Rise of the Novel: Exploring History’s Greatest Early Works

Rise of the Novel: Exploring History’s Greatest Early Works
Course Trailer
Rediscovering the Novel
1: Rediscovering the Novel

Dive into the study of the novel with a look at what defines this particular form and how it emerged from earlier types of storytelling. Novels seek to make sense of human behavior in ways that can be more comprehensible—and more enjoyable—than those we can find in real life. Get an overview of the essential nature of novels versus other literary forms.

32 min
Roman Novels: Satyricon and The Golden Ass
2: Roman Novels: Satyricon and The Golden Ass

Travel back to ancient Rome and look at two works of prose fiction that would influence later writers: The Satyricon and The Golden Ass. Though their structures and tropes are fundamentally different from most modern novels, their impact can be traced through some of the works that later came to define the novel.

28 min
Don Quixote and the Picaresque Novel
3: Don Quixote and the Picaresque Novel

Turn now to the work considered to be the foundational novel in the Western tradition, Don Quixote. Beginning with a look at the picaresque storytelling that prefigures Quixote, you’ll see how the novel fits into a larger literary tradition while it also presented something new that would eventually become the preeminent mode of modern fiction.

32 min
Don Quixote: A Deeper Look
4: Don Quixote: A Deeper Look

Don Quixote is actually two novels in one—with the first part published in 1605 and the second part in 1615, later combined into the single work we recognize today. Examine the ways the second part shows the evolution of the novel through Cervantes’s movement away from the picaresque and into a smoother, more cohesive narrative with deeper themes than the first part.

30 min
La Princesse de Clèves and the French Novel
5: La Princesse de Clèves and the French Novel

La Princesse de Clèves is the first great novel in French and precedes English novels by about 40 years. Here, you will take a look at how a novel written by an aristocratic woman created a benchmark for the novel form. Also, you will examine why its style and psychological assumptions differ dramatically from the later novels that would be inspired by a middle-class reading public and its values.

30 min
The Realistic Novel: Robinson Crusoe
6: The Realistic Novel: Robinson Crusoe

Published in 1719, Robinson Crusoe is a fantasy masquerading as realism. Look at the ways Defoe uses first-person perspective and the trappings of autobiography to craft a character that has achieved an almost mythical status in Western culture. Take a closer look at the structure and style of this influential story and why it became so popular.

31 min
The Satiric Novel: Gulliver’s Travels
7: The Satiric Novel: Gulliver’s Travels

Dive into the satirical journey of Gulliver’s Travels, a work that brilliantly combines novelistic realism and fantasy, to powerful effect. Gulliver also reflects the growing influence of novels, with Jonathan Swift borrowing—and parodying—elements from Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. How did a story involving giants and anthropomorphic horses help shape the novel as we know it?

31 min
Manon Lescaut: A Tale of Passion
8: Manon Lescaut: A Tale of Passion

Originally appended to a much larger work, the tragic French novel Manon Lescaut presents two ways of looking at passion: as self-destructive obsession or as a heroic assertion of transcendent love. Explore how Prevost’s novel looks at the tension between different sets of values in a rapidly changing world and why interpretations of the story—including major operatic adaptations—have shifted over time.

30 min
Joseph Andrews: An Epic Parody
9: Joseph Andrews: An Epic Parody

Shift from the tragic to the comic with a look at Joseph Andrews. Originally conceived as a parody of Samuel Richardson’s popular epistolary novel Pamela, Henry Fielding’s humorous epic took on a creative life of its own through a witty narrator, optimistic viewpoint, and palpable affection for his characters.

31 min
The Psychological Novel: Clarissa
10: The Psychological Novel: Clarissa

In his immense novel Clarissa, Samuel Richardson offers a unique window into the inner experience of individuals as told in their own words. See how this tragic novel, conveyed in a series of letters, allows a deep look into personal psychology while also commenting on the wider society’s changing perspectives on love, marriage, and personal choice.

32 min
The Great Comic Novel: Tom Jones
11: The Great Comic Novel: Tom Jones

Tom Jones is widely considered Henry Fielding’s masterpiece. Both richly imagined and endlessly entertaining, the novel is a comic journey that is rooted in Fielding’s optimistic view of human nature. In the first of two lectures on this work, get an introduction to the themes of the novel and how it compares to other works from the same period.

32 min
Plot and Structure in Tom Jones
12: Plot and Structure in Tom Jones

In this second lecture on Tom Jones, continue your examination of Fielding’s techniques and intentions as Tom hits the road on a series of picaresque-inspired adventures. Explore how the many secondary storylines are integrated into the fabric of the larger story, with a surprise ending that encourages us to ponder how we interpret the events of our own lives.

30 min
Philosophical Satire in France: Candide
13: Philosophical Satire in France: Candide

Together with Gulliver’s Travels, Candide ranks among the greatest satires ever written. This witty, overtly artificial novel takes jabs at both political and religious authority through a series of deliberately implausible events. Reveal the philosophy that underpins Voltaire’s work as you look at episodes from this influential story.

30 min
Comic Travel Letters: Humphry Clinker
14: Comic Travel Letters: Humphry Clinker

Turn now to The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, which combines different elements—travel narrative, family drama, epistolary character study—to create a narrative that gives multiple perspectives on shared experiences. See how this comic novel uses satire to examine relationships, morality, religion, and more with surprising depth and candor.

