A novel is a work of prose fiction of extended length. Novels tell complex stories and generally feature many characters. While a comparatively recent development, the modern novel has become the dominant literary form in western culture . In general, the novel can be distinguished from other forms in its length, complexity and the fact that, unlike the epic poem for example, it is in prose.
All of these limits have been challenged in one way or another. A short novel or novella may be considered by some to be a novel. While generally in prose, there are verse novels, Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse or Alexander Pushkin's Eugene Onegin as examples.
Lengthy fictional (or at least highly fictionalized) narrative has been one of the central forms of literature since literature began. Some of the earliest examples of literature, like Gilgamesh and the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer, have many features that would typify later novels: a highly detailed world; a large, colorful cast of characters; and attention to actions and their consequences. Despite these commonalities, these works were composed orally and in verse.
The Iliad and the Odyssey were composed in the 8th century, but it was not until much later that we begin to see the growth of long prose fiction. The earliest example, which concerns the love affair of Ninus and Semiramis, was discovered in fragmentary form on Egyptian papyri, and was composed between 100 BC-100 AD.
In the second century AD, there was a wave of long prose narratives. Most were written in Greek, but a few were written in Latin. Greek novels, or "romances" as they are frequently called, usually center on a love story, and follow the wanderings of an unlucky pair of lovers as they experience a series of misfortunes: pirates, shipwreck, being sold into slavery or buried alive-- or, more usually, a number of these. The Aethiopica of Heliodorus of Emesa is credited as the most skillful of the typical novels; Longus' Daphnis and Chloe shares many of the features of other Greek novels, but is unusual in its concern with the love story's emotional side.
In the medieval West, lengthy narrative in prose was once again eclipsed by verse. Authors such as Chrétien de Troyes wrote long works with "novelistic" concerns, but in verse. A few works were written in prose in the Middle Ages, notably the so-called Prose Lancelot.
The first European novels
The boundary line between the prose romances in European literature and those works generally recognised as novels is blurred. (In French there is no distinction between the two, "roman" meaning both "romance" and "novel".) Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote (1605) started out as a satire on the romances, but itself included some tales of that nature. In Spain, Cervantes had been preceded by the 16th century writers of picaresque novels, with entirely different subject matter.
Early English Novels
The picaresque novel first made its appearance in England with Thomas Nashe's The Unfortunate Traveller (1594). At this time English works identifiable as romances were still being published, including Lyly's Euphues and Greene's Card of Fancie; but alongside them were other fictional works produced by such as Thomas Deloney, whose books were just collections of tales centred on a particular person. His works and others continued to be sold as chapbooks until well into the 17th century.
There are various claimants to the title of first English novelist, including Nashe himself, Aphra Behn (1640—1689), Daniel Defoe (1660—1731) and Samuel Richardson (1689—1761). Aphra Behn's Oroonoko (c 1688) has been called the first philosophical novel, though it mainly resembles a tragic romance, with a hero and heroine both impossibly noble and handsome; but the style is simpler than that of past romances, and the setting is unusual. Above all, other cultures are presented as being morally equivalent, if not superior, to the culture of western Europe, while the slave trade, if not slavery, is clearly condemned.
Defoe, though best known for Robinson Crusoe, wrote numerous works, some of which continued the picaresque tradition. The first major satirical novel was Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726). Possibly the title of first "modern" English novelist goes to Henry Fielding (1707—1754) who relieved the novel of the cumbersome length and epistolary format which Richardson had bestowed on it, created rounded characters and coherent plots, and introduced the practice of confidentially chatting to the reader. Alongside Fielding's work, in a class of its own, was Laurence Sterne's extraordinary Tristram Shandy.
Literature written specially for children and designed to entertain rather than instruct made an appearance in the 18th century, though novels as such were at first rare. The end of the century saw the rise of the Gothic horror novel, beginning with Horace Walpole's Castle of Otranto (1765).
The nineteenth century
During the 19th century, there was much exchange of influences among Western countries, notably Germany's western states, Britain, France, Russia, Ireland and the United States. There was also an increase in the reading public's appetite for different genres.
At the beginning of the century, the two great British novelists of the time provided a marked contrast, though they nevertheless appreciated each other: in Scotland, Scott, with colourful scenes, characters and conflicts, was inaugurating the historical novel; while in the south of England Jane Austen was perfecting her social dramas set among mostly respectable people.
When Anthony Trollope in his autobiography came to review his contemporaries, he placed Thackeray first and George Eliot second, with a special mention for Charlotte Bronte (though none for her sisters). He recognised Charles Dickens as easily the most popular author of the day, but thought his works would not endure. Although Trollope's critical judgments were perceptive, his prophecy was not fulfilled. He lists other authors, many of whom would not now be recognised.
At this time there was a substantial readership for substantial fiction. Works would often be serialised in magazines, which used popular authors to boost their circulation, before appearing in three hardback volumes. The cost of these was such that many readers belonged to a subscription library. To protect against copyright infringement, American publication might precede the British. The problem of American infringement of copyright was one which Trollope tried, and failed, to resolve in a diplomatic mission in 1868.
Free public libraries appeared in America before they did in Britain.
The modern novel
The twentieth century saw authors experimenting with the novel form.