© 2020, by M. Keith Booker

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, in an attempt to make sense of the wave of revolutions sweeping across Europe in 1848, begin the first chapter of The Communist Manifesto by declaring that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” (Marx and Engels 473). They then spend the rest of this monumentally important text (and, to a large extent, the rest of their world-changing careers) elaborating on this concept and its implications. Many modern readers, unaccustomed to thinking of class as the principal category that defines the role of individuals in society, might think of this declaration as a radical proposition. In point of fact, however, Marx and Engels were here largely following in the footsteps of the mainstream bourgeois historians who had established a consensus historical model in the decades leading up to 1848, beginning with Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, published in six volumes between 1776 and 1789.

Gibbon’s massive study is widely acknowledged to be the first work of modern “scientific” historiography. That is, rather than merely compile an account of historical events, Gibbon attempts to give history a logical narrative shape, explaining not only what happened in the past, but how and why it happened. The issue of class is absolutely central to Gibbon’s narrative, which details the way in which the growing decadence of Roman society made it weak and vulnerable, leading to a power vacuum in which the landed aristocracy rose to assume political and economic power and to become the ruling class all over Europe, with the Catholic Church, closely allied with the aristocracy, becoming the major intellectual and ideological force in Europe.

The Church and the aristocracy would then retain their allied hegemony in Europe for roughly a thousand years, during the period now known as the Middle Ages. Indeed, Gibbon’s work led the way in the development of a consensus historical model that would divide Western history into three principal periods, beginning with the classical age in Greece and Rome and ending with the current modern age in which Gibbon was working, an age dominated by capitalism and in which the movers and shakers of the capitalist system were the class of business leaders known as the “bourgeoisie,” after the French word for “city dwellers.” The period of Catholic/aristocratic hegemony in Europe is the period between the classical period and the modern period, thus the designation “Middle Ages.”

Gibbon himself was a member of the bourgeoisie. As such, his historical model was clearly designed to explain how that class rose from being a despised minority during the Middle Ages to become Europe’s ruling class during the modern era. Further, it is clearly designed to justify the rise of the bourgeoisie and to explain why it was not only appropriate, but even inevitable, that they would become the rulers of the modern world. Indeed, given the way in which business and commerce were denigrated during the Middle Ages, this project was not a simple one, involving, as it did, a radical change (even a reversal) of many aspects of the European value system. And, of course, this task of justification was made even more difficult by the fact that the rise of European capitalism that enabled the triumph of the bourgeoisie was itself made possible by the massive influx of capital that came to Europe as a result of the colonization of the Americas. But the colonization of the Americas itself involved two of the worst atrocities in human history. The arrival of European colonists directly led to the mass extermination of tens of millions of Native Americans, while the labor that drove the agricultural enterprises that represented the main source of wealth from the American colonies was largely supplied by slaves imported from Africa under shockingly brutal circumstances.

As can be seen in the title of Gibbon’s work, the rise of Catholic/aristocratic hegemony was envisioned in this historical model as a decline, a notion that would be further elaborated by subsequent bourgeois historians, who came to label the Middle Ages as the “Dark Ages,” presumably in order to emphasize the suppression of innovation and free thought during that period, but also to emphasize the low standing of merchants and bankers and others like themselves during that time. It was indeed a dark time for the bourgeoisie, who had not even fully congealed as a class because they were so despised and disrespected. Meanwhile, the period that saw the emergence of dramatically new cultural, intellectual, and commercial energies that swept away the Middle Ages came to be known to as the “Renaissance,” or “rebirth,” in reference to the notion that this period involved a return to the glories of the Golden Age of Greece and Rome.

