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Skip to 0 minutes and 7 seconds Let us now focus on some literary aspects of European modernity. In general, the relationships between literature and modernity are manifold. The crucial aspect is their reciprocity, that is their mutual influence. On the one hand, literary authors are influenced by social, political, and scientific developments. On the other hand, their works can also affect these developments.

Skip to 0 minutes and 33 seconds The literary form, which is often regarded to be crucial in the modern context is the novel, which is usually defined as a long fictitious narrative in prose, long as opposed to shorter forms– such as novellas, or short stories– fictional as opposed to documentary– such as the description of real events and newspaper articles– narrative in the sense of presenting events and motives in a structured manner– for example, regarding time and causality– and prose as opposed to verse. Various novels are usually written in whole sentences similar to our everyday use of language, which is the literal meaning of the word prose from Latin prorsa oratio, direct, straightforward speech.

Skip to 1 minute and 19 seconds Poems are written in verse, sentences that might be incomplete that contain rhyme, establish a specific rhythm, et cetera. What is specifically modern about the novel? The novel is the most popular literary form today, not only in European literature’s. Historically, this is quite a recent development. Whereas novels have existed for many centuries, their acceptance, production, and consumption intensified since the 18th century. Regarding literature’s reciprocity with modernity, one reason for this is that novels were able to both present and reflect on ideas and ideals, which played important roles in modern thinking. Some of these can be summarised under the umbrella terms of subjectivity and freedom.

Skip to 2 minutes and 7 seconds The term subjectivity relates to both the author who is able to present his or her personal views and opinions, even if they are in contrast to society’s rules and standards, in an extensive manner, and often protected by the fact that it is only fiction. And to the reader– as you might know from your own experience, reading a novel can be quite an intimate experience. Despite the fact that novels can be bought by everyone, they’re usually read alone. And it is up to the individual reader which of a given characters’ thoughts and feelings he or she can relate to, whether he or she recognises them from his or her own experience, how he or she judges them, and so on.

Skip to 2 minutes and 50 seconds A second important aspect is the ideal of freedom. In comparison to other genres and text types, novels can be considered as being less rule-based. Whereas, for example, classical poetry adheres to a set of stylistical and rhetorical rules, a novel allows more freedom of choice, experiments, and use subforms and genres. This also goes for rules of representation. In contrast to dramas, for example, novels do not take place on a stage, but in the reader’s mind. This allows many kinds of twists, tricks, and turns, such as impossible scenarios or paradoxes, which could never be shown on stage. According to many scholars and authors, the first modern novel was Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, which was published in parts in 1605 and 1615.

Skip to 3 minutes and 40 seconds The story is about a poor noble man, who becomes obsessed with fantasy tales about knights, dragons, and magic. Such tales were very popular at around this time, that is the early modern period. Real mediaeval knighthood had ceased to exist centuries before. Over reading too many night tales, Quixote loses his sanity and decides to become a knight himself, mistaking windmills for giants and a flock of sheep for a hostile army. With his tragic comic novel, Cervantes both presents his critical opinion about his contemporaries escapist, chivalric fantasies and contrasts them with their early modern reality. In an ironical twist, he even demonstrates the manipulative power of his own text.

Skip to 4 minutes and 24 seconds At the beginning of the second part, Don Quixote learns that his previous adventures have been described in a book, the first part, which has become a bestseller and even established a new literary trend. Furious about the fact that people are laughing about his adventures, rather than admiring his bravery, Quixote decides to set out for another journey to prove his own author wrong. With its mixture of humorous, critical, and tragical reflections on modern reality in contrast to mediaeval times and fantasies, Cervantes’ highly influential and much discussed novel provides many examples for the reciprocity between modern reality and the literary novel.

Literature and European Modernity

In this video, Dr Florian Lippert discusses how literature can represent and shape modernity in Europe.

‘Literary authors are influenced by social, political and scientific developments,’ Dr Lippert says. ‘On the other hand, their works can also affect these developments.’ Two key terms are subjectivity and freedom: novels represent their characters’ interiority, their thoughts, feelings and emotions, and are not bound to strict genre conventions (as in poetry and drama, for example).

Dr Lippert shows that the novel is the quintessential modern literary form by looking at Cervantes’ famous novel Don Quixote.

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