The realistic and romantic tendencies converge in Cervantes's Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, 1615), which describes the adventures of an aging country gentleman who, inspired by chivalric romances, sets out to do good in an ugly world. A brilliant, humanistic study of illusion and reality, Don Quixote is considered by many critics to be the most important single progenitor of the novel.
Of lesser magnitude but lasting influence is The Princess of Cleves (1678), by Mme de La Fayette; a forerunner of the psychological novel, it presents believable characters in conflict and criticizes shifting social and moral values. Also important is Alain René Le Sage's Gil Blas (1715–35), a picaresque [Span. picaro = rogue, knave] tale of a young man who passes rapidly from one job to another, commenting as he goes on the idiosyncrasies of his masters and on the world at large. This story, episodic and held together by a single character, became the model for a generation of English writers who first produced what has come to be recognized as the modern novel.
Several 18th-century novels, each essentially realistic, has at one time or another been designated the first novel in English. Daniel Defoe is famous for Robinson Crusoe (1719), a detailed and convincingly realistic account, based on a real event, of the successful efforts of an island castaway to survive. Also in this realistic tradition is Defoe's novel Moll Flanders (1722), which relates the picaresque adventures of a good-natured harlot and thief.
Samuel Richardson extended the influence of the form over its middle-class audience with his epistolary novels: Pamela (1740), about the rewards of virtue, and Clarissa (1747–48), about the evils of a fall from virtue. Meant to offer instruction in letter writing as well as in moral conduct, these works emphasize character rather than action. Both of these elements are present in Henry Fielding's Tom Jones (1749). This novel was the first to present a full portrait of ordinary English life, including a none-too-perfect but likable hero. In addition, the work includes critical comments by the author on the nature of the novel.
Against the mainstream represented by the foregoing novels, with their emphasis on external reality, stands Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy (1760–67), a rambling nine-volume novel replete with blank pages, digressions, chapters in reverse order, and unconventional punctuation. All of of these literary features combine to reveal an internal, psychological reality based on John Locke's theory of the association of ideas. The psychological reality explored by Sterne would resurface as a fictional preoccupation early in the 20th cent.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.