ENL 6236 – Eighteenth-Century Novel and Theory

Dr. Runge



Class 1 – Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel, Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding with afterword by W. B. Carnochan  2nd edition ( U California P, 2001)


Also recommended:  Daniel Schwartz, “The Importance of Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel” Journal of Narrative Technique 13 (Spring 1983) 59-73.




Originally published in 1957, Ian Watt’s work set an agenda for studying the eighteenth-century novel that  in many ways still holds sway.  For our first work of the semester we will consider this enduring piece of scholarship for the arguments it makes, for the historical contexts it foregrounds and for the method of inquiry it establishes.  However, many developments in scholarship since Watt have shed light on his shortcomings; we will also evaluate the weaknesses or holes in his work.


Discussion questions:


Formal Realism – what is it?  How does it compare with idealism, and what are the implications for the novel?  See page 32.

Why privilege this aesthetic?  What is its history? What are its philosophical underpinnings?  What specific concerns does realism bring to the novel as a genre?

Note Scwartz: while Watt claims that it “is a convention, it is really a goal of a set of conventions” (72).


According to Watt, what does philosophical realism lend to the novel as distinguished from other literary genres? (See page 12).  How does this play out in the reading of the novels that follows?


How do names signify the change in literary conventions?  How is the function of language different in novels?


Chapter II on the reading public -- Literacy—how accurate are his figures?  What role do they play in his argument on the rise of the novel?


Lennard Davis calls Watt’s method  osmotic.”  How would you describe it?  To what extent does Watt identify historical causes for the novel’s emergence? To what extent does he fail to draw conclusions about the “rise of the novel”?


Specifically, class and gender play major roles in Watt’s argument. How does he cast the novel in terms of sexual mores, class values, national and racial categories?  To what extent are his categories historically accurate?  How do conceptions of the public and the private operate in these discussions (note in particular reference to his discussion of Richardson).


To what extent is the rise of the novel explained as the rise of the individual in eighteenth-century England?  How is this related to religious changes during the period?  How is it related to what is known as the “middle class”?  What role do women play in this argument?


What are the strengths of this argument?  What are the limitations?  What assumptions does he make in order to establish this argument?


What are the critical merits of his claim that “Defoe and Richardson are the first great writers in our literature who did not take their plots from mythology, history, legend or previous literature” (14)?  How does he define the novel against co-existing or previous literary genres?


To what extent is Watt’s effort to draw attention to Defoe and Richardson and their middle class interests innovative and liberal?  To what extent does his focus on Defoe, Richardson and Fielding to the exclusion of other writers denote literary elitism?


Schwartz (1983) writes “In 1957, Ian Watt published The Rise of the Novel.  It was viewed as a response to the New Critical orthodoxy of the day, although we now see that it was more of a modification than a refutation of formalism” (59).   “Watt’s belief that criticism should explain the historical conditions which gave rise to the text and shaped its meaning takes issue with the current position that the reader is an heroic figure who creates the text or that the major task of criticism is ‘that of making the text interesting, or combating the boredom which lurks behind every work, waiting to move in if reading goes astray or founders.’ By contrast, while conceding that interpretations may vary, Watt contends that literary criticism can be true or false insofar as it provides the correct material for understanding the text and insofar as it accurately reads the text” (60). [Quotation is from J. Culler’s Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics, and the Study of Literature, p. 262]


What do we gain by reading Watt in conversation with the critics of his day?  With the tradition of criticism that follows?  How can we explain the enduring explanatory value of The Rise of the Novel?


Schwartz writes: “Watt is not always clear whether formal realism is a process of mimesis, a goal of mimesis, or an achieved result, and whether it has any inherent value or not” (64).  How does Watt use the term “formal realism” when evaluating the works of Defoe, Richardson and Fielding?  Is it an end in itself, an aesthetic achievement or rationale?


Comment on the differences between “realism of presentation” in Defoe and Richardson and “realism of assessment” in Fielding (see page 288).  To what extent do they differ?  To what extent are they mutually exclusive? 


How does Fielding fare in Watt’s analysis and why?


What are the ideological implications of Schwartz’s criticism that “realism, like other qualities attributed to a text, does not simply inhere in texts but depends on the dialogue between readers and texts” (65)?


Schwartz identifies Watt’s implicit aesthetic standard for novels: “the extent to which a novel signifies the complexity of the historical, sociological, and cultural aspects in which the author lives becomes an aesthetic standard” (66). Evaluate as a standard for literary criticism.  How useful might this be for analysis of the works we will be studying this semester?


Examine the teleology of Watt’s argument: if Defoe, Richardson and Fielding represent the “rise” of the novel, what is the pinnacle?  What are the implications of this definition of the genre?  How does Austen fit into the schema?  Who is left out?



Catherine Ingrassia summarizes the limitations and significance of Watt’s study in the 2005 Blackwell’s Companion to Eighteenth-century English Novel and Culture: “Though its teleological, formalist, undeniably masculinist, and at times monolithic perspective became the object of subsequent critique, the text remained a touchstone for subsequent studies of the novel, whether challenging or affirming Watt’s approach” (3).  What does this suggest about the impact of The Rise of the Novel?


Concluding thoughts: based on Watt’s arguments, what are the main factors we need to consider in a history of the novel?