30 min
English Metafiction: Tristram Shandy
15: English Metafiction: Tristram Shandy

How does a plotless, metafictional narrative full of digressions become a cult hit and a precursor to modernist fiction? Look at the ways Lawrence Sterne plays with language and the structure of the novel itself to create an exuberant work full of double entendres, bizarre circumstances, and heartfelt emotion to create the indelible Tristram Shandy.

31 min
French Metafiction: Jacques the Fatalist and His Master
16: French Metafiction: Jacques the Fatalist and His Master

Inspired by Tristram Shandy, Denis Diderot set out to create a deeper and more challenging metafiction in Jacques the Fatalist and His Master. Discover why this ambitious novel was not published in the author’s lifetime, as you explore the ways it critiques the social and philosophical issues of his day and blurs the boundaries between author and reader.

28 min
The French Romantic Novel: Julie
17: The French Romantic Novel: Julie

Begin your exploration of Jean Jacques Rousseau’s novel Julie, or the New Eloisa by relating it to his brilliant social and political theories. Then, explore the searching examination of love and friendship that made this the most popular novel of the entire 18th century.

31 min
The Amoral Novel: Les Liaisons dangereuses
18: The Amoral Novel: Les Liaisons dangereuses

Les Liaisons dangereuses is an amoral book with a moral message—namely, to offer a critique of the selfish cruelty of the French aristocracy in the 18th century. Professor Damrosch shows how Laclos uses the epistolary form to create uncertainty rather than reveal truth as he constructs a story of sociopathic manipulation and cruelty.

30 min
Pride and Prejudice: The Best English Novel?
19: Pride and Prejudice: The Best English Novel?

One of the most beloved novels of all time, Pride and Prejudice shows a master novelist at work. See how Jane Austen revolutionized third-person perspective by ingeniously merging it with the consciousness of individual characters. Then, dive into the social and economic context of the novel and what it has to say about women’s inner lives and struggles.

30 min
Emma: Better Than the Best English Novel?
20: Emma: Better Than the Best English Novel?

Take another look at the work of Jane Austen, this time with her comedic coming-of-age novel Emma. Ostensibly the story of a rich girl who spends her time meddling in other people’s lives, Emma masterfully uses setting, character, and free indirect discourse to show an intelligent heroine learning how to truly know herself and better understand the people around her.

30 min
The German Romantic Novel: The Sorrows of Young Werther
21: The German Romantic Novel: The Sorrows of Young Werther

Turn now to 18th-century Germany for a look at a novel that would become an international sensation: The Sorrows of Young Werther. Through this work, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe would capture the disaffection of a generation of young people and create a new movement in literature, a genre of rebellion against conformity that would become Romanticism.

31 min
The Horror Novel: Frankenstein
22: The Horror Novel: Frankenstein

Few could have guessed that a horror story written by a teenage girl would become a powerful myth with global impact, but that is exactly what Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein did. Travel back to 1816, the “year without a summer,” to trace the origins and influence of this iconic novel as an exploration of philosophy, science, and the eternal human battle with mortality.

32 min
A French Masterpiece: The Red and the Black
23: A French Masterpiece: The Red and the Black

Stendhal, a former military administrator and diplomat, published The Red and the Black in 1830. The novel is a challenging, many-layered narrative that was too new and too experimental to be popular in its own time. Look at the ways Stendhal interrogates French society after the fall of Napoleon and uses irony to confront the conformity and ambitions he saw as detrimental to personal happiness.

31 min
An English Masterpiece: Middlemarch
24: An English Masterpiece: Middlemarch

George Eliot’s Middlemarch is regarded by many as the greatest novel in the English language. A story about choices and human relationships, it explores the limitations that can shape a human life in unexpected—and sometimes tragic—ways. Bring your study of the novel to an end with a look at why this sprawling, emotionally rich story is so often considered the height of the novel form.

32 min
Leo Damrosch

I think the greatest novels make you all too conscious of people's limitations and wounds.


Princeton University


Harvard University

About Leo Damrosch

Dr. Leo Damrosch is the Ernest Bernbaum Professor of Literature Emeritus at Harvard University, where he has been teaching since 1989. He earned a B.A. from Yale University, an M.A. from Cambridge University, where he was a Marshall Scholar, and a Ph.D. from Princeton University. At Harvard, Professor Damrosch was named a Harvard College Professor in recognition of distinguished teaching. He has held National Endowment for the Humanities and Guggenheim research fellowships and has also directed National Endowment for the Humanities summer seminars for college teachers. Dr. Damrosch is the author of several books, including Tocqueville's Discovery of America, Samuel Johnson and the Tragic Sense, Symbol and Truth in Blake's Myth, The Imaginative World of Alexander Pope, Fictions of Reality in the Age of Hume and Johnson, and The Sorrows of the Quaker Jesus: James Nayler and the Puritan Crackdown on the Free Spirit. He also published a biography, Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius, which was one of five finalists for the 2005 National Book Award in Nonfiction, and won the PEN New England/Winship Award for best work of nonfiction.

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