Merchants and bankers were needed in order to make effective use of the new wealth arriving in Europe from the American colonies, while other members of the emergent bourgeois class went to America itself in order to oversee the extraction of that wealth. Business opportunities abounded, and those who were daring and clever enough to take advantage of them often prospered in spectacular ways. Meanwhile, the rise of Protestantism helped to alleviate the Catholic reluctance to endorse the all-out entrepreneurial spirit that informed the rise of capitalism. In short, a large number of factors converged in order to drive the unprecedented revolutionary change that swept across Europe between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, bringing the bourgeoisie to power. At the same time, the historical baggage carried by the emergent bourgeoisie meant that the construction of the historical models proposed by Gibbon and his successors provided much-needed support for the new world order that gradually took shape over these centuries.

The newly powerful bourgeoisie promulgated their worldview (and thus justified their status as Europe’s new ruling class) in other ways as well. Fueled by the increasing efficiency of the printing press, new print media emerged that conveyed news and opinions almost entirely from a bourgeois point of view, which is no surprise, given that these media were almost entirely owned and operated by the bourgeoisie. Indeed, print technology was a crucial component of the cultural revolution that brought the bourgeoisie to power, not only allowing them to disseminate their view of the world more broadly, but also furthering the kind of communication that was crucial to the growth of the increasingly complex commercial networks that developed as capitalism evolved. Of course, it is also important to note that the vast majority of literate individuals by the eighteenth century were themselves bourgeois, which meant that the bourgeois were both the principal producers and the main consumers of printed materials.

One of the most important forms of these materials, of course, was literature, which in a very real sense came into being as a result of the bourgeois cultural revolution. After all, the very word “literature” comes from the Latin word “literatura” or“litteratura,” which refers specifically to written texts. Thanks to improvements in print technology—as well as to the development of efficient systems for the production, marketing, and distribution of printed texts—the literature that emerged in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries was the first that could be widely distributed in written form. Most previous “literature” had been designed to be performed, recited, or sung, but most of the new literature that emerged along with the rise of the European bourgeoisie was specifically designed to be printed, distributed, and read. In this sense, then, it is quite appropriate to say that, just as Gibbon’s work and its successors introduced the first “real” works of history, then the literature that emerged at the same time was the first “real” literature.

The work of Gibbon and other bourgeois historians that followed him laid the groundwork for the understanding of history as a history of class struggles that is so central to the work of Marx and Engels. Indeed, it is fairly clear that the model of history that came to be so widely accepted in the nineteenth century essentially divided history into three stages: the classical period, the medieval period, and the modern period, each of which was defined by its own class structure and economic system. But it is also the case that each of these stages has produced its own distinctive forms of literature.

Our concern in this class, of course, is with the literature of the modern period, beginning roughly in the middle of the seventeenth century. Of course, the kinds of literature that had been dominant in earlier periods continued to be produced in a modified form in the modern era. For example, one of the greatest works of the second half of the seventeenth century, Paradise Lost (first published in 1667, then revised in 1674)—by the English Puritan poet John Milton (1608–1674)—is an epic poem that looks all the way back to the ancient Greek poetry of Homer. But it is also a strongly Protestant poem that announces the end of Catholic domination of European culture and thought. In this, it also announces the way in which England, by this time, had come to the forefront of the bourgeois cultural revolution. Of lesser literary magnitude—but perhaps of greater significance as a sign of modernization—is Aphra Behn’s (1640–1689) Oronooko, which was appropriately published in 1688, the year that the Glorious Revolution in England marked the clear coming of the modern age to English politics. Oronooko is important because it marked a significant step toward the evolution of the novel, a genre that, in the eighteenth century, would develop into the most important genre in British literature, partly because it was the genre that most effectively expressed the worldview of the bourgeois class that, by this time, had become for all intents and purposes the ruling class in England. Subsequently, the novel would become a dominant genre all over Europe and (eventually) the world.

The Birth of the Novel

The increasing acknowledgement of works such as Oronooko as predecessors to the eighteenth-century novels that had previously been seen as the founding works of the novel as a genre is part of a widespread project of revisionist literary history that has sought, in recent decades, to give due credit to forces outside the conventional narrative of the rise of the novel. Nevertheless, the fundamental importance of eighteenth-century English novelists such as Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, and Henry Fielding to the development of the novel is beyond dispute, and the pioneering work of Ian Watt in The Rise of the Novel (1957) remains a crucial starting point for understanding the crucial interrelationship between the evolution of the novel and the growth of bourgeois power (i.e., capitalist modernization) in England.

