Novel, Tale, Romance

I want to distinguish at the outset three types of prose narrative—novel, tale, romance—which are currently thought to be indistinguishable. The only difference now recognized among types of fiction is one of length, which can help us tell a short story from a novel and helped (once upon a time) to tell a short story from a short-short story. But I am not going to be dealing in these remarks with short stories as a separate class. Most of them fall under the headings I have just named. They can be divided into 1) abbreviated novels, 2) brief tales, 3) fragmentary romances. If the form has a definite character of its own, I have been unable to determine it.

Nor will I be dealing with the “novella,” which to me is only an affected name for a shortish novel or a longish short story. Originally, in Italian, it was applied to stories or “histories” like those in Boccaccio’s Decameron. In French, it became nouvelle, as in Cent nouvelles nouvelles. Here, as in the Decameron (though not in the Heptaméron of Marguerite de Navarre), the little narratives tended to be licentious. In German, the Novelle, thanks to the Romantics, became a genuine form, with naturalization papers; in our time it was favored by Thomas Mann. But in English the word for short novel is novelette, which quickly became pejorative, meaning a rather cheap love story and giving rise to the damning adjective “novelettish” before passing out of use altogether. Nobody talks of novelettes any more.

Another class of prose fiction is the fable—from the Latin fabula, which in turn goes back to an ancient term fari, meaning simply “to speak”—the root, incidentally, of fatum, or “fate,” i.e., “what has been spoken.” I shall not be discussing fables either, though they did not go out with Aesop. The obvious contemporary example is Animal Farm, but I think 1984, a cautionary tale, must be a fable too, and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, most of Golding, probably, also Brave New World, A Clockwork Orange, and quite a lot of science fiction.

Fables, with or without talking animals, are allegories—allegoria, the description of one thing under the image of another—and, whatever a novel may be, it is not an allegory. It lives in its own right; its characters are not personifications; their names do not refer to abstract conditions or qualities such as “Pilgrim,” “Everyman,” “Zeal-of-the-Land-Busy,” “Patience.” If a character in a novel is named “Krook,” as in Dickens’s Bleak House, this is not shorthand for a dishonest person—never. Mr. Krook with his rag-and-bone shop and his weird cat Lady Jane is something much queerer and more complex than that. And the statement I have just made—“A novel is not an allegory”—can be developed syllogistically, like this: “No novel is an allegory,” “X is an allegory,” “X is not a novel.” Apply it to a specific case: “1984 is a parable for our times. A parable is a form of allegory. No…

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $99.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.