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Source global Wall Street Journal     time 2022-12-17 15:04:17
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The novel is a genre of fiction, and fiction may be defined as the art or craft of contriving, through the written word, representations of human life that instruct or divert or both. The various forms that fiction may take are best seen less as a number of separate categories than as a continuum or, more accurately, a cline, with some such brief form as the anecdote at one end of the scale and the longest conceivable novel at the other. When any piece of fiction is long enough to constitute a whole book, as opposed to a mere part of a book, then it may be said to have achieved novelhood. But this state admits of its own quantitative categories, so that a relatively brief novel may be termed a novella (or, if the insubstantiality of the content matches its brevity, a novelette), and a very long novel may overflow the banks of a single volume and become a roman-fleuve, or river novel. Length is very much one of the dimensions of the genre.

The desire to present life with frank objectivity led certain early 20th-century novelists to question the validity of long-accepted narrative conventions. If truth was the novelist’s aim, then the tradition of the omniscient narrator would have to go, to be replaced by one in which a fallible, partially ignorant character—one involved in the story and hence himself subject to the objective or naturalistic approach—recounted what he saw and heard. But the Impressionist painters of late 19th-century France had proclaimed a revision of the whole seeing process: they distinguished between what the observer assumed he was observing and what he actually observed. That cerebral editing which turned visual data into objects of geometric solidity had no place in Impressionist painting; the visible world became less definite, more fluid, resolving into light and colour.

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The makeup and behaviour of fictional characters depend on their environment quite as much as on the personal dynamic with which their author endows them: indeed, in Émile Zola, environment is of overriding importance, since he believed it determined character. The entire action of a novel is frequently determined by the locale in which it is set. Thus, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857) could hardly have been placed in Paris, because the tragic life and death of the heroine have a great deal to do with the circumscriptions of her provincial milieu. But it sometimes happens that the main locale of a novel assumes an importance in the reader’s imagination comparable to that of the characters and yet somehow separable from them. Wessex is a giant brooding presence in Thomas Hardy’s novels, whose human characters would probably not behave much differently if they were set in some other rural locality of England. The popularity of Sir Walter Scott’s “Waverley” novels is due in part to their evocation of a romantic Scotland. Setting may be the prime consideration of some readers, who can be drawn to Conrad because he depicts life at sea or in the East Indies; they may be less interested in the complexity of human relationships that he presents.


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