Focusing on Defoe, Fielding, and Richardson as the founding authors of the English novel, the basic goal of Watt’s study is to determine the underlying historical conditions that would cause three such pioneering figures to appear all at essentially the same time, with groundbreaking novels such as Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), Richardson’s Clarissa (1748), and Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749) all appearing within a single generation. Watt concludes that

“Assuming that the appearance of our first three novelists within a single generation was probably not sheer accident, and that their geniuses could not have created the new form unless the conditions of the time had also been favourable, it attempts to discover what these favourable conditions in the literary and social situation were” (9).

Those conditions, of course, involved the rise of capitalism and the associated rise of scientific ways of observing and describing reality, which were central to the period known as the Enlightenment. Watt regards realism as the defining mode of the novel, arguing that “modern realism, of course, begins from the position that truth can be discovered by the individual through his senses” (12). In other words, realism is a literary expression of the epistemological assumptions of the Enlightenment rise of science, based on the notion that the world makes sense and that it can be understood through observation and rational analysis. Indeed, it is impossible to understand the turn taken by Western literature during the Enlightenment without understanding the basic turn taken in European thinking during the Enlightenment.

It is Watt’s recognition of bourgeois hegemony in England that fuels his study of the rise of the novel, which he sees as a direct result of the rise of power of what he, employing the terminology that was dominant in the 1950s, calls the “middle class” (meaning the class that lies between the working class and the aristocracy) though it is clear that the newly dominant bourgeoisie were now the upper class in terms of political and economic power, so that it is not quite appropriate to designate the bourgeoisie as the “middle” class. Among other things, Watt describes the basic characteristics of the realist novel, demonstrating that the development of these characteristics was driven by the modern capitalist context in which the novel arose in the eighteenth century. These characteristics include the following:

  1. The beginnings of an emphasis on originality (a by-product of individualism) that led early novelists to “invent” nontraditional plots rather than simply retelling existing stories (myth, history, legend, or previous literature) as most of their immediate predecessors had done.
  2. Plot (i.e. narrative) thus received unprecedented emphasis, accompanied by new ways of perceiving time, accompanied by the rise of notions of historicity as background to novelistic plots.[1] For example, the new modes of scientific historiography pioneered by Gibbon suggested that history proceeds according to coherent narrative forms, and the new realist novel tended to rely on this notion in constructing its own coherent plot structures.
  3. Characters became far more individualized, described in detail both physically and psychologically and acting in the plot as independent agents. The new novel emphasized authentic-sounding accounts of the experience of individuals.
  4. The novel featured more detailed and realistic treatments of place than did previous literary forms. The action in novels generally occurs either in real places or in imaginary places that are very much like real places.
  5. The novel featured a turn to more referential conceptions of language, including a turn from verse to prose—though the language was also relatively straightforward and journalistic, enabling writers to write more quickly and readers to read more quickly. The simple style of the new novel thus made it possible for novels to be produced and consumed more quickly, leading to greater profits for the new publishing industry.[2]

Watt also usefully discusses the relationship between the birth of the novel and increases in literacy that enabled the rise of a new reading public. Similarly, improvements in printing technology made texts cheaper to produce, making wider distribution of texts possible. Indeed, increases in literacy and increases in print technology reinforced one another, each leading to further increases in the other. Meanwhile, certain sectors of the reading public—especially well-to-do women, who formed a crucial part of the readership of the early novel—had more leisure time available for reading. Indeed, even certain less well-to-do groups (such as servants) began to have more time for reading and higher rates of literacy.

