The novel as immoral, Anti-Social force

Christopher Lane*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


The English novel boasts such a long association with moral uplift that it seems counter-intuitive to argue that it pulls readers in immoral and amoral directions too. Yet although the didactic strains of the Bildungsroman and epistolary novel are so prominent as to be undeniable, any suggestion that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novels aim to cultivate only virtue in their readers is simplistic and needs correcting. From the earliest decades of the eighteenth century, novels were written as much to entertain as to inform and instruct. Many works aimed at some combination of the three, even playing up their didactic potential to counter allegations that the genre overall was “inferior” to poetry. But for many commentators the kind of entertainment novels provide is as much a source of concern as of delight. By 1750, after Daniel Defoe had famously depicted in Moll Flanders a heroine who relishes not being a moral paragon, Dr. Samuel Johnson warns about “the power of example” in fiction, which, he claims, can “take possession of the memory by a kind of violence, and produce effects almost without the intervention of the will.” Because such so-called violence can sway “the young, the ignorant, and the idle, ” he writes, “care ought to be taken that, when the choice is unrestrained, the best examples only should be exhibited; and that which is likely to operate so strongly, should not be mischievous or uncertain in its effects”.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge History of the English Novel
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages15
ISBN (Electronic)9781139013796
ISBN (Print)9780521194952
StatePublished - Jan 1 2012

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities


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