From Abrams and Harpham, A Glossary of Literary Terms


Novels may have any kind of plot form--tragic, comic, satiric, or romantic. A common distinction--which was described by Hawthorne, in his preface to The House of the Seven Gables (1851) and elsewhere, and has been adopted and expanded by a number of recent critics--is that between two basic types of prose fiction: the realistic novel (which is the novel proper) and the romance. The realistic novel can be described as the fictional attempt to give the effect of realism, by representing complex characters with mixed motives who are rooted in a social class, operate in a developed social structure, interact with many other characters, and undergo plausible, everyday modes of experience. This novelistic mode, rooted in such eighteenth-century writers as Defoe and Fielding, achieved a high development in the master novelists of the nineteenth century, including Jane Austen, George Eliot, Anthony Trollope, William Dean Howells, and Henry James in England and America; Stendhal, George Sand, Balzac, and Flaubert in France; and Turgenev and Tolstoy in Russia. If, as in the writings of Jane Austen, Edith Wharton, and John P. Marquand, a realistic novel focuses on the customs, conversation, and ways of thinking and valuing of the upper social class, it is often called a novel of manners. The prose romance, on the other hand, has as its precursors the chivalric romance of the Middle Ages and the Gothic novel of the later eighteenth century. It usually deploys characters who are sharply discriminated as heroes or villains, masters or victims; its protagonist is often solitary, and relatively isolated from a social context; it tends to be set in the historical past, and the atmosphere is such as to suspend the reader's expectations that are based on everyday experience. The plot of the prose romance emphasizes adventure, and is frequently cast in the form of the quest for an ideal, or the pursuit of an enemy; and the nonrealistic and occasionally melodramatic events are claimed by some critics to project in symbolic form the primal desires, hopes, and terrors in the depths of the human mind, and to be therefore analogous to the materials of dream, myth, ritual, and folklore. Examples of romance novels are Walter Scott's Rob Roy (1817), Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers (1844-45), Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights (1847), and an important line of American narratives which extends from Edgar Allan Poe, James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville to recent writings of William Faulkner and Saul Bellow. Martin Green, in Dreams if Adventure, Deeds if Empire (1979), distinguishes a special type of romance, "the adventure novel," which deals with masculine adventures in the newly colonized non-European world. Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719) is an early prototype; some later instances are H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines (1886), Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island (1883), and Rudyard Kipling's Kim (1901).