The Business of Literature

It is important to recognize, however, that the reading public in the eighteenth century was still relatively small by modern standards, though large relative to earlier periods when essentially only certain members of the aristocracy (and before that only the priesthood) could read. Still, Edmund Burke (1730–1797) estimated that there were only about 80,000 readers in England in the 1790s, out of a population of 6,000,000, making the literacy rate only a bit over 1%. This rate would grow throughout the nineteenth century but would undergo particularly rapid expansion at the end of the century, largely due to educational reforms at that time, reforms that would play an important role in the subsequent evolution of British literature.

Due to the fact that literacy rates remained so low (and purchase prices of books still remained relatively high), few works sold more than 10,000 copies in the eighteenth century—and most of those were topical pamphlets rather than full-length books. More than half the population of England lived in poverty, short of the bare necessities of life, and books were still somewhat of a luxury, though the growth of capitalism also produced a larger class of wealthy citizens who could afford such luxuries. The novel was thus not really a mass form in the modern sense, though cheaper forms of literature (chapbooks, pamphlets, broadsheets, etc. containing ballads, stories, etc.) were available to a broader audience and helped to contribute to growing literacy rates. Indeed, while the novel remained a thoroughly bourgeois form, it is important to the cultural history of England that the English working class, as outlined by E. P. Thompson in his important work The Making of the English Working Class (1966), had its own vibrant cultural traditions in the nineteenth century.

The realist novel quickly rose to prominence in England during the eighteenth century, though it would not become as prominent in other parts of Europe until the nineteenth century. France, for example, was unusual in Western Europe in the eighteenth century in that the Catholic Church still retained almost total religious authority in the country. At the same time (and the two phenomena certainly reinforced one another), the French political system still remained fundamentally medieval, with French kings exercising a famously retrograde rule. Interesting enough, however, France came to the forefront of the Enlightenment in terms of philosophical developments, perhaps because English intellectuals were more involved in the practical process of building a modern society than in the process of abstract theoretical thought. It was also the case that many French intellectuals of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries developed their ideas in direct opposition to the Catholic Church and the French aristocracy, leading to growing tensions that would eventually erupt in all-out revolution.

French literature was often ahead of French society during this period as well. For example, one of the greatest forces in French literature of the mid-to-late seventeenth century was the actor, poet, and playwright Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (1622–1673), better known by his stage name of “Molière.” Molière’s most important work was written for the stage and thus looked back to the Renaissance in terms of literary form. But it was decidedly modern in its frequent emphasis on satirical critiques of phenomena such as the religious hypocrisy of the Church, as in Tartuffe (1664), his best-known play and one that is still performed, especially in France, where he is regarded as one of the all-time masters of the French language. But his critique of the Church got him into considerable trouble, even though the play has been so successful over the years that the term “Tartuffe” is still used in both French and English both use the word “Tartuffe” to describe someone who hypocritically claims excessive virtue, especially religious virtue.

Other dramatists who are regarded as among the greatest in French history also worked during this particularly rich period, including Pierre Corneille (1606–1684) and Jean Racine (1639–1699). In the eighteenth century, however, France participated only marginally in the rise of the realist novel—which would also be consistent with Watt’s model, given that the bourgeoisie had not firmly established their rule there. Indeed, probably the most important work of eighteenth-century French literature was Voltaire’s Candide (1759), the first text that we will consider in detail during this semester and a text that is not a realist novel. Still, by the nineteenth century, the realist novel was thoroughly established in France as well.

