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Joseph Bottum


The Novel as Protestant Art

A great metaphysical drama played out on the world's stage.

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Similarly, the 18th-century English works of Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding—the writers on whom Ian Watt focuses in his account of the emerging novel—are not derived from Don Quixote quite as easily as literary histories often assume. In her 2000 study Cervantes, the Novel, and the New World, the academic Diana de Armas Wilson attacks Watt as a narrow-minded British nationalist and quite possibly an anti-Hispanic racist for undervaluing Cervantes in an effort "to install Daniel Defoe as 'the first key figure in the rise of the novel.' "

But surely we can distinguish Cervantes and Defoe without being accused of chauvinism and bigotry, for the two authors are writing different forms and aiming at different ends. Something has changed between Cervantes and Defoe. Something separates the Catholic Spain of 1605 in which Don Quixote appears from the Protestant England of 1719 in which Robinson Crusoe is published. Something has allowed the inner life of the hero to appear on the page. And, I want to claim, those somethings involve the Protestant presentation of the spiritual journey of the main character as a unique self—together with the English novel's determination to provide alternate lives for the reader to experience vicariously and the confident sense of modernity as an age defined by more than its rebellion against the medieval past.

However modern Don Quixote seems when compared with the Decameron or Gargantua and Pantagruel, Cervantes' work can also feel unmodern to readers now. Think, for example, of how new characters suddenly appear, chance-met along the hero's journey, and promptly begin telling stories: barely related interpolations that serve mostly to bulk up the text with something interesting. This picaresque device will last until at least Dickens' 1839 Nicholas Nickleby, but the Victorian age quickly thereafter grew too embarrassed to use it much. The rise of magazines allowed such smaller tales to take clearer shape within an author-and-reader agreement about the genre of short stories, and the interpolated tale came to seem something like an admission of failure: an acknowledgement that the author had not succeeded at finding the unified work of art that defined the High Victorian novel, from Jane Eyre to The Wings of the Dove.

Think, too, of the curious metafictional comedy of the second part of Don Quixote (with the characters portrayed as having read the first part of the novel that created them)—from which one could point out a different direction the central current of the art form might have taken. In fact, some novels did flow down that rival streambed, starting with the classic self-referential, Möbius-strip comedy of Laurence Sterne's 1759 Tristram Shandy (by an author who often refers to Rabelais, in confirmation of our sense of an alternate history the novel could have followed).

In other words, the influence of Cervantes was certainly present in the beginning: Interest in the author's work helped begin the 18th-century run of British picaresques and thereby contributed greatly to the establishment of the novel as a ready form of art in the English language. In the 1850 David Copperfield, Dickens' clearest signal that he was leaving the picaresque for the unified art work of the Victorian novel, the eponymous hero pauses to name the books he read when he was young—and they are all the spawn of Cervantes: Gil Blas, Tobias Smollett's stories of Roderick Random, Peregrine Pickle, and Humphrey Clinker. Even Tom Jones, The Vicar of Wakefield, and Robinson Crusoe, in the way David describes reading them as imaginary (and sexually innocent) journeys fulfilling the child's desperate desire to escape. Oppressed by his mother's new husband, the young David retreats to reading—"reading as if for life," in Dickens' beautiful phrase—in the picaresque books that are his only inheritance from his father.

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