Pilgrim’s Progress, in which a common type of story was adapted to the religious life Bunyan’s pilgrim wanders through the world like the knight-errant or the Spanish rogue, meeting adventures.

Like the knight the pilgrim has a high purpose. Like the rogue he mingles with people of every kind and reflects in his journey the sights and interests of English country life. An equally important work was Bunyan’s autobiography Grace Abounding. One of the chief elements of the novel is the study of character, and in this work by Bunyan the novelist has often found his most genuine material in the literature of confessions.

Reflection on Daniel Defoe and Samuel Richardson

The real beginning of the English novel took place in the eighteenth century with the work of Daniel Defoe. Defoe’s book, Robinson Crusoe (1719), has held its popularity undiminished for nearly two hundred and fifty years. This story was based on the experience of Alexander Selkirk who had been wrecked on an island in the Pacific Ocean, and had remained there for many years. The charm of this story as written by Defoe is its intense reality, in the succession of thoughts, feelings, incidents, which every reader recognizes to be absolutely true to life. This absolute naturalness characterized the whole story. It is a study of the human will also—of patience, fortitude, and the indomitable spirit overcoming all obstacles.

The hero represents the whole of human society, doing with his own hands all the things which, by the division of labour and demands of modern civilization, are now done by many different workers. This book proved so successful that Defoe followed it the same year with the Far the, Adventures and, in 1720, with the Serious Reflections of Robinson Crusoe. In the next few years he published a series of more stories of adventure and picaresque novels including Moll Flanders. The last-named work is by some critics given a very high place in realistic fiction. In both Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders Defoe keeps certain moral values in mind, thus reminding us of the prevailing demand for the moralization of literature, a demand made by the English middle- class for which he wrote.

To Samuel Richardson belongs the credit of writing the first modern novel, Pamela. Defoe’s stories were lacking in one element of the modern novel—namely, plot. Like the Spanish rogue stories, Defoe’s were merely successions of adventures which befell the same hero. The first great success in constructing a story guided throughout its course by a single motive was Pamela (1740-41) written by Samuel Richardson. This book, written in the form of a series of letters, proved so popular that Richardson wrote a sequel. Richardson went on to produce a second work of fiction, Clarissa, which appeared in 1747-48. Like Pamela, the story of Clarissa is told by means of letters which pass between the different characters. Obviously, this method is in its nature, dramatic; that is to say, the reader holds communication directly with the characters.

In other ways it is clear that Richardson thought of the novel as an elaborated drama. He calls Clarissa “a dramatic narrative”. Richardson could not, however, forego entirely the novelist’s right so personal communication with his audience. He introduced footnotes in which he expressed his own view of the story, when he thought his readers likely to go astray. These comments were needed especially in reference to the two principal persons, whose characters show a degree of complexity to which the novel-readers of that day were scarcely accustomed. In ‘the case of Clarissa this complexity seemed justified; in all her uncertainty, scruples, hesitation, still more in hex humiliation and anguish, she appeals to us as a real woman; but the hero Lovelace is a mechanism and simply illustrates the author’s inability to portray a man’s character.’

The seriousness with which Richardson took himself as a novelist appears most markedly in his third novel, Sir Charles Grandison (1754), which deals with the love-affair between the hero and a Miss Harriet Byron. The hero of this novel was intended to be a model of aristocratic manners and virtues for the middle-class people, who largely constituted Richardson’s readers. Richardson’s chief purpose in most of his work was to inculcate virtue and good manners. His novels therefore suffer as much from his purpose as from his own limitations. In spite of his tedious moralizing and other defects, Richardson in these three books gave something entirely new to the literary world, and the world appreciated the gift. This was the story of human life, told from within, and depending for its interest not on incident or adventure, but on its truth of human nature.

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