The nineteenth century was a period of great consolidation in bourgeois power in Europe, though that process differed considerably from one place to another. England, at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution (and of the process of capitalist modernization as a whole), was relatively stable through the nineteenth century, given that bourgeois power in Britain had been strongly established by the beginning of the century. Even in England, though, there were important cultural trends in the early nineteenth century that can be seen, at least in part, as motivated by a resistance to realism. The most important of these is the movement that came to be known as Romanticism, which we will consider in more detail later in this semester. The history of nineteenth-century France, meanwhile, was driven by a succession of upheavals and revolutions, leading to what many saw as a particularly rich period in French literature, which was responding to many powerful forces and thus endowed with unusual energies. In part, this situation fueled the production of a particularly French form of Romanticism, as embodied in the novels of Victor Hugo (1802–1885), such as Les Miserables (1862). But the nineteenth-century was a very rich period for the French realist novel as well. Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850), whose more than ninety novels—collectively known as La Comédie humaine—responded directly to the aftermath of the French Revolution, is considered perhaps the greatest of all realist novelists. Meanwhile, Gustave Flaubert (1821–1880) was a truly great realist novelist whose attention to style and technique presaged latter developments such as literary modernism. We will also read Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857), probably the greatest and most influential of all his novels, in this semester.

In both France and Britain, then, realism was thoroughly established as the dominant literary mode by the end of the nineteenth century, just as capitalist modernity was well advanced. It should be noted, however, that there were important parts of Europe where history was proceeding differently (just as, of course, there were other parts of the world where it was proceeding very differently). Russia, in particular, remained in largely medieval condition, and many there (including, of course, the ruling tsar) fiercely resisted modernization, which they saw as a foreign force that threatened their indigenous traditions. But even Russian literature was impacted by the rise of realism in Europe, and two of the greatest of all nineteenth-century realist novelists, were in fact, Russian. One of these, Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910), wrote magisterial realist novels, such as War and Peace (1869), that are among the greatest realist novels, perhaps deriving energy from the clash between the bourgeois ideology that fueled realism and the resistance to bourgeois modernization that was still so powerful in Russia. Meanwhile, the other greatest nineteenth-century Russian realist, Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821–1881), also wrote grand realist novels, such as Crime and Punishment (1866) and The Brothers Karamazov (1880), but these were conceived in direct opposition to the capitalist modernization of Europe, a stance that is perhaps best (or at least, most succinctly) expressed in his shorter Notes from Underground (1864), which we will consider in detail in this semester. This short novel, generated from a desire to resist modernization, paradoxically looks forward to important intellectual trends of the twentieth century. For example, it has been seen as one of the founding texts of existentialist literature, an important phenomenon that we will discuss in some detail this semester.

By the first years of the twentieth century, capitalism was thoroughly ensconced in most of Europe. However, Western capitalist economies largely collapsed at the end of the nineteenth century, precipitating a crisis that led to still another radical transformation, largely due to changes within capitalism itself, which rapidly changed from the production-oriented system of the nineteenth century to the new consumer-oriented system of the twentieth. Indeed, so many things were changing so rapidly at this time that many artists and writers sought new modes of expression, believing that realism was now becoming inadequate to this changing world. In fact, realism was so thoroughly aligned with the basic worldview of capitalism that it did not become obsolete and remains important to this day. Nevertheless, some of the most innovative work in the culture of the early twentieth century was produced by writers and artists associated with the movement known as modernism, which moved beyond realism to try to find ways of engaging with reality that were more appropriate in the new world of the twentieth century.

Probably the greatest of all of the writers of modernist fiction was the Irishman James Joyce (1882–1941). His novel Ulysses (1922) is widely regarded as the most important of all modernist novels—and often as the greatest novel of all time in any category. It is, however, complex and difficult and requires long and detailed study for a proper understanding. In this course, therefore, we will be reading Joyce’s short-story collection Dubliners (1914), which is much more accessible and has the additional advantage of having been written over a period of several years during which Joyce evolved into a modernist. Indeed, the stark difference between the last story in this collection, “The Dead,” and all the others has often been seen as a marker of the birth of modernism, making Dubliners a perfect place to begin a study of modernism as a literary phenomenon. We will also take a brief tour of modernist poetry, focusing on poems by the Irish poet William Butler Yeats (1865–1939), the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926), and the British-American poet T.S. Eliot (1888–1965). We will then complete our tour of modernist literature with a detailed reading of “The Metamorphosis” (1915), written in German by the Prague-based Bohemian writer Franz Kafka (1883–1924). Informed by both absurdist and existentialist tendencies, Kafka’s work is both unique and engaged with some of the most important trends in modern culture.

