Romance and realism
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Romance and Realism. A short history of the novel. “Romance”.

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Romance and Realism

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Romance and realism

Romance and Realism

A short history of the novel



  • The term derives from a medieval French dialect, and originally meant “of the Roman style,” which referred to a local, informal version of Latin rather than the pure classical language. (Think ‘Queen’s English’ vs. cockney…)

  • As time passed, “romance” came to refer more specifically to a “verse narrative”—one composed in the vernacular French instead of Latin. Romances were also eventually written in prose as well as poetry.

  • Such “vulgar” texts were generally intended for entertainment; important works on serious topics (such as philosophy or theology) were written in pure Latin.

  • French-style romances soon spread to other European countries; they were extremely popular from about the 12th century through 1500, after which they gradually went out of style.

Characteristics of medieval romance

Characteristics of Medieval Romance

  • The plots generally follow the events of a heroic individual’s adventure or a quest to achieve a particular goal; they are thus often episodic or loosely-structured.

  • Traditional themes and plots are important; originality is not.

  • Characters are usually idealized, high status individuals—and flat, rather than psychologically complex.

  • “Courtly love” is a frequent part of the narrative, though is not necessary.

  • Fantasy, exoticism, mystery (especially regarding identity), and the supernatural are important elements

  • Settings are frequently vague, except as they reflect the character’s inner state

After romance the restoration 18 th century

After Romance…The Restoration & 18th century

Contemporary texts are significantly affected by a series of events:

  • The Protestant Reformation emphasizes the importance of the individual conscience.

  • The Scientific Revolution fosters rationality and the belief that individual experience (empiricism) and intellectual inquiry can establish truth better than traditional authority.

  • Increasing literacy and cheaper texts cause the consumption of reading material to skyrocket—especially among the middle classes.

Popular pre novel genres

Popular Pre-Novel Genres

  • spiritual autobiographies: focus on the events of the writer’s life, but mainly as related to divine grace and the quest for salvation (e.g. Bunyan’s Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners)

  • biographies—especially historical figures and criminals

  • travel books and tales of adventure

  • newspapers & literary journals

  • scandal fiction: often thinly-disguised tales of contemporary political and sexual intrigue

The novel

The “Novel”

  • The term ‘novel’ comes from the Italian ‘novella’ and French ‘nouvelle’, which came into use during the 16th- and 17th-centuries.

  • ‘Novella’ is the diminutive of a word that means ‘new’, and originally refers to fictional works—especially individual tales—which are much shorter than the ponderous multi-volume romances.

  • The modern novel is thus grounded in two concepts: It is shorter than an epic, and “new.”

  • Although critics generally agree that the novel originates in the 18th century, it is important to understand that the novel (as a distinct genre) did not become firmly defined or established until the 19th century. During the period that our first two texts were written, works of prose fiction were frequently described interchangeably as “novels,” “romances” or “histories.”

Formal realism

Formal Realism

In 1957, Ian Watt publishes The Rise of the Novel, which analyzes what he perceived to be the novel’s defining characteristic— formal realism:

  • *original plots rather than traditional

  • *specificity of character—individualized characters with realistic names

  • *specificity of setting—time and location

  • *attempts to replicate “the texture of daily experience”

  • *the “use of past experience as cause of present action,” i.e. cohesive rather than episodic plot

  • *authenticity of prose style rather than ornament

Watt termed this type of realism “formal” to emphasize that it did not prescribe a type of content. Formal realism refers instead to the techniques, or form, in which the narrative is presented.

Other relevant characteristics

Other relevant characteristics:

  • Familiarity: everyday experiences and people of common rank

  • Credibility: events and actions which seem plausible rather than fantastic

  • Contemporaneity: action takes place at the current time or in the recent past

Romance and realism


The novel is—in many ways—founded in realism rather than romance. However, the two genres are not mutually exclusive, and they often blend in unexpected ways…

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