Which literary work is considered to be the first novel in the world?

A novel is an extended version of narrative fiction, usually published in the form of a book. The present term we use in English is basically derived from the Italian word ‘novella,’ meaning ‘new,’ ‘news,’ or ‘short story of something new.’ With time, as more and more writers stepped into the world of novels, new genres popped up as well. On the one hand, where we discuss the first novel in the world, on the other, we would like to define different genres existing today. Let’s begin.

Novel Genres

Genji Monogatari (cover)

Fictional Narrative

Fictional novels are often described as novels that are distinguished from historiography. However, this criterion has experienced a decade’s worth of debate. Authors of historical narratives, throughout the early modern period, would often use inventions that were rooted in traditional beliefs to provide credibility to their opinion. Historians would also use such methods to invent and compose patronizing speeches. However, novels tend to explain the personal, political, and social realities in detail without requiring any support from history.

Literary Prose

The modern novels we read today chose prose over the verse and have now become a standard. Although some of the best works created by ancestors of the modern Europe novel still include verse epics. Back in the 19th century, fictional narratives in verse competed directly with prose novels. This competitive trend has continued for centuries and given birth to masterpieces across the globe. People, who are fond of reading, find their interest crawling towards novels of the past as both fiction and literature both were at their peak. Today, we are offered novels such as Harry Potter and Twilight, etc., which hold a major share of the novel industry. Since millennials are attracted to technology, science, and modernism, there is every reason for such types to become huge hits.

Intimate Experience

During both 12th-century Japan and 15th-century Europe, prose fiction novels featured romanticism and intimate experiences. While on the one hand, verse epics such as ‘Odyssey’ and ‘Aeneid’ were only recited to a selected audience, the intimate experience of these novels was far greater than the performances in theaters. The world of novels opened itself to a new world within, full of personal views, secret anxieties, and intimate feelings.

The First Novel In The World

Compared to the other forms of literature such as poetry, drama and story, novel is a modern genre, only digging roots in the 17th century. The history of novel begins in Japan a thousand years ago. The Japanese classic work Genji monogatari, or The Tale of Genji, is considered to be the first novel in the history of literature. And surprisingly, it was written by a woman, named Murasaki Shikibu.

Murasaki Shikibu was a noble woman who lived in 11th century. She was educated and member of the emperor’s court.

As its title indicates, the novel tells the story of a handsome and kindhearted warrior named Hikaru Genji, the son of an ancient Japanese Emperor Kiritsubo and one of his concubines. His romantic affairs with various women, including his stepmother, are the prime subject of the major part of the novel. One of the heroines of the novel is named Murasaki, modeled after the author herself.

Genji Monogatari is primarily divided into three parts with a total of 54 chapters. The first 44 chapters are those which describe the adventures of Genji. The last ten chapters, known as Uji Chapters, follow his two descendents, Kaoru and Niou. The novel spans over 4000 pages and presents around four hundred characters.

The novel was written in the peak of Heian period in Japan and in archaic Japanese. It is a portrait of the aristocratic society in the empire and is believed to have been written to entertain the members of the royal court. There could be seen a faint influence of Buddhism in the end parts of the novel. There are number of interesting features about the novel. Most of the characters in it are unnamed. The characters are often referred to using their ranks in the society, or the colours of their dress, in case of women. Another notable aspect of the novel is the usage of poetry in the conversations.

The first attempt of translating Genji Monogatari into English was by Suematsu Kenchō. His tarnslation, published in 1882, however was not complete. The first complete translation was done in 1976, by Edward Seidensticker. The novel has often troubled the translators due to its archaic language and the writing style which vastly differs from the modern Japanese.

Although the authorship of Tale of Genji is attributed to Murasaki Shikibu, there are debates over it as well. Some scholars think that only a major part of the novel was written by Murasaki. Her daughter Daini no Sanmi was the author of last few chapters, mainly the Ujji chapters, they believe. Nevertheless, The Tale of Genji, stands tall in the history of Japanese literature as an all-time classic. Also dubbed as the first psychological novel in the world, it is acquiring new fans worldwide.

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