This subject traces the history of the European novel by studying texts that have been influential in the development of the novel as the characteristic form of fiction in the modern world. We will concern ourselves with the way in which the novel-form is particularly apt at representing the historical character of class distinctions as they play out in the everyday details of social life. This feature often carries a suggestion about literature in general: that the most significant representations of the human condition are those dealing with persons who try to compel society to accept them as its agents.
The readings begin with Cervantes’s masterpiece, Don Quixote, which pokes fun at the idea that one can elect oneself as a person of destiny. It also introduces into narrative fiction a kind of teasing inquiry into the various devices by which narratives tend to endow characters with importance. We then turn to serious representations of these ideas in nineteenth-century fiction: Balzac’s Old Goriot, Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Endowing characters with extraordinary intensity, these books constitute the main tradition of modern realistic fiction. In reading them, we will also consider the distinctions to be drawn between the realistic tradition and the tradition of naturalism, which deals with characters more subdued in their relation to the social forces that constrain their lives. Our readings will end with two works of twentieth-century fiction— Joseph Roth’s The Radetsky March and Albert Camus’s The Plague.