novel, in modern literary usage, a sustained work of prose fiction a volume or more in length. It is distinguished from the short story and the fictional sketch, which are necessarily brief. Although the novel has a place in the literatures of all nations, this article concentrates on the evolution of the novel in England, France, Russia and the former Soviet Union, and the United States. Nonetheless, changes in technology in the 20th cent. have made the literature of different cultures widely available. The international readership claimed by such authors as Africa's Chinua Achebe, India's R. K. Narayan, Japan's Yukio Mishima, and Latin America's Jorge Luis Borges indicates the variety of novels available to an ever-widening audience.
Forerunners of the Novel
The term novel is derived from novella, Italian for a compact, realistic, often ribald prose tale popular in the Renaissance and best exemplified by the stories in Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron (1348–53). The novel can, therefore, be considered a work of imagination that is grounded in reality. On the other hand, during the Middle Ages a popular literary form was the romance, a type of tale that describes the adventures, both natural and supernatural, of such figures of legend as the Trojan heroes, Alexander the Great, and King Arthur and his knights. Thus, the modern novel is rooted in two traditions, the mimetic and the fantastic, or the realistic and the romantic.
Indeed, the conflict between romantic dreams and harsh reality has been the theme of many great novels and the historical development of the novel continually reflects this dual tradition. Among the genre's precursors Petronius's Satyricon (1st cent. A.D.) presents a vivid portrait of life in Nero's Rome while satirizing the corruption there, whereas the Metamorphoses (2d cent. A.D.) of Lucius Apuleius describes the fantastic adventures of a young man who is transformed into an ass; Daphnis and Chloë (3d cent. A.D.), attributed to...