Modernist literature was driven by a sense that fundamental changes were afoot in the world. This sense was correct, reinforced by such cataclysmic events as the two world wars. In one important change, the rise of the new medium of film soon challenged the status of written literature as the dominant form of Western culture. We will acknowledge this transformation by looking at two key films from France, one of the most important countries in driving the development of film as an art form. Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939), regarded as one of the greatest films of all time, directly addresses the topic of modernity and of the continuing replacement of the old world of the Middle Ages with the new age of capitalism, even well into the twentieth century. In particular, it looks at the decadence of the contemporary French bourgeoisie, suggesting that they have not fully moved into modernity but are still attempting to enact a fantasy version of aristocratic behavior. This film also participates in the rich tradition of French satire that reaches back to Voltaire. Later, we will look at Agnès Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962), an important film of the French New Wave and one that engages with existentialism in ways that look back to the work of Kafka and Dostoevsky but that has a decidedly postwar French orientation.

Between these two French films, we will briefly explore the other major change in culture in the twentieth century—the fact that increasing cultural exchanges among all parts of the world meant that studies of “world literature” could no longer focus exclusively on Western culture. We will begin this segment of the course with a consideration of the phenomena of colonization and decolonization and on how these phenomena led to the rise of the important body of nonwestern texts that have come to be called “postcolonial” literature. We will then look in detail at Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958), the Nigerian novel that did more than any other single work to bring attention to African literature among Western readers and critics.

We will then acknowledge the fact that the two trends noted above—the move to film and the globalization of culture—have converged in the rise of nonwestern film. The Indian film industry, for example, is now the largest film industry in the world, whereas one of the hottest trends in global culture of the past few decades has been the rise of an impressive South Korean film industry, culminating in the naming of the South Korean film Parasite (2019) as the winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture, making it the first nonWestern film to win this award. Meanwhile, the Chinese film industry is now very much on the rise as well, and Japanese film has been globally respected since the early years after World War II. We will acknowledge this historical importance, in fact, by beginning our quick look at nonWestern films with an in-depth consideration of Yasujirō Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953), widely acknowledged as one of the greatest and most profound films in world history.

We will end our survey of Western literature and culture since 1650 with a brief introduction to the phenomenon of postmodernism, which many cultural theorists have seen as the dominant cultural mode in the United States since the 1970s. Importantly, though, postmodernism has inherently globalist tendencies, and the spread of this culture worldwide has been a key part of the story of globalization. To illustrate this part, we will take a look at contemporary culture in the Middle East, a part of the world whose culture has often been seen as quite foreign to American culture but that is in many ways rapidly converging with American/Western culture. We will illustrate this tendency with a reading of Ahmed Saadawi’s Iraqi novel Frankenstein in Baghdad (2014), which directly addresses the aftermath of the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, but does so in a decidedly postmodern way that illustrates that the impact of Western culture on Iraqi society began well before that invasion and continues to this day.


Davis, Lennard.  Factual Fictions: The Origins of the English Novel.  Columbia University Press, 1983.

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The Marx-Engels Reader. 2nd ed. Ed. Robert C. Tucker, W. W. Norton and Company, 1972.

Thompson, E. P. The Making of the English Working Class. Vintage-Random House, 1966.

Thompson, E. P. “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism.” Past and Present 38 (December 1967): 56–97. (Later included as a chapter in his 1991 book Customs in Common.)

Watt, Ian. The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding. University of California Press, 1957.


[1] The classical description of the ways in which the regimentation of time required by capitalism led to new perceptions of time itself can be found in E. P. Thompson’s essay “Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism.”

[2] Compare here Lennard Davis’s Factual Fictions (1983), which explores the rise of the novel as informed by nonfiction forms such as journalism and views the novel as a consolidation of journalism, history, and literature that arose out of anxieties over fictionality and as a response to censorship.