The Earliest Novels of The Genres

Prose, poetry and drama are the tripartite of literature. Novels, now the most common form of fictional prose, were not considered literature when they first emerged in the 17th century. During the rise of the novel in the 18th century, novels were sold alongside history books and early English novels often included real people or purportedly so. Robinson Crusoe best exemplifies this since it was published as a true travelogue with Robinson Crusoe as the author in the first edition, leading many to believe that he was real. This week, we would like to recommend one of the early novels of 10 different genres starting with the genre, novels, itself.

1) The Novel

Don Quixote (1615) by Miguel de Cervantes

Don Quixote is often praised as being the first modern western novel. It is the Spanish Shakespeare, the literary critic Harold Bloom proclaims, in his analytical book on Don Quixote. The influence of this novel spread across the literary world, from Shakespeare and Fielding, to Flaubert and Dostoyevsky. It even seeps into pop culture, being referenced in the manga, One Piece and tv series, Supernatural. It is widely recognised the first modern novel due to its mixture of the epic and the picaresque and a deliberate obfuscation of authorship by claiming the internal exploration of the eponymous protagonist, and his relationship with his companion, Sancho Panza. The story is about a nobleman called Alonso Quixano, enamoured by the fantastic world of chivalric romances that he read, renames himself Don Quixote and goes onto an adventure with a crazy wise squire, Sancho Panza.

2) Gothic Fiction

The Castle of Otranto (1764) by Horace Walpole

Gothic literature arose around the grand, towering, heavily ornamented castles that struck awe in humans that they shadow. Within the gothic walls of his mansion, Strawberry Hill House Horace Walpole wrote The Castle of Otranto, the novel that now stands as the first within the Gothic canon. He described his novel as a marriage between the ‘ancient’ fantastical imagination and the ‘modern’ natural realism during his time. The former provides the magical and supernatural situations and the latter the realistic psychological reactions of people in them. The story begins with the death of Conrad, heir to the house of Otranto during his wedding. His father, Manfred, fearing his rule threatened, decides to marry Conrad’s betrothed, Isabella but his plan is interrupted by an unending series of supernatural events.

3) Romance

Pamela (1740) by Samuel Richardson

Romance is an ancient genre that predates even ‘novel’. Ancient romances, the predecessors of modern romantic novels, are chivalric and fantastic. We are all familiar with the chivalric archetype of a knight saving the damsel-in-distress from the dragon with his mighty sword. The advent of romantic novels in the 18th century mark a shift of focus from royals and knights to the middle and lower class. Pamela, is such a novel. The story centres around a servant called Pamela who is being seduced by her master. It is an epistolary novel of interclass romance that much scandalised people of the time, prompting some to call it ‘pornographic’ even though it is far from being so from a modern perspective.

4) Fantasy

The Princess and the Goblin (1872) by George McDonald

Fantasy grows out of fairy tales which inherits the belief in the supernatural from mythology. Unlike fairy tales, its a conscious construction of an unreal world by an author that does not believe it to be real. It emerged during the Romantic era when child labours work in factories and people idealise childhood. It is unsurprising then that fantasy began in children literature. The titular princess in The Princess and the Goblin is an eight-year-old, similar to the seven-year-old Alice from Alice in the Wonderland, which was published around that time. The novel tells the story of Princess Irene and her battle with the goblins living in the mines near her castle that seek to revenge on the humans. She is assisted by a young miner called Cuddie and her great-great-grandmother who knows magic.

5) Science Fiction

The Time Machine (1895) H.G. Wells

H.G.Wells is one of the ‘fathers of science-fiction’. He had also been nominated for the Nobel prize four times but unfortunately never won. In this novel, the concept of a time machine as a time-travelling vehicle was first conceived. The machine has a pedal, some dials and a saddle. It is different from its fantastic precursor, the time-travelling clock from The Clock that Went Backwards in that it is more technological than magical. The novel follows the Time Traveller’s journey to a dying earth in A.D. 802,701 which is inhabited by child-like human race called Eloi and cavemen-like species known as Morlocks.

6) Detective Fiction

A Study in Scarlet (1887) by Arthur Conan Doyle

A Study in Scarlet is Doyle’s first detective novel, in which Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson made their first appearances. In the novel, Dr. Watson describes Sherlock Holmes as akin to the character of Edgar Allan Poe’s Dupin. It is a direct reference to Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, which is the often considered first modern detective fiction. However, Sherlock Holmes is the one that popularised the genre. In his first story ever, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are confronted with a case of a dead man with a face of horror but without any visible injuries. A mysterious word written in blood on the wall offers a puzzling clue. 

7) Dystopia/Utopia 

Utopia (1516) Thomas More

This book is the origin of the word ‘utopia’, which is now part of our common vocabulary. More coined it from the Ancient Greek ‘ou-topos’ which means ‘no place’ or ‘nowhere’. It was a pun on ‘eu-topos’ which means ‘a good place’. It makes you wonder if this book is indeed a idealistic imagination of a perfect world or a satirical writing that deems such world impossible. Utopia describes the politics, religion and society of a fictional island.

8) Historical Fiction

Waverley (1814) by Sir Walter Scott

Waverley is widely cited as the first western historical fiction. The story is set during the Jacobite rising of 1745 which seeks to restore Charles Edward Stuart to the throne. 1745 was a time of great conflicts between the protestants and Catholics, Stuart dynasty and the Hanoverian government, the highland clans of Scotland. The story begins with Edward Waverley, a young English soldier sent north to Scotland to fight against the Jacobites. He falls in love with a Highland girl and ends up on the other side of the battle.

9) Family Saga

Dream of the Red Chamber (1791) by Cao Xue Qin

Dream of the Red Chamber is one of Four Great Chinese Classical Novels, along with Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Journey to the West, Water Margin. It was written in the middle of the 18th century during the Qing Dynasty. The novel chronicles the rise and fall of the two branches of the wealthy, aristocratic Jia clan, residing in two large, adjacent family compounds in the capital.

10) Young Adult

The Outsiders (1967) by S. E. Hinton

Young Adult is a… young genre. It seems apt that this canonical text was written by S.E. Hinton when she was 15 and published when she was 18. Many earlier coming-of-age novels such as The Catcher in the Rye which has garnered young-adult readership but were written for adults. The Outsiders was written by a teenager about teenagers for teenagers. Its depiction of the darker side of a teenager’s life such as gang violence, underage drinking and smoking made it a controversial book at the time of its publication. The world of the main character, Ponyboy, consists of two kinds of people in the world, the two different gangs, the rich socs (social) and poor greasers. He is a comfortable member of the latter until one day when one of his gang mate and friend, Johhny, kills a soc.

By Ed Yong Zhien Bao

a perpetually sleepy, poetically inclined peanut

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